This week, I ran into a student from 20 years ago. He clearly thought I remembered him perfectly, from his name right down to his minor. I didn’t. But as we talked and he revealed more about himself, I started picturing him with his hair parted down the middle and facial hair. Well, yes, I did remember him.

That brings me to how on earth do absent-minded faculty members ever learn the names of all the students in their classes? Some take photos and prepare (or cheat). Others use seating charts.

I write down descriptive physical features. I especially like hairstyles. This works fine except when everyone in the room has nearly the same ‘do. One semester it was the women with long blond curls. One fall, for the first man in the class, I wrote down “mid-part.” For the second student, I wrote down “mid-part.” For the third student, I wrote down . . . Well, you get the picture. Somehow over the summer all the young men in Minnesota had begun parting their hair straight down the middle.

You have no idea how delighted I was to have a carrot top sign up for my class.

There were other problems with my system, too. Three weeks into the semester, a blonde with long tresses became a brunette with long tresses. I didn’t recognize her!

And then there’s diversity issue. When I first began teaching at St. Thomas, there were very few students of color among the Norse and Irish. I’d have maybe one in a class and it was impossible not to know that one name immediately. Somehow it felt a little awkward for me, and I certainly worried that it was uncomfortable for my student. Of course, given all the other difficulties of being in a distinct minority, having your prof learn your name too fast may be the least of it.

Now St. Thomas is a more diverse campus and the singling out of the one student of color is not so obvious. Recently, I was delighted to have five women of Asian heritage in one class. It was great validation of our more diverse campus, except they ALL had long black hair. Couldn’t one of them have sported a bob, maybe a mullet, dyed a wide green streak?

Another challenge for my system is when one name has excessive popularity. Sometimes it’s a group of similar names. There was the year of the Tara, Lara, Sara, Cara. The time when six students in one class were named Matthew was okay, though. I could call on Matt and be confident of an answer.

Learning names is important. Naming each other connects us, makes the other real. In my early days here, classes were larger; learning names was more difficult. One day the effort became obviously worthwhile: on a teaching evaluation I read the comment, “I am a senior. Dr. Alexander is the first to remember my name.”

No one should have to live in the shadow, unknown and unnamed.

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2 Responses

  1. Mike, Dave, Diane

    We, the Physical Plant employees on the third shift at the Minneapolis campus, want to thank you for the extra time off at Christmas. It comes at a nice time of the year so many of us can go and visit our families out of state. Thank you.
    Santa and his elves
    (Mike Elwell, Dave Boguslawski, Diane Johnson)

  2. Tom King, W. St. Paul

    Susan…you have used many of the same tricks I have over the years.
    I go around the classroom when we first meet and ask each student to introduce and say something about themselves. I glean one or two unique things they say and try to form an association with each name. I then go around the classroom and repeat their names to them. It amazes them (and me, too, especially if I don’t make a mistake). Plus, since, many of my students are teachers, I tell them that this is a great way to connect with the students we teach or new friends we make.
    It works quite well for the course as I use their name every time I can. After the course is over, so are most of my recollections of their names.
    In recent years, I have taken a digital photo of the class and put the names of each student with their picture. That works well to jog my long-term memory.
    Some are amazing at these feats of recall: former St. Thomas President James Shannon could meet you briefly once when you were a freshman and then greet you as a senior, recall your name and parish. Hubert Humphrey was legendary at that too.
    Recognition and affirmation are two graces we all need to share with one another.
    Thanks for the fine addition to the Scroll!