Release and Relief on the First Day of Class

Yesterday was the first day of class for my two composition sections at College of Staten Island. Both sections meet once a week for four hours each week – a grueling schedule for any class, and even worse when the point of the class is learning how to write, and when four (FOUR) essays are required, with drafting and revision required for every one of them.

My first-day classes are always designed to get students to relax, to show them that while I expect them to show up and do the work, I also want them to enjoy themselves; I understand that my passions are not theirs; I am there for them; and I actually want them to do well.

We usually don’t do any grueling work in the first class session, which is devoted to going over the syllabus (boring but necessary, as I tell them) and a fun ice-breaker exercise that also results in some writing that they hand in so I can begin to get a sense of their various writing habits and voices. The grueling part starts after the second class – after they’ve had a chance to go home, decompress after the nerves of starting a new class, read a bit, and come back prepared to get to work. By the end of that second class, I assign a more intense writing assignment – usually the first draft of their first essay.

In a class that collapses the whole week into one day, I can’t do that. I had to rearrange some of my expectations. Even within the class session, I rearranged my expectations numerous times.

First, that was simply because the computer classroom which I had requested had numerous problems (including locking me out of the main computer so I couldn’t project anything on the board, and then locking some students out of the computers so I had to ask students to double up in order to look at the syllabus and couldn’t ask them to submit anything through Blackboard as I had originally planned).

But even without the technological problems, I had to continually adjust my expectations for how long first-semester students could sit and how much work they could do in a four-hour period. I gave them a fifteen-minute break halfway through the class, but in both sections they returned listless and tired after the break, so I ended class early and scrapped one of my planned activities while re-configuring an assignment I had wanted to work on in class to be done partly for homework and partly in next week’s class.

The main point of the first class session still worked, though – largely due to this cartoon I found on Facebook not too long ago and decided to include in my first day PowerPoint. (Not being able to project the PowerPoint, I instead uploaded it to BlackBoard during the 15-minute break and had students access it on their own computers.)

Cartoon by Kasia Basis

Reading the cartoon together in class had a few effects:

  1. It relaxed students’ worries about reading academic texts. It showed them that the texts we read and take seriously are not all academic essays. We can seriously read and analyze a cartoon or graphic story or essay as well.
  2. It forced them to try to pronounce a word in a language they’re unfamiliar with. 
  3. It allowed them to curse in class. I had underestimated just how much delight they would take in this, to be honest. I always assign “Shitty First Drafts” in composition classes (this was the activity that was pushed to the second week here). And the purpose there is to show that more relaxed language is okay, as well. But for reasons I’m still puzzling over, both sections reacted with delight and a bit too much enthusiasm to the cursing. (In one class, a student asked me if it’s okay to curse during discussion, and when I said “within reason, and get used to hearing me curse sometimes to,” asked me to define how much is okay. I was a bit alarmed at her enthusiasm, and tried to explain a bit about cursing can affect a conversation. I may have tone-policed a person of color as I did so [the student is a poc] and I tried to dial that back, and still regret how I responded to her, but… yikes. She’s not the only one in that class who showed a bit too much enthusiasm for cursing. I am on alert now…)
  4. It relaxed their worries about their own writing. This fun cartoon gave me a chance to show how and why their grade is only marginally based on spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc.

In both classes, before we read the final panel, I asked the class: “Is this true? Should her points be taken less seriously because she doesn’t know how to spell?” To my surprise, in both classes the initial response was “Yeah! She can’t spell, her argument is worthless.” But I didn’t even have to say anything, just waited a few seconds, and I saw their faces shift as they heard what they had just said… And then they all forcefully said NO. 

It gave me an opportunity to talk about the logistics of my grading, which is based on argument far more than mechanics, and also about the larger concept of separating language performance from ability to make logical arguments.

I always stress to my students that first drafts can be messy (or “shitty”) but I don’t think they fully grasp how much I mean that. After having read this cartoon with my students, I think I can expect shittier first drafts this semester – which makes me happy! Because that means they will be focusing on their arguments rather than on their grammar and spelling.

At the end of this discussion in one section, a student very sincerely thanked me for sharing the cartoon and the message that skill in grammar and skill in argument are two different things. (Incidentally, this is the same student who asked about the rules for cursing in class…)

The first day of classes was stressful, and went almost entirely wrong, with nothing working the way I planned. But this went right.

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