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How Professors Should Figure Out How to Say My Non-Anglicized Name

By Sunghea Khil, Contributing Opinion Writer

At the beginning of every school year, I repeat the pronunciation of my name about 100 times, correcting my colleagues and professors: “It’s Sung-hay.” (Even this is a scaffolded version of my name; it’s actually supposed to sound more like “Seong-heh.”) So when the Registrar at the Graduate School of Design introduced the name recording function during orientation, I eagerly recorded my name on my.harvard’s personal information page, optimistically believing that my laborious beginning-of-year routine of teaching professors how to say my name would soon be needless. However, I quickly realized that the Name Pronunciation feature was just another “inclusivity” tool that is performative and appealing without truly contributing towards anti-discrimination efforts.

On Canvas, professors have the option to enable the “Name Pronunciation” tab, though just a few have chosen to activate this function. In one of my few courses with the Name Pronunciation feature, only nine students and three teaching team members out of 51 have recorded their names. Unsurprisingly, nearly all of them have non-anglicized names and are people of color.

Students who use the Name Pronunciation feature expect instructors to learn the pronunciation of their names, and for this practice to happen outside of the classroom — not inside the classroom in front of 44 other students. Professors frequently express a desire to correctly pronounce students’ names, so it also makes sense for them to follow through on their intentions by going through the recordings before the first day of class.

Some may say that it is too much work for a professor to rehearse name pronunciations for their students, as international students — who often have non-anglicized names — account for 77 percent of those pursuing a degree in Master in Public Administration in International Development. Now, let’s consider the reverse: You’re telling me that all this time, 77 percent of MPA/ID students may have been referred to by an incorrect rendition of their name?

On Oct. 13, 2021, Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf announced the latest updates on Diversity, Equity, and Anti-Racism initiatives, stating that, “Our core values call on us as well to oppose racism and other systemic injustices, using our skills and energies to help build a world with respect and dignity for all.” While this statement and its associated pragmatic efforts are valuable in demonstrating the institution’s commitment to inclusion, it seems reasonable to request that faculty and the administration act upon this higher-level aspiration towards anti-racism by first doing the bare minimum: using the tool that they created in order to say students’ names — specifically, non-anglicized names — correctly.

When it comes to practical interactions, microaggressions in the classroom continue to harm students with non-anglicized names, who often belong to under-represented racial and ethnic identities. For example, following the introduction of the Teachly platform — which enables professors to get to know students through self-provided learning profiles, including information about backgrounds, interests, and first languages — within HKS in 2017, even the professors who proudly announce their use of this platform cannot help their own bias against certain students with non-anglicized names. Despite the fact that my first language on Teachly is documented as English, I still receive comments on my policy papers such as, “I'm very impressed at how effective your exposition is, given that you're not writing in your first language.” Further, even though my Teachly profile includes little to no information — other than my name — that would insinuate my foreignness to Americans, I receive feedback such as, “Really good! Impressed with your grasp of US politics.”

Comments like these lead me to wonder: who belongs in the Harvard community as an “American?” Even if you can write and speak proficient English, and understand U.S. politics, others perceive a non-anglicized name as a sign that you are a “foreigner.” If the professor in this case had used the Teachly platform to check their biased assumptions, I might have received constructive academic feedback, like my fellow American peers with “American-sounding” names. We students with non-anglicized names do not pay the Harvard tuition to get complimented for our effective exposition in English or to impress our professors with our grasp of U.S. politics.

Naysayers are often quick to diminish the progressive significance of name pronunciation, but the effects of name mispronunciation go beyond a negative personal experience. Within the Harvard community, learners with non-anglicized names may be overlooked for academic opportunities and regularly feel diminished by people in power, all while Harvard insists on its desire to include diverse perspectives.

Harvard’s pedagogical commitment to learn from diverse perspectives holds performative weight, especially when the most user-friendly and pragmatic of steps are brushed aside by nearly all professors. Practicing a willingness to listen — literally, to listen to recordings of name pronunciation — brings the Harvard community closer to providing equitable opportunities for learners of all backgrounds, and into the mindset that every earnest step taken towards anti-racism is one worth taking.

Sunghea Khil is a third-year joint Master in Public Policy and Urban Planning student at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

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