Anxiety, excellence, and reflexivity in the classroom

Today we have a new guest post. Last month Roxani Krystalli published an article on teaching and learning reflexivity in the world politics classroom. In this blog post, she discusses some of the anxieties that arise when embracing reflexive pedagogies and articulates her hopes for what reflexive inquiry with and about the natural world may make possible.

A few weeks ago I gave three lectures as part of the required introductory module to international relations that all 500+ students who study this subject must enrol in during their first year. Colleagues in the department, which draws together scholars from a range of disciplines, co-teach this module, meaning that we are each responsible for a themed week every semester. My lectures centred on the theme of ‘the environment,’ prompting students to reflect on what counts as environmental knowledge, what forms this knowledge takes, how we can meaningfully get to know our environments, and what all these forms of knowledge might have to do with political action.

I find it difficult to teach—not just ‘about’ the environment, but about anything at all—in the abstract. I prefer teaching ‘with,’ rather than ‘about.’ Teaching with the environment, in this instance, involved making offerings of different ways to ground ourselves in place as teachers, students, and learners. My favourite offerings are questions, each paving one path for engaging with the world. I asked the students to recall how they began to learn the trees, birds, or clouds near their home when they were children. I asked them to consider whether they would recognise the geese that regularly fly over St Andrews, or how they might get to know the flowers that bloom here, even if they did not know that the birds honking overhead were pink-footed geese and even if they could not name the specific flowers.

The birds honking overhead were pink-footed geese

Beyond recalling and considering, I invited students to spend some time outside, noticing, wondering, paying attention. They could, if they wanted, download an app that helps them identify birdsong, or name plants, or they could take a walk with someone who knows this environment well. They could focus on one sense over others: What does West Sands beach smell like? I encouraged them to think about the environments that are dear to them here in St Andrews and then to focus on getting to know one aspect of those environments. What would getting to know the trees look like, and how might that change their—our—education and experience of politics?

Many students are at once intrigued and overwhelmed by these offerings, which I consider to be part of an approach to teaching and learning that encourages reflexivity, though I am more interested in the practice than the label. The fascination with the world beyond the classroom is perhaps obvious, and the overwhelm stems from realising how little knowledge (let alone language) some of us have for the features of that world. How did a politics and international relations education come to be devoid of geese honking, and where might we begin to put the honks back in?

When I consider this question, I bump up against the anxieties of performance. It helps, yet again, to be specific. Much inquiry – in the Q&A following lectures, in tutorials, in Office Hours – begins and ends with assessments: “Can you help us answer the set essay question for the team-taught module?” “If I want to argue X, would that be okay? Would that be enough?” The question at the heart of such inquiry is “how can I do this well?”

This is a question I know intimately, and one I simultaneously worry about. I worry about the questions that this form of inquiry displaces, the birds we do not hear when we direct anxiety towards the essay instead. The anxieties of excellence were drilled into my own encounters with educational expectations, starting at too young an age. When teaching students for whom the question of “how can I do this well?” is an urgent one, I feel a sense of empathy—and a simultaneous desire to set this question aside, or at least to consider it alongside the other questions that make so many of these students (and their teachers) anxious in this era: How can we live together and enable life amidst so many sources of violence, grief, and threat to life?

It is possible to carry the overwhelming (there is that word again!) magnitude of this question alongside worries about performance. (Telling someone not to worry about performance or excellence is akin to telling a distressed person to “calm down,” a plea that rarely has the desired effect). My hope is that reflexive offerings in the classroom—invitations that ground people in their environments, in their bodies and senses and relations—widen the scope of what we notice and direct attention and care towards. Locating ourselves in place and in the body, in the senses and in the world, may actually broaden, than relieve, sources of anxiety. But it also offers us potential forms of companionship and ways of sense-making that can make it possible to imagine different ways of living and relating in an aching world.

Roxani Krystalli is a Lecturer at the School of International Relations at the University of St Andrews. She is currently the co-Principal Investigator of a research project on the politics of love and care in the wake of loss.

Is it in the assessment criteria?

I zoomed into an excellent QAA event this week on implementing racially inclusive practice in assessment, based on a project at University of Leicester, partnering with Birmingham City University and University of Wolverhampton. I’d very much recommend that you have a good look at their report in detail. The take-home for me was that that whilst an inclusive or decolonised curriculum and role models are incredibly important for engagement and for inspiring students, particularly racially minoritised students, if you want to tackle race awarding gaps, the solution is pedagogical.

