The first day of class is often a challenge for new instructors. After addressing the inevitable logistical issues (e.g., enrollment, the syllabus, access to course materials), should you end early? Dive right into a lecture? Engage students in an ice-breaking activity?
Like other faculty (Lang 2008; Nilson 2003), I have several goals for the beginning of a class: 1) I want to introduce the course topic and ways of thinking about course materials; 2) I want to introduce myself as an instructor, setting the tone for the rest of the course and stimulating student interest; 3) I want to encourage students to talk to each other, both to learn about their colleagues and to make connections that may prove useful if they want to form study groups or share notes and resources later on; and 4) I want to learn more about who my students are and why they chose to enroll in the course.
Here at the University of California, Irvine, courses run on a quarter schedule, so we have just started spring classes. This has given me the chance, once again, to bring out one of my favorite beginning-of-class activities. I first participated in this activity when I was a student in a folklore course taught by Alexandra Griswold at the University of Pennsylvania. I remembered it years later when I began teaching on my own, and I have used it routinely in both introductory cultural anthropology and anthropology of religion courses. I often use it on the first day of class, and always during the first week. It is easily adaptable to both small and large courses.
The activity has 6 steps:
Ask students to write a list of ten things they believe to be true.
In my experience, the activity works better if students do this before class, rather than writing the list during the class session, although I’ve done it both ways. I tell them that I will collect the lists, so all of the items should be things they are comfortable with me knowing, and at least three should be things they are willing to share with other students in the class.
I purposefully leave the interpretation of the term belief up to students, although I often say that they are not limited to listing religious beliefs. Students’ lists often do include statements about the supernatural: I believe that God exists; I believe in karma; I believe that I have seen a ghost; I believe witches are real. Others include statements they perceive to be explicitly anti-religious: I believe in evolution; I believe that science can answer all our questions; I believe that there is no life after death. Many will include statements about their everyday lives: I believe my boyfriend loves me; I believe I live in California. And there are always some whimsical responses: I believe that chocolate makes everything better.
In class, students are instructed to find a partner who they do not know well. Each student should interview his or her partner, learning the partner’s name and other information (e.g., major, year in school, where they are from) and three things she or he believes to be true. Small groups of three are also fine if necessary. I often explicitly tell students that they should not simply trade lists to read, but should share their three beliefs in conversation. This step can usually be completed in 5–10 minutes.
Ask students to introduce their partners to the entire class and to share one thing their partner believes to be true. At this stage, I have divided the board into three columns. I write short versions of these beliefs in the first column. In small classes, every student is introduced; in large classes, I ask for volunteers to introduce their partners.
Ask students why, when they were being interviewed, they chose that set of three beliefs to share with their partner. I write these responses in the second column on the board. Common responses include: Those were the three I felt strongest about; the three I’m most certain of; the three I thought were least weird; the three I thought others would agree with and not judge; the three I thought would be most controversial; the three I thought were most unique to me.
Ask students why, when they were introducing their partner to the class, they chose that one belief to share. Again, I write the responses on the board, this time in the third column. Common responses include: That was the one I agreed with; the one I thought everyone else could relate to; the one that was most different from my own beliefs; the one I remembered; the one nobody else had said yet.
Depending on the course I am teaching, this activity provides a segue into future conversations about epistemology, the culture concept, anthropological representation, or ethnographic research. In introductory courses, I ask students to reflect on their understandings of the term belief, and I use their lists to help demonstrate multiple ways of knowing. Following this activity, we might talk about the problems of defining culture or religion in terms of easily articulated beliefs, and I emphasize the normalized, invisible aspects of cultural life that we would never think to write on a list or to state to a stranger.
This activity is also helpful as I encourage students to question common understandings of culture that presume bounded groups: the Azande believe X; the Trobriand Islanders believe Y; or Latinos believe Z. Would it be possible, I ask, to create a list of what college students believe?
The activity is also a simple way to introduce some of the complexities of ethnography and to encourage students to think critically about the way anthropological knowledge is produced. What factors, we discuss, might affect the ways in which people talk to an anthropologist or the ways anthropologists write about their data and craft ethnographic representations? Are any of those similar to the factors that affected what students in the class chose to share or report?
In upper-division classes, students and I engage in a deeper interrogation of the concept of belief in the history of anthropology, and this activity leads into a discussion of introductory readings by Malcolm Ruel (1997), Byron Good (1993), or Stanley Tambiah (1990).
I have found this activity to be successful at a variety of institutions. In addition to introducing and encouraging critical reflection on course concepts and providing a reference point for future class discussions, the “ten things you believe to be true” activity gives students an opportunity to meet each other, encourages their active participation in the course, and allows me to learn more about my students and their understandings of anthropology.
Good, Byron J. 1994. “Medical Anthropology and the Problem of Belief.” In Medicine, Rationality, and Experience: An Anthropological Perspective, 1–24. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lang, James M. 2008. On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Nilson, Linda B. 2003. Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors. 2nd edition. Bolton, Mass.: Anker.
Ruel, Malcolm. 1997. “Christians as Believers.” In Belief, Ritual, and the Securing of Life: Reflexive Essays on a Bantu Religion, 36–59. Leiden: Brill.
Tambiah, Stanley Jeyaraja. 1990. Magic, Science, Religion, and the Scope of Rationality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.