Dr. Crazy has started a post (Reassigned Time: Day Two, in which I Make Students Feel Overwhelmed and Bored
) whose comment section has become a posting board for first day class management...various ideas are presented.
I will summarize and pontificate.
There are three main approaches (ok, that is false, three main and a lot of offshoots, but I will focus): The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.
The Ugly: anything to do with Power Points, note cards or anything more than 5 minutes on the syllabus sets a tone. Actually, anything you do, say, or wear on the first day sets a tone. The tone with ugly is: I am a geeky academic from which you may have to learn from in spite of my annoying tics, fumbled attempts at social conventions or, worse, my forays into pedagogical theories.
As a student I hated these ugly days, knowing that many more were to come.
The Bad: reading the syllabus to me, warning me of consequences to actions I have no intention of taking (why is it that the majority have to suffer the potential sins of the minority?), or going over every future assignment... Just give me the paperwork and move on. I can read it myself. I can work out my own schedule. It is, after all, college. If I wanted paternalism, I would have stayed in high school.
The Good: These were rare. Something about academia that breeds poor teaching I have yet to figure out.
These were the few that looked at what the first day was attempting to accomplish: set the tone, establish the expectations and forecast the content. Granted, the Ugly and Bad also set a tone--from which they will attempt to recover the rest of the semester (a heavy-handed tone--20 page syllabus--only sends the message that you are an ass, not that you are a thorough researcher). Firing off consequences sets the confrontational expectation early and well. There is enough conflict with the material, why set up a police state.
What has worked is an adapted approach. For instance, I begin a writing course by building a sense of community, taking a small sample and setting a tone of try and revise--essential for a workshop atmosphere. For lit courses, I ask what they want out of the class (takes a quick 10 minutes and allows me to level-set expectations, get to know them and to let my excitement about the material come through).
I think that is it. The first day students are asking if they want to take the course (those lucky few who have a choice) OR how they are going to make it all semester with the lame-o in the front reading the syllabus. One can scare them into silence (read wrongly as compliance) in the hopes they will drop (I have tried this one as an overworked comp. instructor—it didn't work). One can run rough-shod over them, establishing ones authority and might, but that comes off as insecure—which it is.
OR one can demonstrate to the group of eager learners why you went into a particular field to begin with. That is, you can share your excitement about the subject. This can take many forms. The result, shared excitement—or at least excitement on your part.