Their approach is deceptively simple: they focused on making sure that the hidden curriculum is made visible for all students and the tacit is made explicit, that students understand exactly what they have to do to succeed, with no guessing games involved, with clear documentation of what is required, and that all assessment criteria are clearly and transparently explained with examples of what good or less good work against those criteria would look like. One of the staff who had implemented the intervention very disarmingly said that he felt a bit embarrassed that he and his colleagues hadn’t been doing this already! He also said that although there was some initial resistance because of worries about ‘spoonfeeding’, the improvement in the students’ work that he saw and the way they engaged allayed most of those fears. They found that by doing this, they could reduce awarding gaps significantly, improve student enjoyment and confidence, and also improve staff experience of teaching and assessing!

There is a lot to learn from in the report. Personally, I’ve already thought a lot about assessment criteria over the years, in an attempt to be inclusive, yes, but also because I just wanted to communicate with students what I wanted them to do, so they would learn better and I could read better work when assessing. As a less experienced teacher, I realised that I was marking work down for not doing things that I had never taught or told the students to do – which offended my sense of justice. But I knew I did want the students to do those things (such as make a coherent argument, evaluate evidence, use examples, write for an audience, use appropriate referencing), so it got me to thinking about how I might teach those things in the context of a disciplinary and substantive module. I came to the conclusion that having transparent criteria and spending some time making sure that everyone understands them would help me communicate what skills I wanted to see and how they might develop them. It turns out to be a practice that serves all students – not just those who have been previously disadvantaged, but also the ones who keep doing pretty well, but don’t know why.

As we know that tutors are often looking for different things in their students’ work, it usually doesn’t work in a discipline like ours to have generic or departmental criteria. It is an incredibly useful exercise for you, as a tutor, to sit down and write out what it is you are looking for in students’ work. This helps clarify expectations for me and helps me think about what and how I will teach. When team-teaching, working with other tutors to clarify not only what the assessment criteria are but also what they mean in practice is extremely useful for making sure that teaching and marking are fair and consistent. And working with students to help them understand marking criteria doesn’t so much help them ‘tick the right boxes’ in a spoon-feed way, but, much more importantly, understand what skills they are learning and why.

For my current module, the assessment is a portfolio, and the assessment criteria are as follows (although I do allow students to negotiate them, which I won’t dwell on here but will come back to another day):

  • Depth of understanding of how politics and power are shaped by, and shape, the natural world
  • Ability to weave together ideas from the module into your own coherent text
  • Depth and originality of critical evaluation of your own relationship with the natural world
  • Ability to argue for your perspective on how nature should be governed or cared for, by whom and in what ways, including use of reasons and evidence
  • Appropriate selection of multimedia on the portfolio
  • Ability to write appropriately for a particular audience (please specify: eg visitors to an exhibition, policy-makers, everyday readers of narrative non-fiction)
  • Creativity of your work on the portfolio
  • Evidence of learning and development over time in the module
  • Depth of critical engagement with the module materials and readings
  • Extent of additional research and further reading
  • Craft of writing, including readability, spelling and grammar
  • Accuracy of bibliographic materials

I like the approach of starting with a noun plus preposition, like ‘depth of’ or ‘ability to’, because it demonstrates that these are skills one can be better or worse at in a qualitative sense. Thus, this is not a box-ticking exercise for students but rather an invitation to engage in deep and dialogical reflection on what, for example, the ‘ability to argue’ or ‘appropriate selection of multimedia’ really looks like in practice.

It’s very important not to stop with listing the assessment criteria, of course, but rather to make them the centre of an ongoing conversation. Here is my top tip: every time a student asks a question about the assessment, or about what ‘good work’ might look like, I bring it back to the assessment criteria. So, let’s say they ask, ‘does my portfolio need to be consistent week by week?’ I will say, ‘Is that in the assessment criteria? No. So, I won’t be looking for that. If it’s something you want to learn, that is, how to create your own consistent style, that’s great – you can do so and add it to the assessment criteria for your self-assessment. But it’s not necessary from my point-of-view.’

Here is my top tip: every time a student asks a question about the assessment, or about what ‘good work’ might look like, I bring it back to the assessment criteria.

