October 17th, 2016

Getting Names Right: It’s Personal


Diverse group of university students in classroom

Editor’s Note: The following article was excerpted with permission from To My Professor: Student Voices for Great College Teaching, a new book that brings together student experiences and opinions with advice from master educators and experts. The book was written by students at Michigan State University under the guidance of Joe Grimm, visiting editor in residence in the MSU School of Journalism since 2008.

“I spend a lot of money to go to school here. It would be nice if a professor knew my name.”

“I appreciate the fact that you asked me what I wanted to be called because my name has various pronunciations in different languages.”

There are so many ways a simple and personal thing like a person’s name can lead to problems. The first student quoted above felt more like a number than a person because she felt none of her professors bothered to learn her name.

The second is an international student who was used to mispronunciations and questioning looks and appreciated a professor’s extra effort.

Mishandling names can lead to awkward moments. For many students, name problems come on the first day of class. Here’s a tweet with the hashtag #GrowingUpWithMyName. “Knowing the pause on roll call in school was my name. I would just start saying ‘Here’ before they even tried.” Everyone knows what it is like to have their name mispronounced sometimes. But imagine what it is like to have it happen almost every time—and with an audience of new peers.

While some students might offer a name that they feel will be easier to remember or say, it is not OK for instructors to rename students to make it easier to call roll.

There are those times when the professor calls a student by another student’s name. Somehow, the professor has made a connection. Maybe these are the only students of their race or ethnicity in the class. It seems like a little thing, but it carries big implications and it can make others in class feel uncomfortable.

One American college student reported feeling uncomfortable for Asian students when professors stumble over their names—and then turns the mistakes into jokes or ditties. It can humiliate the student and, if they are new to U.S. culture, it can be bewildering.

International names do not have universal spellings or pronunciations across cultures and societies. The student who appreciated a professor’s patience in learning the pronunciation of his name is French African. Where he is from, his name has a different intonation and spelling. The student felt very good about his class after this encounter because he perceived that his professor took the time to be personal with her students.

One international student said that she can always sense when professors are about to make a funny attempt at pronouncing her name. “They never ask first but they want to act like they know already, which doesn’t usually always end well.”

Because names are an important aspect of our identity, acknowledgment of a person’s name and its correct pronunciation can signal acceptance of that person into a new culture. Since acknowledgment leads to acceptance, many international students adopt English names to better assimilate. By doing so, they avoid the potential mispronunciation of their names and feel like they fit in. Fitting in can enhance learning.

There are almost as many reasons why it is hard to get names right as there are students in a class. Professors have scores or hundreds of students in a term, and new ones every term. Some professors have more than a thousand students in one term. There are a lot of names to learn.

But learning and using student names improves teaching.

Daniel F. Chambliss, Eugene M. Tobin Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Hamilton College, wrote “the best thing I do to improve students’ work in my courses is … I will learn and use their names. It’s easy, and it works. Using those names in class is uniquely powerful.”

Here are some strategies:

  • Read a class roster out loud before meeting the class. Note potential difficulties. If the class list has photos, try to match them with the names. Print out the pictures and bring them to class.
  • Take attendance on the first day in a consistent way with each student, even the ones with seemingly easy names. Use a standard question such as, “What do you like to be called?” One professor sends out a survey before classes begin and asks students for their name preferences. One student seemed delighted when, at the first roll call, she was called by her preferred name, which was not the name on the attendance list.
  • Write phonetic spellings down when you need to. When you get to a name that might be difficult, ask the student to say it, using the part of the name you feel more comfortable with. Don’t joke. Don’t rush. Spend a little extra time if you must to understand, but don’t make a big deal. If you need to ask the student for more help, do it after class. If you make a mistake, apologize but don’t make an excuse.

Many international students adopt American names to fit in. But at the same time, there are also instances where foreign students have American names. Whatever the case may be, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire professor Phil Huelsbeck in the department of International Education, advises that professors be actively aware of these differences. He wrote, “Without an audience, ask (repeatedly if necessary) how to pronounce the international student’s name and make a note of the proper pronunciation. Some international students take on an ‘American name’ but it is often appreciated if the instructor takes the time to learn the student’s native name, as well.” It can also teach classmates something.

Marian Kisch, a freelance writer in Maryland, wrote in the November/December, 2014 issue of the International Educator: “Even a short conversation after class about the student’s home country can help the student feel more comfortable and can build rapport. Do your best to learn how to pronounce students’ names, even if it takes a few attempts.”

Dustin Carnahan, who teaches in the Michigan State University College of Communication Arts and Sciences, suggested customized rosters, which can accommodate extra columns for chosen names and pronunciations. Students should be able to tell the professor what they want to be called, “no questions asked,” he said.

In “Learning Student Names,” posted on the National Teaching and Learning Forum, Joan Middendorf and Elizabeth Osborn at Indiana University wrote: “A professor who does not know his or her students’ names may be perceived as remote and unapproachable. … In large classes, the task of learning student names can seem daunting, but even if the professor learns the names of only a portion of the class, a caring, inclusive atmosphere will be established.” They gathered more than 25 strategies for learning and retaining students’ names. They included name tags, tent cards, flashcard drills for the instructor, association and student introductions. There is probably something for most circumstances.

