Back to school

Tomorrow is the first day of fall semester at my university. I’m looking forward to the first day of class on Thursday! Yes, it will be the “syllabus day“, but it’s also a time to set the tone for the semester.

With this in mind, I thought I’d share one of the ways I try to make the first day of class more welcoming and inclusive.

Names can be tricky things. How you handle difficult-to-pronounce names speaks volumes to students. Students may have preferred names that differ from what is on the roster. Calling the name on the roster is not such a big deal for students who prefer to go by their middle name, but calling the name on the roster can inadvertently out a transgender student.

Part of my “syllabus day” includes taking attendance, as the first step toward learning each student’s name. To be fair, my classes are capped at 24 students, so this is much more feasible than it would be in a section of 60 students, forget about a 200 person lecture course!

Instead of calling names from the roster, though, I ask each student to tell me their name. I ask them to start with their last name, give me a second to find that on the roster, and then the first name they prefer I use. In introducing this, I tell them that I don’t care if they prefer a shortened version of their legal name, a middle name, or some other preferred name that is not connected at all to the name on the roster. I’m assuming that the last name will let me match them to their official ID, though I encourage those whose names differ from the official roster to contact me outside of class (after class, by email, whatever) to make sure I’m making the right connection!

Once I find the student’s last name, I make note of what they tell me their preferred name is, including notes on how to pronounce it correctly if needed. On the off chance there are two people with the same last name, and the first one gives me a name that doesn’t match either of the first names on the roster, it’s not that big of a deal to write the note off to the side, and wait to see which name the other person with that last name claims. And I can always follow up with them later, if they don’t contact me about it, to make sure I’m giving credit to the correct person.

Last semester, I think there were maybe 4 people on average per section of 24 students, who told me names that differed from their roster – either a shortened version or a middle name. And there were only a couple of people whose names I made pronunciation notes about (plus a couple more that I was not sure about, but I would have guessed right if I had tried). But it was totally worth it. Once I try to pronounce something one way, that version goes into my short term memory. When I am corrected, that’s a second entry into the short term memory. By avoiding interference from a first incorrect entry, it’s a LOT easier to just learn the correct version. And by asking everyone to follow this procedure, I’m avoiding singling anyone out.

I’ll be honest, I started doing this after realizing I had screwed up. I had been mispronouncing someone’s name for a couple of weeks, and they never said anything about it. When I had a chance to ask them if I was pronouncing it right without doing so in front of the whole class, they corrected me. I felt shitty for not asking sooner. My intentions were good – I didn’t want to single them out for having a name spelled in an uncommon way. But the outcome was not good. So this was my way of trying to avoid repeating that mistake!

After taking attendance this way, we do an icebreaker (yep, everybody loves those, right?), which sets the tone of encouraging discussion in the class and gives me another chance to practice matching their faces to the names they choose to use with each other (regardless of what the roster calls them)!