Or let’s say they ask, ‘Can my writing be more personal?’ I will say, ‘Is it in the assessment criteria?’ This is a longer conversation – the answer is, yes, I am asking them to give an account of their relationship with the natural world, so more personal writing in the first person is clearly appropriate. However, if they are using part of their portfolio to write for policy-makers, this can lead to a deeper conversation about what sort of writing, evidence and argument a policy-maker might be interested in. Distinguishing these different crafts of writing and talking about when they are appropriate, or not, is much more useful for learning than just prohibiting one of them without explaining why.

Other ways of getting students to engage deeply with the assessment criteria might include:

  1. Guided marking exercises where students mark examples of work with reference to the assesment criteria. Your aim here is to get them to focus on the criteria and not make the sorts of vague comments (‘this was not well structured’) that they have probably experienced themselves at times.
  2. Peer feedback where the focus is on giving each other feedback according to one or more of the assessment criteria.
  3. Formative feedback from the tutor where they have to tell you which criteria they want feedback on. (I have a form and they can’t have their feedback unless they tell me which criteria they are particularly interested in.)
  4. Self-assessment where students have to tell you how well they met the criteria, and where they could have done better.
  5. Any other discussion with examples of the criteria and what they mean, preferably iteratively, so they can improve over time.

Summative feedback should also, of course, refer constantly and closely to the assessment criteria. But by that point, this is just an exercise in demonstrating that you could be trusted to do what you said you were going to do. To return to the QAA discussion on racially inclusive criteria, the return of summative work should not be an opportunity to say: ‘Ta-DAH! This is what you should have done.’ What the students should have done should be clear right from the get-go, or else how can they learn how to do it?

The secret(s) of happiness

On Friday I took my class to the beautiful Chelsea Physic Garden to learn about queer ecologies as part of my Politics of Nature class. (One student said: ‘I can’t believe that we’ve been reading about queer ecologies this week and then the tour we did here was all about queer ecologies too! What an amazing coincidence!’ Thus was the line ‘anything that happens in this class that causes you to learn probably did not happen by accident’ in next year’s syllabus born.)

After the outdoor class itself, I told students I would park myself on a bench and they were welcome to come and have a chat about anything at all and ask any questions about the class, the readings, the rest of the module or whatever they wanted. One pair of students sidled up to me and said, ‘You always seem so happy! Can we interview you and find out your secret?’ So they did. Their hypothesis – that I spend a lot of time outdoors – was a good one. It’s certainly true that I was grinning from ear-to-ear all afternoon in the Chelsea Physic Garden (and so were most of the students most of the time), whereas in a timetabling meeting earlier in the day, I was a bit less joyful. The conversation about happiness developed in lots of directions, though, ending up in a long discussion about whether there is such a thing as ‘human nature’ and how far practices of ‘self-cultivation‘ are important for politics.

This got me to thinking about how far happiness is a skill and, if it is, is it a skill we can deploy in our teaching? And is it a skill we can teach to others?

Happy students in the Chelsea Physic Garden

The students were correct – I am a pretty happy person, at least at this point in my life. I wonder what exactly it was that they noticed and were responding to, though. I think they can probably tell that I enjoy teaching them, chatting to them, being outdoors (or indoors) with them, hearing their ideas and trying out my own in their company. They were probably picking up the fact that I smile a lot, that I interact with them informally, that I am friendly, warm and open. That I have a sense of humour – I laugh at their jokes (when I understand them) and enjoy things that are silly or ridiculous. I am guessing that they find me enthusiastic about both the subject material we are working with and about them as people, their own interests and enthusiasms and jokes.

Mostly all this comes pretty ‘naturally’ (or automatically) to me, but that’s not to say that some days it isn’t a bit of an act. We all have an act that we do when we’re teaching, right? And mine is often joyful enthusiasm. It tends to work, probably because it goes with the grain of who I am and what I believe. It’s important to me that students trust me, and each other, and enjoy the work, so they’re not scared to make mistakes. I believe that we learn best when we feel relaxed, safe, even joyful. That learning takes place in communities and emerges out of strong relationships. And, as a question of values, I want to try to disrupt hierarchical relationships where I can. I also – with a nod to Jennifer’s post last week –  really want students to do the reading because they want to, because I have conveyed to them emotionally and viscerally how much I love this work in order to intrigue them and get them interested in finding out more. Therefore I can draw on the skill of happiness – if that is what it is – to get the class to go the way I want it to and bring the joy of learning to us all.

