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I'm a math grad student in my first year, which means that I have not yet taught a class (in my program first years grade or provide one-on-one tutoring for students who struggle in calculus). I have facial aphasia, which means that I am completely unable to recognize people's faces. After a while (upwards a year) I can reliably recognize someone based on how they move, dress, wear their hair and so on. Before that I will just have a vague feeling that I recognize someone, but I can't put a name to them . It happens that I can't recognize people I've lived with for several years, or, on a few memorable occasions, my own family members. This causes some problems on occasion, but nothing I haven't been able to work out. However, up until now the people I've been expected to learn to recognize have been friends, or coworkers I see every day that I can explain my problem with faces to. My question is:

How do I handle teaching when I can't recognize my students and it would take me a year minimum to learn their faces? I know from my own experience that good instructors / TAs learn their students' names and faces and this helps motivate the students to learn, because they notice that their teacher cares about them. How can I compensate for my facial aphasia?

EDIT: Thank you for all the great responses! I feel a lot more confident that I can do well as a TA with all these ideas to work with :)

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    In large classes, I don't remember students' faces either. Judging by the way they interact with me, I get the impression that my students think I know who they are even when I don't. – ff524 Jan 28 '15 at 4:39
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    This is a great question, and I hope the answers may also be useful to those of us who are just ordinarily bad at keeping track of faces and names. – Nate Eldredge Jan 28 '15 at 5:50
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    FWIW, students so far never seemed to expect me to remember their names just based on classroom interactions. (but this is based on central Europe, maybe norms in the US are different) – xLeitix Jan 28 '15 at 6:56
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    @ff524, Johanna seems to be describing the neurological condition Prosopagnosia, which goes far beyond the everyday inability to remember people's names that all of us have. If I changed glasses / hairstyle / clothing then my wife (who has the condition) would literally not be able to pick me out in a crowd. Or recognise (say) her own mother or father. It's an inability to know (from their face alone) if you have ever met a person before, however close to you or well-known to you that person is. – A E Jan 28 '15 at 12:53
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    @AE: yes, I understood that. I am questioning the premise that it's necessary to recognize students in order to be a good teacher ("I know from my own experience that good instructors / TAs learn their students' names and faces...") – ff524 Jan 28 '15 at 14:53
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Unless it is too embarrassing to you, you might actually consider simply telling your students about your facial aphasia at the beginning of the semester. You can explain that even though you care about them and know who they are as people and students, you won't be able to recognize them by appearance. A more familiar condition you might make an analogy to is color-blindness.

You might then ask them to identify themselves by something that you will be able to recognize them by. For example:

  • If it's a small class, you might make name tags to sit on students' desks in front of them during class.
  • In a large class, you might ask students to say their name when they ask a question.

You know your condition best, of course, and what things will work well for you. You are, of course, admitting a weakness and some of the nastier undergraduates might attempt to use it to play pranks on you or to cheat in some way. I suspect, though, that at that age in most cases it may be better to play it straight and people will respect you more for doing that than for attempting to hide it.

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    Something made me think, "color-coded hats". – Raphael Jan 28 '15 at 11:19
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    @Raphael In a large lecture class? You'll have to dig deep into the Crayola box for that. – Roger Fan Jan 28 '15 at 16:45
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    I know of a person who has face blindness who worked as a barrista -- terrible job for someone with face blindness, because they expect you to know all the regulars. She scraped by by making a very conscious effort to look for and remember things about the person that she could identify. For instance, if they always wear the same jewelry or watches, distinctive hairdos, if they came in at a specific time. In your case though, you can at least have the students also help, if you're comfortable telling them about your face blindness. Just having them sit in the same seat everyday would help. – user12769 Jan 28 '15 at 17:44
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    @RogerFan QR-coded hats, then? :) – Raphael Jan 28 '15 at 18:52
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    "some of the nastier undergraduates might attempt to use it to play pranks on you" - while of course a possibility, in 8 years of studying at university (I dabbled in a couple of things...) I have never seen a student be rude to a lecturer/instructor, let alone actively hassling them. I don't think I'd worry too much about that. – G. Bach Jan 29 '15 at 0:54
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I am absolutely terrible with names and faces. I simply can't remember them. I will forget the name of my next door neighbor of eight years. I have a friend who has facial blindness and I know that there is a difference with what she has. My own version is closer to facial aphasia (recognizes face but cannot recall name) rather than blindness (cannot recognize face), so please take my comments in that context.

