As you begin the fall semester, I thought you might find this article below as thought-provoking and helpful a reminder as I have to the importance of the welcome that we extend to our students during the first week of our class. I hope you take a few minutes to read and reflect on how you plan to welcome students to your class.
And, if you’re looking for ideas as you plan your first week of class, I encourage you to take a look at the new Week of Engagement Toolkit for activities that build engagement and excitement. Wishing you a fantastic fall semester ahead.
Associate Vice Provost for Teaching, Learning, and Digital Education
Give Your Students a Homeric Welcome This Semester
Don’t underestimate the importance and power of hospitality on the first day of class.
By James M. Lang | August 15, 2022
The Chronicle of Higher Education
My three youngest children will be heading off to college this fall, which means we’ve been inundated with mail and email about the festivities being prepared for their arrival. My older daughter will be welcomed back for her junior year by friends, professors, and staff members whom she has already come to know. As first-year students, our twins will be on the receiving end of even more expressions of hospitality: new-student orientations, convocations, ice-cream socials. Colleges and universities have become experts in the welcoming business.
Most faculty members don’t participate in our institution’s opening ceremonies, but we still have a key role to play in welcoming students. The first day of the semester is our prime opportunity. As I have argued in one of The Chronicle’s guides — “How to Teach a Good First Day of Class” — the essential features of a great opening session include sparking curiosity about the material, setting expectations for the semester, and building community among the students.
You’ll find no shortage of additional advice online and in print as you plan for opening day. But in the waning days of summer, I have been thinking about a text that most of us probably wouldn’t reach for in seeking tips on how to create a great first day of class: The Odyssey. Homer’s 3,000-year-old Greek epic has caught my attention — both as a human and as a teacher — because of the lessons it offers about the importance and power of hospitality.
Here’s a thought experiment to illustrate what I mean: Imagine you are having a dinner party. Your guests are eating, drinking, telling stories, and listening to music when, suddenly, a stranger shows up at your door. He is dirty, limping, clothed in rags. You are not used to seeing homeless people in your neighborhood, and you assume that he’s going to either rob you or beg you for money. Your guests can see him through a window, and some of them seem downright scared. What should you do?
- Option 1: You try to be a giving person, but you have your limits. You have been planning this party for months. You ignore the doorbell, and hope he goes away. But he’s persistent. Finally you open the door a crack and speak to him through the screen door. You ask him what he wants, but you have your cellphone ready to call the police at the first sign of trouble. “I have suffered beyond your imagining,” he says. “I need help.” You reply: “Who are you? What exactly do you want?”
- Option 2: You immediately go to the door and open it wide. “I have suffered beyond your imagining,” he says. “I need help.” So you urge him to come in, and call out to your partner, who’s plating food in the kitchen: “Prepare a heaping serving for this unfortunate stranger.” You ask your guests to make room at the table, in the seat next to you. You ask the stranger if he would like to take a shower first. The stranger starts to tell you his name and his story, but you stop him. “Bathe, drink, eat,” you say. “When you feel better, you can tell us who you are and what you need.”
If you chose Option 1, you might be someone who, like me, lives a relatively comfortable life in America in the 21st century. We try to act ethically. We donate to charities and help our friends and families when we can. But if a stranger knocks on my door, or accosts me on the street, I have some questions: “Who are you? What do you want? How do I know that you’re not trying to con me or rob me? Do you have any proof to support your identity or your story?”
If you chose Option 2, you might be a character in The Odyssey, the epic account of a warrior’s tortuous journey from the battlefield to his home on the Greek island of Ithaca. Odysseus is a powerful soldier, a clever schemer, a skilled orator, a handsome man. But some of the Greek gods have conspired against him, so his straightforward voyage home turns into 10 years of wandering. He has to outwit gods, fight monsters, navigate treacherous seas. Throughout his journey, Odysseus needs the help of others. Fortunately for him, the culture in which his story unfolds has a deep-seated tradition of hospitality.
This is exemplified in the scene in which Odysseus, alone now after the death of his entire crew, shows up at a feast of a Phaeacian king, falls at the feet of the queen, and asks her help. “I have had many years of pain and loss,” he says. “Now help me, please, to get home, and quickly. I miss my family. I have been gone so long it hurts.” Everyone in the hall stares at him in astonishment, until the queen chides her husband: “You know it is not right to leave a stranger sitting there on the floor beside the hearth among the cinders. Everyone is waiting for you to give the word.” The king springs to life and fulfills his obligations to hospitality with food, wine, and water. Rest, the king tells our hero: Then we can hear your story and figure out how to help.
In the introduction to her recent translation of the epic poem, Emily Wilson, a professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that the hospitality tradition depicted in Homer’s epic appeared in many cultures but was especially important during the era of travel and exploration in ancient Greece. “The Odyssey suggests,” she writes, “that it was the responsibility of male householders to offer hospitality of this kind to any visitor, even uninvited guests, strangers, and homeless beggars.”
This August I have been slowly reading Wilson’s translation, savoring a chapter each night before I go to bed. And it’s this hospitality tradition that keeps returning to my mind. Which means, for this longtime teacher, I can’t help wondering: What would it be like for faculty members to give a Homeric welcome to our students?
I posed this question to my wife, a kindergarten teacher who took a leave last year to help me recover from my heart transplant and stroke, and who will be returning to her classroom in late August. She teaches at a public arts magnet school in a low-income area of a city, which means some of her students live in homeless shelters or with foster families, while others come from wealthy families who are seeking an arts- focused education for their children. From a 30-year teaching career, she knows well that rich and poor students alike can bring their own kinds of trouble.
In her classroom, she said, a Homeric welcome means that “you have to show the same hospitality to every student who shows up in your classroom, no matter where they are coming from or whatever experiences they have had until now. Everybody is a new stranger showing up at your door, and they all need help.”
Throughout the pandemic, higher education has become much more aware of the importance of welcoming all students — no matter their demographic characteristics, income levels, or life experiences — to our campuses and classrooms. That idea is closely aligned with the literature on inclusive teaching: First we welcome all students, and then we include them all in the classroom experience. We are witnessing an explosion of research and resources on welcoming and inclusivity in higher education, including Viji Sathy and Kelly A. Hogan’s Chronicle guide on inclusive teaching. Their new book, Inclusive Teaching: Strategies for Promoting Equity in College Classrooms, was published this month. It joins other excellent titles such as this essay collection, published in 2021: What Inclusive Instructors Do: Principles and Practices for Excellence in College Teaching.
So if you are looking for the latest research and practical tips on how to welcome all of your students in the fall semester, new resources are appearing all the time. But there are some old ones out there as well. Not only as teachers, but as human beings, we can take hospitality lessons from the culture in which Odysseus’s saga unfolds. Some strangers bring trouble, to be sure. Others will change our lives for the better.
They all deserve the richest welcome that we can offer.
OK, so it’s a bad idea to wash your students’ feet, stuff them with meat and wine, or send them away on the first day of class with parting gifts of gold and silver. But strangers will be showing up at your door soon. How will you welcome them?