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“Recognition is the first human quest.” Andy Crouch begins his latest book with this statement and then expands on our desires to be recognized as persons—individuals who have a place in this world. In The Life We’re Looking for: Reclaiming Relationship in a Technological World, Crouch suggests that technology has not succeeded in promoting true human flourishing and has instead resulted in a more impersonal world where people are lonelier than ever. The Covid pandemic has only made this situation worse. The book is profound and challenging; I commend it to your attention. Although we all are affected by new technologies, our students are perhaps those most likely to interact with new devices, new apps, and with social media sites.

How do we address this issue the first day of class? For all of us, the first day of class is preceded by a lot of work. We need to create the syllabus, develop assignments, check out the classroom, and get the technology to operate properly—and that is just the beginning! For our students, the first day of class can be a time of anxiety and uncertainty. They can also experience loneliness sitting in a room where many students already seem to know each other, where they don’t necessarily look like everyone else, and where they believe others don’t know who they really are.

The desire of humans to be truly recognized has led me to reflect on what happens during the first day of my classes. For the last several years, my work of preparation has involved memorizing the names and faces of all my students before I meet them on the first day of class. As someone who is not that good with names, this is not easy to do. Fortunately for me, my college has first-year student pictures associated with all the class roster information; this information is also available on our course management system. So, after registration for the upcoming semester, I create a set of flashcards with the names and pictures of my students. The flashcards sit next to my La-Z-Boy chair or travel with me to the office so that I can review them a few times a day. By the time the first day of class comes around, I have the flashcards memorized well.

When students arrive on the first day of class, in most cases, I am able to greet them by their first names. It produces a small moment of magic, recognizing them in a situation where they didn’t expect it. Even though this is a relatively small act, they are amazed, and they don’t know how this can happen. In just a small way, they are known. At a time of potential anxiety and uncertainty, where they may not know anyone, someone has recognized them. Students will comment years later about this experience when I have a chance to interact with them after they graduate. As you might imagine, getting to know their names by the first day of class helps me know them better throughout the semester. Given that I am not a natural with names, I usually review the flashcards the night before every class; recognition takes work.

We have all experienced this kind of small magic moment in our lives, when someone seems to know us who doesn’t have a reason to, or when a person remembers us from a long time ago and greets us in a store or says hello as we walk from one gate to another in the airport. We typically appreciate being recognized, particularly in a situation where we might be alone.

In his book, Crouch connects the concept of recognition to the idea of individuals being image bearers of God. Crouch describes an exercise he sometimes conducts in an airport, where he whispers “image bearer” to himself for everyone he sees. This exercise gives him a fresh perspective for his interactions with people. We believe that God knows who we are in our good times and in our bad times. We know that we were created in the image of God and that we were made to be recognized and to be in community. The act of recognizing others as image bearers of God is a precursor to almost everything else we need to do as professors and people. Whether it is a name or a greeting or acknowledgment, we can reflect God’s love to his image bearers in this world.

The idea of recognition provides a great model for other interactions in our lives. We can recognize other people even if we don’t know their names. My wife and I make it a habit to acknowledge those who serve us and express our gratitude as much as possible. We do this because our neighbors are made in the image of God; they are God’s special creations and deserve to be recognized as such. Cashiers, servers, and other workers, particularly those at the lower end of the economic distribution, are often shocked when we recognize them and thank them. We sometimes grieve a bit because it appears they must not receive much recognition in their lives.

I am on sabbatical this semester and only in my office once in a while. Some of my former students are there occasionally, and they want me to acknowledge and recognize them. My mind is on other projects, so I don’t always feel like it nor can I remember all of their names. As I walked down the hall last week in my office, a student greeted me and called me by name. I recognized him a bit but didn’t remember his name—the conversation was over before it started. I could have asked his name, but I didn’t. Afterward, I felt compelled to go back and find out who he is—Mitch. I look forward to a better conversation next time.

Registration is over now for the next semester, and I’ve started to put together my flash cards for the spring. As I look at the names and the faces, I become excited to meet these students. As you consider the first day of the coming semester, consider how you might recognize and appreciate your new students. These are God’s image bearers, who we have been called to serve.

Todd Steen

Hope College
Todd Steen is the Granger Professor of Economics at Hope College, and he serves as the Managing Editor of Christian Scholar’s Review.


  • Matthew Vos says:

    Nice work here. I commend you for memorizing students’ names. That’s a lot of work. When I forget a student’s name I will sometimes say, “What’s your last name again?” and that will almost always trigger a memory of their first name. I’ve had some semesters where I’ve had, say, four blond Jennifer’s in the same class! Whew! This was a good reminder about how important it is to recognize the personhood of the other, and it connects well with our collective call to hospitality and neighborliness in a world where those things frequently feel like scarce commodities. The new Crouch book sounds really good as well.

  • Rocky Wallace says:

    Indeed, a powerful reminder. It’s easy to assume students know we often have them for only eight weeks–and sometimes only online–so they give us a free pass on not remembering their names. But, just as we would feel less connected and less valued by the professor, it does matter–a lot.

    In Leadership and Self-Deception, by The Arbinger Institute, the story is shared of a new manager who scolds a secretary for erasing important notes too soon after a meeting. Later, his mentor simply asked: “What is her name?”…The new manager had not bothered to learn the secretary’s name yet, but had felt free to scold her in front of her peers.

    The research on emotional intelligence reminds us that how we more accurately see ourselves and how we then better view and treat others is the most important area we can work on–out of all of the other areas we need improvement.

    Thank you Dr. Steen for this timely reminder…Yes, at least, “learn their names”, if we truly want to have maximum impact on their lives during the short time we have the opportunity to do so.