Tuesday, October 14, 2008

On Course, #2: First Days of [Philosophy] Class - Part 1

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.


  1. I once tried having student groups develop questions about the syllabus/course on the first day. It did a decent job of getting students to talk to one another. I don't know how useful it really was other than that, though. There are probably more useful first-day group activities.

  2. A couple of comments. It is important to keep in mind that there are many types of authority. One is simply the position one has in the situation, which is referred to a 'legitimate' authority. Being the teacher we are already recognized as having this authority. A more important type of authority is what is referred to as 'expert' authority and that is the authority that is derived from the knowledge that one has and the ability to transmit that knowledge to others who do not have it. In the classrooms we start with the 1st as it comes with the territory but must earn the second. I think that how we dress reinforces the 1st, but has little impact on the second.

    As far as syllabi are concerned, I do go over the syllabus on the 1st day, but I also post it on BB at least one week before the course begins so that students can see what is in store for them. Some drop before the start of the class allowing others to join if the class was filled. I ask them to bring a copy of the syllabus to the 1st meeting. If they have any questions or concerns they can come to class prepared to discuss the syllabus.

  3. This is just a fun anecdote from my undergrad days.

    The first class I took after declaring philosophy as my major was an introduction to ethics course. On the first day, the students were sitting in class waiting for the professor to arrive. Suddenly, a crazy looking man, who certainly appeared to be homeless, entered the room. He was wearing dirty running shorts, a torn t-shirt, and flip-flops. He looked confused and quite possibly drunk. Everyone was scared, for there were a few street people who wondered the neighborhood, and we all thought one had entered the room.

    But no, he was the professor, and it took me a few weeks to get over his appearance. In the end, however, he was my favorite professor as an undergrad.

  4. David:

    Did you notice students were any more familiar with the syllabus throughout the semester?


    Good point about authority, though I think that students have a harder time making the separation between legitimate and expert authority in the philosophy classroom. Some will be impressed by philosophical knowledge, but many, assuming the platitude that there are no right answers in philosophy, will think unconventional behavior (that doesn't go too beyond the pale) denotes expertise.

    One wonders, had Socrates' appearance been less disconcerting to Athenians, whether misconceptions about philosophy would be as strong today. (I'm not blaming Socrates, just wondering whether there is any necessary connection between breaking down conventional thought and following largely harmless social norms.)

  5. One idea I've been trying out lately is running an informal and quick 'quiz' on the syllabus. I ask a series of questions about the course info in the syllabus (which they all have in front of them), and the first student to throw up a hand with the right answer gets a 'prize' (usually a snack-size chocolate bar). This works fairly well as a combined syllabus-walk-through-and-icebreaker.

  6. Adam
    I wonder if Socrates would have been 'Socrates' without the demeanor that he displayed? I tend to think we may be too concerned with outward appearances regarding dress, hair/beards, etc. I think that students adapt to what is presented to them and that after a few sessions are able to assess 'expert' from 'legitimate' authority.

    Don't you love it when a student questions a grade and it turns out they have not read the syllabus (or the material)? I am returning the 1st exam to my intro to philosophy class today and 50% of them failed the exam. They had the questions from which the exam was taken @ 2 weeks before the exam and it is clear they did not study the material. Today I will put the 'fear of God' into them. Sometimes it is an appropriate response.

  7. Adam,

    I don't recall any difference in students' familiarity with the syllabus. However, it was a summer course, so they didn't have other courses and we met four days a week. The effect might be different in a typical semester setting.

    Maybe some semester when I have two identical courses, I'll do the exercise in one and keep careful track of how often students in each class exhibit ignorance of the syllabus.

  8. It's hard to remember the clothing styles of all the professors I've had over the years, but one of the brightest and most thought-provoking of them would almost always lecture in old, beat-up t-shirts. I wonder how much, if any, thought went into that. It could be a symbol of the value of substance over image in philosophy. Mimicking the professor's jargon is insufficient; a philosophy student must come to understand it.


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