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Since writing my post on the first class day, I thought I might do a little series on how I manage some common teaching tasks. I’ve come up with pretty regular routines for starting and ending class, so that seemed like the next logical focus. Here’s my rundown.

Before class starts

  • Post announcements and reminders on screen. I used to do this through a Twitter account, but now type a post in the Announcements section of Canvas, our campus’ online course site. I do this the night or morning before class, then post while everyone’s getting settled in the classroom. I include anything I would normally vocally mention, like upcoming deadlines or related campus events. Doing it this way creates a record, and gives students something to note while they’re getting ready for the class to begin.
  • Take attendance. For classes under 40 people, I try to memorize student names within the first 2 weeks. Then the rest of the semester, I take attendance before class starts, while students are entering. This helps me to get to know the students, and to save precious class time for actual teaching.
  • Play music. I think this works better in larger classes, but I occasionally like playing music related to ongoing course topics. Could be the soundtrack to a movie we’re screening soon, or a song about an issue we’re covering. Sometimes I draw student attention to it, but more often than not I just let the music play and wait to mention it once class starts.
  • Let students be. I’ve often seen encouragement to sort of “start class early” by beginning activities or starting conversations with the students before the beginning of class. If there’s a reason to talk I’ll certainly do it, but I’ve ultimately decided we all need time to get ourselves together before class. We’re all busy, and we all need breathers. Students are often rushing from one class to the next, getting to class with a brief window to get themselves settled before we begin. I can give them a moment of peace.

When class starts

  • Ask an Opening Question. I learned this from one of my professors. It doesn’t have to be too deep, just something connected to the day’s topic. In the first few weeks, everyone must answer; this helps me to memorize names and get to know them all better. After 2-3 weeks, it’s open to anyone. I usually take 3-4 responses.
  • Provide an overview of the day’s agenda. I give a brief outline of what’s planned for that class. This always includes the theme of the lecture and any other items that need to be discussed, usually course assignments.
  • Take questions. I try to clear up anything I can early in class.

Before class ends

  • Give a preview. I make the last PowerPoint slide a preview, and ask students not to pack up until it’s done. It usually covers the next class, but looks ahead when necessary. It includes not only reminders but also frames, in terms of how to understand a reading or screening, or approach an assignment.

After class

  • Hold student meetings and office hours. Class topics and tasks are at the forefront of my mind, so this is when I prefer to handle one-on-one meetings with students. I’ve sometimes needed a meal break, so I’ll occasionally give myself 30 minutes to 1 hour between class and office hours, but I generally try to hold office hours as soon as I can after class.
  • Work out. I don’t know about you, but after teaching I’m spent. I can barely do anything that requires brain power beyond class prep. I’ve found the best way to take advantage of this brain break is to get in some exercise. It ultimately rejuvenates me: I expend the nervous energy I’ve generated from teaching and give myself space to move on to other daily tasks.

As with everything, this is an evolving system subject to change, especially when every semester schedule can be so different. What works for you? I’ve disabled comments here, but feel free to give feedback through social media or your own blog post.

Version 2

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I’ve been teaching for a while now (technically almost 20 years). Some of you may know that I also have a Master’s in College Student Personnel, which incorporates a lot of educational theory. Combining these experiences with my doctoral work, I’ve heard and tried a lot of theories and best practices for the first class day, and thankfully, finally, whittled down to what works best for me. As most of us are heading back to the classroom right now, I thought I’d share what my trials and errors have led me to do.

Message students the day before the first class. I used to send an email, but now post an announcement to Canvas, our campus-run online course site. The main point is to welcome them to class, and to note that all students registered for the class by the time it starts on the first day are expected to be there.

