Thursday, September 06, 2007

Naming and knowing

I learn names very quickly. I usually know the names of half of my students by the end of the first class session, and I'm typically at 100% by the third session. The flip side of this, though, is that as soon as the semester is over my brain purges itself of that information. I'll be walking across campus and run into a smart, participatory student whom I had in class just two months earlier. . . and I'll have no idea what her name is. I'll remember her, of course--which class she was in and where she sat, and even all kinds of extraneous information like the fact that she's on the student paper, or she lives with her sister, or she just moved here from South Dakota. But her name? It might take me ten minutes of hard thinking, and long after we've parted, to recollect.

This is, surely, an inevitable consequence of teaching more than a hundred students a year, year after year, and some of my students actually seem to expect to be forgotten--I've had "A" students email me the semester after taking a class with me and open their request for a recommendation by saying, "I don't know if you'll remember me. . ."

Still, it bothers me not to have better recall, in part because I tend to have a good memory for detail, and in part because I've always assumed that anyone I've had any kind of meaningful encounter with will remember me: I once emailed a former TA to ask for a recommendation letter, three and a half years after I'd taken his section, and it didn't even occur to me to remind him of who I was; I just launched right into a chatty message updating him on my life and explaining why I thought he'd be a good recommender. Now, it's true that I'd done very well in his class, and it's also true that, being an INRU grad student, he probably hadn't taught more than 80 or 100 students in his entire graduate career--but it's not as if I'd participated much in section, and we certainly hadn't had anything like a personal relationship.

Maybe that's a sign of how cluelessly self-important I am, or maybe it's an indication of the difference between my educational experience and that of many of my students: if you're a first-generation college student, or a transfer student, or someone who hasn't been continually petted and praised by your teachers in the past, you probably tend to regard the distance between yourself and your professors as that much greater. For that matter, if most of your classes average closer to 30 students than to 15, it might be reasonable to assume that your professors see you as no more than another line in their gradebooks.

Still--aren't we all disappointed when people forget our names? I take it very personally when someone fails to remember my name, especially after multiple introductions, and I can't help but see it as either a moral failing on that person's part--so uninterested in other people! So absent-minded!--or as evidence of my own inconsequence. It's that latter possibility, probably, that most upsets me, and I'm sure that my students feel similarly even if some of them are already half-prepared to be forgotten.

So I try to learn names quickly, to pronounce them correctly, and to use preferred nicknames when applicable. This doesn't mean that I know my students in any profound sense--or that I know most of them, really, at all--but I guess that I see it as a way of acknowledging and validating their identities in some fundamental way.

That's probably why I hate how quickly I forget their names, too: if I can't remember even that one, basic thing about my students, maybe they were just lines in my gradebook after all.

10 comments:

life_of_a_fool said...

You are SO much better than I am. I also forget most names immediately. But it also takes me half the semester to learn all the names. And I do try, and try to pronounce them correctly, use nicknames, etc. I do think it's important, for the reasons you list. And yet, last year, it took me weeks to figure out that one student was in both my classes (and, uh, she had to point this out to me. She took it well, at least overtly, and I did remember her after that). It's hard! I have some students who totally expect to be forgotten, and others who do seem to expect you to remember them -- but they have to recognize, what, 4 professors a semester? while I have to remember up to 50-100 students??

ceresina said...

I'm delurking to say that if the students were just lines in your gradebook, you'd remember only the name & not all the other details like being on the paper, or even what they looked like.

Fretful Porpentine said...

If it's any comfort, after my first few encounters with absent-minded professors as an undergrad, I was generally pleasantly surprised when faculty did remember my name. (This went double if they were full professors, although I guess you won't have that excuse for a few years.)

squadratomagico said...

I don't even try to remember my students' names in most classes, but then, my classes usually range in size from 70 to 200 students. Only for my seminar of 15 students do I learn all the names; as well as a few names of highly motivated students in larger classes. I think most other faculty here are in the same situation, and this always has struck me as singularly alienating. I suspect many students get a degree here without ever having a single faculty member learn his or her name.

Brian W. Ogilvie said...

I struggle with this in larger classes (35+). I have a pretty good memory for names, and a decent memory for faces--it's putting them together that I find hard. I've sometimes taken a digital camera, a stack of paper, and a big marker to the second day of class. I ask students to write their names (including preferred nickname) on a sheet of paper and let me take their snapshot. It's dorky but it works--I just spend a few minutes here and there reviewing the photos every day. I've never done it with more than 40 students, though, and I'm not systematic enough about it.

The History Enthusiast said...

I'm the same way, 'tho I usually don't have all their names down by the third class session. I actually just ran into a former student in the grocery store yesterday, and I couldn't remember her name but I knew that she had graduated in 2006, where she sat in class, and that she was the same age as me. Crazy.

k8 said...

I'm terrible with names and faces. But, with the wonder that is facebook, I can study names and faces as often as I like. Of course, this might constitute stalking....

dance said...

I was at a university that introduced a new thing--they attached the student ID photos to the name in the class roll on the admin website. It was a little creepy--but even, so, I wonder why more universities don't do it. Probably can't figure out how to get the systems to talk to each others.

As history enthusiast points out, not being able to bring their name to mind in a 15-sec passing encounter is not the same as forgetting a student. If you can browse your gradebook and remember each student's face and facts upon seeing the name--then, no, they weren't just lines.

meansomething said...

I've worked at a place that made "photo roster" an option and really liked it. Of course, students do change after their freshman ID photos are taken, but it's definitely a help. I use a cheat sheet (a jotted-down seating map) for the first couple of classes and after that I'm usually OK (these are classes of 15-35). Like you, though, I find my brain dumps most of the names after the term is over.

Flavia said...

Yes, we have that function in our course-management software: I can see the ID photos for all of my students. They're always terrible (with the exception of my one student who is, no joke, on the cheerleading squad for the nearest professional football team--she looks *amazing*), and so they're not as helpful as they could be--but I've definitely used them when there are just two or three names in a class that I haven't yet been able to assign to faces.