08/28/2013 02:59 pm ET Updated Oct 28, 2013

Back to School: The World Is a (Sometimes Awkward) Party

I had a game plan going into my first class of the semester. But by the end of the session I was surprised to find myself in an unanticipated and awkward place. Thankfully, some of my new students were willing to be there, too.

My first class of the Bucknell University academic year started this morning at 9:00. For me and for most of the students in the room, this was the first time we've been in a classroom since May -- and for the first-year students enrolled in the course this was their first time in a college class ever.

I really do love the first day of the semester -- especially my opening class on the first day of the year. And I particularly enjoy being the first professor a new student sits in front of in her/his college career. There is something really special about being there for the very beginning of a person's journey in higher education.

So today when I started class and began my introduction to "Plants, People and the Environment," a 100-level non-majors botany course taught three mornings a week, it was a little bit like I had been fired out of a cannon. The lecture outline on the dais became superfluous after a few lines and I was doing what experienced teachers often do: flowing, riffing, and occasionally reorienting my comments to the talking points in my head and the syllabus in my hand.

About 25 minutes into my verbal salvo, I told them to grab their stuff and follow me outside. As a group we poured out of the lecture hall, down the stairs to the building exit, and out onto the campus green. I asked them to assemble on the uphill side of the lawn and look northward to the hilly horizon over the campus athletic center.

"What do you see?" I asked.

"Trees." "Grass." "Green."

The answers I was looking for! I could now commence with my planned remarks about the green of chlorophyll... the beauty of photosynthesis... the human need to breathe oxygen... the integral role of plants in sustaining our very existence... and my hope that my class will help them begin to see the detail in all of the green around them.

I was cruising and they seemed to be with me. And then it happened: I hit that moment where lecture becomes more like theatre -- where one becomes less "professor/orator" and more "actor/dancer/performer." This can be a risky place. When the students aren't with you -- when they aren't ready to be truly engaged rather than lectured to -- you can end up way out on a limb without an easy path back to the tree trunk.

And yet the spirit of botany compelled me to go forward. I compared one's interaction with the natural world to attending a party, an analogy I have used before.

When you arrive at a party and the other guests are all strangers, it is an uncomfortable and intimidating experience. On the other hand, when the party you attend is peopled with familiar faces, you feel comfortable and relaxed -- like you belong there.

Too many of us are walking through the natural world like it's full of strangers (because it often is!). Our unfamiliarity with the rest of Earth's organisms can make the planet we live on seem like a mysterious, scary and seemingly unknowable place.

It's not until you start to know the things around you -- learning their names and understanding how they live -- that the world becomes surprisingly and comfortably familiar. Everywhere you go the world becomes much like the party where you know the other guests. You feel as though you belong to this world... and this world belongs to you.

I could have stopped talking right there and ended class, but I did not. Before I could run it through my mental filter I was inviting them to see the world like I do and asking,

"So are you ready? Will you come to my plant party?"

Those last few words came out slowly. Halfway into the sentence I knew better than to finish it. It was too earnest, too uncool. Silence followed.

Then, finally, a few brave students -- just loud enough that it was audible to my waiting ears -- said what I needed to hear:


A smattering of affirmative answers followed, like the first drops of rain that soon give way to a deluge.

A deluge that never came, in this case.

But hey, it's only the first day.

And I think it's going to be a great semester.