Building Relationships Before the Semester Begins

By Courtney R. Gibbons (Hamilton College)

We often think about our classes starting on the first day of the semester. But some of our students log on to course management systems and look at the course materials before classes start. I contend that we can start to build relationships with our students well before class begins — with the way we write our syllabi, an initial email to students, and a short first assignment that can be completed before the very first day of class.

A little bit about my own path through college: I went to college right after high school, dropped out in my first semester, went back a year and a half later to finish my first year at a college near home, and then transferred to Colorado College where I (finally!) finished my bachelors degree. To say that my path was bumpy is a gross understatement. I struggled with feeling “behind” my classmates (although, looking back, I doubt anyone realized I was a couple years older than my peers). I had a lot of anxiety about classes, and I often felt like I didn’t belong. (You can hear me talk about this in a pep talk that I recorded for my classes this semester:

I’m keenly aware that many of the things I experienced — that I thought I was alone in experiencing — are becoming more common among our students. Student stress and anxiety levels are rising every year. With that in mind, I’ve been working on centering the humanity of my students in my classes. In this blog post, I’ll share a few things I do before the first day of class.

The First Look: Syllabus Review for Racial Equity

Nancy Wrinkle shared Syllabus Review for Equity-Minded Practice with me (h/t @wrinkle_nancy on twitter). This guide is published by The Center for Urban Education in the School of Education at USC Rossier.

From the guide, here are a few introductory ideas:

What is syllabus review? Syllabus review is an inquiry tool for promoting racial/ethnic equity and equity-minded practice. To achieve this goal, the syllabus review process promotes faculty inquiry into teaching approaches and practices, especially how they affect African American, Latinx, Native American, Pacific Islander, and other racially/ ethnically minoritized students; facilitates a self-assessment of these teaching approaches and practices from a racial/ethnic equity lens; and allows faculty to consider changes that result in more equitable teaching approaches and practice.

What is in the guide? The Syllabus Review Guide is comprised of six parts that provide the conceptual knowledge and practical know-how to conduct equity-minded self-reflection on an essential document in academic life: the syllabus. Throughout the Guide are examples that illustrate the ideas motivating syllabus review, as well as opportunities to practice inquiry and to reflect on how to change your syllabi—and your teaching more generally—so are more equity-minded.

If you’re into Universal Design for Learning (, you’ll find this resource very helpful for making your syllabi clear, useful, and — my favorite — human. The guide reinforces the idea that you can write stuff in your syllabus specifically to support and encourage students. It doesn’t have to be a boring contract. It can communicate a lot more about the class.  For example, it can address:

  • The classroom environment (“joyful exploration”)
  • Support systems (office hours, campus resources)
  • Your values (Federico Ardila’s axioms)

This kind of syllabus review seeks to make the hidden curricula of college visible to students. It’s about transparency as much as it’s about what’s going to be covered and how grades are going to be calculated.

The guide also helps put racial equity front and center. Before using this resource to rework my syllabi, I had not intentionally grappled with “affirm[ing] the belonging of racially/ethnically minoritized students in higher education by representing their experiences in the course materials and by deconstructing the presentation of white students and white experiences as the norm.”

One of the changes I made to my policies specifically addressed this equity-minded competence from the guide:

Views the classroom as a racialized space and actively self-monitors interactions with students of color 

(in contrast to “[v]iews the classroom as a utilitarian physical space”). Although I knew I would be teaching remotely when I did my syllabus review, I reflected on the ways a Zoom class space (a ClassZoom, if you will) can be racialized. The previous spring, some of my Black students had confided that keeping cameras on because of professors’ policies felt like it highlighted that there were so few Black students in class (sometimes exactly one). My “aha!” moment was understanding that a “cameras on” policy heightened the stereotype threat that students of color already feel in predominantly white classes. With that in mind, and with the goal of making it clear in my syllabus that active and engaged classroom participation doesn’t require cameras on, I added Remote Classroom expectations to my syllabus, including the following:

Cameras: Whatever you feel comfortable with. I like to see your faces but that’s no reason to require it! If you don’t have your camera on, I request that you make liberal use of Zoom reactions so I don’t feel so alone up here…. I will tell jokes during class (to help you out, I’ll often tell you that they are jokes). This is a great time to use a Zoom reaction.

