Where Everybody Knows Your Name

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.