At the end of the day, it is always better to call students by the names they like. As Czech-born writer Milan Kundera wrote in his novel “Immortality,” “We don’t know when our name came into being or how some distant ancestor acquired it. We don’t understand our name at all, we don’t know its history and yet we bear it with exalted fidelity, we merge with it, we like it, we are ridiculously proud of it, as if we had thought it up ourselves in a moment of brilliant inspiration.”

Chambliss, Daniel F. “Learn Your Students’ Names.” Inside Higher Ed, Aug. 26, 2014. June 12, 2016 https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2014/08/26/essay-calling-faculty-members-learn-their-students-names

Huelsbeck, Phil. “Awareness Points for Educators with International Students in the Classroom.” University of Wisconsin. June 12, 2016   http://www.uwec.edu/ASC/resources/upload/IntlStu.pdf

Kisch, Marian. “Helping Faculty Teach International Students.” NAFSA: Association of International Education, International Educator, November/December 2014.

Middendorf, Joan, and Elizabeth Osborn. “Learning Student Names.” Bloomington: Indiana University, 2012. June 12, 2016 http://citl.indiana.edu/files/pdf/Lecture_Learning_Names.pdf

Mitchell, Charles. “Short Course in International Business Culture.” Novato: World Trade Press, 1999.

Nichole Igwe is a journalism major and a public relations and French minor at Michigan State University.

  • Steve

    Safe spaces. Trigger warnings. Liberal privilege. And now the pronunciation and recollection of their name. Yet another head shaking issue of generation thin-skin.

  • CM Brooks-Williams

    I have an American name. I prefer this name but people always want to call me something else or shorten it. I’m Cathryn…not Carolyn or Kathy or Cat or Kitty. It’s not about liberal privilege or trigger warnings or a generation of thin-skinned people. It’s about valuing what is yours and yours alone.

    As a professor, I often have international students in my class as well as American students with unique names or spellings. I ask students what they want to be called. I also have hearing impairment, which can make it easy for me to mispronounce names. I appreciate the suggestions–especially the email prior to the first class asking students what they want to be called. Our LMS has voice recordings so I can hear their names before I come to class. That’s an asset–not a hindrance that Steve would have us believe.

    • Carol Christ-Campbell

      Fifty-some years ago, I was taught by my working-class parents that making an effort to correctly pronounce a name (or at least trying to do so) is the respectful thing to do. It surprises me that some would not make the effort.

      • CM Brooks-Williams

        Thank you!

      • KimAlyse

        It is a sad commentary that some individuals, especially those who are educated and education professionals, still fall short of basic respect. It takes so little effort to extend to each other respect. Shakespeare asked, “What’s in a name….?” RESPECT is in a name.

    • thumpire45

      Here’s where you’re wrong. Trying to cast mispronunciation of a name as a form of cultural oppression, which is what seems to be implied here to some extent and more overtly stated elsewhere, is where they go into neo-liberal nonsense. I have an oddly-spelled name, and it’s also, generally, associated with females. I don’t get mad every time I am called “miss” during a roll call. I just correct them when I say “here”, and I go on with life.

      Many of these same international students also mispronounce my name because they’re not native speakers of English, and they don’t always have a firm grasp of English pronunciation. Do I get mad? No. Why would I? The same can be said of an English speaker who doesn’t have a firm grasp of pronunciations in Arabic, Mandarin, or what have you. If you’re intentionally mispronouncing something to be a jerk, that’s a different story. If a professor just cannot say your name, not for lack of trying, get over it, and move on with life. Put on the big person britches, and grow up. Also, I’m not sure how often I hear of these weird hypothetical situations that are offered up in the article where professors arbitrarily assign names to students, but I’ve never seen such a thing in any of my classes.

      • CM Brooks-Williams

        My professors often called me “Carolyn.” It was not my name. It wasn’t calling me by someone’s name by mistake or mispronouncing it. It was a completely different name. It made a difference when I called or emailed them and they didn’t know who I was because I use Carolyn to identify myself.

        It made a difference. That experience taught me to be respectful to others.

      • DFW EMS

        The article is written as advice for university faculty in a method of improving teaching outcomes by making students more comfortable. That is a matter of social psychology and pedagogy, not cultural politics. No one is talking about “cultural oppression” and your intervention on the subject is patently ridiculous … and way off topic.

  • Teri Peasley

    As an instructor, I believe it is common courtesy to address my students by their names. It is not a generational or inclusion issue, it is just the right thing to do. If I am unsure of how to pronounce someone’s name, I ask. It’s as simple as that. I have inadvertently called students by the wrong name. When this happens, I simply apologize and move on.

    For me, knowing my students’ names allows me to make connections with my students. It helps them to begin to trust me as an instructor, it helps students know that my classroom is is collaborative in nature and that their opinions will be respected.

    I frequently tell my students that there are two things that, except in the most extreme situations, cannot be taken away from us. Our names and our birth dates. For my practice, the use of names is important and is not just about creating a safe space.

  • AJSprof

    My students in the last four years have been commuters or first-generation immigrants from Mexico and Latin America. They have told me that if I don’t get their pronunciations right the first time, I shouldn’t try at all.

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