(Originally published Aug 28, 2012 – comments lost)

Yesterday, GVSU started the Fall term.  I love the excitement of the first day of the semester.  Making the first impression on your students is so important, it sets the stage for the whole term.  It’s your best opportunity to hook them, and to get them interested and engaged in the class and maybe even a major or minor.  Everything builds off how the first day goes.

So I always love to hear how other professors handle their first day.  Please let me know some of the favorite things you’ve done as an instructor or you’ve seen done as a student.  I’ll share what I did this semester.

This semester I have one section of Introduction to Philosophy (PHI 101) and three of Ethics (PHI 102).  My goals for the courses are pretty similar, but how I go about them is rather different.  For both, I want to get through the syllabus as quickly as possible while still hitting on the important points, which is a good bit of advice from teachphilosophy101.com.  Since I’ve already been in correspondence with my students before classes started, I can move on to getting them to discuss a philosophical question and to interact with one another.

For Intro, I did a couple of things.  First, we talked about GVSU would want students with no plans to become philosophers or philosophy majors to take a philosophy course.  What relevance to their lives and future careers might it have.  They discussed this in small groups first and then we shared our thoughts together.  This semester, they did pretty well at seeing some relevance to critical thinking abilities.  I then turned the discussion to the life of the mind and intellectual curiosity. Finally, we pull up a random wikipedia article, follow the first link in the entry (not in parentheses) and keep going until we end up in a loop.  It is fascinating how (almost) every Wikipedia link eventually leads to philosophy.  We talk about why this might be and how philosophy can be a foundation for their other academic endeavors.

In Ethics, I like to start the semester off by considering the question of why should I be moral.  That question is one of the reoccurring themes over the term, so it’s nice to introduce it the first day.  Common ideas they come up with in discussion are rudimentary forms of contractarianism or moral sentimentalism.  Then I turn the discussion to whether being moral ever costs you something.  To reinforce this point, I show a short video of the Split or Steal section of an episode of “Golden Balls.”  (It’s basically the Prisoner’s Dilemma for money.)  After discussing whether the contestants should have been honest and kept their word to split and not steal, we play the game ourselves, but for a couple of extra credit points.  The students pair off, talk briefly, and then I make them play in front of everyone, so there is a public knowledge component to the game.  Usually, just about everyone splits the points with their partner, but most classes have at least one person who steals them all (and sometimes both steal so they get no extra credit).  Needless to say the discussion that ensues is enthusiastic.

What are some of your favorite stories from the first day of class?