02 June 2005

What's in a Name?

Talk to any teacher, and I'd bet that s/he will tell you that there are some "bad" names. Names that send a chill up the spine. Names that when seen on your class roster at the beginning of the year make you want to beg the counselor to create a different schedule. And I'm not talking about the last names of kids---I'm talking about their first names.

One of my cohorts recently became an aunt. Her sister had the baby names all picked out...and if the kid was a girl, she would be named "Harley." My friend and her mother (who are both teachers) pleaded with the mom-to-be to use another name. Why? Too many bad experiences with students named "Harley." They just couldn't stand the idea of a family member with that name. (Luck was on their side. The baby was a boy.)

Some interesting research published recently seems to indicate that a student's name does play a role in the classroom in terms of teacher expectations. This Miami Herald article will give you the full details (id: bugmenot[at]123[dot]com; password: june2005). Some highlights include
  • Teachers have lower expectations for students with names like Da'Quan because they assume the parents who choose names with unusual letter combinations and apostrophes are poorly educated. But teachers did not have the same low expectations for siblings with more mainstream names.
  • The research goes beyond distinctly black names. In other papers also on track to being published, it is asserted that girls of all races with feminine-sounding names, such as Rebecca or Elizabeth, are less likely to enroll in high-level math and science classes.
  • Studies have also found 263 ways to spell Caitlin or Katelynn, mostly among white parents. The further away someone gets from the two most common spellings, the more likely the girl is to have trouble reading when she reaches third or fourth grade.

But why? There are all sorts of possibilities and the article does get at some of them. I really think it has a lot to do with the previous experiences of a teacher. If the first "Caitlynn" you have also happens to have some spelling problems, you may assume that Kaitlinn will, too. Did Du'Quan have a mother with little education or income? Maybe Shaniqua will have the same. And those Fry kids? Holy terrors, I tell you. I had two of them...and five more are coming up through the system. Better hope you don't get one of those. Better hope you get a "Phan" instead because all those kids are geniuses.

None of these are reasonable. As teachers, we shouldn't have a bias against a student because of their name---any more than we should for their gender, skin colour, or religious preference. But it's out there and I have certainly been guilty of the "name game." (Even a Science Goddess occasionally has some superstitions.) I think I will be far more aware of it in the future.

One thing I have tried in the last few years is to have students turn in papers with a "code word" at the top, instead of their name. That way, when I mark them, I rarely know which kid wrote a paper. And it's a simple way to remove any expectations I have based on previous performance to a current assignment. (But now I wonder if I have some expectations based on the code word they choose!)

It's unreasonable to expect that every person be able to be unbiased in their approach to all relationships. We're human. We look for patterns and then apply them to try to make sense of the world. But if we can raise our awareness of some of the more unintentional biases (as with names), perhaps we can make a bit more of a difference.


Stephen Lazar said...

That's really interesting...I had never thought about that. My poor "kate lynns" I have 4 this year who all spell it differently and I have yet to master it.

Anonymous said...

Back when I did a great deal of recruiting, I used to clip all the resumes together at the top so I could take them home or to meetings to review. I could still see all the relevant information just not the name. I didn't do this intentionally and didn't really notice what was happening until the HR people commented on why I couldn't remember the names of the people I requested interviews with and instead identified them by the jobs on the resume. The reason was I never even read the names until I pulled out the resume for an interview request. So unless the applicant put something that would identify their gender, race, religion etc in the body of their resume - I had no idea.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, guilty white Lefties, but people with names such as Da'sean and Latonkeisha often act the way their names sound: at odds with the white mainstream.

Their oppositionsalism is not merely something imagined by rednecks. Their single parent gave them the non-mainstream names to signify the hatred of whites that she teaches her children.