Three months ago, back at the beginning of my second semester as a teaching assistant at the University of Illinois, a student in one of my first-year composition courses raised a hand while I was taking attendance.
“You know,” he told me, after I had called on him and then surreptitiously resumed checking off names from my roster, “you’re the first instructor I’ve had here who bothered to learn your students’ names.”
I wish that this student’s comment, offered without prompt or explanation, had more to do with, say, my pedagogical prowess than it actually did. In fact, while the comment itself stuck with me in the months to come, I can’t say it was any great surprise that I was the first instructor who, in the student’s words, had “bothered.” Compared to most other Gen Ed courses at U of I, a class like mine, which caps enrollment at nineteen, stands out as a notable departure from the rule. Indeed, most students, if they interact with their professors at all, do so in lecture halls where the sheer number of fidgeting, note-scribbling bodies more or less guarantees the obscurity of any one person. It stands to reason, then, that a relatively tiny class headed by a bumbling, twenty-four-year-old instructor who knows every person in the room by name might merit a remark or two.
Nevertheless, just because it merits a remark from a student does not mean that the peculiarity of my position always strikes home for me. Of course, in my more reflective moments, I know (in an abstract sort of way) that the students I teach are accustomed to a baseline of anonymity when it comes to the university. But without regular reminders of that fact or personal experience to reinforce it, I generally do not view my praxis in the classroom as anomalous, relative to other courses my students might take. After all, who would expect nineteen names, dropped casually over the course of sixteen weeks, to make much of a difference to anyone?
Clearly, however, it made a difference to that student way back at the semester’s start. In fact, I imagine that most people have been trained to read something almost tragic in his abrupt observation that late January day: “You’re the first instructor I’ve had here who bothered to learn your students’ names.” Indeed, no matter how susceptible it may be to justification in a given context, anonymity, we believe, is not the appropriate state for a person. In most cases, anonymity is not even the appropriate state for a pet. To be named is to be recognized. And to be recognized is to be deemed worthy of distinction—as deserving of even that paltry labor involved in matching letters and syllables to a face.
In short, names matter to people.
It’s strange the kind of truths to which you sometimes need to be recalled.
But there’s maybe another point to this, too. A name by itself is only a promise. In being bothered, I signified to my students my recognition of their distinctiveness, certainly; but recognition must be continually renewed. Here, the hurly burly of life, of teaching in particular, tends to intervene. Indeed, I’ve found that the mundanities of teaching—the commenting and the grading, the lesson-planning and conferencing—the moments when, in other words, I’m behaving most like a teacher—quickly and quietly bleed a name of its import. Relegated to a to-do list, students whose names I know and whose personalities I appreciate turn into tasks to be completed and hurdles to be cleared. I tally absences. I manage rosters. In my worst moments, it scarcely matters that I’ve bothered to learn a name or two, or to get to know a student as a person with interests and concerns and worries. In my worst moments, it’s hard even to see past the tip of my nose without something—or someone—to pull me up short again.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.