August 25, 2019

What it means to students when you can pronounce their names – and when you can’t

Posted by Laura Guertin

Back on my summer vacation, this happened:

I thought it was crazy that I was so moved to post a tweet about this. And now, I’m even writing a blog post, as this is still on my mind as the fall semester is about to begin.

My ancestry is French, with my family lineage tracing back to Canada and France. I’m sure my family is using an Americanized version of pronouncing my French name (we say Grrrr-tin for Guertin), but I’ve heard so many different variations over the years (that “ue” is a stumbling point). I would have to tell people that my last name rhymes with “curtain”, but my favorite way to clarify the pronunciation now is to use a phrase one of my graduate faculty would say when he saw me walking towards him down the hallway: “It’s Guertin for certain!” (I saw him at AGU last year – he doesn’t remember saying that, but ~20 years later I still embrace it!).

Correcting how people pronounce my last name has been a part of my entire life – from being introduced as a speaker to receiving awards, I just expect to cringe when I hear my name. And for some reason, I had honestly not thought about transferring that feeling to a student in my own classroom, and what they must feel when their names are spoken incorrectly.

I started searching more into this topic, and found out that many people have something to say about not learning names, in and out of the classroom. For example, see this quote from Teen Vogue:

Learning each other’s name is a matter of spiritual will and value. Do we see someone as valuable enough to connect with on a level that involves something more than what they are producing for us? Do we see our collaborators as people? If we are one human family in a nexus of relationships, then the bare minimum of human decency is knowing each other’s name. When we don’t try because we don’t want to “butcher” the name, offend the other person, look bad, be uncomfortable, or are too busy, we are not protecting them. We are doing it at the cost of the other person. Anonymizing each other comes with a terrible price. — (Camara, Teen Vogue, July 12, 2019)

And what is that price in the eyes and minds of our students? Cult of Pedagogy shares:

Name mispronunciation… actually falls into a larger category of behaviors called microaggressions, defined by researchers at Columbia University’s Teachers College as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color” (Sue et al., 2007). — (Gonzalez, Cult of Pedagogy, April 14, 2014)

I saw the term “microaggressions” come up frequently in articles and publications about mispronouncing names. Even the National Education Association reports that minimizing the significance of getting a name right is a kind of microaggression, which they define as “an incident of everyday discrimination that students encounter that may contribute to lower performance and disengagement” (see Classroom Biases Hinder Students’ Learning (Sparks, 2015)). Kohli and Solórzano (2012) have published Teachers, please learn our names!: racial microagressions and the K-12 classroom – and the list of articles goes on. Although many articles discuss the impacts in the K-12 classroom, we need to keep in mind that these attitudes, perceptions and behaviors extend to the college classroom as well.

Personally, I don’t think we can over-emphasize the importance of learning student names and the correct pronunciation of their names in our courses. Our introductory-level geoscience classrooms are especially important for recruiting new majors and producing Earth science-literate citizens. If we don’t have a class identity as a supportive and inclusive community for learning and working together, what impact can and will that have for our departments, the discipline, and society as a whole?

Fortunately, instructors are taking intentional steps and sharing strategies for how to learn the pronunciation of student names.

Jennifer Gonzalez (Cult of Pedagogy) shares a suggestion and something to reflect upon:

Whatever you do, do something. For some students, you may be the first person who ever bothered. If the only time you say their name is in the classroom, your correct pronunciation will help the whole class learn it, too. Eventually that will ripple through the school, making that student feel known in a place where before they felt unknown. — (Gonzalez, Cult of Pedagogy, April 14, 2014)

And it shouldn’t stop with just learning how to pronounce names. Laura Bradley published an article for KQED Education (August 2018) titled Start the Year Right by Learning More Than Your Students’ Names. There are some great ideas in here to explore, such as having students create a biography slide or selfie video, or a comic strip or virtual tour. If you have a class blog or discussion board, have everyone post an introduction and begin to learn not only how to use your course management software but how to write in an online environment.

Whatever you decide to do and how you decide to do it, please keep in mind that the correct pronunciation of names matters – more than we realize, and no matter at what age.