The rose may smell as sweet regardless, but names still matter. Image from wikimedia commons.

Some weeks ago, not for the first time, I received a compliment from a student that both gave me a little glow inside and flabbergasted me at the same time. There are clearly some things I regard as a baseline effort in the classroom that other people just don’t. Naturally, it’s gratifying when students recognize their tutor’s hard work. It’s also extremely lovely when they are appreciative enough to let one know. As I replied, it can be unexpectedly difficult to tell from the front of the classroom how things are being received by students. (Are they quiet because they’re listening and thinking hard? Or are they all secretly stifling yawns?!) Letting tutors know when they do something right is important because it helps them – at least in theory – to refine their practice.

On this occasion the student remarked that my commitment to teaching was evident in the fact that I could remember my students’ names. Names? The fact that this should be something worth complimenting a tutor on is, quite frankly, horrifying.

I know some people find names hard. I know some people have been teaching for an awfully long time, and a staggering number of names and faces have passed before them. For all I know, this student’s other tutors are all suffering clinical prosopagnosia. If that applies to you, you have my deep sympathy. But for myself, I look at it this way: you, the tutor, have to meet with these young people on a weekly basis for at least three months. You might have a number of groups, but probably no more than (in our system, at least) five groups of twenty or so. That’s one hundred people, give or take. If it’s not the first semester of first year, it’s reasonably likely that you’ve met some of them before. You also have (or at least, we have in my institution) the facility to print off a photographic roll. You have to lead these students in discussion, teach them, advise them, collect and assess their work and, determining whether they’ve taken on your advice, return it to them, and eventually sign off that you are satisfied that the final grade they receive is appropriate to their level of effort and achievement throughout semester… and you propose to do all of this without being able to identify them as individuals? I’m sorry, but words actually fail me…

What’s even more horrifying is that this experience turns out to be common. In a random poll of tutors in my department, all six were easily able to recall a moment in their own undergraduate years (at various institutions) when a tutor did not know their name, or the names of their class mates.

Names matter. Yes, OK, assessment might be best judged on an anonymous basis, removing the affective impulse to censure or coddle that might arise from being able to connect the written page with the personality behind it. But the work itself is produced by a person who is not an automaton. Anecdotally, students invest more in subjects when they sense there is a general vibe of being invested among the teaching staff as well, and I would be surprised if there’s no hard evidence to support this. Why should they care if you don’t? Something as simple as remembering names might be the thing that drives them to work harder at that essay, study more assiduously for that test. In short, the work, even if marked anonymously, likely benefits by being produced by a person who knows that you know who they are.

I suppose in that respect, remembering students’ names is clearly something worth commenting on. But on the other hand, this means that many people don’t bother with it, or it would be thoroughly unremarkable. All I can say is ‘please lift your game, people!’  It’s one thing not to be able to recall a student’s name when you pass them in the foyer a year later, and think ‘oh, yeah… I taught that guy in Renaissance 101’.  But when they’re in your class? Really?