Contemplative pedagogy: Names

Naming things is an important concept in linguistics.  People have cute, or crazy, or insulting names for people and things in their lives, and that is an area for productive study. Grandmother names are my present fixation — I am called Granna. I remember the struggle after 9/11 to find a name for the event that had just happened.  In the end, we gave up and just use the date of a unique event which falls outside of our comprehension.

In the classroom context, knowing students’ names establishes intimacy and dignity, lessening the distance between teacher and student. I have 20 students this semester, and it took me about two weeks to get everyone’s name right. Last semester I had 60 and that also took about two weeks, even if some of them were Chinese and their names were just sounds to me.

Michael Sandel, the teacher of the legendary Justice course at Harvard, author of a book by the same name, has around a thousand students in this classes.  He has an assistant pass the microphone to individuals, and before beginning the question-and-answer, he asks the student’s name, then continues, using the student’s first name. Though this is not true closeness, the moment of naming brings immediacy to the discourse.

Placards or name cards can be placed in front of the student so that a teacher can access the name without memorizing it. If you have access to photographs of the students, that helps. Memorization is made more difficult if the students switch seats or the seats are configured differently from class to class. This mixing up of seating avoids the formation of cliques, but makes it more difficult to memorize names.

Students sometimes work in groups, and if they are to make a report or otherwise present themselves as a unit to the rest of the class, it is amusing and bonding to have them choose a name for their group.

I get to know all of my students’ names (they inform me that this is rare, which shocks and upsets me), but when I run into them on campus the next semester or year I have forgotten them. I remember their faces and their papers, but not their names. Perhaps a psychologist or an expert on brain function and memory can explain that one!

EXERCISES:  Not exactly exercises, but a listing of aids:

Give yourself a couple of weeks to memorize names

Have students name their groups

In large classes either have the students announce their name or have a name tag or placard.

Use photographs to help memorize names


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