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Saturday, August 13, 2016

More on names

Shima sparked a conversation over how prawfs and students should address one another. I want to explore a different issue of student names.

At SEALS last week, a co-panelist told a story relayed of a female law professor who had twice been the subject of formal administrative complaints by students whose (first) names the prof had mispronounced in class.  In the discussion that followed, some panelists recognized the concern that mispronouncing the name can send a message of exclusion or otherness, while others suggested that this provided another good reason to use last names in class (hence the connection to Shima's post).

This story unnerved me, although I recognize that there may be more to it. I am troubled that students are so suspicious and so ready to assume the worst of what was presumptively an innocent mistake that the professor (hopefully) handled with some tact. I am troubled because, if mispronouncing a name does send a message of exclusion, there is not much I can do about it; any attempt to avoid mispronouncing would send that same message of "you have a funny name." Ask the student if I am not sure? "You did not ask Jim how to pronounce his name." Ask for phonetic spellings? "You didn't need Jim's phonetic spelling." Get phonetic spellings in advance? That does not help me during the first class. Use last names? I am not sure they are so much easier to pronounce (I began using first names in part because I thought it would minimize pronunciation problems).

As I said, I hope there is more to this story than the sparse details I heard.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 13, 2016 at 11:15 AM in Howard Wasserman, Teaching Law | Permalink


In the real world, if a judge, client, or senior partner mispronounces your name you get over it. You may politely explain the correct pronunciation. But (unless you want to have a short and largely unsuccessful career) you don't file a complaint against the judge or client or partner. I have a very difficult last name. When I was a trial lawyer, judges mispronounced my name daily. I answered politely to whatever they called me and tried the case. Why? Because that was my job. We need to be preparing students for the practice of law, and in the practice of law you don't file a complaint against a U.S. District Court judge because he mispronounced your name.

Posted by: Anon professor | Aug 16, 2016 8:15:54 AM

Then there's this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dd7FixvoKBw

Posted by: Andrea Boyack | Aug 15, 2016 11:42:55 PM

Jr's comment is fair and in general good faith helps. It isn't just foreign languages. American accents will factor in as well.

Posted by: Joe | Aug 15, 2016 10:51:45 AM

Orin Kerr, I said "certain students" (not "law students" in general -- not the same thing in my opinion) and I based this not only on Howard Wasserman's example (and my judgment that he wouldn't care about it if he -- a law professor -- felt it was but an idiosyncratic tidbit) but on how one or more professors here explained how they take the time to know what students like to be called. Plus, the general understanding I have determined over the years that people are sensitive about their names, including those in college and law school. And, how people, including professors (and others) took some effort to handle the situation.

How significant this is writ large is clearly open to debate and I'm not concluding anything there. I do offer the opinion that your lack of concern about how your own name was pronounced is not how various other people would handle that situation and welcome professors and bosses keeping that into consideration. And, in part, because this is liable to have racial and other implications that can lead to misunderstandings and some degree of basic unnecessary results.

Posted by: Joe | Aug 15, 2016 10:45:25 AM

Pronouncing names in foreign languages completely correctly is essentially impossible. I can never learn to pronounce Russian or Chinese names like a Russian or Chinese would, for the same reason that I would always retain an accent if I learned those languages as an adult. But perhaps some lower standard of "correctness" is desired.

Posted by: Jr | Aug 15, 2016 8:22:47 AM

Joe, you are persuaded that this issue "clearly" is "significant" to law students. And yet all we have is a single third-hand (or fourth-hand?) account of one or more unnamed students at an unnamed school being annoyed by one unnamed professor, with no details at all about the context. I'd want to hear from more students before adopting your view that this is a significant issue in law schools.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Aug 15, 2016 12:01:22 AM

And that's why everyone should give their kids names that have hard "ka" sounds in them. Studies show it's the most memorable sound. Several brands (like Kodak or Calvin Klein) use this trick.

That way, teachers the names will stick in the teachers' minds. Your kid will get called on a lot and he/she will have a fantastic high school experience and, thus, a fantastic life.

Trust me, that's where all of my trouble in high school came from. The teacher didn't call on me enough.

Posted by: YesterdayIKilledAMammoth | Aug 14, 2016 10:14:28 PM

High school never ends. In our professional lives, the dynamic whereby some people are excluded whereas others remain in the "in crowd" is more subtle and often unconscious. If you have a name that is unusual or difficult to pronounce, you are more likely to be mentally relegated to the backburner when someone is looking for volunteers or is asked to nominate someone. Having an "easy" name makes it easy for you to be on the tip of someone's tongue.

Posted by: anon2 | Aug 14, 2016 9:55:55 PM

"Joe, I think part of the difference between my view and the view expressed in the article"

The discussion here suggests to me the "difference" is only so much since clearly certain students are significantly concerned about it. They don't think "the correct pronunciation of my name isn't important." There was a reference of mispronunciation being reported; even if this did not happen, there was likely those who were upset. The professors here also repeatedly expressed some concern about the matter. Seems to matter a decent amount.

The article discusses how names are important to identity and diversity. This is something of some importance in college and law school (and beyond). A person is more sensitive at 15 than 20, but having your name mispronounced probably affects both, likely in some cases both being taken as a sort of cultural ignorance.