I am upfront with my students about this at the beginning of the semester. I tell them I will forget their names repeatedly, but it doesn't mean I don't care about them. They do get confused because one week I will remember their names and then the next week, it'll be an utter blank. It then becomes a little bit of a running joke in the class but that's ok. I try not to stress too much over it.

Note that there are different strategies for lectures (i.e. big classes where there is minimal expectation that you will have to remember names) and for seminars and discussion groups (where some students will expect you to remember their name). Finally, doctoral students in your own lab will also expect their names to be remembered, but since those are a longer term presence, this can be less of an issue.

Here are some techniques that can be useful for larger classes and for seminars:

  • As some have mentioned, some course management systems have "photo rosters." I don't find these useful because 1/4 of my students go by nicknames or middlenames that don't show in the CMS. And the photos are very old. And if I could remember someone's name by looking at their face, I wouldn't have this problem to begin with.

  • You can ask students to always sit in the same seat each day. For seminars, during roll call, I write down the seating arrangement of the students in my roll call chart. In some schools, students have assigned seating. And so instead of recognizing the face, I can associate the seat with the name -- so I ask Jillian-who-sits-in-the-back-left, not Jillian-who-has-a-face-I-can't-remember.

  • I have asked students who look very similar to sit apart. They giggle and think it's a joke, but after a while they realize I really do have a problem and generally comply.

  • I ask students to try to wear the same distinctive item. For example, I remembered one student because of the eyeglasses that he wore. The frame stuck better in my mind than his face. When he changed his glasses, 'poof' it was gone.

  • I ask students for mnemonics. One student named Steve, I only remembered because he was Japanese-American and made a peace sign, so 'V' -> Steve. Some students can come up with good mnemonics, others can not.

  • You can ask students to have name placards, although most lose them in the first few weeks (and for me, my problem lasts longer than that).

  • You can ask them to always say their own name when speaking up. In seminar, you can have them say their own name as well as physically say the name of the student who preceded them in a comment: "This is Charlie, I want to follow up with what Alice just said there...."

  • You can make it a running joke so that the students know that they have to help you constantly. Students are usually surprised when I forget the names of even the most active students in the class, that's when they recognize that it's equal opportunity facial aphasia and that they need to step in to help me.

  • You can have your teaching fellow help you. For example, if I talk to a student after class and forget their name, I ask my TF to tell me.

  • In seminar, I occasionally nominated a student to go around the table saying all of the names. It helped when I realized that the students only knew half the names. Better than me, but still it showed that we are all fallible. It also encouraged the quieter students to be more vocal if they wanted to be remembered by their peers.

  • You can design your classes so that it isn't important for you to have instant recall of their names.

  • Ask for things in writing. I have trouble remembering the names of students who come up to me after lecture asking for a variance on their grade or attendance policy. I ask them to send such requests to me by e-mail.

  • You can schedule your office hours so students have to sign up with their names in order to see you (i.e., avoid an 'open door' office policy). That way you can greet them by name (and look up their records) before they come.

  • For your advisees, you can keep a portfolio on your computer where you record their name, face, year, identifying characteristics (student who always wears a vest, is a smoker (recognize by smell), etc.), and then things about their academic and family life that you'll need the next time you meet them.