I know some people really worry about inhabiting an informal persona in the classroom, and there is certainly no one way of teaching. It’s always going to be a case of whatever works for you. But if you are formal or reserved – perhaps insisting on Dr Surname rather than your first name or trying to avoid any emotional connection with students – because you are afraid that warmth and friendliness will breed disrespect, I would suggest that you could experiment with finding other (better?) ways of drawing your boundaries, if you want. Although I am in many ways a ferociously serious person, as a woman of short stature, casual attire, with my LGBTQ+ lanyard always on display, curly hair that generally will not be ruled, the ghost of a Northern English accent, a friendly and smiley demeanour, and a sense of humour, I am relatively vulnerable to being underestimated and even mansplained at on first meeting. Though usually not by students and it doesn’t usually happen twice. As my brilliant colleague, Emily McTernan, explains people are generally pretty good at negotiating these sorts of microaggressions and passing acts of disrespect – and it seems to me that if we are acting, speaking and living with a sense of ease and joy, we are all the better at those negotiations. Power is always there, of course. Students are humans and therefore some won’t behave very well, or even indulge in abuse, and the people on the end of all that are, of course, the same people who are always on the end of abuse and micro-aggressions. Still, do we want that behaviour to be the thing that sets the tone for everyone else? Or can we push back firmly and confidently on nonsense precisely because we cultivate strong relationships and connection? There’s only one way to find out and that’s to try out a range of repertoires until you find the one that suits you.

Happiness is looking closely at a toad

But how do we develop and expand the range of emotional repertoires we can draw on?

Another disclaimer first. Whilst I am not the most privileged person in the world, it’s certainly true that the main reason I am happy a lot of the time is because of strokes of good fortune far too numerous to count. To put it very bluntly, a lot of life’s problems that really make people miserable can be solved by money and autonomy, and, whilst far from wealthy, like a lot of academics who have won the lottery of a secure, full-time job in the UK, I live a nice life. I’ve also been lucky so far in terms of my own health and, by and large, that of the people I love. Such a lot of good luck sometimes feels unbearably fragile. It is also almost embarrassing to admit to, in a world so broken. But as the inspirational Roxani Krystalli reminds us, people who are in pain do not ‘want others to live lives devoid of joy or to tell stories exclusively about suffering’. ‘Joy,’ she tells us, ‘is not a threat to peace’ but rather ‘animates resistance’ to war.

But lots of people are lucky – even luckier than me! – yet don’t seem that happy. So, what do I put it down to and can it be learned and taught? Well, at different points in my life (some in childhood and some embarrassingly recently!) I know I was taught some things that I suspect contribute to the fact that I’m usually in a good mood. I was taught to love music, nature, gardens, stories, art and comedy. I was taught to notice the little things, to look carefully, to feel grateful for small blessings and mercies, to plan for the worst but hope for the best. I was taught that to look forward to something, and then to remember it, is almost as good as experiencing it. I was taught a sense of wonder, curiosity and awe. I learned that there is no such thing as a guilty pleasure, no, not even singing loudly to dad rock.* I was taught that it’s important to work hard, to challenge yourself, to take risks, to keep practising, and I also learned to draw boundaries, to rest. I learned to try to see the best in people, to be more forgiving than judgemental, not to label, to value relationships, friendship, love. I learned that if you feel a negative emotion, you can notice it and allow it to play out, without thinking it will last forever. I learned that if you have talents, and you put them in service of other people, then you will have more yourself. (Pretty sure there’s a parable in there somewhere…) I learned that if someone gives you feedback, they are probably trying to help, and that you don’t have to agree with them, but they also might be right. I learned to try and live my values but also to go easy on myself when I fell short. I learned to say sorry when I was wrong (or even might have been wrong), to listen to other opinions but not to hatred, to accept a compliment or an apology gracefully, to raise an eyebrow rather firmly at a micro-offence or an attempt to take advantage. And, you will no doubt know, everyone** from the North of England is taught to make others laugh and to take pleasure in the absurdities of the world.

These are all things that I myself have had to learn. And by ‘learn’, I don’t mean that I can recite them as a set of rather pious*** rules for living. I mean I learned the only way we ever learn – the hard way – through embodied practice, through doing them, through making mistakes, through discussion, through feedback, through trial and error, through good teachers. And I muck lots of them up several times a day, just like everyone. But implicit in all of this is a conviction that people and their dispositions and behaviours are not static or fixed, that the future isn’t written yet, that we can always do better.

