Monday, March 16, 2009


Ask the Administrator: Say My Name, Say My Name...

An occasional commenter writes:

I have a question about classroom skills rather than the job market or administration.

How do other teachers remember their students' names?  I confess, I am AWFUL with names.  My wife and I have gone to the same small church for 20 years and I still go blank on names of people we've been friends with for all that time.  ("you know who I mean honey, the tall guy who always wears that corduroy jacket.  His wife is in the choir.  You mean Tom?  yeah, Tom!")

This is a real difficulty for me in the classroom, even with a light teaching load.  I have one class this semester (I am an adjunct) and only 32 students and it's still a problem.  In every class some students stand out, for both good reasons and bad.  The one who does all the readings and asks questions is easy to remember, as is the goof-off who texts in class on those rare occasions he manages to stay awake.  It's the middle 80% that I struggle with.

I make little cryptic notes on my roster when I call roll  (WPSwt=always wear pink sweats to class) but that only helps so much and I have to be careful not to make observations that might be interpreted as inappropriate.  I can't see assigning seats in a college classroom, and it'd be a royal pain to enforce.  Name tags seem excessive.  I talk to students before class and that helps some, but so many of them rush in at the last second.  My university has several campuses and students ride shuttles between them so it's not unusual to have half the class arrive in the five to ten minutes after class starts and rush out again when it's over.

I even considered copying a method that I saw in the movie "The Paper Chase" where the professor put little photos (headshots) next to the students name on a seating chart.  However, it seemed a little creepy for a 50-ish professor to ask students for their photos, especially as my class enrollment is a good 75% female.

I thought about trying to schedule a time to meet with each of them individually.  Would that make me look like I'm one of those teachers who is trying to be their "buddy" and not their teacher?  I don't want that.  Nor do I want to look like a weird middle-aged male professor trying to meet with his female students alone.  I remind my students each class that I have office hours and am happy to schedule additional time to meet with them to talk about class material.  I even put a map to my office (it's very hard to find) on Blackboard for them, but to no avail.  I make a habit using the library and eating lunch on campus so students can come up to me to chat, but that only helps a little.

It's very frustrating to me as I want my students to understand that their education is important to me, and if I can't remember who they are it makes it look as if I don't care!

Ideas?  Suggestions??

Been there. And it's worse when you teach multiple sections, each of them full.

(Along similar lines, I'd like to hear pointers for pronouncing names correctly upon calling roll on the first day of class. Flagship U had a substantial influx of Eastern European students when I was a TA there, so I'd get names of thirteen random consonants surrounding a single, exhausted vowel. The occasional “D'Amico” or “Lopez” came as a palpable relief.)

I had a similar experience with faculty when I left Proprietary U for the cc. Deans are relatively public figures on campus, and in a low-turnover environment, a new Dean is immediately an object of scrutiny. But I'm awful with names, and suddenly had to learn hundreds of them. It was probably a solid year before a day went by without somebody I couldn't identify greeting me by name. (“Hi, DD!” “Uh, hi!...”) And while some people don't take offense if you guess wrong, some really do. This is one of the many reasons that I couldn't be a politician.

I've heard of mnemonic devices for names, but I, for one, haven't had much luck with them. And yes, your instincts about photos are probably correct. Several years ago I had complaints from some female students about an older male professor who took pictures of all of his students. He assured me that he had always done that as a way to learn names, but as a favor to me, he agreed to stop. (I couldn't get past the 'ew' factor, myself.)

It's not unheard of to have individual meetings with students, but if you do, try to pick a relatively public place and keep the meetings short. (In my TA days, I used a snack bar on campus, and I always picked a table surrounded by people.) Of course, that doesn't work as well if you have multiple sections, but for one, you might be able to get away with it.

Since I'm manifestly unsuccessful at this, I'll use a lifeline and ask my wise and worldly readers to help out. Wise and worldly readers, have you found reliable, non-creepy ways to learn students' names?

Good luck!

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

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