A name can be a very sensitive thing and different people will react differently. Also, some might not like a boss mispronunciating it but feel uncomfortable correcting them. That's on the boss to some extent especially since it's likely to have uneven effects depending on a person's race and so forth.

Posted by: Joe | Aug 14, 2016 8:15:03 PM

Anon says: "I wonder how often professors *unconsciously* avoid calling on students with uncommon or ethnic names because they don't want to mispronounce it"

I'll admit that I did so consciously (more uncommon than ethnic - I'm familiar with many ethnic conventions - at least I'd like to think so). I never skipped anyone as I went through the whole list, but tougher names came later.

This is lame, obviously, especially because we read our students' names at graduation and I ought to know how they are pronounced. So, now I do the index card method, as James discussed, and within 10 minutes I have the proper pronunciation of first and last names. I also ask them about their undergrad degrees and why they took the class, which I've found is immensely helpful.

Posted by: Michael Risch | Aug 14, 2016 6:30:50 PM

Joe, I think part of the difference between my view and the view expressed in the article may be the difference between law school or professional employment (what we're discussing) versus high school (the subject of the article, for the most part). I can see how having a high school teacher who calls you by your name every day and who gets it wrong every day could be upsetting. Your peers probably tease you about it; you probably tried correcting the teacher to no avail, etc. In high school, that might matter. I would think it's pretty different by law school, especially in the context of a large socratic class, or in the context of a professional work environment.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Aug 14, 2016 6:14:39 PM

I wonder how often professors *unconsciously* avoid calling on students with uncommon or ethnic names because they don't want to mispronounce it or simply don't want to commit the cognitive resources to learn how to properly pronounce it. I would not be surprised if this type of avoidance also translates to the professional world, where chance meetings can accelerate professional development.

Posted by: anon | Aug 14, 2016 5:50:38 PM

Orin Kerr's answers are interesting. For a somewhat different view see the linked article "anon" added. Also, not sure a "boss" (unclear what type) is in the same position as the professors. Anyway, this has been an interesting discussion with various points of view.

Posted by: Joe | Aug 14, 2016 5:47:22 PM

James: Both, plus a sense that the correct pronunciation of my name isn't important.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Aug 14, 2016 4:55:54 PM

Orin, did you keep quiet about the pronunciation of your name out of deference or courtesy?

Posted by: James Grimmelmann | Aug 14, 2016 8:32:56 AM

fwiw, there has been news coverage of this issue that might be of interest:


Posted by: anon | Aug 14, 2016 1:49:31 AM

I would have thought that those of us with relatively uncommon names just take mispronunciation as a routine part of life. I once worked for boss who called me "ARE-en" for the entire time I worked for him. It never occurred to me to correct him. It would be different if the person was intentionally trying to mispronounce the name or the context suggested that the professor didn't care that she was mispronouncing it. But without knowing if those facts existed in the story, I tend to share Howard's reaction.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Aug 14, 2016 12:55:08 AM

David: Interesting. Of course, I can't get students to respond in advance to sign-up for panels, as my first-class assignment requires. Not sure I'd have any more luck with this.

But that illustrates a point within this post and Shima's: Every school is different. My students all call me Professor, regardless of what I call them. And they do not get upset, at least not formally, about mispronounced names. But they don't respond ahead of class.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 13, 2016 7:11:44 PM

This problem is one of the many reasons I swear by a pre-class questionnaire. Before the first class I send all students the questionnaire, which is "due" at some point before the first class. The questionnaire allows me to resolve a number of issues:
1. Preferred name/pronoun/pronunciation. -- Since all students get asked, nobody has reason to complain. And getting all this information before class means I can memorize names *before* the first day, which saves class time.
2. Administrative matters. -- Since I send the questionnaire to the class like a normal class communication, and since I require that they turn it in like a formal assignment, we can get all the technical kinks worked out before the substance of the class starts.
3. Background introductions. -- I usually ask for one or two sentences about why they signed up for the class (if it's an elective), why they came to law school, what they want to do after they graduate, etc. This gives me a sense of who I'm speaking with during the class. So then, for example, if I bring up 1983 actions, I know I have two students who are police officers and two students who want to be civil right lawyers, and I can anticipate some of the comments/discussion.

Posted by: David Ziff | Aug 13, 2016 6:19:31 PM

Ask students their preferred name (with pronunciation) and pronoun. This is also the best way to pick up nicknames, and name changes not reflected on the official school roster (which happens with students who transition or who get married). If you do it with index cards in the first class, you have the correct pronunciations within ten minutes. If you want to cold-call before you have the cards back, ask every student you call on whether you have their name right. Problem solved.

Posted by: James Grimmelmann | Aug 13, 2016 6:02:10 PM

"while others suggested that this provided another good reason to use last names in class"

Why? I gather use of last names would be evidence of good faith that you are respectful. On the other hand, I know this personally (European name), last names are quite open to mispronunciation too.

The concern about being subject to complaints is valid though I would like to know the specifics. If it was a matter of the person repeatedly misstating the first name, I would be somewhat more understanding. There are many first names that are easily mispronounced and college or law school setting might be the first time even that the student had people having so much trouble (the name perhaps more familiar back home).

But, carefully respecting the students equally here should be enough. I can readily see perhaps some misunderstanding arising. Names are quite sensitive things.

Posted by: Joe | Aug 13, 2016 12:10:53 PM

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