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Slevin: Naming diversity

Kate Slevin The following statement was made by Kate Slevin, Chancellor Professor of Sociology, upon receiving the Thomas Jefferson Award during Charter Day ceremonies. —Ed.

… I want to briefly and candidly share one of the challenges I have struggled with in recent years as William and Mary students have become more diverse. I think [that] by sharing this story, those who haven’t spent day-in and day-out time on campus in recent years will get a better sense of the innovations that are required as the campus adapts to new and exciting global realities.

Born and reared in Ireland, I grew up in an extremely homogeneous society with people who looked and sounded alike. As well, all had first and last names that were very familiar to me. Even if I strayed to Great Britain, which I did frequently, I had no problem with typical British first or last names. Names, I should say, are very important in my culture of origin. In Ireland, the habit of calling someone accurately by name—not once but frequently throughout a conversation—is learned early and often.

In my first decade or so at William and Mary, calling the class roll presented me with minimal challenge—the Johns and Sarahs, the Caitlins and Marks were easily pronounced as their last names were familiar. My style of teaching is very interactive, and I had little problem recalling or using student names that were, to me, straightforward and recognizable. My ability to call on students by name was certainly one factor that encouraged student participation. My cultural training of not only identifying people by name but of using their names throughout a discussion served me very well, but it also served student learning very well because students felt that they were personally recognized and, as a result, they felt that they had a stake in contributing to classroom discussion.

  Slevin BlurbHowever, as William and Mary became more ethnically and racially diverse in this past decade, my challenge was to continue to create a positive classroom climate in the face of my inability to easily pronounce the names of an increasing number of my students. To be absolutely frank, calling roll eventually became a nightmare for me—even when I practiced in advance, which I did, often with the help of similarly challenged colleagues. I fumbled and stumbled with names that were unfamiliar to me. I then noticed that my own ignorance began to change the learning environment of my classes. Determined not to make an idiot of myself or to embarrass my students, I avoided saying names that were unfamiliar to me. Students, many born in Virginia but with family ties to Cambodia, Senegal, Vietnam, Ghana, India, China, Poland, Japan, Pakistan, Iran, Israel, The Philippines, Korea—and I could go on—all have names that presented me with what often seemed like an insurmountable challenge. By naming some students and avoiding naming others, I created, however unintentionally, a classroom climate that was less than desirable.

The situation, I am happy to say, did not last long. Once I realized what was happening, I had a very frank conversation with myself and came up with a plan to counteract my ignorance and to model for my students my own willingness to be a lifelong learner, to be a citizen of the world. Here is what I did and continue to do. On the first day of class I begin by telling the students about the limits of my own background and about how challenged I am by names not familiar to me. I instruct them that throughout the semester they must give me their first names each time they speak. I tell them that, in a number of cases, they will become the teacher and I will become the student and that they have to hang in there with me as I learn to pronounce their names.

It is not a perfect system (indeed, to be truthful, I have my moments when I fantasize about invoking current student naming convention by calling every last student “Dude”! But, overall, my system of learning names works well because repetition of unfamiliar names helps me grasp their pronunciation. By semester’s end I can more accurately pronounce names like Thao, Nihan, Iyabo, Jaja, Takanori, Akshay, Arya and Je Jung. Just as importantly, I again have a classroom learning climate that is welcoming to all my students. Indeed, there is no doubt that the greater diversity of my students is a huge plus in that it brings to the classroom a rich variety of perspectives from around the world, perspectives that enrich the educational experience immeasurably.

Making all of our students feel welcome at William and Mary is important to me and to my colleagues. We are a public university with international stature and aspiration; we strive to be a world-class institution. As educators and world citizens, we inevitably face social change, and we have a choice regarding whether to adapt to that change in a positive or a negative manner. A positive choice often requires more work from us and, at times, even a reorientation on our parts. I trust that I leave you with one small example of how everyone wins when we accept change in a positive way.