The problem of the second day

The second day is a special kind of problem.

I have thought a lot about the first day of class, re-thinking and re-working that opening sessions, over the years. When I started teaching, I did a standard, read-the-syllabus first day. I didn't like it. It was bureaucratic. And boring. Every time I heard myself say "attendance policy" and "late assignments policy" and "email policy," I got sad. I also didn't like the way it foregrounded this user-agreement, positioning students as potential, probable rule-violators, and me as someone with an elaborate code I could and would hold against them.

Rules are important. The syllabus is important. But I didn't want that to be the center of the first day or the defining aspect of the class.

Really, what I want to tell students on Day 1 is just a) I am excited about the class, b) they should be excited because it is going to be great, and c) I think we are on the same side.

So, with the advice of a former student, I wrote new class policy. It's a little kick-out-the-jams, a little "solidarity forever." Now, I pledge myself to their eduction and I call them to commit to it too. Details about laptops or absences or anything else that comes up can be worked out, I make it clear, on the basis of our shared commitment.

I spend the rest of the class getting students to engage the material. I set up something they can do, right away, to see for themselves it's interesting. We throw ourselves into doing history and just start.

In my Depression and War class on Wednesday, for example, we looked at a New York Times account of the stock market crash on Oct. 29, 1929. We talked about what the story was about and who it was about. How is the story different, I asked, with different protagonists? A true account of the "Great Crash" can center stock brokers, or Herbert Hoover, or a North Carolina girl who saved up money picking tobacco after the other farm work was finished to buy her first share of Standard Oil right before the crash. The work of history involves choices about the kind of story we're interested in and the kinds of things we want to know.

That works pretty well. Then comes the second day.

There are three kind of technical, pedagogical problems with the second day, which I haven't figured out how to handle. There may be more than three, but these crop up in my classes every semester. 

The first is a problem of context. What context has to be established the second day of class? What do we have to talk about, as a class, before we can talk about the subject of the class? Sometimes terms have to be defined. Sometimes questions have to be explained. There's a pre-history to whatever history the class is focused on, not to mention a historiography. Should the implicit stuff be made explicit?

In Depression and War, I wanted to talk a little bit about the causes of the financial crisis before moving on to questions about how people understood it, at the time, and responded to it over the following 16 years. Of course, the causes of the crash are debated by historians, but also economists and politicians. Maybe the class should get into that? We only have 50 minutes. Also, the financial stuff is complicated. Mechanisms of monetary policy, combined with accounts of how the stock market works (then and now), plus how the stock exchange is related to banks across the country, and how the banking system worked, all in a story about change over time, presents quite the tangle. How much of that is important? If, later, we're going to read about populist resentment of the financial industry, it might be helpful to understand how that industry worked. If, later, we're going to consider claims that poverty is a moral failing, it might be important to start with a structural account of the causes of financial crisis. But it's a lot to do, and the students just have to kind of hang on, not knowing where all this is going. 

Related, the second problem is common knowledge. I often struggle with knowing what students know. Cultural references are hard: they come and go, and I always feel like I'm wasting time when I stop to ask students if they know this or that show or movie or song. It's also a problem with general education. My Depression and War students probably don't know what a call loan is, but do they understand shares? Do they know how interest rates relate to liquidity? If I reference the run on the bank in "It's a Wonderful Life," will they know the scene and if they know the scene, do they understand that explanation of the interconnections (and fragility) of the financial system? 

If I skip seemingly basic stuff and it turns out students don't know it, they'll be lost. If I belabor something they do know, on the other hand, students will get bored and check out. Inevitably, I feel like I'm doing both. 

Later in the semester, I find it's possible to speed up or slow down, go more basic or more in-depth, based on the response from the students. I find it's possible, too, to get reliable responses from students and read the signals about what they need. On the second day, though, I'm mostly guessing based on facial expressions. And, so early in the semester, my real fear is that a lost student or a bored student will decide that's just how this class is and this is what they should expect.

The third challenge is classroom culture. Everything is still awkward, on the second day. The culture of this specific classroom has yet to be established. Students don't know how to engage, which means they don't know how to prepare. Not really. They know they're going to have to talk, for example, but they don't know (and really can't know) what that means, yet. Will I call on them? By name? Will I ask them factual questions or interpretive questions? Will I ask them just about the assigned text, or might I also ask them other things, like what a stock market bubble is and why Christmas-y Jimmy Stewart doesn't have enough money in his bank? (Yes). Beyond that: if students don't know an answer, what are they supposed to do? In some classes, the expectation is you just say you don't know. In other classes you're called to think aloud and maybe try and reason/guess your way to answer. What's called for, in a particular class, might be explicitly stated in the syllabus, but never in that much detail. It's something you learn as you go, with observation and in negotiation with the rest of the class.

On the second day, though, all of this is tricky. I'm trying to send students the message they should hang on, we're going to work it out, we're going to work it out together, and I'm inviting them to be active participants in the process of learning. Some of that seems to get across. I'm fuddling through. What I'm doing now works well enough. But I'd like to figure out how to do it faster, cleaner, and more efficiently, to smooth out the second day.