Maybe I’m showing my age, but I remember Beyonce before she went solo, when she was part of the Texas girl group Destiny’s Child. And I remember being struck by the idea of their chart-topping single, say my name. This 1999 song won two Grammys, pushing the idea that if you’re really focused on a woman, you’ll say her name no matter where you are, what’s going on, or who’s in the room. Who doesn’t say their name? Who’d rather call her “baby”? Someone who isn’t really present in the relationship, right?
As online teachers, the message of this song from the previous century is a good reminder. When in class, always say the student’s name when engaging with them. In most online college classrooms – the forum in which I have taught for more than 20 years – there are two main spaces for communication with students: discussion forums, which are public spaces; and assignment areas, which are private, shared only between me and the student submitting the assignment.
In both spaces, my first gesture is to always start with the student’s name. If I’m just writing to this student, a comma comes after it, but if I’m responding to the student’s idea and working to wrap up the rest of the class, I might start with the student’s name and a group greeting. For example: “Hey, Suzie and the team” or “Hey, Suzie and the people of group 2”. Although it may seem like a small step, the impact on students on the other side can be significant.
Students regularly say that they really enjoyed feeling like I knew them on an individual level. Of course, we all work to get to know our students as individuals, often even being able to spot their own quirks or writing tastes after just a few weeks of working with them. But how do students know this? Opening conversations with their names in public and private sends the clear message that you know who they are and that you are talking to them specifically.
Often students write in online discussion forums saying that their name in the official list is not the one they prefer. They might offer an alternate nickname that they prefer. In such cases, teachers need to establish a choice and a standard from the outset. Will you allow and encourage nicknames other than those on the list?
It’s a choice I tend to make based on class size, subject matter, and the experience of the writers. With graduate students, I generally prefer the less formal movement to allow or even encourage the learning of others’ favorite names in class. But in classes with undergraduates who might be newer to online learning and academia, I tend to use a note at the start of class that says we’ll all call each other by the names provided in our class list. Using these names, students have told me over the years, places them in that more formal classroom space where they develop a “student” persona working with peers and a facilitator – a space that can be so useful when working to remove staff emotionality from tasks such as writing and sharing thoughts in a public discussion space.
No matter the choice made, the nicknames or the class list, the motive is there: saying the student’s name for each interaction sends the clear message that you (a) know who you are talking to and (b) have a certain context and understand whose this writer is. In a face-to-face course, students expect to be named. Following this same tradition in an online environment fosters a sense of community by naming the individual in all speech acts, fostering a community of speech in which the teacher is clearly involved and focused on the individual members in the space unique and shared online class. .
The idea also translates into business, shared regularly in professional business coaching methods, including the 2014 Washington Post article “Career Coach: The Power of Using a Name” which leads by quoting American business mantra creator Dale Carnegie in support of the concept, while offering eight tips from an organizational psychologist to help readers remember nouns.
We strive to teach our employees to learn names because, as the article notes, “a person’s name is the greatest link to their own identity. Some might say it’s the most important word in the world for that person. Plus, research supports the idea, including a 2006 study that found it altered brain activity in positive ways.
In short, we are hardwired to recognize our own names in a crowded social environment, on the first day of a crowded face-to-face classroom and certainly in a shared online space in which the teacher works without facial cues or gestures. to establish a personal connection with the students.
In an online environment, we already work without the benefits of visual tools to use to communicate with our students. For the most part, typing is our only tool. Tapping each student’s name at each touchpoint serves to connect the student to the teacher’s voice. On the other side of the coin, typing that name also reminds the teacher of that student’s personal identity as imagined and symbolized by the individual’s name.
Stone Meredith teaches composition, literature and philosophy at the university level at Colorado State University Global, USA. She is the founder of the Clever Chicas Project, an open source project promoting cultural literacy through a series of educational initiatives.
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