Day One – How To Wake up a Student

Ironically, the precious first-day energy from students typically gets wasted on the silliness of syllabi. On day one, we have the opportunity to speak before the walls of apathy entrap the student’s mind. Full of questions, expectations, rumors, doubts, the students file in and nervously sit. Will I pass? Will this class be boring? Is this professor as difficult as everyone says?

All this nervous energy sadly ends in a crash when we slowly walk students through the syllabus, promising that things will get better next time. Eyes gloss and get heavy. Snores resound.

Tired of squandering an opportunity, I like to start the first day with a bang! Let’s look at “Intro to Christian Ethics,” which begins for me with a living case study. After a quick prayer, I tell the students, “I’ve never liked how subjective grades are. I also can’t stand all the work at the end of the semester trying to figure them out! Therefore, I propose we get this whole grade thing over with right now. Any takers?” Believe it or not, a majority of student hands shoot up. I ask each student to write her/his name on a piece of paper, rip it out, and pass it up to the the front. Writing the letters A, B, C, D, and F on the board, and placing the names in a hat cleverly revealed from behind the podium, I state that we’ll be assigning grades by lottery. Going through the entire class, giving an equal number of each grade type, student faces transform. From Cheerful A’s, to happy B’s, to contented C’s, to disgruntled D’s, to furious F’s. At this point, jaws have dropped, adrenaline has been rushing for a couple minutes, and students are still trying to discern whether I’m serious. But at least they’re awake.

At this point I ask: “Does anyone object?” Hands shoot up from one B, half the C’s, and all the D’s and F’s. The A’s, hoping to disappear, move not a muscle. Here’s where the real fun (and learning) begins. By the time an hour has passed and the socratic conversations have ended, the students have attempted to argue that my method of grading is unethical in every way they can imagine. Most common arguments relate to “fairness,” “standard rules for grading,” and “effects on student learning,” or “you’ll get in trouble if you do that.” Only rarely does a student suggest it’s not conducive to human flourishing or happiness in general. Without knowing it students have done deontological, consequentialist, and eudaemonistic ethics. They also encounter the various the typical choices facing a person who attempts to convince the “other” of a moral position: (a) walk away and forget it; (b) find common rational ground and move from there; or (c) appeal to coercive power (i.e., if you grade this way, we’ll see that you get fired). As if that weren’t enough, in addition to arguing against my “objectively fair yet bad method,” they have offered a better “ethic of grading” based either on deontological, consequentialist, eudaemonistic grounds, or a mix of these approaches. They didn’t know it but they actually DID ethics on day one.

Ultimately, the students may not come away from day one having read the entire syllabus, but they came away with an experiential sense for the field of ethics and definitions for three ethical methods. Hopefully what I’ve done on day one is a little intellectual Jujitsu–using the student’s own mental and emotional energy to move their minds somewhere they didn’t think they were going…on beyond apathy-land.

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