If the reader is curious to see my entire course policies packet, you can find it here (with the caveat that I still have a lot of homework to do as part of the syllabus review!):

The First Assignment: Math Autobiography

It’s not news that students carry a lot of math anxiety. I like to give them a chance to let me know where they are in their math journey (what classes they’ve taken, what they have liked, what they feel anxious about) by having them complete a Math Autobiography before the first day of class. I also invite them to tell me a little about themselves and about what makes them feel like they belong (or don’t belong) in the classroom. I like to end the survey with a math question we can talk about together on the first day of class.

There are many ways to create a pre-class survey. I’ve chosen to keep the survey class-related (broadly) as a way to let students tell me anything they might want me to know about themselves, their math experiences, what they understand about how they learn best, and their expectations for the class. I’ve gotten the feedback that this survey helps students feel less anxious about the first day of class — especially because they’ve also done a math problem to get ready! Not every student completes the Autobiography before the first day of class, but in my experience over half of students do. (This also helps me with my first day of class anxiety — it’s nice to know a little bit about the students before the class meets!)

The specific questions I used this semester for my Modern Algebra class are:

  • What is your name?
  • Tell me a bit about yourself.
    You can tell me anything you’d like me to know. If you’re having trouble getting started, the following questions might help spark some ideas: Do you have a nickname you’d like me to use? What are your pronouns? Where did you go to high school? How did you decide to attend Hamilton? What have been your favorite subjects in school? Favorite activities? Hobbies?
  • Tell me a bit about your relationship with math.
    Again, you can tell me anything you’d like to know. For example: What math classes have you taken and when? What have your experiences in math classes been like? How do you feel about math? In what ways have you used math outside of school?
  • Tell me about yourself as a learner.
    For example: What makes you feel included (or excluded) in a class? Do you learn best from reading, listening, or doing? Do you prefer to work alone or in groups? What do you do when you get stuck? Do you take notes? Do you procrastinate? Do you read the textbook? Prefer videos?
  • Tell me about your expectations for this class.
    For example: What do you expect from your professor? What do you expect from yourself? What do you expect from your classmates? How does this course fit into your educational and life goals? What makes you feel comfortable in a class setting?
  • Last question: Tell me how you would solve for x given x^2 – 3x + 2 = 0. (If you’re really bored, tell me instead how you would solve for x given x^2 – x – 1 = 0.)
    This isn’t a quiz; this is where modern algebra picks up from things you might not have thought about for awhile, so it’s a very gentle review for you. Plus, telling me about your thinking helps me know how to start class on day one.

The First Email: A Big Welcome

Now that you have a revamped syllabus and a first assignment that lets you get a peek at your students’ identities and experiences before the first day of class, it’s time to give the students a glimpse of you before the semester starts.

I like to let the students know the syllabus is available for them to read (along with some incentives for reading it: the grading policy is not strictly points-based, and I want them to ask questions about it on the first day; there are some important dates to put into their calendars; etc). I also like to fill out the Math Autobiography survey as a way of introducing myself to my students and as a way of introducing the assignment to them.

Most of all, I want the first email to convey that I’m excited to begin the semester with them as their collaborator in learning.

We’re Humans!

Many scholars have written about rehumanizing mathematics (see, for example, Dr. Rochelle Gutierrez’s Why We Need to Rehumanize Mathematics). What I hope to accomplish with my pre-semester relationship-building is twofold. First, I genuinely do want to build relationships with my students; that’s one of the reasons I wanted to teach at a small liberal arts college. Second, I want to convey to my students that they belong in my classroom as their whole, human selves — and that I will also show up as my whole, human self!

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