By and large, these practices are also all things that I teach. By this I mean that, alongside modelling them as part of my ‘teacher act’, I also take any opportunity to notice and promote discussion and meta-cognition in class when I see them playing out. As I explained in previous posts, I demonstrate to students that I want to have good relationships with them by learning their names and I facilitate and make space for conversations about what to do when we get things wrong, how we might go about learning, what sorts of practices and norms help and hinder our work together. I encourage them to value collaboration and relationships above competition in the way that I structure the assessment and opportunities for feedback (more on this in a future post). I create opportunities for them to make friends, if they want to. I push them to notice the details and to observe the world around them in lots of ways, from using social annotation to asking them to put pictures of the natural world on Padlet boards to getting them to write, or even podcast, about what they are noticing in nature. I give them readings that I myself enjoy and I ask them to relate their reading to their own lives and values, as well as asking them to write about how they live, and how they would like to. I push them to develop the skills they might need to put their talents in service to the world. I get them to read stories, to listen to music, to look at artworks and to produce their own if they want to learn how, or to get better. I trust them. I shower them with micro-affirmations whenever justifiable. I try to encourage them to trust themselves and each other. I do my best to say sorry when I get it wrong and to accept apologies and compliments quickly and with ease. I try to be kind but assertive when invisible lines of respect and courtesy are crossed. And if I can, if it isn’t unbearably weird, I narrate those apologies, those acceptances, those negotiations and boundaries, so they can see what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. Also, I don’t know if I’ve told you, but I’m pretty funny with the jokes.

I don’t think anyone learns to be happy from a ten week module, even if they were pretty lucky to begin with (and lots of our students aren’t, of course). Still, we might plant a seed, or water a seedling that’s already growing, or nourish a plant that’s going to bloom early and well. It all matters. And perhaps those same skills also teach us to deal with adversity, those times when we cannot be happy.

Happiness is only one emotion and there are lots of others in your classroom and in mine. I’d love to know what emotions you are dealing with in your teaching and whether there are any you have learned or try to teach.

*Today it was Eagles, since you are good enough to ask

**Approximate figures

***I sometimes accuse myself of piety, but my friends’ daughter, aged 6, was puzzled by this (once the concept had been clarified), saying, ‘But she can’t be pious! She’s cheeky!’ I’m glad I had the chance to explain this – I don’t want you getting the wrong impression.

‘We sit in silent judgement’: the ‘visceral rhetoric’ of classrooms

On Friday, it was the first seminar of the year for my Politics of Nature module – a couple of hours of pure joy each week in autumn term in the midst of a job with less teaching and more admin than there once was in my life.

I take very seriously the advice that we could all stand to take out a bit of content from our teaching. Less is more when it comes to deep engagement. I therefore allow my first seminar of the year to breathe a little, taking the opportunity to get to know the students, answer their questions in full and set the tone for the work that lies ahead. I have discovered that it really does pay dividends to do this. When I was a new teacher – piling in all my knowledge and all my enthusiasms on students so that it felt like a tidal wave – I used to suffer as much as the next person from the silent classes, where getting anyone to say anything was like pulling teeth. My classes these days – with hard-won experience – are much livelier and chattier, and students quite often tell me that they find them a place where they feel they belong and can talk openly.

There are lots of things I do that cumulatively help me achieve this – and no guarantees, of course, that one year things won’t go wrong. But that first session of the year that sets the tone is really an important one. I’m therefore going to tell you what activities I do and also some thoughts on my embodied pratice. The activities are easy enough to adopt, but I think it is the combination that makes it work.

As regular readers know, I start out by making a public commitment to learning everyone’s name. They have already filled in a questionnaire where they may have given me a pronunication guide, and I have already looked up their online UCL record, so I have seen a photo and I know their year and programme. We go round and introduce ourselves, perhaps with a bit of detail about why we’re in the class. The questionnaire (I may write more about this in a future post) will already also have helped me to get to know them a little, so if relevant, I can refer to that in passing in conversation. For example, ‘Oh yes, you’re the student doing your dissertation on farming? Great to have your expertise in the class!’

