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By Doug Madden
Honolulu Community College. Printed with permission, August 26, 1999.
Years ago when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Miami, I had a speech teacher who amazed me, as well as I'm sure the entire class, with his extraordinary recall and ability to memorize things almost instantly. I think most of my impression was based on his having "learned" the names of all 25 or so students in just a few minutes. Much more recently, though, when I took a non-credit class in magic tricks, I realized he had probably fooled everyone in the class. Remembering how he demonstrated his purported skill, I now think he used a simple old trick known as "pushing a card," a magic trick usually performed with playing cards.
What the instructor did was have everyone print his or her name, major, home city and state, and special personal interest (or something like these things) on a 3x5 card. He then collected the cards row by row, laid them out in order on his desk, took just a couple of minutes to "appear" to be connecting the information on the cards to the students' faces or something, then neatly gathered the cards together by row, each row into a small pile. He ...
then placed the piles upside down one on top of another so that the last row was on the bottom of the stack and the first row was on the top. One exception: I don't actually remember him having done this, but I'd guess he looked especially hard at the card of the first person in the first row and made sure that that card ended up out of place on the bottom of the stack.
He then proceeded to recall the names supposedly from memory. In doing so he essentially introduced the students one by one. From having looked at the first person's card before he placed it at the bottom of the stack, he was able to correctly introduce the first person. He then turned over the top card of the stack, looked at it, and confirmed that he'd been correct. Remember that he'd previously placed the card of the first person on the bottom of the stack, so he was really looking at the card of the second person.
When he went on to the second person, of course he knew the person's name because he'd just looked at that person's card (in pretending to be confirming the first person's name). He went through the entire class like this, always one card ahead of the one he was pretending to be reading to confirm a name. Occasionally he'd pretend to have a little difficulty, but in the end he always came up with the correct name. Just as amazing (so I thought at the time) was his ability to "recall" where a person was from, what a person's major was, etc. Interesting, huh?
Would I recommend this first day activity to other instructors? Done as I THINK my own instructor did it years ago, I think it'd be a fairly clear case of misrepresentation, and I would not recommend that. But with probably a group of students I already knew and with a clear explanation at the end that it was really a trick, it could be fun -- and it might serve a good purpose. The objective ought to be a novel way of introducing students and could include opportunities for students to add to their introductions and respond to other student or instructor questions. When at the end it's revealed to be only a trick, it could also provide a light or humorous break in the normal tension of a first day. And of course the instructor ends up with the cards to use for other purposes later. Student interest in how the trick was done might also valuably promote first day involvement and interaction of students. The activity is offered here, however, only as a possibility or idea, not as a recommendation and probably not for everyone.