The First Day of Class: Keep ’em Off Balance, Make Class Interesting, and Students Will Keep Coming to Class.

Pete PHOTO ALBUM page 27

 ASU 1994

“With people, what you see is NOT always what you get.”

If you let the numbers get to you, teaching large enrollment courses can be intimidating. I learned a little tactic from my first boss at Metro State University of Denver (Renee Ruderman). She showed me that if I could begin the semester by “tricking” my students, it would take the pressure off of ME and put it onto THE STUDENTS. Put simply, she said that if I could trick them, it would make them self-conscious as opposed to me, the instructor, feeling self-conscious. She definitely had my attention. I was a brand new instructor at the time, and any advice this sharp lady could provide would surely be welcomed.

The reason that I would play a trick on the class was because in the sea of anonymity, many students may get tempted to divert their attention, or let their minds wander. So to nip that sense of security  “in numbers” right in the bud; that herd mentality, I had to grab their attention and gain the initiative from the get-go.

On the first day of class, I would sit among the student waiting for the class to start. I would wait patiently as students would fill the cavernous lecture hall (normally 500 students). To be honest, this was the ONLY time I was ever nervous teaching. “Things” can go wrong very quickly in situations like this, so I had to be on my toes.

Normally I would sit and wait among the sea of students until a student got up to leave. This usually took about ten to fifteen minutes. When a student got up to leave, I would stand up and in a commanding voice I would ask them why they were leaving. I DO NOT tell them who I am at this point. The student normally answers with the logic that the instructor isn’t there, so she was going to leave. I instruct her that the instructor is present and I calmly sit back down. *

The students aren’t sure of what to make of this unfolding situation. Before too long, the tension in the classroom reaches a peak. No one is sure what is going on. I hate to sound cliche, but you could have cut the tension with a knife.

It is at this moment that I stand up, and again, in a commanding voice, I ask whether anyone knows who I am? No one usually knows. Then I announce who I am, and what my intentions are.

“Hello, my name is Dr Padilla, and I will serve as your instructor.” The room is again quiet, as puzzled faces trace my every move. I know I still have one more task to complete: I need to trick them one more time.

Next I ask the class if any of them has ever taken a physics course. A student inevitably raises their hand. I ask them what color their shirt is. (let’s just say red for this example)



“It’s red,” they say with some sort of “attitude,” as though such a question is so simple it doesn’t even need to be asked. I next ask the “volunteer” if they are willing to bet their grade on their answer. At first they are more than willing to accept such a bet. A look of a kid in a candy store overcomes them. It appears like it’s going to be like taking candy from a baby. But then it begins to dawn on them; it seems too good to be true, and you know what they say about things that seem too good to be true!  So, they begin to get suspicious. If it seems too good to be true… perhaps it is?

Next I explain the logic behind the fact that the shirt they are wearing is everything BUT the color RED(see VIDEO). Again I ask them if they are willing to take the bet. At this point in the process, I get no “takers.”

Next I tell the class that studying people and society is like viewing a red shirt: you think you know… but you may NOT know…   With people, what you see is NOT always what you always get. In short, with people, games are involved.

With their minds screaming for some grounding, I let them know that in my courses, they need to keep an open mind. “Things” aren’t always as they seem. These techniques makes the students self-conscious. So, for the rest of the semester, they have no clue what “trick” I am going to play on them. This slight tension keeps them awake, as they never know what I’m going to do or when they may be called upon. Instead of thinking that they can get away with something, they become self-conscious and ask, “What’s he going to do to us next?” Attendance and participation are always great! In fact, I normally have daily visitors. 


[8] First Day of Class BCGs

ASU 1995

The above picture is me at the beginning of the second semester. I realize that such a trick will be shared with friends and family. Thus, I need to change up my disguise. In fact, a former student’s boyfriend took my class and immediately expected me to play the exact same trick on the class. He was on the lookout for me in the previous disguise. Later, after class, he approached me and told me, “My girlfriend told me you were going to play a trick on the class. So I began looking for you. I looked around, saw you and said to myself, that dude is such a dork, he can’t be Padilla.” 

I couldn’t exactly get peeved at the student for calling me a dork. After all, I presented myself as one and it “did the trick.” So the student and I had a laugh at my expense. The trick worked and the class attendance was nearly perfect, and none of the students ever read their newspaper or engaged in texting etc. 

My colleagues never really understood why I used this exercise. They couldn’t think outside the box and thought that I wanted / needed attention. Believe me, when you teach 500 students at a time, you will get more attention that you want! Some of them even went as far as telling me I was unprofessional. If professional means boring, I’ll pass. Sociology is too interesting to teach using a boring PowerPoint presentation and then drone on making these students come to despise sociology. My method created more sociology majors / minors than anyone else in any place I’ve taught. Sociology rocks!





* You noticed that I added a gender. I’ve played this ethnomethodological breaching experiment (trick) on my large introductory courses every semester. Invariably, the first students to get up and attempt to leave have ALWAYS been female. “You go gurls!” These women didn’t want to waste their time sitting around waiting. I agree wholeheartedly. But openly challenging a female in an anonymous role can prove tricky. Many a man has wanted to “come to her rescue” and challenge me!




 pete padilla real world sociology

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