This post originally appeared on September 23, 2014.
Tomorrow is the first day of the new semester.
My syllabi are printed on bright shiny goldenrod paper. Stapled. Neatly stacked. Books are by the door, and my water bottle, glasses, glasses lanyard, and power bars are in my satchel. My nerves are jangly, in a good way. I’ve got new periwinkle blue notebooks for my classes. I’ve examined the rosters, and am happy to see names that are familiar to me. Qaadir. Renee. Sarah D.
Faces pop up now in our online course management tool but their faces will never be familiar: I suffer from profound prosopagnosia or face blindness. And I’ll open class with that news, asking my students to help me identify them each time we encounter each other.
The first time I did this in front of a class of puzzled undergraduates, years ago, I was shaking so hard, I wasn’t sure I’d make it through my spiel. But I saw the looks on the students’ faces that day: awe, curiosity, kindness, compassion. I was stunned. They leaned in—literally. Before leaning in was a metaphor, they physically leaned in, and peppered me with questions for 45 minutes. It was one of the most moving, meaningful hours I spent in a classroom.
And I quickly learned how to boundary that conversation so the first hour wasn’t “Heather’s Medical Mystery Hour.” But I start every single class with this request: will you help me? And they do. I allow ten minutes for questions (what do you see? can you recognize your own face? how will you know if someone slips in and takes our place?) (what you see, no, and I won’t.) And then it’s their turn to tell me who they are.
I’ve found that this necessary but deeply personal intimate disclosure on my part engenders an authenticity in our introductory conversation. I always hated those dry, canned “Tell us a little about yourself, where you are from, what you are majoring in” openers. I hated them because they’re all surface and no news, no depth. And, worse, students unconsciously match their answers to fit what’s come before. It’s an exercise in conformity, not creativity. Since I’m teaching creative writing, and asking my students to learn how to go in deep to find valuable, complex, interesting stories to tell, I want to set up a first-day introductory activity that pre-figures the work we will do during the course of the semester. I don’t want un-boundaried self-disclosure—“tell us something no one knows about you.” That may or may not be the best route to a good introduction or a good piece of writing.
Tomorrow I’m going to try a new prompt for the introductions. Tell us your name, what you want to be called, and what you are fired up about. I got the prompt from a friend’s luncheon this past summer; she got it from a life coach who runs “Women on Fire.” I will have them write down their response so they have a better shot at staying true to their own internal wisdom.
I will use the introduction process as a way to launch my first lecture: how to engage the reader.
I’ll let you know how it goes. Meanwhile, I ‘d love to hear how you structure introductions—what works for you, what doesn’t, and why.