TEACHING AT PITT: How Shakespeare got it wrong: Names and pronouns in your classroom


“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

— William Shakespeare

On Feb. 4, the University Center for Teaching and Learning hosted a session of its ongoing Understanding Our Students series. With the co-sponsorship of Pitt’s Latin American Graduate Organization of Students, a panel of five graduate students of diverse academic and biographical backgrounds led a conversation on how faculty members may strengthen their role as allies of their students and advisees with Latinx roots. In a candid exchange of ideas and experiences, all panelists had anecdotes regarding the transformations (and straight up butchering) their names had endured since their arrival at Pitt.

These five students have found their own ways to resist the subtle, yet profound, effects of unwelcome name changes. In most Latin American countries, it is common for each person to have a first name, a middle name, and two surnames: the first one is the father’s family name, and the second is the mother’s family name. Jordan Barria-Pineda, from the School of Computing and Information, mused about how he was forced to hyphenate his two surnames, just so that he could continue to proudly carry his mother’s presence, legacy and love in all official communications and documents where his name was bound to appear.

What’s in a name, then? Barria-Pineda’s example illustrates the prevalence and strength of family ties and responsibilities in his life. The centrality of family (or familismo) may be embraced differently by different individuals of Latin American descent. Nevertheless, having instructors and classmates say their names — mute h, ñ, double r, accents and all — has a big impact on their feeling seen, accepted and valued.

Many other pedagogical pieces examine the impact of not only learning our students’ names, but of making an effort to pronounce them properly. In an increasingly diverse campus such as Pitt’s, even in small classes, it will not be long until one of our students challenges our capacity to utter phonemes that are not part of what is viewed as the standard English pronunciation.

This challenge, however, is not circumscribed to linguistic differences. It also may stem from proud traditions that welcome name changes as a nod to personal liberties, such as Ms. Tubman’s decision to change her name from Arminta to Harriet. Supporting these traditions is a way for us to hold space for those among us that may feel less seen simply because their names are “hard to pronounce.”

What if we’re challenged by name changes that go beyond race/ethnicity/nationality? In recent years, there has been increasing awareness of misgendering and deadnaming in the classroom, and instructors have been called to examine how quotidian practices like taking attendance by reading from the roster on the first day of class can be detrimental to students’ experience of the classroom as a space safe for learning. LGBTQ students have shared how being addressed by the wrong name or pronoun influenced decisions to drop classes or keep participation to a bare minimum, and many instructors previously unaware of gender non-conforming experiences have updated their knowledge of best practices and vocabulary to better acknowledge the validity of students’ positionality.

An informed ally is an effective ally, and with changing understandings of the role of identity in the classroom, instructors are frequently asked to display the same versatility and willingness to learn they expected from their students.

Below are some low/medium investment strategies that will yield high returns in your students’ educational experiences:

Before classes start

  1. Send a welcome email before the start of the semester. Add your pronouns to your signature and invite students to let you know their preferred names/pronouns ahead of time.

  2. Inform students that the Office of the Registrar has detailed instructions on how to add a preferred name to the system, which will update PeopleSoft, their learning management system (i.e. Canvas or Blackboard) profiles, and their Pitt-affiliated email accounts.

  3. Make sure you include your students’ pictures when you view your roster from PeopleSoft (remember to select the “Include photos in list” feature). If they have updated their profile information (see Strategy 2), you will have a useful tool to help you identify them and more easily connect their faces to their names.

On your first session

  1. If you are partial to printed rosters/attendance lists, circulate a paper version with a “preferred name” and a “pronouns” column that the students can fill.

  2. If you do a roll call on the first day of class, consider two possible strategies: In smaller classes, use surnames first. In larger classes, go by seating location, and let the students introduce themselves to avoid mispronunciations or using the wrong name.

  3. Instead of asking students to share pronouns in front of the class as an icebreaker, ask students to share their pronouns on a notecard (this mitigates the pressure for students to “out” themselves if they’re uncomfortable).

Through the term

  1. Encourage students to use the appropriate way of writing and saying their names. Let them know that most first and middle name changes will be acknowledged on their diplomas, and that they will get to record the most accurate pronunciation to be used during commencement. This capability will soon be available through Pitt’s LMS with the integration of an app called NameCoach.

  2. If you make a mistake (e.g. mispronounce a name, misgender a student), apologize, correct yourself and move on.

  3. Stay informed. Best practices can change as understanding evolves, so find trusted, timely resources that can help you stay up-to-date.

During the Understanding Our Students event, Marialexia Zaragoza, a Mexican-American graduate student from the School of Education, shared that she asks others to avoid shortening her name to “Maria.” As an Equity and Justice Scholar, Marialexia is aware of the systemic forces at play when folks at the intersection of minoritized identities are mis-named. Many of Pitt’s students, faculty and staff may not be able to fully articulate why having their names mispronounced or their pronouns misused stings, but that does not make the feeling less real.

So, contrary to Shakespeare’s verse, those who see their ethnicity or gender identity obliterated when a pronoun change request is not honored or their names morph from Rosa to Rose, may find that much goes into a name, particularly the potential to make connections and learn. Indeed, without this baseline recognition of identity and culture, if “Rosa” is called by “any other name,” she may find her learning experience significantly less sweet.

Lizette A. Muñoz Rojas and Josie L. Rush are teaching consultants in the University Center for Teaching and Learning.