Well, two days down, which means I had a chance to introduce the syllabus and do the preliminary introductions in all four of my classes (two on T/Th, two on MWF). Because of my throat surgery and cancer, and subsequent... um... delicacy of voice, I am teaching through a microphone in all but my seminar classes which has highlighted some things I am a bit weirded out by. While I don't think it has really changed the content of the first day of class, I think it has changed the communication "feel" of the class, and I hope that this is temporary. On the other hand, I may be doing exactly the same thing every semester, and just noticing it more this time because of the ambience and distortion of doing so through a microphone.
Follow me below the croissant of orange gooiness for more.
We have a whole bunch of things that go into a syllabus at my university, many of which are pretty well mandated (whether or not they actually spell that out is another thing -- I think some people don't pay any attention to "you shoulds" and limit themselves to "musts" and even of those probably ignore those that are not checked by someone who could fire them. These shoulds and musts include a statement on disabilities (i.e. if you have a disability for which you are requesting accommodation, this is what you should do), attendance and late politicies, and requirements for passing the class. I also include a due dates schedule, but I know faculty who say "We will schedule the exam when we get the material covered" so don't actually have those dates in the syllabus at all. That makes it hard for a student to schedule around them for university-sponsored activities such as class field trips, intercollegiate team sports, and speech, forensic, and model UN competitions. Some faculty's attitude is "It is not my problem" (I have actually heard that said!) and others say "I let them make it up whenever they can" (which leads to the subsequent "I am tired of setting up make up times and the students don't ever show up when they say they are going to so I have to set up another time to be available for them" and, to my mind, a lot of wasted time and hard feelings!). Both of those are problematic. I try to lay everything out at the beginning of the semester so a student can get the time budgeted from the beginning.
I also include a general etiquette statement in most of my syllabi, and definitely all my intro-level ones. These include things like "Do not eat in the classroom" (there is a sign on the door saying no food and drink, that comes from the university housekeeping staff, and I do tell the students that. I also tell them that coffee, other non-alcoholic (!) beverages, etc., are fine if they don't spill and don't leave the cups all over the classroom when they leave). Do not talk to your neighbors unless told to, do not do homework for other classes in this class (if it is that important, don't come to this class, but get caught up elsewhere -- I had students over to my house from a class last semester for lunch during finals week, and one of them sat at the table and studied for another exam while everyone else was eating!), and generally be polite. I also (and I have gotten slammed for this repeatedly in this diary series as well as elsewhere on this site) tell them that I do not allow computers or cell phones to be used in the classroom. It is distracting (we are looking at projected images, so it is done in dim light and screens are visually distracting to me and the others around those using them), and students are multitasking which they are never as good at as they think they are (see this recent study about laptops). I have sat in conferences (and have even shockingly done such things myself! so I know the temptation, which is why I take written notes 90% of the time) where people are doing facebook which a presenter talks about research that has taken decades of their lives to prepare. In our departmental "meet the faculty" greet for new freshmen, one of the faculty sat on the podium for the ten minutes "who we are" thing and checked things on her phone. What does that say to the other faculty? What does that communicate to the students who are bright eyed and bushy tailed and looking forward to four years of interacting with us in this major they have chosen, when a faculty member can't be bothered to look up from her cell phone at them? I think what it says is "I am not interested in this and would rather be somewhere else." There were in fact two faculty members who had to be somewhere else, and that seems to me far preferable!
So anyway, in presenting the syllabus, I went through these required statements and the requirements for the class, apologized for the lack of scheduled office hours (I have gotten permission to put those off until I am feeling healthy enough to make it through a whole day of classes without a two to three hour nap!) but explained that I can always schedule a meeting with them and am happy to do so, and that I answer email as quickly as I get it which might be in the middle of the night, and I am happy to discuss things via email as much as they want (would do Skype, but my voice really isn't that good at the moment). So it is not as though I am not accessible.
