Rule of Names

In “The Rule of Names”, Ursula Le Guin introduces us to a world in which people’s names have magical power over them. The idea reappears in Harry Potter, where Voldemort enchants his very name. And as teachers, we know that names necessarily precede trust, discipline, and learning.

Generally, we choose what our students call us. In some schools, teachers and students use first names only; in others, it is strictly a last-name basis. Honorifics (Ms, Mr, Mrs, etc) indicate — and perhaps teach — respect for one’s elders or superiors. Nicknames or first names promote closeness, friendliness, or treating students “as equals”. We may use different names with different grades, or in different contexts. But clearly, names are pedagogically meaningful.

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The names in use at my school, I suspect, reflect gender, cultural, and positional hierarchies. The following data reflects the most common form of address used by students at my school, when they interact directly with their own teachers (all data has been corroborated by others). The graphs in this post show the number of adult employees at my school, without numbers on the axes to protect privacy (sorry maths students!).

Interpretation: Locally hired employees are more than five times more likely to be called by their first name than foreign hires (significant at p = 0.01). Male teachers are 52% more likely to be called by their last names (significant at p = 0.05). And while 76% of teachers are called by their last name, none of the school’s TAs are so addressed (significant at p = 0.01).
Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 10.37.16 PMI am concerned about this for two reasons:

  1. It creates and reinforces unhealthy stereotypes. Names may reflect class or gender divisions, and this may have unintended consequences. For example, a student may conceptually put her TA (Ms Anna) into the same category as the domestic help, while her teacher (Mrs Smith) is considered to be the same class as one’s parents, with various undesirable outcomes. Or students may subtly be conditioned to believe that teaching is a woman’s career, and that men who teach are only undertaking it temporarily, perhaps on their way to bigger things.
  2. It shows that our work environment may embody some unhealthy biases. For example, the foreigners may call their local coworkers by their first names because those are easier to pronounce, without offering the same courtesy in return. Or some might unconsciously suspect that the TAs are less professional or less dedicated to their jobs.

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I don’t have a conclusion or an answer. But if you do, please leave a comment or write an email to let me know!


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