Next, I make sure that everyone understands what a ‘norm’ is (as there are many Politics students in the class, someone can usually give a really pithy definition by this point in their degree). And then, I ask them to find out the name of the person or people sitting near them and have a chat about what the norms have been in University seminars up till now and how useful those classroom norms have been for learning. A lot of animated conversation and laughter usually ensures. Then we go back into plenary and we discuss those norms, how they feel and whether we want to carry on with them or do something new.

I want to stress now what this activity isn’t. It is not an exercise in crowd-sourcing or agreeing ‘ground rules’. This may be an activity that works for you – in which case, as they say, carry on. But whenever I have tried this, it always ends up with a pious recitation of very nice rules, all of which go unobserved for the rest of term. My activity is something different. It is a conversation in which we really try to reflect on how it feels to be in a classroom, what is going on in everyone’s head, what our fears, frustrations and insecurities are, and how hard those things are to change.

Lots of things reliably come up in that conversation. One student this time said, ‘As everyone on my degree programme knows, in seminars, we sit in silent judgement.’ The whole room burst out laughing – clearly this hit a nerve. Students talk about not wanting to speak unless they are certain of the answer. About fearing the judgement of others if they get something wrong, even though they know that they are putting the brakes on their own opportunity to learn. About the constant worry of ‘cancellation’ even as they also fear that hate speech will not be addressed because of ‘freedom of speech’. About imposter syndrome and feeling stupid. About resentment towards the person who ‘sounds clever even if he [yes, they say, it’s usually a he] hasn’t done the reading’. There is so much going on under the surface of our classrooms.

The one thing I don’t try to do in these conversations is solve all this. And this is where the embodied practice comes in. I was listening today to a great podcast with Stephanie Larson who has written a book about ‘visceral rhetoric’ (which I am now so excited to read!). Her research is not on classroom dynamics, but she does use one classroom example to explain what ‘visceral rhetoric’ is. She explains that whilst a long tradition in the study of rhetoric assumes a deep commitment to argument and rationality, it is often embodiment and emotion that in the end enable listeners to come to judgement: ‘the body of your professor will tell you something before that person even speaks. You could imagine yourself in a large lecture: that person who walks on stage, stands behind a podium (if they can stand) is going to […] shape audiences’ perceptions of credibility, of how good of a professor this person is going to be.’ Whether we are lecturing or not (and I avoid it as much as I possibly can, which I may also write about another day), students are looking to our ‘visceral rhetoric’ to set the emotional tone of the classroom experience, to decide if they trust us, to enable their own effective practice of visceral rhetoric to emerge.

So, what I do is try to be relaxed, open and calm as they tell their stories about classroom norms. I really listen. I don’t fill every pause, but let the silence sit as the feelings and the courage to speak bubble up slowly. I try to display warmth and understanding. I sympathise. I smile and laugh with them. That laughter is incredibly important, actually – the public, joyful, communal, and embodied acknowledgement that we do some ridiculous, self-defeating things because we’re scared or judgemental or both. I don’t come up with rules or even many suggestions, though I do ask questions like, ‘And is that a helpful norm?’ or ‘How would it feel if we didn’t do that?’ or ‘Will we try to do something else in this classroom?’ I do my best to show that I understand it’s complicated. We can’t sort this all out rationally with a set of rules. We have to work at it slowly and patiently, as a set of embodied practices.

Usually – as this year – we end with a mutual commitment to do our best. To say no to hate speech but yes to getting things wrong. No to shunning but yes to challenge. No to holding forth pointlessly and yes to questions. No to fear and yes to learning. There will be times it won’t work, when it will be hard, when someone will go away from my classroom feeling miserable or wishing they had said something or nor said something, or deeply angry with me for correcting them. There will be plenty of times when I kick myself for insensitvity and occasions when I front up and apologise. The point is not to get it perfect, but to notice when we don’t and to keep going. I’ll let you know how it pans out this year. Meanwhile, feel free to give any of this a try yourself and let us know what happens.

My number one top teaching tip ever

Before I reveal my number one top teaching tip ever, I’m going to keep you in suspense for just a moment to tell you what my Politics of Nature class are doing this week. Don’t worry, it isn’t really a digression.

They are going out to find out the name of at least one plant.

Alarmingly, last year, quite a few of the students – who had opted to take a class on the Politics of Nature, don’t forget – had a lot of difficulty in naming any plants or other wildlife. When I asked them to ‘meet me by that silver birch over there’, a look of terror came into their eyes! One student asked me if buddleia and lavender were the same plant.

