Tobin Miller Shearer picked a special tie to wear on his first day of the school year teaching "Black: From Africa to Hip-Hop" at the University of Montana.
A couple of students gave the history professor the necktie sewn with images of Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X in 2009, and he wore it Thursday. In his 10th year teaching the course, he talked about racism, played hip-hop, drew a virtual timeline, and read a poem by Maya Angelou, "Caged Bird."
He dreamed of the perfect grade book.
"I'm an incorrigible optimist when it comes to my students, and I always think that this year is the year that everybody gets an A," Shearer said after class. "It hasn't happened yet, but I go in with the expectation that they can."
Thursday was the first day of the school year at UM, and the signs of eager minds and a fresh start and mentoring filled the campus.
Students opened to the first clean pages of their notebooks. They sported fresh robin's-egg-blue nail polish and new Birkenstock sandals. And they listened closely to advice about meal plans.
They also prepared to have the ideas their professors shared over the course of the term change their way of thinking.
Dominique Holt is a health and human performance major taking Shearer's class, and the transfer student from Montana State University–Billings was pleased his teacher would play music for students the 10 minutes before class and again as they walked out the door.
Thursday, he heard "Alright" by Kendrick Lamar.
"That's a song that just recently came out so it surprised me that he had it playing," Holt said.
He registered for the class based on a recommendation in his orientation booklet, and after one day, he knew he would appreciate the instructor and the material.
Holt himself is of mixed race, so he already thinks about racism and prejudice. He definitely expected the class would lead him to think about the issues in new ways, and he looked forward to it.
"I'd like to study the history a little more in depth," he said.
In class in Jeannette Rankin Hall, Shearer stated the obvious to his students in order to defuse any tension in the room, a deliberate strategy on his part:
"There's one very important thing you need to know, and that is that I want you to know that I know I'm white."
The class paused for a split second.
"Usually, people laugh a little when I say that."
Then, the laughter.
The point, he said, is he comes to his work not being confused about his identity. In the lecture, Shearer outlined the history of racism, a combination of race prejudice and power, and he pressed the students to challenge him.
"How can we get rid of it?" asked one.
"I am hoping that 15 1/2 weeks from now, you will have an answer for yourself," Shearer said.
Discussions about race in this country often generate more heat than light, he said after class, and he's a fan of the way his students use the material they learn.
"They're able to enter those conversations with sophistication and nuance and advance the conversation," Shearer said.
In class, he asked for harder questions. He also told students the question he wants to shed light on isn't whether racism is better now than decades or centuries ago.
"The right question is, how has it changed?"
In the Liberal Arts Building, Shintaro Muramatsu admitted he was a bit uneasy about his first day of class.
Muramatsu is a sophomore from Tokyo, and this week is the first time he's taken university courses, having spent last term at the English Language Institute at UM to polish his skills. He was curious about the way Americans would interact in the classroom.
"I was kind of nervous, but after this class, I thought that they are very friendly," Muramatsu said of his classmates and professor.
The class was "Communication in Small Groups," and professor Betsy Bach shared that nervous feeling despite her 33 years as a faculty member — and the fact that it's one of her favorite courses to teach.
"I have butterflies, you know," Bach said of the first day of the school year.
On first days, she said, students and faculty have all kinds of expectations of each other.
"There's really a lot of pressure there. It's like first impressions. You want to sell the class, but you want to be clear in your expectations," said Bach, who recently won a national teaching award from the National Communication Association.
Thursday, she told some 20 students to show up. Participate. Get involved. Here, they're learning about small group communication, so she said being part of a small group is critical to the course.
"Even though I'm a stickler for attendance and participation, I also do like to have fun," Bach said.
Gage Smith, a junior studying communications, vouched for the professor's ability to keep class interesting, along with the energy on campus the first week of school. In the summer, he saw other athletes on campus, and now, he's reacquainting himself with people he hasn't seen in a while.
"It's a fun week. There's a lot more excitement on campus than a lot of other weeks," Smith said.
Soon, Bach had everyone in class on their feet, making quick introductions, an activity she likened to speed dating. She loves the course because it's directly applicable to life.
"You communicate in small groups all the time, so hopefully, you will think by the end of this class that it's one of the most valuable classes you've taken," she said.