In summary, it's not the end of the world and many faculty have difficult with this. Students recognize that they're just one in many. They also recognize the difference between professors who forget who they are because they are apathetic, and faculty who care but genuinely have trouble with this issue. One or two students will consistently raise it in my student evaluations at the end of the semester, but there are enough more positive comments to overwhelm them.

Again, you'll find many faculty with some version of this. You can ask your learning and teaching center at your school for other tips and techniques.

Note: You may want to register this as a disability with the disability office. As a student, you may be able to get some support (i.e., an assistant teaching assistant). As a faculty member, it might be helpful to have this in your file so that student complaints about this do not count against you when you are reviewed for promotion and tenure.

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    Name placards are a good idea. A colleague of mine deals with the loss issue as follows: he keeps the placards himself between classes. When he comes in to class each day, he puts the placards on a table by the door and asks each student to pick up their own, then return it at the end of class. You can make them out of paper or cardboard so they're easily replaced. – Nate Eldredge Jan 28 '15 at 14:19
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    I suppose that helps with keeping attendance as well. – RoboKaren Jan 28 '15 at 15:03
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    Your last point, keeping a record of people with identifying features, is a good tip for everyone and in many workplaces as well. It does wonders for customer satisfaction (and avoiding embarrassment) if you're in a client-facing role such as tech support, consultancy or HR. – Lilienthal Jan 29 '15 at 17:15
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How about learning from a seating plan? If the class have designated seats, take a note of where each student sits in the class with their corresponding name and then learn that. It may take a while but it will take much less than a year to master.

For me, this idea spawns from waiters in a restaurant, they have to learn the floor plan extremely quickly, and remembering a customers surname when serving 10 tables at once will be very difficult. So having the customers name assigned to a table number makes it much easier to manage.

Good luck in your teaching and I do agree that you should be honest with your students and tell them that you do have this condition. Hopefully they will understand you are trying and support you throughout!

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    I've never come across a university setting that has assigned seats (outside of exams, and sometimes not even then). – Jessica B Jan 28 '15 at 13:28
  • Law schools occasionally use assigned seating. – RoboKaren Jan 28 '15 at 13:29
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    Even if your institution doesn't normally use assigned seats, you could certainly adopt that system for your own class. You could even let the students choose their own seating plan. – Nate Eldredge Jan 28 '15 at 14:15
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In my experience, students tend to pick a favorite seat and stick to it unless forced to move around. I suspect that if you made a chart of your students favorite positions in the first week, it would be pretty accurate for the rest of the term.

Making this chart could also be a good opportunity for you to explain your situation to your students and to ask them to stay in their locations, without making them feel that you are assigning seats as in grade school.

  • Thank you David :) I think this could work pretty well in a smaller class or a recitation, which is what I'll be doing for the next few years. – Johanna Jan 29 '15 at 2:57
  • At least in lecture halls like this one, I have never encountered such a "favorite seat" behaviour. Many students may have a preferred half of the lecture hall (rear or front ...), though even that tends to vary dynamically (arrived late or knows they have to leave early => prefer sitting in the back, or wherever is closest to a door; forgot their glasses => prefer sitting in the front). Also, horizontally, places are mostly determined by the order of arrival (as middle seats are easier to occupy first). ... – O. R. Mapper Jan 29 '15 at 11:32
  • ... And in smaller seminar rooms where tables and chairs can be freely placed, the whole placement of chairs and tables seemed to change every week, anyway, due to other events taking place in those rooms (e.g. job fairs, special presentations, "socializing" events, project meetings with external guests, ...). (All of this is not saying your answer is bad advice, just that it is not very generally applicable across all universities.) – O. R. Mapper Jan 29 '15 at 11:36
  • Agreed regarding large lecture halls. Our small rooms have a default that the seats are supposed to be returned to, and usually are, and that's where I see a favorite seat developing. But sure, I imagine this happens in some situations and not others. – David E Speyer Jan 29 '15 at 13:41

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