Beginnings – Trevor Holmes

I’m not ready for this. I need a longer break! My first class is this week — I have a reprieve until Friday at 10:00, so my apologies to those who had to begin at 8:30 this morning!

As we enter 2011 we face an unprecedented level of distraction. Over the weekend, a few things came together for me as I was socializing (online and in person) and simultaneously thinking about my first lecture. At a friend’s house, we were talking about Millennials — the people born since 1982 or so who have been coming of age in the new millennium — and how (even for us, a Gen X and a Boomer) it seems impossible to have slower time for reflection and focus. The next day, someone passed along an article about the ways in which English literature departments have lost the plot. Both moments are very present in my mind as I plan the first lecture of a Cultural Studies course (a course that could be seen as one big pile of distractions, and that’s one of the kinder things said about the discipline!).

Hand pulls back a stage curtain
Gloved hand pulls back the stage curtain

We educational developers often repeat the mantra “Begin as you mean to go on” when we talk about first class meetings. I don’t think it’s overstating the case to suggest that students decide how they’ll treat our courses within a few minutes of the first class. On some level, though, I feel like we are creating too much expectation (perhaps even panic and anxiety amongst those we are here to help) by claiming that the first class is so key, so crucial to the rest of term’s success. If you are looking for some good resources on course beginnings, we recommend our own CTE Teaching Tip on the subject. There are several other useful resources housed at Honolulu’s good old teaching development site (including one about the first few weeks rather than only the first hour; though the link called “The Most Important Day” may be an example of too much expectation!).

So here’s how I like to get things going in Cultural Studies 101. After making sure everyone knows which class is being held (so that those in the wrong class can leave, or stay if they really want to!), I try as early as possible to launch into content. I do refer to the syllabus and the course website, but each year I find that the sooner the students get active with the material of the course, the sooner they seem to “own the space” and start feeling comfortable with the content and the atmosphere of debate I want to foster (even in a 200-person lecture).

We play “Culture or Not” — I flash images that appear to be contradictory, or at least a little different, and ask students to call out which image better represents culture in the pair. I probe why, and for whom, and when, and as a result we start to have a working definition of culture created by the students themselves. It gets pretty nuanced after 15 minutes of this “game” — which actually functions as background knowledge probe, a discussion, a chance to think critically with peers, a chance to synthesize concepts from other courses, and confidence-booster.

This year, I think I’ll try to do this game within the first 20 minutes of class. Having tried it for a couple of years now, I think I can do it right away without confusing or disturbing everyone, and they’ll be better primed to ask questions of the syllabus and help each other answer them. They’ll also have a taste of the interaction I hope to have at least part of every lecture hour, even though there are also tutorials. One key difference this year is that I’ll build in some quiet reflection time for the students to think, then jot down their individual responses to the work they’ve all done (and then discuss it with a neighbour, briefly). The message from such a step should, I hope, register as “take some time to think, not just do, during this course.”

Having done this in the first 20-30 minutes, I suspect that students will be primed to participate more actively in a question and answer period for the rest of the hour and the bulk of the second hour about the syllabus, the course logistics, the expectations we have for assignments, and the upcoming readings.

Maybe in a couple of weeks, I’ll post an update about the actual class. I hope it lines up with what my intentions have been…

The Centre for Teaching Excellence welcomes contributions to its blog. If you are a faculty member, staff member, or student at the University of Waterloo (or beyond!) and would like contribute a posting about some aspect of teaching or learning, please contact Mark Morton or Trevor Holmes.

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As Senior Instructional Developer, Curriculum and Programming, Trevor Holmes plans and delivers workshops and events in support of faculty across the career span. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Trevor worked at a variety of universities teaching courses, supporting faculty and teaching assistants through educational development offices, and advising undergraduates. Trevor’s PhD is from York University in English Literature, with a focus on gothic literature, queer theory, and goth identities. A popular workshop facilitator at the national and international levels, Trevor is also interested in questions of identity in teaching and teaching development.

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