N is also for Naming

About a year ago I joined a local choir, and at my first session I was given a badge with my name on it – not just any old badge, but an individually crafted, hand-decorated small work of art. Everyone else had their own badge too. Having something with my name on that had been created and kept especially for me made me feel I was a valued member of the group. It meant I was held in people’s minds, even when I missed a session.

Now, we’re not suggesting you create a handcrafted name badge for each of your students, but the story illustrates how naming can engender a sense of belonging – a vital factor in motivating students to persevere at university.

Below we look at some tips and challenges when it comes to using students’ names, but first, let’s examine further why names might be important.

‘My name is my identity and must not be lost’  (Lucy Stone)

Naming is a universal practice. Names individualise people, contributing to personal identity, but they also classify them, thus contributing to social identity. Conversely, non-naming (that is, the avoidance of the use of names) could be said to contribute to depersonalisation, as can mis-naming.

‘She had got used to people mispronouncing her name but because she got a chance to say it clearly and the tutor stopped people rushing over it, she has got her identity back.’ (Ashton and Stone, An A-Z of Creative Teaching in Higher Education)

In our A-Z book, one of our characters, Yared, recounts a conversation with a fellow student where the student describes how helpful it was to play a name game at the start of her course and have the tutor spend time on getting the pronunciation right. Names generally are not translatable and honouring the original ways of saying them promotes inclusivity and respect for diversity.

‘Naming is a difficult and time-consuming process; it concerns essences, and it means power.’ (Jeanette Winterson, Oranges are not the only fruit).

In many mythologies, from Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea novels to ancient Egyptian folklore , knowing a thing’s true name bestows power. Similarly so in higher education, where asking for and using students’ names involves trust. When you give someone your name, you do so in the good faith that it matters and that they will at least attempt to remember it. A former colleague used to invite each of her students to share something significant about their name:

“I’m Daian. My mum wanted it pronounced ‘Dey-Anne’ but no one ever did.”

“I’m Reuben, but my friends call me Rubes. It means ‘Behold, a son!’.”

Trusting each other with such personal information, it seemed to me, created its own bond within the group.

Naming can also call a person or a thing into being, as illustrated, for example, by the Maori creation story, where the world is re-created with each telling and re-telling. For a university student who is struggling to make friends, and who may be feeling isolated and lost, hearing their name spoken aloud can recall them into existence and provide a reassuring reminder of their place in the world.

‘Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, And they’re always glad you came’ (‘Cheers’ theme song)

Common sense dictates that you’re more likely to return to a group in which you feel recognised and valued. Creating that environment from the start could not only lead to better attendance and retention on your modules but also provide initial support for students in terms of making social contacts and managing their mental health.

Here are some things you can do to develop such a space.

Be realistic. You can’t learn names in a 200-strong lecture in the same way you can with a smaller group (although you can encourage the students to learn the names of their immediate neighbours). However, even 200-strong cohorts break into smaller groups for seminars and tutorials.

Consider your timetable. If you teach a small number of groups over several sessions then you can build relationships with students, whereas teaching the same session over and over to 8 seminar groups on the trot, while it might save on preparation time, does not allow you much opportunity to recognise or remember individuals. Thoughtful staffing of courses therefore matters.

Use name games. An internet search on this topic will provide a wealth of ideas, and there is a particularly effective one described in our A-Z book. You can also use labels or photographic registers. Don’t be afraid to ask if you can’t remember a name – this makes it ok for others to ask too.

Set up a study buddy system where students are assigned to small groups and take responsibility for helping their fellow members to catch up if they miss a session. This encourages your students to look out for each other. Peer mentoring also helps here.

Comment on who’s missing when you take the registerI know X can’t make it today but what about Y? Has anyone heard from her? Where possible, welcome absentees back into the fold when they return, but avoid divulging personal information (asking publicly ‘How did the op go?’ is not only inappropriate and insensitive but could breach data protection laws).

Go beyond learning names and find out about your students’ interests, needs and goals too.

Asking a student their name, listening to it and using it creates a metaphorical ‘badge’ for that student like the one I was given in my choir. This process acts as a marker of identity, an exchange of trust and respect, a placeholder, a membership signifier and an acknowledgement of individual existence. It humanises what is sometimes in danger of becoming a depersonalised, performatised and marketised experience.

Naming thus has the potential to benefit not only students, but their teachers too and, ultimately one hopes, the academic community and society at large. How many of your students can you name?

Rachel Stone is a Senior Lecturer at Sheffield Institute of Education

This blog was originally published on the A-Z of Creative Teaching in Higher Education blog. Follow the blog at @AZofCTinHE