Starting the Semester Right

My classes start next Tuesday, and I’m currently stressed out, as I’m sure many of us are. The summer is over, although we didn’t get everything on our summer to-do list done. Classes are beginning, although we don’t have all our course materials prepared yet. We’re looking forward to to seeing friendly colleagues again, although we’re not quite ready to sit through long faculty meetings with them. We’re looking forward to seeing a fresh batch of students, although we’re not ready to learn 100 new names.

In any case, since we’re at the beginning of a new semester I thought I would share an exercise I use on the first day of class to build rapport with students.

My teaching style is highly dependent on my rapport with students. Don’t get me wrong—my goal is not to be their friends or to pal around with them. I’m a relatively difficult professor (at least that’s my reputation), but I can get away with it without too much push-back from them because they see me as “on their side,” so to speak.

In order to build the rapport necessary to allow me to be tough without alienating them, I start every semester with the typical round of introductions. I ask students to introduce themselves, say what their major is, and something “unique” about them that might help me remember them individually. However—and this is what I think is unique—I tell them that they have to ask me a question about myself. The question can’t be about the syllabus or the course, but needs to be something along the lines of “what is your favorite football team?” or “what is your most embarrassing moment?”

Doing so allows me to have an opportunity to chat with them. When they tell me the something “unique” about themselves, sometimes I probe: “You like reading? What’s your favorite author? Mine’s Mark Twain.” Or I joke: “You like the Dallas Cowboys? They’re gonna stink this year.” When they ask me questions, I have the opportunity to tell anecdotes: “Pets? Yes, two cats. One of them has a chronic sinus problem, and he blows snot all over us all the time—it’s so gross!”

These conversations allow them to see me as a human being rather than as a sadistic professor with unreasonably high expectations. And I get to this early: I do these introductions and conversations even before I pass out the syllabus—so that when I do read through the syllabus, and they see one of my “harsh” policies, they interpret that policy through the lens of the impression they’ve formed of me during our prior conversation.

I’ve had a number of difficulties in the past with alienating students because of my high expectations, but ever since I started using this exercise to open the semester, those problems have been minimal. If your teaching style is dependent upon rapport with students as mine is, I urge you to give it a try.

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