I’m not laughing at them and it’s not their fault – they were never taught how to differentiate between plants, so the world has ended up looking to them like a ‘green blur’.

We learned together that learning the names of plants is a political act: the world comes into focus in new ways. We start to become aware of the beauty, the detail, the nuance, the complexity of the world around us. We respect it and love it more, take care of it better. One student even made a wonderful podcast about the experience.

So, perhaps it is already obvious what my teaching tip is. But if not….


It is this: Learn your students’ names.

Depending on the context you work in, you may find this piece of advice obvious or even strange. When I was studying Czech for my undergrad, there were only three of us in the year, so it would have been most peculiar if my tutor, the language teacher, the librarian and all the other students hadn’t known my name. If you are in this fortunate position, you can carry on thinking about the plants.

On the other hand, perhaps you are thinking that you can’t learn your students’ names. Your memory is too poor, you can’t pronounce half of their names, you are not too good with faces, you will get two students mixed up and embarrass everyone, you are too busy, too stressed and too tired, your class is too big. I completely understand this because I fall into all of these categories too.

Nevertheless. I promise you. If you want to be a great teacher: learn their names.

There are tricks you can employ. Your University system probably has photos of all the students in your class with their names in the record system. You can make it into a game and quiz yourself publicly at the start of class every week. You can send round a questionnaire asking them to provide a pronunciation guide. You can humbly ask them to keep correcting you and assure them that it will be worth it once you get it right and you really get to know them all. I have never had anything other than a warm response to the effort, even though I do often muddle two students up in the first couple of weeks of term. (I sometimes get someone’s name wrong even after teaching them for weeks – but then, my mum sometimes calls me by my sister’s name, so I think most people recognise that this is just being human.) You can even make a prize available for any student who can get all their classmates’ names right on a quiz by the middle of term, thus roping everyone into the game.

The biggest class that I have learned all the names of had 80 students in it. If you never teach a group smaller than 80, then you are really broadcasting rather than teaching, and perhaps different rules will have to apply. But when I have taught larger groups (up to 500 some years), at least in my department, we did some teaching to the whole cohort in lectures, but we also had small group teaching in classes of 20, and Teaching Assistants worked alongside us. In that case, I would learn the names of my small classes and I would ask the Teaching Assistants to learn the names of theirs. So, as a student, someone on the teaching staff knew your name. Yes, I know that your TAs are busy and stressed and not paid enough. Still, they are the teachers of the future, so why would you deprive them of the top teaching tip ever? I still get emails from erstwhile TAs thanking me for making them do it and assuring me that they still learn all the names now. It really is that good a tip.

Once you know someone’s name, you can differentiate them from the others. You will, almost without realising it, learn a bit about them. You will be able to ask them really relevant questions and tailor your teaching to what matters to them. You will inspire their respect and loyalty because they are in relationship with you. You will, at least if you are anything like me and my former TAs, be happier, because you are developing an understanding of the people who surround you – in all their wonder and individuality and diversity – and you are seeing what your work as a teacher is doing for them as individuals over time. If someone starts behaving discourteously, or in a way that interferes with their learning, or someone else’s – as Jennifer described last week – asking them by name to stop and having a conversation with them as someone they know and trust is much more likely to help. And also makes them less likely to do it in the first place, I tend to find. Once students realise you know them, they will seek your good opinion, knowing that you will remember it was them and not someone else.

It breaks my heart a bit how many students tell me that I’m the only teacher at Uni who has ever learned their name. At UCL, we take attendance. I once sent the register round and got it back to discover that someone had been signed in despite self-evidently not being there in the room. This brought home to me that students take it for granted that their tutor doesn’t know their name or whether they are in the class or not. This is incredibly sad. You can imagine how I hammed up my response(!): explaining how shocked and offended I was that students would blatantly falsify the register for their friend in front of my nose, how hurtful it was that they would do something like that even when they knew how hard I worked to learn their names and knew fine well who was there and who wasn’t. The absent student was in my office before the end of the day to say sorry. We were all fast friends again very quickly once apologies had been proffered, but it stuck with me as a worrying example of how cynical and thin the average classroom relationship has become.

In a world of metrics, big student numbers, loneliness and isolation, knowing your students’ names is a political act. It shows them they matter. It shows everyone involved that teaching matters. It is by far the most important thing I will be doing in the first couple of weeks of term.

What are your top tips for remembering and pronouncing those names?