Name-Calling in the Classroom

katBy Kat Kiefer-Newman

There’s a funny line from the film “Pulp Fiction,” when Esmeralda asks Butch what his name means. He answers, “I’m American, Honey, our names don’t mean [bleep].” It’s a family show, but you can use your imagination. But what is in a name?

I recently watched the documentary, Freakanomics (from the book of the same name). One of the segments in this documentary deals with child names. I was surprised that my own daughter’s name (Sarah) is the number one name for middle-class, white, educated, females today. In fact, the name scores pretty high going back in history, and generally across most demographics. For me, it wasn’t much of a choice about what to call her – she got the family name, and her younger sister (Geneveive) got the more creative and interesting name (Geneveive wasn’t even mentioned in the movie, as it turns out).

Names are important, I didn’t need the Freakanomics guys to tell me that. And learning my students’ names is something I push myself to do every semester because I know that if I can call them by name, then we will have a closer connection, and the learning experience will be enhanced (generally speaking, of course). Here’s the challenge with all of that, though: I am terrible at remembering names.

In my perfect world, students would wear “Hello, My Name Is” tags every day. At some point I may embarrass myself enough so that I actually will break out the name tag stickers. Yes, I regularly embarrass myself with students’ names. My worst sin is calling students by the wrong name. Every semester I seem to do this. In my defense, sometimes a person just doesn’t look like his or her name and my brain rejects what’s written on the roll sheet. Just this semester, actually, I kept calling a wonderful man named Jason, Josh. He just didn’t seem like a Jason to me and his name “stuck” wrong in my head. (Ok, I have no idea what “a jason” seems like, I’m just sayin’…). Last semester I called a young man named Brad by another student’s name, Adam. Once, I had cousins in a class and they regularly switched seats and pretended to be each other, knowing I would mix them up — well, their names, anyway.

This crime o’ identity doesn’t just go one way. My students regularly butcher my name, both verbally and textually. Many of them are uncomfortable calling me by my first name (Katherine, not Kat. I tell them they aren’t allowed to call me Kat while they’re in my class; it just seems wrong). I get their discomfort, I really do. Many of them are polite and want to show a respect for my authority. How can I argue with that? Well, I sometimes do, because the writing classes need to be less formal than the, say, American Religions classes I teach. Even if I can break them of calling me Mrs., they still can’t seem to spell Kiefer correctly; worse, they get really confused by my hyphen.

Back in 2003, Ben Yagoda wrote a great piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education (still available here). Slightly more recently, blogger Leslie Madsen Brooks opens up a discussion titled “Titular Trauma: ‘Doctor’ or ‘Professor?’ Much to my dismay, neither Yagoda or Brooks draws a firm conclusion on how to deal with the naming situation. Perhaps one just can’t be found? Names are personal, they are individual; names are how we declare ourselves, claim our place in the crowd. When we don’t like our names we sometimes take on nicknames that we insist people call us by. Most famously, Topeka, Kansas renamed itself “Google” a year ago. When a baby is born people want to know what the name means. Celebrities are some of the best (or worst, depending on how you see it) at choosing…ahem…unusual names for their babies.

All of this begs the question: what’s your name? I want to know. Really. Just don’t be offended when I call you something else.

About the Juggler: Kat Kiefer-Newman currently teaches as an adjunct instructor at two colleges in two different departments. In addition to her busy working (and driving) schedule she attends conferences presenting her research, is in the last stages of finishing her Ph.D., takes care of her elderly father, has recently packed up and sent off to college her second daughter, chats in status updates with her students on Facebook, does not hand out her cell phone number to said students despite their pleadings, and in her spare time she plays in her organic veggie garden. (And though she will never admit it, she also enjoys reading trashy vampire novels.)

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1 Comment
  1. Mel says

    This is still one of my favorite collegiate stories – First day of Finance (stocks, bonds, hedge funds, VERY competitive class, an ‘A’ almost guaranteed a job in one of the top brokerage houses) the instructor wanted us to know that she was accessible and not bent on formality (I think she was the Dept Chair and this was one of those 400 seat lecture halls) so told us “I do not require that you address me as Dr. Wang, you may call me Professor Wang.”

    And no, I didn’t get an ‘A’.

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