4.0040 Addressing Students (77)

Elaine Brennan & Allen Renear (EDITORS@BROWNVM.BITNET)
Mon, 14 May 90 17:20:26 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 4, No. 0040. Monday, 14 May 1990.

(1) Date: Monday, 14 May 1990 1148-EST (15 lines)
Subject: Clausing on addressing students

(2) Date: Mon, 14 May 90 11:29:30 PDT (62 lines)
From: DONWEBB@CALSTATE (Donald Webb)
Subject: The last last names

(1) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: Monday, 14 May 1990 1148-EST
Subject: Clausing on addressing students

I'm surprised. As long as I can remember, I have resisted creating or
maintaining formal barriers between students and myself, and thus
attempt to learn their first names as soon as possible. Sometimes I
manage to learn last names as well. Nor do I discourage them from using
my first name, although few of them feel comfortable doing this. Am I
missing something? Is there an educational benefit to using last names,
etc.? I see it as a mater of style and choice, and am happy for Stephen
Clausing to follow his style -- and I hope he can respect my choice as

Bob Kraft
(2) --------------------------------------------------------------69----
Date: Mon, 14 May 90 11:29:30 PDT
From: DONWEBB@CALSTATE (Donald Webb)
Subject: The last last names

Call it superstition, but for twenty-six years I have made it a rule to
address students by their first names, using their family names only
when I have to.

While I sympathize with Prof. Clausing's reaction to students who say
they would prefer to be addressed by their last names (Humanist, May
10th), I've never heard such a request from my students, and I'm
surprised that he has. In fact, students have told me that they
appreciate my using their first names in class. It's a practical matter
more than anything else: they address each other by their given names
only, and my using their first names makes it easier for them to get
acquainted with each other.

However, I have another reason to use first names, whereby hangs a tale.
It is reminiscent of Vercors' short story "Le Cheval et la mort," where
one of the characters says that the anecdote he is about to tell is
obviously true because it has no ending, and one can always find an
ending for fictional stories.

When I was a teaching assistant at the University of Wisconsin--Madison,
we did not receive lists of the students in each section but packets of
hole-punch computer cards, each with a student's name on it. I found the
cards quite handy, and to this day I still write the students' names on
individual 3x5 cards in order to help me learn their names quickly, as
well as for other uses.

Anyway, I would normally go through each packet of cards before meeting a
class for the first time, if only to check for names I couldn't be sure
how to pronounce. This habit was especially helpful because we
assistants were officially encouraged to address students by their last
names, presumably to lend a little dignity to the classroom.

For some reason, in the semester beginning in January 1964, I received a
packet of cards too late for me to review before the first day of class.
That seemed unimportant; class cards did occasionally arrive at the last
minute, and it could hardly even be called an inconvenience to have to
read them cold. Greeting the class, I took out the cards and proceeded
to call the roll, little suspecting that I had been dealt the equivalent
of a royal flush.

The roll-call went routinely at first: call the name, match the name
with the face when the student responded, and then turn up the next
card, until: "Mr. Johnson?" "Here." Next card: "Mr. Kennedy?"
"Here." (Nervous smile to acknowledge the coincidence) Next card: "Mr.

That's all there is. Any ending seems superfluous. How did we react?
Outwardly, not at all, but if you can remember those times, you can
imagine... Johnson and Kennedy are common names, but Oswald is not; and
to turn up those three names, one after the other, with no others in
between, only a few weeks after that day in Dallas, felt somehow
retrospectively ominous.

That combination of names has never reappeared on my class lists since
then. But from that day on I have always called students by their first
names. It's friendly. It helps them to get to know each other. And I
always read the names silently, to myself, before calling the roll on
the first day of class. At least I'll know which names I can't
pronounce... And you never know when fate will deal you the ace of
spades. Call it superstition, if you wish...