Why does the first day of school matter?

For years, my sister gave me school supplies for my birthday, which falls at the beginning of a new school term. My sister also walked me to school on my first day, when I was five. I followed her to university and we started my first day together by ordering a fancy coffee at the campus café—she was so cool with her lattes and biscotti. She has taught me much about the first day of school. Now, teaching at a university, my first day looks a little different. But there is still much of the same nerves, hope, and excitement.

Yesterday a friend posted this: “‘I don’t know. I know nothing. I am very tired’ – Ford Madox Ford. This is also how I answer questions after the first day of teaching for the year.” Indeed: the frantic jostling at the photocopier, the beginning of year meetings, and (oh…) the deadlines. Tired: yes.

But also the excitement (equally as tiring). The new, rigid, blank notebooks. The new pens. The promise of learning alongside a new group of students.

When I face a new group of students and present them with a syllabus on the first day of class I try to be mindful of their situation. I know that many of my students are unfamiliar with universities and are unsure about how to navigate the institution. I know I didn’t know. But I also know that much has changed in the years since I first arrived on a university campus.

So I devote the first day of class—the first few days—to talking about the academy, to articulating the work of the humanities. We talk about some of the issues that come up on this blog. We site read Langston Hughes’s “Theme for English B” and we start a semester-long conversation about the implications of our participation in the academy. This year I also asked them to think about Max Blouw’s opinion piece, “Universities should educate – employers should train.” Importantly, it is also a moment to remind myself why, alongside the acquisition of new pens, it matters.

Bart Vautour teaches at Mount Allison University. His research interests involve Canadian cultural production, Canadian social justice movements, literary history, textual studies, digital humanities, philosophy of education, and modernism. He co-directs, with Emily Robins Sharpe, the Canada and the Spanish Civil War project (spanishcivilwar.ca)



One thought on “Why does the first day of school matter?

  1. There’s a wonderful line about school beginning in the movie “You’ve Got Mail”: Tom Hanks writes to Meg Ryan that he would give her “a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils.” It’s an evocative image–at least for those of us for whom a new school iPad was not on the cards (or even invented yet). At the opening of term, this and every other, campus is redolent with unbounded possibility until “shades of the prison house” begin to encroach upon us with their dates, deadlines, demands and expectations that our courses and degrees will fulfill every employment requirement.

    I am so glad you linked to the Blouw article. An undergraduate degree from Mount A or other liberal arts and science universities is not about stuffing students full of comestibles; it’s about whetting appetite. I hope when our students graduate that they can look back on their first days and aver with some pride that, while they weren’t served all the answers, they sure came up up with some intriguing questions that they will continue to explore.

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