Welcome to ISW's continuing coverage of James Lang's On Course. This post is centered on the second chapter, "First Days of Class". Welcome to all who want to discuss the chapter in the comments. Following Michael's example, I'll review the basic points of the chapter and then highlight some interesting points and one notable omission. I'll also try to gear my comments towards bringing what Lang has to say into the philosophy classroom. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to keep it as brief as Michael, so I'm separating this post into two parts. This is part one.
Let me start by continuing the trend of saying that Lang has somehow managed to be comprehensive, insightful, and concise in his advice. New teachers as well as old hands can benefit a lot by considering what he has to say. With one omission that I will mention near the end of the second post, there isn't a whole lot more to think about doing on the first day of a philosophy course than what Lang recommends. In this chapter he talks about three basic areas: 1) preparing for the first class, 2) delivering the preparation, and 3) spicing it up. (This post covers the first two areas.)
Preparing for Class (pp. 23-27): Lang addresses two main issues in this part of the chapter: 1) what to wear and 2) whether to dive in right away or give students the syllabus and send them on their way. I think that in the philosophy classroom, both issues change slightly from Lang's treatment. In terms of dress, Lang has good, conservative advice: slacks and a collared shirt for both men and women, with women having some additional options that I don't claim to know much about. What drives Lang's advice is his excellent insight that one's dress on the first day is less about coming off as a professional and more about making students comfortable with your authority over their grades and progress in the course. I think, though, that philosophers have a little more latitude in what to wear than, say, an engineer or a law professor. We've already noted here that offbeat professors can seem somewhat cool to students and (not counting artists) philosophers may be the most able to capitalize on this idiosyncrasy. Perversely, philosophers can sometimes acquire authority by seeming unconventional. Of course, for students who fear philosophy as too eccentric of a discipline, dressing unconventionally can have the opposite effect, reinforcing their worst fears. I'm laboring too much on one small point, but the right advice is probably not to dress too far out of the element you are used to presenting yourself within. If you don't ever really think about it, err on the professional side. (And even understanding all of this, I would recommend fighting any urge you might have to wear a beret to your first philosophy class.)
Lang's issue is whether to give students the syllabus and let them go or to start teaching on the first day. He, as all other educational specialists I've heard, observes that simply letting students go sends the wrong message about the class. It can send the message that the professor doesn't want to be in the class and doesn't consider it a worthwhile usage of time. Interestingly, this issue is connected to Lang's next topic, allowing latitude for students dropping the course or adding it late. A popular reason for not spending much time on the first class is that it is wasted effort on students who will drop and energy that could be conserved for students yet to add. I tend to think that he is absolutely right about the message that simply sending people off with a syllabus sends. But particularly in the philosophy classroom, one is missing a great opportunity to connect to students' curiosity about philosophy and allay their fears. (I have a little bit more to say about this later on, so I won't belabor the point here.)
Giving the first class (pp. 27-30): I have a hard time believing that anyone simply conducts his or her first class by reading the syllabus out loud, but apparently it happens and Lang inveighs against it. There are certain reasons why going over the syllabus is essential, and these are much better accomplished by giving a general overview and only reading certain more legal parts. He also puts forth the interesting idea of putting students into groups to find three things they want to know about the course and/or the syllabus, then asking these to the rest of the course. This sounds like a great activity to me. I've also heard of professors giving a quiz over the syllabus on the second or third day of the course. Of course the latter doesn't have the advantage of getting students talking to one another.
I'll have more commentary in the second post on this chapter, but I'm looking forward to what people have to say about these two areas in the comments.