A sea of faces

Posted by September Blue Sunday, 28 September 2008

65 new students this semester. The people in Room Bookings, who have had it up to here with the department and have placed the secretaries on an official warning, say the rooms are not too small; those rooms all have a capacity of 20, and 16 students plus one tutor does not equal 21. But the people in Room Bookings determine room capacity on the assumption that tables will be laid out individually and facing the front, students sitting in rows, and that isn't the way most of us want to teach.

Incidentally, who knew that Room Bookings could put people on an official warning? This is troubling.

Here's how I want the rooms set out: tables in a circle or a horseshoe or a big central block, students sat round the outside. They should all be able to see me, and they should all be able to see each other as well. It's not a lecture, it's a discussion, etc. But with the bigger class sizes, the people at Room Bookings have allocated our classes to teaching rooms in a science building, and here all of the tables are laid out in rows, facing the front.

Room Bookings will not agree to lay the tables out 'boardroom style', as I have learnt it is known, 'just for the Arts people.' What, you people can't teach if they're facing you? Babies.

So some of my colleagues have given up, and run tutorials like lectures, all the students sat in rows facing. Some of them get the students to sit in the aisles between tables, balancing notepads on their knees if they can't reach a surface, so that everyone can be seated in a circle even if the tables aren't. The rest of us ask the students for a hand moving the tables into one big block in the middle. And this works okay, except now the rooms seem really crowded, and late students have to inch their way sideways down a wall to find an empty seat, but, well, let's just call that added incentive to get here on time. That hurdle is jumped.

The next hurdle is remembering everyone's names.

I'm useless at recognising faces. They just don't seem to register to me in a way that lasts once they're out of sight. It is one of my ongoing fears that one day I'll be the sole eyewitness to a terrible crime, and I'll be sat around with the police artist and the photofit people, and they'll say 'So, the murderer looked straight at you for ten minutes when you were three feet away...', and I won't be able to do any better than 'I think he had hair.'

I think most of my students have hair. I also think most of my students are teenagers living away from home for the first time, and thus cannot be guaranteed to have the same colour, style, or quantity of hair from week to week. So there goes my usual method.

I know some people don't think it's worth the effort to learn all the students' names, especially when you've got, say, more than thirty in a single semester. But I teach much better, and they get much more out of the class, when I can recognise them as non-interchangable individuals. I've asked them all to sit in the same places for the first couple of weeks, and begun the first class with an introduction exercise they have to say something about what they've done or what they like, and my seating plans detail name/hair/memorable thing for each student, because I don't like the idea of any of them seeing my notes for the other ways I remember who they are (blonde hair, straight, longish - black-rimmed glasses - giggles a lot but shy, looks at tables when she talks - possibly going out with scarf boy who sits on left?). And I have the library system, with its neat passport photo of every student on their record. So I'm trying, and I've told the students I'll have their names perfectly by the start of week 3.

But sixteen all packed into a little classroom with no room to breathe - for now, they're still just a sea of faces.


  1. Autumn Song Says:
  2. Who'd have thought Room Bookings could put you on an official warning! It is, indeed, troubling. But what does it mean, though? "If you bug us one more time we will not allocate English (a particularly large department) any rooms at all?" Surely it's an empty threat?

    I sympathise with the table arrangement issue - it has happened to me before and it's very annoying. It is, however, what comes from timetabling being done centrally by those who have absolutely no idea what happens in seminars / tutorials where conventional "teaching" (listen to me whilst I write stuff on the board for you to copy) does not happen. To thei way of thinking, 16 people will fit in a room for 21. Of course they will. But that's becasue they are thinking of desk space, not people. Uni timetabling would be much more efficient (in department usefulness terms) if they started thinking about students and staff as people, not numbers.

    Good luck with the names! I once wrote in my notes to identify students "looks a bit like Robin Hood". I didn't really want him to see that one. I agree though - it's important to learn students' names. It does seem to encourage them to respond better in seminars when they know you can identify them, and sometimes you need to know if there are problems with a student that the office staff ask you about / if a student contacts you with a problem / if they email you about anything at all! Yes, it can be hard to learn lots of names. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't learn them. I expect them to learn my name; it's not unreasonable for them to expect me to learn theirs. I suspect this goes back to my point about them (and us) being people.

  3. Anonymous Says:
  4. I also have complete sympathy with you on the tables front - I tell my student that furniture moving is an important transferable skill... On names, I often ask them to write their names on a sheet of paper instead of me taking a register, and when the sheet returns to me I have a crib sheet of names in the order in which they're sitting. It means that I sometimes pause and look at the sheet before asking someone a question, but at least they can tell that I'm trying!

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