This post is the second part of my commentary on the second chapter. It grew a little longer, so I'm separating it into two posts. It also makes for a nice division of topics for the comments. In this post, I discuss Lang's suggestions for using opening-day exercises to enhance student learning based on student preconceptions and one omission from the chapter.
Spicing up the first class (pp. 30-40): For people who aren't terribly new to the classroom, this will be the most enlightening part of the second chapter. First impressions go a long way towards helping students get interested in the course and raising course evaluations. Lang cites innovative ways of learning students' names and ice-breakers that get them comfortable with interacting with their fellow students.
But neither is as interesting as Lang's connection of opening-day exercises to learning theory. He suggests that opening day exercises can be particularly powerful learning tools when they connect to and start immediately to mold students' preconceptions about the course material. Some exercises he recommends involve documenting these preconceptions (in groups) and using them to set the agenda for the first week of the course, documenting pre-conceptions and using them for the basis of a first library research assignment, and using the preconceptions to set up a cumulative review at the end of the course.
For philosophers, dealing with preconceptions is, I would argue, even more important than for a lot of other disciplines. This is due to the fact that philosophy is generally not taught before college. This leaves students, many of whom have a natural interest in the subject, to invent it on their own from late-night talks at coffee houses (or, more accurately, Denny's) and whatever books they can find. Thus, many preconceptions can turn into misconceptions. Opening day exercises of the kind Lang suggests can go a long way towards giving the students a new context in which to understand and enjoy philosophy. For those students who haven't stumbled into philosophy, it can also whet appetites or calm fears, as the case may be.
Setting the tone. There is a lot more information in the chapter that will lead to great discussion (and better philosophy classes), but I wanted to end with one thing that Lang doesn't discuss: a professor's initial attitude. There is a lot of misinformation that gets thrown around at grad schools about the correct way to set the tone for a course. I remember several people telling me that it was not a bad strategy to "put the fear of God" into students on the first day. All of Lang's advice suggests against such an approach (it is hard to scare students while doing fun activities with them), but some professors can pull it off. (I'm thinking of one in particular who posts on this blog!) One popular use for "putting the fear of God" into students on the first day is to adjust students attitudes to the seriousness of philosophy and cull-from-the-herd students who are looking for a blow-off course.
I'm not such a professor because such an attitude would be really stretching my natural personality. This isn't necessarily a good thing. I do tend to end up with students who are trapped in a course that is much more serious than they let themselves realize in the first week or so. But the alternative is worse. Stretching a personality into unfamiliar territory on the first day can lead to real disaster, so it is something notable to avoid. Students can smell inauthentic behavior and they will prey on it like a hungry lion after a precocious baby gazelle. It's something to think about on the first day, especially early on in one's career. Striking a tone that one is not going to follow through on for the rest of the term is a trap that new teachers, particularly philosophers, need to watch out for.
I'm looking forward to hearing what everyone else thought about Lang's second chapter.