I spend a lot of time thinking about names, partly because I’m terrible at remembering them, partly because I’ve had trans friends with strong feelings about acceptable names and nicknames even before I knew what the word trans meant, and partly because I’m very aware of how much it makes me feel personally known when someone slips my name casually into a sentence (something I have never once done instinctively, even with my best friend). Names and the usage of names to make students feel comfortable in the classroom come up a lot of teacher trainings and resources for culturally responsive or inclusive teaching. But I also feel like there are some things that can complicate the process of learning and using names in the classroom that I don’t see discussed every time. Partly inspired by this video from the Wisconsin Technical College System that Anaid shared in her post this week (thanks, Anaid!), which suggested that educators pay attention to who they call by name and whether that is being done equitably, here are a few thoughts and stories of mine. I’m by no means perfect (see above), but I’ve had a lot of thoughts about this area because I struggle in it, and I mostly hope to drive home that intentionality is important for classroom inclusivity, and that there will always be adjustments that need to be made for the needs of individual students.
- Those Who Shall Not Be Named
I’ve TAed classes, in the past, where the professor printed out name cards for students the first day of class (because they’re easier to read from a distance than hand-written ones unless we break out the chisel-tip markers). The instructions, of course, were that the students could make any corrections they wanted on their name tags, since we’d be holding onto them between classes, and if we saw a correction then we’d print them a new one. This is in many ways an ingenious system for making sure that the professor can learn names in the first weeks of class, it makes taking attendance easier, and most students never bat an eye at it. Occasionally we get students who go by their middle name, or a nickname, or who have a Westernized name that they go by at school (getting back to that in a minute)–there are plenty of reasons why students might go by a name other than their official name on the roster, and most of them appreciate the invitation to go by a different name for any reason.
But whenever I see any system where the names on-record go live in front of other students before the students have a chance to correct it, all I can think about is how much of a nightmare that is for a trans person. Trans people who use names other than their given names and who may or may not want others knowing they’re trans are, ostensibly, one of the groups that this kind of a system might be for. They may even have been a group the professor had in mind when dreaming up this system–I can’t say. But the implementation details mean that those students may be put on the spot to come out in a moment they weren’t expecting to, possibly in front of the class.
My personal version of this system would involve sending out a mass email to students before class telling them that, if they want to use a different name than the one on the roster for any reason, they should reply to me before the first day of class and I would adjust, no questions asked. This could also, simultaneously, be a good time to request phonetic pronunciations.
- Speaking of Americanized names and mispronunciations, I’ve met a number of students who either don’t bother to correct mispronunciations of their names (notably, a Brazilian international student who used to introduce herself with an entire sentence about how she pronounced her name with an H-sound at the beginning but most people pronounced it the way it would be based on English phonetics, with an R-sound at the beginning, and that was fine) or introduce themselves, by default, with a Westernized version of their name. I’ve made it a practice of asking “how do you say your name” when I’m unsure, or asking students who give me a clearly-more-American version of their name on the roster if they have a preference for which name I use. I’ve had these students respond, primarily, that they’d prefer me to say their given name if and only if I can pronounce it correctly. More people in my department have begun intentionally learning the pronunciations of new-to-them names, and there’s been a knock-on effect as other students feel more comfortable standing up for themselves and correcting name pronunciations or introducing themselves with their given, “foreign-sounding” names. It’s clear that showing students that they are worth the time has an effect. The last few times I’ve heard the Brazilian student introduce herself, she’s dropped the preamble to her name as well.
This situation is an interesting counterpoint to the first. Respecting the wishes and agency of the person who the name belongs to is still vitally important. But I also know that, due to past experiences, several students had a nearly-allergic reaction to having that much attention on their name and the way that people were mispronouncing it, and that several of those students have since turned around and started being more firm about their preferred name as the climate changed. I don’t know how to have that conversation with students who assure me that they don’t mind or that they’d rather go by an Americanized name (as there are still some hold-outs), or if it’s remotely my place to do so. But I also wonder how I can better signal to those students that I take it seriously and that I will correct people on their behalf, if it will make them more comfortable. I think that this week’s reading about brave spaces may be relevant here, actually (Arao and Clemens, 2013). Establishing a baseline for what respect looks like in the inclusive classroom and accepting that everyone will open themselves up only as much as they choose.
Arao, B., & Clemens, K. (2013). From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces: A New Way to Frame Dialogue Around Diversity and Social Justice. In The Art of Effective Facilitation. Stylus Publishing, LLC.