My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

September 1, 2011: First Questions

It probably seems like the most casual and unimportant aspect of a professor’s responsibilities on the first day of class—well behind talking about the course’s focal points, beginning the process of learning students’ names, going over the syllabus and other materials, and more—but truthfully I have probably put the most consistent thought over the years into coming up with the question that each student can answer briefly when he or she introduces him or herself; such questions, if done right, can both provide engaging and fun moments and yet allow us to get a first, preliminary but important sense of a person’s personality and voice. I have found that such questions are generally not as successful if they are too clichéd (something you did over the summer [“work” is too easy of an answer]; a current favorite musical artist or song [ditto with “I listen to everything”]), but that a slightly more unusual question can be really effective, provided I give folks time to think of their answers (by, for example, giving and elaborating a bit on my own sample answers at the start).
While one of my most effective first-day questions—name a favorite character from literature, film, TV, cartoons, comics, anime, porn, you name it, and tell us a bit about why you like this character—is not quite relevant enough to this space, two of the others that have worked very well are certainly right up an AmericanStudies alley. In some of my American Lit surveys I have asked students to imagine that an alien has landed and asks them what this “America” place is all about, and then ask them to think of one text—whether something written (in any genre), a work of visual art (painting, sculpture, photo, statue, etc), something in another medium (movie, song, TV show, etc), or another kind of work (building, monument, etc)—that they’d highlight to answer that question (and a bit on why). And in some AmericanStudies courses I’ve asked students to think about one event or issue or the like that they’d point to as representing an aspect of our time period, the early 2000s (since our intro course focuses on a historical moment, the 1980s). Besides giving us some interesting glimpses into folks’ perspectives and interests, these questions can also lead into a bit of informal first-day writing, where the students can elaborate a bit more on their choices and reasons.
As I hope I’ve made very clear many times over, you readers are no more my students than I am your teacher, which is to say not at all—this is a different kind of space, not only because of the absence of requirements and grading and the like but also and more importantly because as I see it we’re all absolutely in conversation here, with no hierarchies of knowledge or power or anything else. (I aim for that feel in classes too, but some hierarchies are inevitable in any classroom setting, at least any one where grades are involved.) But with that said, I think both of those questions remain a great way for me to hear a bit about your perspective and interests, about where you’re coming from as AmericanStudiers. So if you don’t mind, and with anonymous answers entirely fine of course, can you respond to either question (which I’ll reiterate momentarily) in comments? I’d sure appreciate it, and it can help get a new semester and set of conversations here off to as great a start as I hope my courses will today.
The questions, again: 1) Name a text (in any genre or medium) that you’d highlight as representing “America” in some form or other; or 2) Name an event or issue or the like (again of any type) that you’d highlight as representing our time period (the early 2000s) in any way. Thanks in advance for your thoughts, which I promise will mean just as much to me as those student responses always do. More tomorrow,
PS. And since all is fair in love, war, and blogging, any other questions you’d direct back at me? (If I had to answer my two, or rather to choose one out of the roughly one zillion possible answers that come to mind for each, I’d say: 1) Charles Chesnutt’s novel The Marrow of Tradition (1901), about which I blogged here; and 2) The post-Palin revisions of Paul Revere’s Wikipedia page, about which I blogged here.)


  1. As I scrolled down to the comments to answer question 1 with Marrow of Tradition, I noticed you already chose that one. So now it's a toss-up between The Brothers K and All the King's Men. I tried to think of one that was not a recommendation of yours, but it seems as if you have the market cornered when it comes to quintessentially American novels in my bookcases.

  2. Spring semester starts in less than a week for me, so I'm thinking about first day rituals. (See my IHE post -

    I, too, like to include an icebreaker on the first day -- what you characterize as a "question that each student can answer briefly when he or she introduces him or herself." But, I often struggle with designing prompts. In the past, I've used this idea (first suggested to me by a colleague): name one cultural object that you'd like to eliminate. Responses range from "credit cards" to "World of Warcraft" to "Uggs." Last semester, to my dismay, the question elicited "homework" and "reading" as responses.

    My focus is American Lit/AMST, so I really like the prompt you have used in your American Lit survey course: nominate a text (broadly defined) that represents "America" in some form or another. I'd even go so far as to direct lit students *away* from thinking about fictional texts.

    To answer both prompts myself:
    1. Grant Wood's American Gothic
    2. Bush's 2003 "Mission Accomplished" speech

  3. Hi Amy,

    Thanks so much! I like your eliminating one a lot too, that would work very well for my Intro to American Studies course which focuses on the 1980s (a decade from which we could find much to eliminate!).

    Hope the semester gets off to a great start, thanks again,