Add/Drop and the first day: on the mysterious intentions of students

As a student, I never ever missed the first day of class. It was unthinkable for me. I almost never missed a class period, but especially not the first day. That’s when you get the revered, all important document – the syllabus! It’s when you meet the professor, get a feel for the class, and hear about assignments. For me, eternal nerd that I am, this day was not to be missed. This is not the philosophy of many students today. 

During the weeks leading up to the start of the semester, I regularly checked my enrollment to be sure I wasn’t working myself so hard for a class that was going to be cancelled. I consistently had ten students. Then in the two days before classes started, ten jumped to fourteen. In class, as I checked the roster online, suddenly I had a full class of eighteen, but only fourteen students present, several of whom were quite openly just there biding their time until something better came along, if only this one *other* class would open up or the professor would overload them in. Some of them are simply shopping around for the best deal. The add/drop period can be hard on the ego when you’ve put so much into creating what you hope will be an interesting syllabus.

The important thing to remember, as I keep telling myself, is that the wild fluctuations in enrollment in the first week or so of the semester are likely not a reflection on me personally, or even on the relative interestingness of the course I spent my entire summer preparing. Students all have their own unique agenda. They have a lot going on in their lives, in school and beyond. They are involved in loads of extracurriculars because they are applying to dental school, med school, law school, grad school, etc. They need to be competitive and have a fabulous résumé. They have many other requirements for their majors and minors that have to fit together just right in order for them to not have to get up too early (if possible) and still get all the classes they need for graduation. I can’t blame them for that. Or at least I shouldn’t. But it’s easy to let it get to you.

I have great admiration for many of my past professors, most of them a little older and a lot wiser than I, who are completely unperturbed, or give the perfect appearance of being totally oblivious to the behavior of students. I have sat in classes where the person next to me was paying absolutely no attention to the discussion or the professor (because s/he was writing a paper for another class while simultaneously making a purchase on Amazon and posting on Facebook) and was not bothering to pretend otherwise. What shocked me more than this rudeness on the part of the student, was the lack of reaction from the prof, who must have had some inkling of what was going on. But what good would it have done for these sage pedagogues to get upset about something so trivial? These professors may have been boiling on the inside, like me, but they had enough self-control and serenity to realize that it doesn’t matter how much they want students to hang on their every word. They know that the students who are genuinely engaged in the discussion will make it worth their while.

I was feeling a little let down by the lukewarm excitement of a few of my tentative students on the first day. Then I met with the classroom technology guru about organizing a Digital Storytelling project for the class and he put it in perspective for me: nothing really gets done on the first day, it’s the last few days before Labor Day weekend, and many upperclassmen consider it as an extra week of vacation. I could make all sorts of indignant arguments against this reality, but the fact is, deep down, I kinda wish I could be more like them sometimes. The double-edged sword of all the technology we enjoy now is that they all know the syllabus is available on the class Blackboard site, as are many of the readings. They don’t need to come to class to get it. And, as a grad school friend of mine often says: Choices and consequences. It is their choice to attend or skip the first day or week as they see fit and they will surely pull an all-nighter to catch up with what they missed as the necessity arises.

My new beginning-of-the-semester mantra is this: I will let students be students. I will be the best possible teacher to those who really want to take my class (or who really have no other choice ;-). I will not take my students’ enigmatic behavior personally without good reason. We will learn a lot together. It’s going to be a great semester.

How do you keep classroom frustrations in perspective?

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