Teaching Tip Tuesday: Define Your Terms

It feels weird to do another Teaching Tip Tuesday right now. Do you really want to read about how I create new units? Redesign courses? Organize teaching materials? At the same time, I’m not sure what to offer in the way of advice for teaching in person in the time of Covid-19. If we were fully online again, I’d have a lot to say about providing feedback in online courses, setting healthy boundaries, and tips for getting meaningful participation in virtual, synchronous classes. All I can offer in the way of advice is to set aside some time, even five minutes, to encourage students to ask questions or share concerns. This helps with building rapport, easing tension, and creating community. Please feel free to share more advice about teaching in person in Covid-19 in the comments.

Now a question about the start of a new semester: is your first day of instruction a syllabus day? My friend and I were just remembering new faculty orientation and how the teaching and learning center recommended not focusing on the syllabus in the first class. I get it. It can be so boring to go through a syllabus word by word or even in a summary capacity. They suggested having students read it on their own time and take a syllabus quiz. Because, of course, it is still important that they know what’s in the syllabus. So much to unpack here. First, the thought of having to write a syllabus quiz…<insert barf face emoji.> Maybe some people like quiz making, but I’m not one of them. Second, it is important for students to get a sense of how the class will unfold: readings, assignments, etc., but if you’ve been reading my blog you know by now that I am as likely to talk about my “policies” for 15 minutes as I am to have arbitrary policies in the first place.

My favorite thing to do in the first day is to define terms. For example, in my CE classes, I began by asking them to map the concept of “Community Service.” Then I told them how, recently, institutions are replacing the word “service” with “engagement.” And I asked them, why would they do that? Finally, I replace “engagement” with “activism” so we can not only explore the full scope of what we will tackle in the course, but also the various societal and cultural connotations of different kinds of community work. This gets them talking right away, it helps them understand what is happening in the scholarly/practitioner field, and it makes them think hard about the stakes of your class. Sometimes students lack a vocabulary to discuss your class topic, so this helps with that as well.

What do you do with students on the first day of class?

Stay tuned for more posts this year about teaching, research, and academia. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @litambitions and Instagram: @ecacademic (where I really nerd out about planning). You can also follow this blog (see the email subscribe button on the home page).

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