The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Darling: the popular form of address used in speaking to a person of the opposite sex whose name you cannot at the moment recall"....  ...Oliver Herford.

Commentary of the Day - March 30, 2006:  Drowning in Jessicas.  Guest commentary by Beverly Carol Lucey.

Far be it from me to horn in on the very personal decisions parents make when naming their children.  Then again, could a wee bit of thought cross a mom's mind when trusting that the new little one will surely go on to gobble up a college education along with every bit of savings said parent can sock away?

This concern about child naming that I'm battling with doesn't impact an elementary school teacher quite as much, since they see the same tikes every day, all day, perhaps 20-25 of them.  It gets messier when students start changing classes and teachers in the upper grades, but most schools are smaller than most universities so teachers have a shot at establishing a relationship with a good percentage of young learners -- in the halls, in extra curricular programs, and in the classroom itself.

Then comes college and students from all over the country get swallowed like krill into the baleen maw of my large university.

A thoughtful instructor would like students to feel as much unlike a number as possible.  Being a freshman is a jolting experience; and, as a teacher of general education speech and writing, I want them to know that I know them at least a little.  Since college classes meet two or three times per week, they have less "face time" with me than with the teachers at their home town schools.

I know that African-American students seem to take a lot of heat and humor regarding names that seem unusual to a majority Caucasian faculty.  (Formica Dinette, get over here.  Chandelier, you too.) My complaint, however, is entirely WASPish.

I'm drowning in Jessicas.  Last semester I had at least two in each of five sections, then two more Jessicas came my way after late registration.  Fast on the very high heels of The Jessicas were the Amandas.  The Amandas had a weird thing going, in that most of their last names began with a W.   Amanda Williams, Amanda Wiley, Amanda Whitney, Amanda Walker, and Amanda Abbott.  Thanks go out to the Abbot family.  Every section held at least one Tiffany and one Amber.

The gentlemen were not packed off to our school with much in the way of unique names, either.  They took their seats, all bright eyed and present on that first day, when I uncovered the Y chromosome version of Thwart the Aging Instructor.   Most of them were Matthews.  If their names were not Matthew or Nick, then the rest of them skipped over their first name entirely and insisted that they "go by Tyler," even if their middle initial suggested otherwise.

I was hopelessly lost.  It lasted for three quarters of the semester, and there were still days when I was looking for Jessica.  No, not that one.  The other one.  The Jessica who sits behind Nick and next to Tyler.  I should say that the racial breakdown in every case was about 50-50.

You cannot imagine how pleased I was with the students who came to me with a special name of their own.

I'd like to thank Shakira's mom, Cordia's grandmother, Cedric's family, and will treasure the folks who named their daughter after a water filtration system -- Britta.  On the very first day I learned the name of the young woman who was named for the medical center in which she was born -- Kaiser.

Our university is growing rapidly and administrators are onto a simple math equation: if we just change the number of students allowed in a section from 20 to 27, we won't have to hire as many new lecturers.  Result?  Fewer opportunities for students to make themselves known in class discussions, fewer papers assigned to assure instructor sanity, especially when some are saddled with five sections of writing, fewer people for students to reach out to for recommendations.

An audience with the administration, eager to hear the thoughts of a lowly non-tenure track teacher, or a clump of us chanting the same mantra, is unlikely to bear fruit.  "Who does that caryatid* think she is, telling us we aren't being fair to students and staff.  Humph."

This semester I got a little smarter.   It happens.   I told everyone of my classes that I had "Namesenheimers" and therefore was a 'special needs' instructor.  Their first homework would be to create a nameplate that they would use every day in front of them, just like the UN delegates.  The more ornate, the more credit.  The more visible and easy to read, the more credit received.

In general, it has worked.  The signs are cheerful.  I don't waste minutes fumbling over identity theft.   Each section that has some variety of Casey, has a name plate.  Kaycee, KC, and Cayce are all present and accounted for, male and female.  Speaking of which, this semester two Tylers and one Michael are women.  So is Tommy.  She's been to Iraq.

*Caryatid is a nice name.  Anyone want to try that one?

© 2006 Beverly Carol Lucey.
Beverly Carol Lucey is a freelance writer who teaches writing and communication at the University of Central Arkansas.

The IP comments: The changing trends in the popularity of children's names surely provide a field day for those who study popular culture.  It's no surprise that Beverly's classes are overrun with Jessicas.  Jessica was the second most popular name given to girls born in the 1980s.  But , by 2004 Jessica had fallen to 21st place in popularity.  On the other hand, those Matthews are going to hang in there.  It ranked sixth in popularity in the 1980s, third in the 1990s, slipping only slightly to fourth place in 2004.

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