Today featured the first deadline for my spring online classes, so some of the students who had been slow getting started suddenly sprang into action - meaning that by now I've had some kind of encounter with pretty much all of the 100 students who start out the semester.
Now I am trying to learn everybody's names - and to also get used to their email aliases, which sometimes are based on their names, and are sometimes completely fanciful. One of my students uses "Gilgamesh" as his email alias - that suggests to me that Myth-Folklore will be a good class for him indeed; one of the first reading units we have in class is about the epic of Gilgamesh!
In the very first email exchange I have with the students in class, I ask them about their nickname - there are a LOT of students who go by a nickname, and sometimes they go by their middle name. In the data system for our school, everyone's name is First-MiddleInitial-Last, so the middle name never appears anywhere, and your first name appears everywhere, whether you like it or not! When you use the school email system, you cannot change the way your name displays - even if you go by your middle name and shudder at the sight of your first name, there it is, emblazoned on every email that you send. It is also the name that appears automatically next to every comment you leave for other students in the course management system. I feel really badly for the students who cannot change the way their name appears on the email system or on the class roster, but I change their name on every webpage that I control - and every semester, I get at least five or ten students who go by their middle name and do not use their first name at all.
A fascinating problem is the gender issue with names. I can tell from looking at the photos on the student rosters who the guys and gals are - but there are more and more names that are gender ambiguous. For example, I've got a Taylor (she) and Ryan (she) in class this semester. There is a student named Ndianabasi (nickname, Ndi) - I know Ndi is a woman, but the other students in class may be doing a bit of guessing. To be honest, I think that kind of gender ambiguity is a great thing - people make all kinds of assumptions based on people's appearances, gender, etc., and sometimes those assumptions don't really aid in your encounter with somebody; the disembodied online world can be a great place for shaking up those kinds of automatic assumptions. (Related note: I've had so many students tell me how much they like online courses, because they feel like they are not judged (negatively) for their appearance, which is how they sometimes feel in a regular classroom. Likewise with older students: the other students in class aren't led into the trap of putting an older student into an "other" category based simply on appearance of age.)
Then, of course, there is the whole thing of my name and how students address me. It's a paralyzing kind of problem in email which does not necessarily present itself in the classroom, where you can start a conversation without actually figuring out what to do about addressing somebody! I always encourage the students to call me Laura, I sign all my emails to them Laura, and I even have a page up at the website
"about me" where I joke about how they really can call me Laura, really they can!
Yet even though I encourage and want everybody to just call me Laura (just as I am on a first-name basis with them), this is really hard for some students. Even students who have had me in a class before, and who have received emails from me every week for months, still are shy about that first name, calling me Professor Gibbs (shock! horror! the real professors would not like that at all, since I am only an instructor), Dr. Gibbs (that always makes me feel like I am a medical doctor), or Mrs. Gibbs (definitely my mother, not me), or Ms. Gibbs (it's so sixties!)... or even Miss Gibbs, which seems so sweet (but again, not me). Luckily, they can call me Dr. Laura, which just cracks me up - and the ones with a more wicked sense of humor do indeed call me that. Ha ha.
Then, of course, there are the students who have gotten only one email from me, students whom I don't really even feel like I know all that well yet (still just names on a roster), who will start off an email to me "Hey Laura!" And you know, I think that is great - they really ARE talking to me when they say that, and it helps me feel like I am getting to know them so much more quickly than the students who keep on writing back "Dear Professor Gibbs," no matter how many times I sign my emails to them "Laura."
Anyway, right now about half of the students are still just "names on a roster" but about half of them are really taking shape, virtually, online in class. I'll post some more about that tomorrow, this whole weird and wonderful process of getting to know students whom you never see in person.