Hello All – I’m Kelsey Blair! I do a lot of things: I research and write about performance, sport, circus, and musical theatre; I work as a sessional instructor at a university; I write basketball novels for ten to thirteen year old girls; I make theatre; I watch daytime soap operas; I play and coach and administrate sports, and I recently (unofficially) ordained a wedding! Now, I also work with Kim and help curate the Activist Classroom. And, you know what? I couldn’t be more excited about it!
It is fitting to introduce myself to this blog the first week of September, the start of term at most Canadian and American universities. As an instructor, I often feel like the first week of class is an introduction-juggling act:
“Meet me! Meet my teaching style! Meet the course content! Meet the assignments! Meet the reading schedule! Meet the policies! Meet each other!”
I find facilitating this last introduction (between students) challenging. This is particularly true in smaller classes where interaction is a vital part of the course. I have tried many of the standard introduction activities: partner introductions; small group introductions; class-wide activities (Arts majors, back corner! Business majors, front corner!). Most students will go through the motions – especially if I throw the full force of my enthusiasm behind them. But, I’ve often felt dissatisfied with the results.
In a lot of ways, this dissatisfaction is a product of the tension I feel between the pedagogy of post-secondary education and the bureaucracy of teaching in a post-secondary institution.
On the one hand, I truly believe that students learn better in smaller classes if there is a sense of temporary community. Community doesn’t just manifest. It takes time and work. On the other hand, colleges and universities are, by their very nature, policy-heavy institutions. Part of my job is to create, implement, and, to my occasional dismay, enforce policies. Both of these things need to be done starting the first day of the course, and it’s hard to do them simultaneously.
Not only that, the start of term is introduction-saturated for students, and I’ve found that key information – like, you know, their classmates’ names – often doesn’t stick.
So, last semester, I tried something different. Rather than doing a quick, high-energy, activity, I opted for a slower, more creative, student-to-student intro activity: mug decorating.
For context, the course was a once-a week, three-hour, upper year undergraduate theatre course in the Department of Theatre and Film at the University of British Columbia. The topic of the course was performance studies. There were fourteen students, most of whom were third and fourth year theatre studies or theatre production undergraduates. I had taught twelve of the fourteen students before – in either lecture or seminar classes – so most of the students knew me, but many did not know each other. My aims for the activity were four-fold:
To provide dedicated class-time to introductions, demonstrating the importance of interpersonal communication and community in the context of the course.
To find a creative, and hopefully somewhat more memorable way, to get students to introduce themselves to one another.
To create re-usable “name-tags” (the mugs) that students could 1) put out in front of them every class, to help with name prompting, and 2) use for beverages throughout the semester.
To encourage the students to begin to apply the week’s readings.
To prep for the activity, I purchased fourteen mugs, a large green bin (for storing), and dish soap from a local dollar store. When the first day of class came, I gathered markers, string, tape, and really a lot of stickers from my teaching supplies cupboard and threw everything in the green bin.
I began class by working through my “performance of the syllabus” and did a discussion/activity that engaged with the week’s readings. Then, I turned to the mugs. After introducing the activity, the students enthusiastically started decorating. I was feeling chuffed.
Then, I attempted to facilitate a conversation.
To get the students thinking about the relation between the readings and our activity, I asked questions like: What gets carried out when we say our favourite colour is green, pink, or maroon? How do we interpret other people’s “introduction performances”? What information (gesture, tone of voice, colour choice) inflects our interpretations?
The questions worked well enough but facilitating discussion was a challenge. I struggled to balance the informal vibe of the crafting activity — which encouraged an organic flow of multiple conversations — with in-depth and focussed discussion that encouraged consecutive, rather than overlapping, discussion.
In the end, the students decorated their mugs, but I’m not sure they thought much about performance. I walked out a little disheartened and moderately concerned. Was it the end of the world that the conversation wasn’t as rigorous as I’d imagined? No. Was it ideal, especially on the first day of class? It was not.
Would I try the activity again?
Despite the bobbled discussion facilitation, I think I would. The mugs were used as nametags throughout the first half of semester, which helped students call each other by name (full disclosure: I kept the mugs and brought them weekly so the students couldn’t lose or forget them. I also brought dish soap and insisted that they put the mugs in front of them on the table for the first six weeks of class). The crafting did encourage low-stakes student interaction. And, most importantly for me, the mugs prompted the actions of community – sharing the tape, passing stickers from person to person. So, even if the execution could have been better, the activity still achieved some of its goals, and in doing so, helped unsettle some of that tension I often feel around introductory exercises.
What are your favourite introduction activities?