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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The Scariest Moment of any Class Meeting

. . . is always the very first one.  I love teaching, and the interaction I have with students is without a doubt the most satisfying part of the job for me.  Once a class gets going, I almost always really enjoy it.  But the very first second--that moment where I am forced to say "ahem" or whatever--where I make the transition from private guy, standing there thinking about whatever it is I'm thinking about, maybe it's pizza or a crush I had in eighth grade or last night's House, to public guy who is in charge of running a class about some serious topic for the next two hours or so, is always, quite frankly, a bit terrifying.  There's no going back, once you do the "ahem."  You can't really start talking about the Clean Water Act for five minutes and then say, "umm, do you mind if we stop class for a few minutes so I can think just a little bit more about that crush I had in eighth grade?"

For this reason, I sometimes delay the beginning of the class a little longer than I probably should.  Just a minute or two, but still.  I rationalize this to myself by figuring that I want to make sure everyone who's coming has a chance to come in and sit down, or some other something or other, but really I'm just nervous.  I often wonder (and indeed occasionally pose this question to the class): What would happen if I just stood in front of the class silently, leafing through papers or whatever, for five minutes . . . ten minutes . . . a half an hour after the class is supposed to start?  At what point would the students start to leave?  Would they say anything, or just get up and go?  Would they call the Dean?

Does anyone else feel this way?

Posted by Jay Wexler on December 3, 2008 at 08:39 AM in Teaching Law | Permalink

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» The Scariest Moments in Law Teaching from Discourse.net
Jay Wexler suggests that The Scariest Moment of any Class Meeting is always the very first one. Thats absolutely not my experience the moment before the first class, open with infinite possibility, is anything but scary. Ex... [Read More]

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» The Scariest Moments in Law Teaching from Discourse.net
Jay Wexler suggests that The Scariest Moment of any Class Meeting is always the very first one. Thats absolutely not my experience the moment before the first class, open with infinite possibility, is anything but scary. Exciting and hopeful, yes. The... [Read More]

Tracked on May 8, 2009 11:47:57 AM

Comments

I find the start of class more likely to be exhilarating; it's the endings that are a problem. See The Scariest Moments in Law Teaching.

Posted by: Michael Froomkin | Dec 4, 2008 8:24:41 AM

I like to sit in the back and grumble about the professor being late. Once I get a few people to join me, but before they get too bold, I walk up to the front and begin class.

Actually, I've never done it. But I still might.

Posted by: David | Dec 3, 2008 7:48:45 PM

There's still a part of us that feels like a student, at least by default, so we feel a little bit like an actor playing a role as the professor.

I think the real problem is that you ARE an actor playing a role as a professor. I'm thinking Michael Chiklis. Or maybe Jason Statham, though I have never seen you behind the wheel in a death-defying car chase, except for that once.

I think what Jay is describing isn't unique to the first class of a new semester, but is just about getting any class started. I think there are a lot of reasons to hesitate -- not wanting to interrupt conversations, waiting for everyone to get seated and ready, feeling self-conscious about ordering everyone to attention. My favorite way of overcoming this is firecrackers.

Posted by: Edward Swaine | Dec 3, 2008 2:59:14 PM

What would happen if I just stood in front of the class silently, leafing through papers or whatever, for five minutes

I'm pretty sure that's an Andy Kaufman routine.

To follow up on Orin's point, the first time I taught -- as a grad student, before law school -- I decided to discard the artificial authority I had as the designated discussion leader. Disaster! That's when I learned that maintaining some pretense of authority is indispensable in teaching.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Dec 3, 2008 2:19:05 PM

I agree that the first five minutes of class in a new semester is always kind of strange. You're putting yourself in a position of the "leader" of the class, in effect. And yet it'seasy for it to feel artificial: You don't actually know the students, and you're the leader mostly because no one seems to object when you walk up to the podium and start to teach instead of take a seat like everyone else. I think it may be a product of being a student for so many years and then a teacher for only a few (7 years, in my case). There's still a part of us that feels like a student, at least by default, so we feel a little bit like an actor playing a role as the professor. I wonder if that changes after 20 or 30 years of teaching. I would think so.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Dec 3, 2008 11:29:37 AM

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