Erica Brown is an associate professor of curriculum and pedagogy in the Graduate School of Education and Human Development and director of its Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership.
The campus is slowly coming back to life. Eager freshmen in too-new GW sweatshirts dragged large duffle bags across the pavement in the sweltering heat and are now learning their way around. Their excitement often masks anxiety.
Many come to GW with dozens of questions. Will I fit in? Will I like it here? Will I belong? The answers will depend largely on their professors. Instructors hold an imbalance of power in the educational hierarchy, one that can be slightly recalibrated by the simple act of asking a student’s name.
A few years ago, during the second class of the semester, I asked two graduate students in the Graduate School of Education and Human Development why they introduced themselves with American names and not the names that matched the roster.
One of the students said he chose an American sounding name for “convenience.” His given name is difficult for Americans to pronounce. Researchers W. Ray Crozier and Clive Dimmock have demonstrated that the use of names in a classroom creates inclusion and authentication. But, according to the research, if a name is repeatedly mispronounced, it can undermine a student’s self-worth and invalidate his or her ethnic or religious identity. Changing one’s name, however, for the ease of other students was certainly not going to work in a class on diversity in GSEHD.
Every student in every class you teach, I told my students that day, has a name that must be honored. We can’t celebrate diversity in schools by neutralizing or flattening identity. One of democracy’s greatest gifts is the capacity to express oneself fully. That starts with a name.
Later in the class, I asked each student to go to the board, write his or her full name and explain its origins. Some students wrote in large script letters, two wrote in Arabic and two in Chinese characters with translation. What followed was a 15-minute lesson in geography and culture. I will never forget when a black student told us that her first name was given by her father, her middle name had religious significance and her last name was given by the family who owned her ancestors. There was a slight audible gasp as a sad and respectful silence hovered over the class.
Accommodating the majority is not unusual for foreign students, immigrants and undocumented workers. It’s the Korean woman in a nail salon who says her name is Jane, the Japanese waiter whose name tag says Bob or the Indian technician who introduces himself as Chuck. It’s the foreign student who westernizes her name for the teacher.
Educators who disconnect learning from learners and ideas from those who have them don’t realize just how easily disembodied knowledge floats away. If we want students to absorb the content we teach them, we must connect with each individually through using their names. A professor who jokes about being terrible with names yet seems incredibly smart may not be prioritizing this simple pedagogic technique. It’s not about memory. It’s about priorities.
There’s so much we can’t do to fix the gaping inequities around us, soften hate or bridge polarization in our country. But there is one small thing we can do. We can all ask the Janes, Bobs and Chucks for their real names – and use them.
A new semester is upon us. To my students, if I get your name wrong, please correct me. To my colleagues, if we want to create real communities of learning, we may need to do a little more homework.