Have students complete a personal questionnaire. I’ve gone back and forth on this, but decided to go back to it this year. I ask students to complete a questionnaire, partly for me, partly for them. For me, it gives a good overview of student backgrounds and an early heads up for any possible concerns. For them, I always include this: “Is there anything else you would like to let me know about you, especially in relationship to your performance in this class?”. That gives students the opportunity to disclose anything else personal they like. This information ranges widely, although it most often involves disabilities and trans issues. Particularly for trans issues, I know that many teachers begin the semester asking students to state their pronouns. While I support the intent behind the idea, I find–like this New York Times post–that such an activity more often puts students on the spot in ways that might not make them feel comfortable and safe in the class. This way, students have the power to disclose concerns with some power over how they’re revealed and handled. If student has a concern, I email to set up an individual meeting and follow up on how they’d like to manage it with me and in the class.

Run a (fairly painless) icebreaker. Having worked in Student Affairs, I’ve seen my share of icebreakers, and I’m not a big fan of most. The one I’ve settled on hits all my first day needs, managing initial introductions but preparing us to get to know each other more deeply with time. I call it “Connections,” and it basically involves giving all the typical first day info–name (on record and preferred), hometown, academic year, major, reason for taking the class–along with one more personal detail, usually last favorite pop culture experience (e.g. movie, book, etc.). However, instead of going down rows, the order goes by connections between students, so after one goes, the next to speak up (and they have to be the ones to speak up) must have a connection to the previous person based on their information. I find it’s a little livelier than the typical “down the row” scenario, and it sets the stage for the students to take some initiative, get to know each other, and find some personal investment in the class, without being too complicated or high stakes.

Examine the syllabus. I’ve taken other approaches, including giving a very general overview and requiring students to read it on their own, primarily to emphasize the students’ responsibility for the class. Spoiler: in my experience, the students never read enough of the syllabus on their own, and it always led to later frustration for all of us. So now I do the obvious and go over the syllabus thoroughly with them on the first day. I’ve found it just makes everything easier down the line. I try not to read every single word, but do go over each part, and explain more in my own words and on PowerPoint when needed (see more on PowerPoint below). Here’s a link to my Spring 2017 class syllabus, for anyone curious.

Give a snapshot on the class topic. I know many people who like to start out with lecture and/or screening on the first day. I’ve done that in the past and had trouble with it for a few reasons: 1) most students weren’t prepared to take in that information on the first day, 2) it was hard to duplicate that class for late adds and arrivals (see more below), and 3) there was too much other basic business to cover. However, I still try to give the students a taste of what we might cover through a brief, simple example. In the past, I’ve shown a music video, noted a quick connection to the class, and allowed students to share what they see as important in the video and how it might relate to the class. This semester I’m showing these two recent pop culture items, Curvy Kate’s lingerie campaign and Maui’s size in Moana. I’ll give a quick overview, then let the students briefly discuss. It’s not much, but gives them a sense of what we might cover and how those topics may be addressed.

Post the first day PowerPoint but none after. I often augment syllabus information or add details on the class–like my theory behind the class structure–to a PowerPoint because you can never include everything you want on the syllabus. When putting together the PowerPoint, I ask myself three questions: 1) what needs to be most emphasized from the syllabus, 2) what needs to be explained further in the syllabus, and 3) what do I not want to have to discuss or repeat later in the semester. Those become focused items with more detail. The plan for this PowerPoint is to not only use it on the first day, but also post it to Canvas. I don’t normally post PowerPoints, but I like to provide it as a reference for students, especially late adds and arrivals (see below).

Prepare students for work in Week 2. I don’t normally assign any out-of-class reading or screening work in the first week. Past experience has taught me that students are still getting their bearings–buying texts, figuring out their other classes, deciding on work schedules–so assigning work that first week is not so effective. However, I let them know the first day that because there’s no out-of-class work the first week, there’s a bit more required in the second week: I usually have an assignment and an extra reading due on the third class meeting, often involving a screening from the second day of class. This helps the students to gear up for the work of the semester. They’re still doing some work the first few days, just ramping up to more over several class meetings.

Prepare for late adds and arrivals. I’ve never had a class where everyone registered showed up on the first day, and/or no one added after the first day. On our campus it’s not unusual for students to add until the fourth class meeting. In response I prepare for those first four classes so that most of what I cover can be easily made up by anyone adding (or arriving, despite already being registered) late. For those folks, I ask them to read the syllabus with posted PowerPoint (see above), and set up a meeting with me to answer any further questions. I also require that they complete any assignments due the second week, but give them a different deadline, usually one week later. Planning with these late adds and arrivals in mind eases their transition and helps me to make sure all students are as close as I can get them to being on the same page from the start of the semester.

So there you have it. Probably not too far off from what many people do, but a tried and tested series that seems to work best for me. I’ve closed comments on my blog posts, but will share to social media and would love to see responses there and/or in others’ blogs. Good luck to everyone heading back to the classroom!

IU’s spring semester began this past Monday. This is the second semester I’m teaching our introductory production course, CMCL C-335 “Production as Criticism,” with the theme “Television Drama: Cops and Courts.” The class involves teaching basic video production skills to the students through a focused topic. In total, this is my fourth semester teaching C335; aside from my section this past fall, I also taught two semesters the 2008-9 academic year.

I do love the mix of theory and practice in the class, but that said, it does have it’s challenges. A big one is trying to figure out the balance of assignments between the two areas. Obviously, theory and practice become enmeshed, but how to make that happen and how to give each side their due aren’t so easy to figure out. Students are often too happy to ditch theory for practice, so it’s important to make sure they’re doing enough of the theory to be engaging with it in practice, which usually means significant reading and writing in relation to critical studies. But the students also wind up having a lot of writing for their production projects too: pitches, shot lists, scripts, artist statements, project evaluations. And then there’s the time needed to teach, enact, and process their production skills, in addition to lecture and discussion. How to fit it all in?

Despite having taught the class before, teaching it with a new topic makes it a new animal. There were a few hiccups. One was with Tumblr. I decided to use Tumblr for the class blogs (along with the main course blogs for fall and spring), but their posts were too long for the platform, and really, just too long for the nature of the class. This semester I changed their writing assignments from two 1000-word critical reviews of supplementary episodes to four 300 to 500-word Quick Takes, where the students post screen caps of scenes with significant stylistic and narrative elements then analyze them briefly in relation to the readings. They’ll also have to post one Discussion Prompt involving a clip, analysis related to the readings, and 2-3 discussion questions for the class. The writing assignment staying (pretty much) the same is a Style Analysis of a CSI episode, replete with a shot breakdown (but mercifully for them, only of the first two minutes)

The other hiccup involved including too much: too many screenings, too many readings, too many assignments. And also not enough time for talk about their productions. I’ve come to realize I need to apply Coco Chanel’s advice for dressing to my syllabus: before printing it out, take one thing off. If anything, I just reshaped the class to cover the same topics with fewer readings and screenings, with a bit more time built in for more discussion of their production projects.

Lastly, I decided to do all the screenings out of class. We did a hybrid version of this in the fall, with half the screenings in class, half out of class, mostly on Netflix and Hulu. However, I realized that the classroom, a different one from my past C335 lectures, was not at all conducive to lengthy screenings: too small, no individual desks, with unreliable audio and video equipment. So I figured we’d try this out as an experiment. The students are still required to have a Netflix Streaming account, but now they’ll also occasionally purchase episodes on Amazon and/or iTunes. We’ll still have clips and the Discussion Prompts, and the students are still graded on occasional Spot Checks of their screening notes, so there’s engagement and accountability. We’ll see how it goes. I have to admit, I’ve been wanting to try something like this or to require students to purchase DVDs as they would books for a literature class just to see how it might work, so now’s my chance.

I’ll be doing a longer postmortem post-semester, so I’ll follow-up on how that goes then. I’ll also wait until then to post the syllabus, but I’m happy to share if anyone requests. Lastly, another post that’s brewing is on the process of teaching these mixed theory and practice classes. My friend Amanda Keeler and I are co-chairing a workshop at SCMS on working between theory and practice, so I’m excited to see what more ideas might be spurred by discussion there.