By Daniel Altshuler
As a teacher, we do a great deal of preparation for the first day of class—e.g. choosing the proper instructional materials, dividing the content of the materials into self-contained topics, dividing these topics into lectures, figuring out how students' understanding of the lecture material will be assessed, making the syllabus, etc. I would like to discuss two additional items to consider: sending out an introductory email and, should an instructor lecture on the first day of class?
A positive first impression helps the teacher earn respect and assert authority in the classroom without having to be authoritative. This is especially important if the teacher is young and lacks experience. But how does a positive impression come about? In my experiences as a teacher, a positive impression comes from a teacher being (i) knowledgeable, (ii) passionate, (iii) organized and (iv) professional. I strongly believe that it is vital to illustrate these qualities before the first day of class and then use the first day to reinforce them. One way to do so is to send out an introductory e-mail a few weeks before classes begin. This email should contain the following core ingredients:
It is important to lecture on the first day of class for the following reason: the window during which a student can decide whether or not to take a particular class is extremely small; decisions must be made shortly after the first day of class. Since classes are a financial investment, it is a teacher's responsibility, their duty, to give the students the necessary information that would enable them to make an intelligent decision about whether or not to take the course in question. This involves giving a comprehensive introduction about what the class is about, which is quite difficult to do because the teacher (typically) cannot presuppose prior knowledge. Nevertheless it must be done.
To reiterate, an effective way to introduce a course is to (i) introduce a puzzling phenomenon, something specific and something that you care about, (ii) entertain some hypotheses and (iii) connect them to some broad issues in the field. Your introduction is a success if the student feels invited to think about an issue that is non-trivial, but yet one that he can comprehend and relate to. The following is an example of how I introduce Linguistics to undergraduates with no prior knowledge of the field on the first day of class.
I ask the students to read the words in (a) and then the words in (b), concentrating on how the letter t is pronounced. To their surprise, they discover that there is difference between the 'regular' t in (a) an the 'funky' t in (b), which sounds more like d or r. I then ask the students to write a hypothesis that predicts the distribution of the 'regular' and 'funky' t. The students always provide one of the following hypotheses:
(i) 'regular' t when at the beginning or end of a word or after a consonant
(ii) 'funky' t when between two vowels
(iii) 'funky' t when preceding –er
After discussing these three hypotheses, I put the following words on the board:
(c) Matilda, eternal, material
The students then attempt to explain why their hypotheses are wrong given the words in (c). Finally, I ask if anyone has further hypotheses. There are typically a few students on the right track, bringing up notions such as stress and syllable. Without giving the answer away (which involves concepts that are not worth mentioning on the first day), I summarize the experiment by saying that even though everyone has intuitions about how to pronounce words (tacit knowledge), it is very difficult to discover what rule allows us to pronounce them the way we do. The only way to discover the rule is to follow the scientific method. I conclude by saying that there are also rules that deal with the formation of words and sentences, and the meaning of words, sentences and larger chunks of text.