Before the first day of class, all faculty members receive an email from the department head. The first class meeting, he explains, should by no means be considered a “meet and greet.” We have a short semester, and to set the tone for it, it’s essential, besides going over the syllabus and course policies, to actively teach something on the first day.
Yes! I think. I’m going to teach something on the first day. It will be short, lean, elegant, and bad-ass…like Lucy Liu in the form of an in-class exercise.
But as the day approaches, I haven’t come up with much. ‘I want to know who these kids are and where they’re coming from,’ I think. ‘And I want them to know each other. If we know each other a little, the class will be better able to function as a community.’
So, in the end, after racing too fast through the syllabus (“so uh…plagiarism! You know what that is, right? Basically, plagiarism, don’t do it! Big pain in your ass, it’ll be…”), I hand out a first-day questionnaire, and invite the students to write (writing in class! Just like we’re supposed to!) a response to share with their colleagues and me.
I ask where they’re from, what if anything they like to read, what kinds of writing they’ve done most of, what brought them to this college, and as a getting-to-know-you type deal, what would be their idea of the perfect day.
The students write, and I write, and then we go around the room and we read. Ninety percent of them cite an afternoon at the beach with friends and family as the best way to spend a day. I begin to wonder whether they are unimaginative, or whether all this uniformity is part of a calculated decision not to reveal much. I’m some lady they just met, and these are their peers whose respect they probably want, so maybe no one wants to break out of the herd and mention how the perfect way to spend a day would involve rolling out of bed at noon, inhaling a big plate of spaghetti carbonara for breakfast, and watching episode after episode of America’s Next Top Model. I end up feeling like I don’t know them that much better at all, and my ambivalence about soliciting personal information through assignments is born. On one hand, I do want to know these kids; desire for work that allows for live, personal connections is one of the main reasons why I’m here in this windowless box at 8 in the goddammer, instead of still doing my full-time-in-front-of-the-internet job. On the other hand, I’m beginning to appreciate that these questions might be considered invasive, and that the students have signed up for a course on how to write, not Young Professor’s Selfcraft 101. This struggle will be revisited in later posts.
I write my own intro and also wonder how much to reveal and how much not to. I tell the students that I went to college in the Pacific Northwest, that I have a master’s degree in English from an Ivy League U., and something about the work that I have done in New York since earning my degree. I describe a perfect day spent by a lake with—uh-oh, here it comes—family and friends—and that the day would probably include reading and maybe even a little writing. I sound like such a schoolmarm, I think, and I also think that while the day I describe sounds pretty nice, it’s hardly the most interesting or revealing ‘perfect day’ I could come up with. As I assume my students have done, I too have sanitized. It isn’t easy to reveal yourself to strangers.
We finish half an hour early and with a sense of slight failure balanced by a determination to do better next time, I let them go.
The self-introductions in bubbly handwriting pile up on my desk as the students file out.
A day at a lake. Can I do any better with you? A few posts from now, I’ll try.