You don't need to know a name to teach a student

August 31, 2007

With huge seminars now commonplace, we need to find a different way of valuing undergraduates as individuals, argues Kevin McCarron

Academics work too hard. Far too hard. Over the past 18 months, I have convened staff development seminars focusing on work-life balance in many universities. Some of my proposals to reduce academic workloads have been seen as radical. But nothing I have said has provoked as much discussion, scepticism and outright hostility as my suggestion that we should stop trying to learn our students' names.

When academics complain about their increasing workloads they usually blame external forces such as senior management, a Government-driven audit culture, diminishing resources and so forth. Very few are prepared to accept that their own dutifulness and lack of flexibility in the face of massive educational change are also major contributory factors. The huge expansion in undergraduate numbers, coupled with the modular system, means that it is now commonplace to teach more than 100 students in seminars each semester. For all but an exceptional few, it is impossible to learn their names as effortlessly as it was a couple of decades ago, when seminars with up to ten students were the norm.

Yet academics, who habitually think deeply but respond slowly, have made no adjustments in the face of a radically altered teaching and learning environment. So entrenched in academic practice is the assumption that we must learn our students' names that its actual value is never queried, let alone calculated. A typical defence is that it makes them "feel valued as individuals". However, in a mass education system we need to find other ways of assuring students that we value them as individuals, because the disadvantages of continuing this anachronistic practice far outweigh the perceived benefits.

Most academics manage only by employing such strategies as asking the undergraduates to wear labels or insisting they sit in assigned places week after week. Even then, the immense effort required to remember hundreds of students' names obviously adds enormously to our workload. Of course, this is not only work for the teacher. Few academics realise it, but once they have made it clear that they take the learning of students' names seriously, all their students are then forced in class to attempt to learn each other's names as well. Moreover, such demanding work is at its most intense in the opening sessions of a module, during the very time in which everyone's energies would be more usefully focused on the particular subject of study. In addition, many students, particularly mature ones, are aggrieved by such strategies; they feel infantilised and regimented - no way to begin a course of study in a university. They care less than academics realise; in fact, the issue is of much more importance to teachers than to students. When the number of undergraduates increased to the point where it became very difficult to learn their names, this was the point when the profession could have reasonably accepted that a personalised teaching environment was no longer viable. But academics love effort, particularly when they can argue that it is for the students' benefit.

Perhaps, though, it is not. Perhaps it is a form of control, an almost superstitious belief that assumes if the teacher knows the students' names then there will be no anarchy, no matter how many the numbers. It could also be seen as an attempt to persuade oneself that while, undeniably, the seminar groups are four or five times larger than they used to be, as long as the students' names are known nothing has really changed. But everything has changed.

Being able to learn the names of students needs to be seen as a highly congenial aspect of a very specific historically and economically determined learning and teaching environment, not as a totally indispensable, eternally essential precondition for "good teaching". The danger with this latter view is that the teacher is unlikely to see, or even to look for, any positive aspects to this anonymity.

I have noticed that students find it easier to disagree with one another when they do not know each other's names. There is nothing wrong with encouraging an atmosphere of intellectual detachment; one where the undergraduates can separate the idea or the intellectual position from the named individual who has proposed it.

Finally, perhaps the most important reason for abandoning this practice is one that goes to the heart of the academic enterprise. When we talk of "learning" our students' names, we really mean "remembering" their names. A university is the very last place where learning and remembering should be perceived as synonyms.

Kevin McCarron is reader in American studies at Roehampton University.

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