Soon we’ll hear warnings that school is about to start and that we need to watch out for school buses. Ads will hit the airwaves about great deals on pencil cases, colored pens, and backpacks.
For students headed to college, other ads will lure parents into buying special dorm “gear”—like mini refrigerators, colorful bedding, or fancy desk lamps. College students have something else to also look forward to: a bunch of new books, my favorite kind of fall shopping.
I have always loved the start of school, from the time I first waved goodbye to my mother when I was five until many years later when I was registering for my Ph.D. classes. All those new books. All those new ideas. All those possibilities. I still love the start of school. It never gets old.
Except that now I choose the books that other students will buy and explore, write new syllabi that details my general course requirements and the specific objectives for each of the three courses I teach every semester; and establish my schedule for the independent studies I direct. I love every part of the preparation, and I begin at least a month before the first day of classes begin. I’m just not good at summer vacation.
My preparation goes beyond the nuts and bolts of a course. I think. I ponder over what I’ll say on the first day of class, the different messages for new-to-college students or seniors. I mull over my words mentally, writing and rewriting them so as not to lecture or have to refer to a physical script. I value the adlib, but I must consider the ideas I want to convey as well as the actual words I want to use—even if I never use them and choose to use a completely different vocabulary when the time comes. With first-time students, I know I’ll be meeting parents, a quite different audience, so I think some more. If this was my child, what would I want to know about the course and the professor I am trusting them with?
Now, I have a confession to make—and I blame my mother for this. I also think hard about what I should wear on the first day of school. My mother drilled it into me that first-day clothes count. You may call her shallow, perhaps, though she read more than anyone I’ve ever known, but she believed in presentation—and that included how you dressed. She trained me so well that I simply cannot change now. As a former student regularly asks me (she lives near me now), “Have you decided on your first outfit?” If she asked me that question today, I’d have to admit that I haven’t quite nailed down that part of my preparation yet, but I am thinking about it, too. Time to visit my closet. I think better when I’m comfortable in my clothes. And I don’t mean jeans and a t-shirt.
I intend for everything that I do in preparation for class to show respect and awe for the act of learning. It’s a humbling endeavor, or it should be, for both student and teacher. It requires that both parties of the transaction admit that there’s much we don’t know and much that we should. It also requires admitting that we have no tabula rasas in class. Every person comes to college knowing at least a few things, if only how the transaction of school has always worked. And it’s my job to shake up that knowledge: to let students know right away that what they know about school needs some reformation. Let’s call it part of my pedagogical philosophy.
I value confusion. Without confusion, no one can learn, and certainly no one can learn to write, for all writers put words on a screen to answer a problem, to clear up confusion, and to come out on the other side with some tentative, for-the-time-being, conclusions. Yet, people don’t like confusion, so it’s part of my job to make students comfortable with “not understanding” right away. To be comfortable with the insecurity of life, if you will, and to become confident that they can successfully manage it. In other words, I’m not a big believer in explaining everything. I want students to have questions and to learn how to ask real ones: those without yes or no answers. Experiments aren’t only for the sciences. My job, again, is to create the atmosphere where experiments and questions can thrive and, at least some, questions are answered.
The beginning of the school year is in itself a big question. Who will my students be? What will they be like? How will they respond to confusion, to each other, to me? It’s an exciting, uncertain time—the uncertainty that I face and embrace every fall. My hope always is that my students will embrace the uncertainty as well.
Cheryl Forbes is Professor of Writing and Rhetoric at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY. She is the author of eight books on theology, philosophy, science, and memoir.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.