And then I talked about such things as what I want them to get out of the classes -- for the Museums class it is a wide variety of professional experiences introduced to them (writing a grant proposal, preparing an exhibit case, helping to run an arts festival, registering objects for the university museum collection), and that means that the class will be much more practical experiences outside of the classroom than academic ones inside of it. So if they don't have the time, or the time they have is essentially only late at night after they have done all their other obligations, then perhaps this isn't the class for them -- we are answerable to a whole bunch of external clients in this class, and so the schedule is limited by these outside constituencies' availability. Also, it means that the little time we have in class is absolutely essential; the attendance policy is really strict and is attached to grade penalties -- you miss more than a week's worth of class, you should look at dropping it as your grade will start to go down precipitously. Also, if you don't fulfill these outside-of-class responsibilities, you will be losing points and grades very quickly, so quickly that pass/fail is not necessarily going to make the difference; if you get an F you get an F. That has led to two students already dropping the class which, while unfortunate, is very understandable.
In the early art history survey, I talked with students about belief, tolerance for other religions, and separation of their own attitudes from scholarship. In other words, we are going to be talking about Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon (modern homo sapiens sapiens) and their art that goes back tens of thousands of years. If they believe the world is only 7000 years old, fine, but they are to separate that belief out from the scientific arguments in this classroom. We can talk about it outside of class, but not in class. The Bible is a useful source of ancient historical information, and available in readable English translation, but they should understand that it preserves traditions that are also found in non-Abrahamic texts, such as those from ancient Mesopotamia, and thus we do not know the original events or legends, and cannot know them. The Bible includes recording of events hundreds or even thousands of years earlier so they are recorded through a much later lens, and they should not take the Old Testament or the New as more reliable than any other cycle of events recorded about ancient peoples (I will be using Greek and Egyptian myth cycles in exactly this way, so I want them to be used to this approach before we get to Biblical discussions). In addition, while I will assume they are at least slightly familiar with Christian iconography and practice, there are many different expressions of this that might not be so familiar, and I will not assume they are as familiar with Islamic and Judaic practice, so we will be spending introductory time on those religions that we will not on Christianity. That is not to "dis" Christianity, it is to assure they are familiar with the others. Again, if they need more assistance with Christianity, I am happy to provide it, but outside of the classroom, not inside it.
I think I cover these elements every semester, but the running through it with a microphone and amplifier between me and the students was an odd experience. I felt much more than normal as if I were haranguing them, rather than even delivering a lecture. I usually can joke with them, but the microphone made that seem rather awkward and artificial. It might also have been that I was running through things before my voice gave out on me (or that is how it felt, anyway), and that was not an approach that was conducive to easy camaraderie. I really hope this relaxes, and/or it wasn't as bad as it felt. It already feels as though I am heading into a reaaaaaaally long semester, as I recuperate and still teach and teach and teach. But it felt "off" on Thursday and Friday, and I hope that passes.
I did remember to tell students that the reason I teach these classes, and love teaching these classes (and I do really like the first-year ones) is that this is great material and I hope they agree with me by the end of the term. We are looking at the best of human expression, and getting insight into how people structure their visual world. What matters/mattered to them, what was valued in this life and thus would be valued in the next one, what was beautiful and frightening and essential, and all of this would be available in its own way to all members of society, even those who could not read. It is amazing what we do have preserved, and fascinating to look for clues as to what is no longer there. We will be dealing with current events as well, from looting to new discoveries, and that is exciting. The fields we are talking about are not "set" but are changing in ways we might not have thought possible even ten years ago. It is a great time to be studying these things.
I hope fervently that this enthusiasm comes through the microphone and amplifier systems, even though it feels so artificial and clunky to me right now.
Where are you at with your classes beginning? Are they looking promising? Do they start now or after Labor Day? Do you already want to expel the student who is glaring at you from the back row? Have you had the irate student thing so far (it is surely coming...)? Are you looking forward to the semester, or are you approaching it with trepidation? How are things in your teachers' lounge or around the luncheon table in the cafeteria?