How to Enjoy Face-to-Face Confrontations with Your
Students on Your First Day of Class
When I was a college freshman, most of my courses met in large
lecture halls. The professors stood in the front at their lecterns and
droned, whined, and moaned as they read their notes to us. As students,
we become dutiful stenographers, jotting down our interpretations of the
professorís intonations as if the printing press had never been
invented. Every few weeks, we spewed back these notes to get our
well-heard Aís, Bís, and Cís. Most professors didnít know my name and my
identity was more or less known to the graduate assistants who checked
if I (or a reasonable substitute, such as Denzel Washington) was sitting
in my chosen or assigned seat; usually Row E, Seat 11 (roughly, the
Well, prisoner E11 has grown up and now Iím a professor in a college
that has very few lecture halls. Most of our sections have no more than
35 students and except for a few professorial fossils, like Dr. X (You
know who you are; you old gasbag!), most of us have given up the old
chalk-and-talk, dictate and regurgitate routine. We want to engage our
students in dialogues other than our internal monologues and fantasies.
We assume that our students can and should read and write outside of the
classroom and the class session should be used for enhancement,
clarification, and expansion of assignments. To do this, we need to get
to know students as persons; each with their own faces and voices.
Except for terrorists, anonymity doesnít "make it" anymore.
I have more than 150 students per semester; how can I get to know
them quickly? As I psychologist, I know that visual memory is far
superior to lexical and auditory memory, so I use a very simple mixture
of high and low-technology. In the very first meeting of my class, I
have the students sign in by hand on a piece of notebook paper and I ask
them to jot down their names and their majors. I call their names and I
try to engage them in short conversations. I try to get a visual "fix"
on their faces and names. This isnít always that hard because we have a
good deal of diversity and I usually can figure out that Jung Kim isnít
blond and Sven Jensen probably isnít Latino. On the other hand, someone
like Susan Goldberg, an attractive Asian kid, may keep me guessing. I
know that like cocktail party introductions, these first acquaintances
might not stick in my memory; but itís a start.
For the final memory "glue", I take a high-technology path. In the
last ten minutes of class, I take a digital camcorder and I walk down my
classroom aisles and tape the students as I engage the in short
conversations about what I remembered them talking about in class. It
might be as simple as, "Youíre Steve Smith. Youíre a pre-law major;
right?" This only takes about five minutes. Finally, I turn my camera
off, go back to my office, and download the video into my computer. I
study the clips over and over until I have the names etched into my
noggin. If I see students on campus before our next class session, I try
to greet them by name and then I review the video just before our next
meeting. I can even burn the videos to disk for all posterity. Youíd be
surprised how well this tactic works in creating more effective and
personally rewarding class atmospheres.