What’s in a Name? Teaching Implicit Bias

Every semester I weave into my classrooms several opportunities to teach about implicit bias. I have shown videos like this and led discussions on articles like this.

Last week in my Family Law Clinic seminar, we discussed Peggy McIntosh’s Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, which describes the author’s quest to overcome her biases stemming from white privilege. A student shared their pain and frustration over college and law professors never using their full name, and often mispronouncing the parts of their name the professor is willing to speak out loud. “It’s dehumanizing,” my student said.

Those words have haunted me all week. Names are fundamental parts of human identity. Why can we, as educators–members of an elite profession–not get this right? Why is it not a norm in higher education for professors and teaching assistants to learn to pronounce every student’s name?

Also this week, I read in a memo from a colleague a to-do item along the lines of “practice pronouncing graduates’ names.” The colleague was sharing with me tips for the job I will soon begin: associate dean for academic affairs. One privilege of this job is reading the names of all Penn State Law graduates at the annual commencement ceremony. It was profoundly touching to learn that my colleague takes the time to practice every graduate’s name–and they felt it important enough to share with me as one of a handful of their significant monthly action items.

I give all my students the opportunity to share the pronunciation of their name with me on the first day of class, on note cards I keep with me at every class. An earlier post explained more about the note card system, which I learned from fellow blogger Paula Schaefer. Pronouncing each student’s name is challenging, and I sometimes falter. Last semester I began writing the pronunciations on my seating chart, to minimize my fumbling through the note cards. This is my seventeenth year of teaching. My only regret is not starting this earlier. It enriches my classroom, and it enriches me. It bakes into my pedagogy an indirect lesson about implicit bias, a lesson I re-learn every time I call on a student and say their name, whether it is Ainslie or Zhao-Ji.

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2 Responses

  1. Thanks for post Jill! I plan on checking out Peggy McIntosh’s piece to use wirh my students. Also I know a historical practice at Albany Law involves the graduates themselves pronouncing their own names into a recording device or app and then the Academic Dean listens repeatedly to that pronounciation. Naming has always been an important issue with respect to legal status and rights. I think of the ownership naming of slaves, or the historical erasure of a woman’s name and her legal identity into that of her hubands after marriage ala “Mrs. John Smith.” Thank you for reminding us of the power, status, rights and dignity of self naming and correctly being called that name. Good Luck with your first graduation!

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