The student in the third row, the one who just raised his hand, what’s his name? Louis Beaulieu? No ... Louis Béliveau, I think. And that student at the back of the class, who never speaks, but who’s fidgeting in her seat ... It looks like she’s about to say something. What’s her name? Sarah, Sonia, Anya?
I've just seen the new Quebec film Tu te souviendras de moi (You Will Remember Me), and the story took me back 30 years. Adapted from a play by François Archambault and directed by Éric Tessier, it opens with a professor, played by veteran actor Rémy Girard, recalling the very first day of his teaching career. It's the start of term, and before the man launches into his lecture he makes a point of asking the name of each and every student in the class ... until he realizes he’s in the wrong room. I had to smile, and sad to say, it's one of the few times I did during the movie, because the professor, now retired, turns out to have Alzheimer’s disease. Girard gives a masterful performance, subtly conveying the unbearable pain that by turns frightens and seems profoundly inevitable to the old man: the pain of someone whose memory is gradually melting away.
The film took me back to my own beginnings in academia, because as a professor I always made an effort to learn the names of the students who came to my classes – at least, those who had something to say. No matter the size of the venue, whether a small seminar room or a large lecture hall, I'd make a point of learning five or ten names each time we met. In the end, the only students who didn't make it into my mental address book were the ones who kept silent, deliberately maintaining a low profile by never uttering a word.
Learning students’ names is something anyone who teaches can do, as long as the conditions are favorable – which is not the case when there are 500 in a class. Nor do all classes lend themselves to recurrent interaction or sustained conversation. And for one reason or another, some colleagues have great difficulty remembering names.
When you can, the benefits are immediate. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t wish to be recognized as a unique human being. To be called by your name in a class is to exist in your own right. It means being visible, entering a space where you cannot hide and cannot be excluded. Being addressed by name in class means becoming a participant in the conversation and, along with the other speakers, assuming responsibility for the discussion. This inevitably transforms the learning environment. According to my subjective experience, the students become more engaged in the classes where they’re addressed by name. Mutual trust is established more quickly. Participation in class is easier, exchanges more numerous, debate more respectful, discussion more inclusive.
There are many ways to accomplish this. You can call out names or take attendance – but those are practices from another era. You can invite each speaker to give their name before speaking, until you’ve memorized their name. Or ask each person to write their name on an index card and prop it up on their desk. Or (as you sometimes see in American movies) suggest that students always sit in the same place, and then draw up your own checklist noting their position in the class (with or without their photo). It doesn’t matter what technique you use. I still run into people I taught 20 or 30 years ago; I don’t always remember their names but most of them remember me. And mostly they remember the feeling they had, in a place where anonymity was left at the door: a sense of solidarity, responsibility, community.
The question is: what's the best way of getting to that point? Do you start with a first name or a last name? In French, my mother tongue, do you use the familiar “tu” or the formal “vous”? I began teaching when I was 24, and back then it seemed obvious to me: I was younger than several students in my class and wasn’t very sure of myself, so I opted for last names and using “vous”. The idea was to create some distance between my students and me, establish a power relationship, protect my fragile ego with a bit of linguistic armour – yes, almost as if I'd joined the military! With time, confidence and a less precarious professional status, as I got older I switched to first names, which are often easier to remember. But I never stopped using “vous.” Was I being old-fashioned or just polite? Well, it was simple: if I wanted my students to address me as “vous,” I had to show them the same courtesy. It has always struck as unacceptable when a teacher goes to great lengths to use “tu” with his students while dubiously trying to command the respect accorded a "vous".
The issue remains complex, as is the case every time human relations are involved. The use of “vous,” of “tu,” of names, first names and pronouns is part of what makes up our identity as people. It’s part of a context determined by age, sex and gender, power relations, socio-professional and cultural backgrounds, social class and the more-or-less official context in which the exchange occurs. Anyone who teaches should be interested in the many nuances of these usages, as well as their effect on the learning environment.
If you run into me on campus, do me a favour: just call me Daniel.
If you’d like to continue the conversation, please drop me a line.