Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A student by any other name

A week into the spring semester and things are going well, mostly. I have 80 students in writing-intensive classes, which is crazy, but yesterday I tested myself on their names and I knew more than half of them, which is better than usual. I knew all but four in the American Lit class and all but six in the morning film class; the afternoon film class, though, is killing me. Twenty-one students but only four women, and the men tend toward the strong, silent type. I don't want to suggest that all tall, quiet guys in baseball caps look alike, but if they don't do something memorable within the first two weeks, I'll never learn their names, which all seem to start with J: Josh, Jason, Justin, Jack. Two Matts and two Chrises in the same class and I don't know which is which. Maybe I'll just settle for "you in the baseball cap," but that would apply to two-thirds of my students.

My upper-level creative nonfiction class is easier: only six students, most of whom I've had before. That promises to be a really fun class. Today we're discussing "The Undertaking" by poet/undertaker Thomas Lynch, an essay that consistently knocks my socks off no matter how many times I read it, and we're working on using concrete details to make abstract ideas accessible to readers.

I've tried using concrete details to make my students' names more accessible to my mind, which is why I know about half of my students' names instead of fewer. I've been taking roll by making students answer a question rather than just saying "Here," and it helps. One day in the American Lit Survey, the class had read Mark Twain's "Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," which features three important characters: the unnamed narrator, Simon Wheeler, and Jim Smiley; for roll call, I made each student tell which of those three characters he or she would most like to be and why. It was illuminating, but I'm not sure I dare try the same thing tomorrow with "Daisy Miller." No one would want to be Daisy because she's dead, and, as Thomas Lynch reminds us, the dead don't care.

When I'm dead I'll stop caring about learning my students' names. Now, though, I'm still trying.

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