The importance of names

Three years ago, my university’s Student Engagement Community of Practice collectively wrote a series of blog posts about various aspects of student engagement. I thought I would reproduce my blog post here, since it is still as relevant today as then.

There is a lot that staff can do to engage students in the university community and in their learning, and a lot of these things have to do with the staff being engaged with the students. One way that any staff member can show their own level of engagement with the students is to learn the students’ names.

Names are important. Your name is a part of your identity, and not just because it is what you call yourself. Your name may tie you to the culture or the land of your ancestors, or it may speak of your special connection to those you love. You may prefer to be called by a different name than your official one because your chosen name is more meaningful to you. What all of these have in common is that your name is an important part of your identity.

For myself, my name is David, and I don’t like to be called Dave. I grew up in a community with several Davids and other people were called Dave, so being David kept my identity separate to theirs. Yet many people give me no choice and call me Dave without asking for my permission, despite me introducing myself as David. I find it intensely rude that someone would choose to call me by a different name than the one I introduce myself. On top of this, I am a twin, which means as a child I was forever being called by the wrong name entirely. We are not identical twins, and yet this still happened, because we were introduced as PaulandDavid, without an attempt to give us a separate identity. The fact that I was called Paul, or “one of the twins”, meant that I had no identity of my own separate to my brother. Being called David means that I have an identity of my own and this is important to me.

For many students, these and worse are their daily lives. Imagine a student who no-one at university knows their name. They have no identity at university, can feel very alone and can quickly disengage. Yet according to “The First Year Experience in Australian Universities” by Baik, Naylor and Arkoudis, only 60% of first year students are confident that a member of staff knows their name.

Not having your name known at all is one thing, but being called by the wrong name can be worse. An international student has to deal constantly with being different to other students, and in the community at large has to deal with a lot of everyday racism. To have your name declared “difficult to pronounce”, or to have it declared as not possible to remember, is just another one of these everyday racist events. The person doing so may not be meaning to be racist, but it adds up to the students’ feeling of not belonging, to their feeling that they themselves are not worth remembering. Similar to me and my twin brother (only worse), they may have the feeling that others believe all international students are the same, so why remember them separately. In “Teachers, please learn our names!: racial microagression and the K-12 classroom” by Rita Kholi and Daniel G Solórzano, there are many examples of the hurt that such treatment of student names can have.

So what can we do to learn our students’ names? Members of the Community of Practice suggested several strategies.

One idea is to spend time talking to them and ask them what they would like to be called. You can’t learn their names unless you find out what they are! Be visible in your effort to pronounce it correctly, be adamant that you want to call them by the name they ask to be called. If you get multiple chances to talk to them one-on-one, ask their name again if you can’t remember and try to use it as you talk to them.

Another idea is to print out photos of your students and to practice remembering their names. If you don’t have access to their photos, then it should not be hard to find someone nearby who can. (Though of course it would be excellent if there were a simple system whereby anyone teaching a class — including sessional staff — could get photos of their students!) Even if you can’t get their photos, simply working your way down the roll and remembering how to pronounce those names, or what the students’ actual preferred names are, is good exercise. The students are likely to appreciate the effort you put in here, even if they can’t know how much time you did put in!

You may have your own ideas on how we can make sure we know students’ names. I’d encourage you to share them in the comments, along with any stories of how it made a difference to student engagement.

I would like to work in a university where 100% of the students are confident that someone knows their name. We have hundreds (possibly thousands) of staff in contact with students on a regular basis. If each of us only learns a tutorial-worth of names, then we can surely meet that goal easily!

This entry was posted in Being a good teacher and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply