The phrase, “Sorry in advance if I butcher your name!” is a hallmark of the beginning of the semester and professors adapting to new student names, many of which come from diverse origins. But professors now have a new tool to help them avoid misgendering students and mispronouncing names.
In an effort to promote a welcoming, inclusive environment for all students, Pitt’s Center for International Studies has been working to bring the online tool NameCoach to the University for the past year. The website allows one to record the pronunciation of their name, add gender pronouns and even add some history behind their name, all in a personal NameBadge.
Ariel Armony, the vice provost of global affairs, spearheaded the University-wide initiative to assist faculty, staff and students with sharing these defining portions of their identity. He said names are critical to understanding the new face of the United States.
“I like the tagline for Ghazala Hashmi’s State Senate campaign in central Virginia last year — ‘Ghazala Hashmi is an American name.’ It is imperative we embrace the reality of a highly diverse America. This is the new identity of our country,” Armony said. “Pitt should lead as a model in this regard — this is why I hope that everyone at the University embraces this wonderful tool and serves as advocates for diversity, inclusion and cultural sensitivity.”
When Armony started to look for a tool to prevent frequent mispronunciation and misgendering, Ian McLaughlin, global operations support manager, found NameCoach. But it turned out the University was already using NameCoach on a smaller scale.
“We found that the Office of Special Events was already using NameCoach for commencement, but it wasn’t implemented across the University for any other purpose,” McLaughlin said. “Together with the Office of the Provost and Computing Services and Systems Development, we were able to implement NameCoach across a wide variety of platforms, like Canvas and accounts.pitt.edu.”
According to McLaughlin, the Canvas integration has been easy for professors to implement and students to use. First-year biological sciences major Naomi Bastiampillai said she has already recorded her name and specified her gender pronouns after one of her professors requested that she do so in the class syllabus.
“My first thought was, ‘Wow, this is so cool that professors are asking to say my name and giving me that courtesy,’” Bastiampillai said. “For as long as I can remember, teachers would frequently mispronounce my last name — even in my prerecorded high school graduation ceremony. This makes it accessible and cuts out the awkwardness.”
While Bastiampillai was encouraged to create her NameBadge, the University has not required professors to use the technology.
Erica McGreevy, a senior biology lecturer, recalls receiving an email with workshops from the University Center for Teaching and Learning to assist professors with incorporating NameCoach on Canvas, but said the technology was so intuitive that she was able to add the page and her own name recording and pronouns without attending the workshop.
“I think one of the challenges as an instructor is learning our students’ names, and it can be harder if we don’t know how to pronounce them,” McGreevy said. “NameCoach is a tool I can use where if I have a student coming to office hours and I know that ahead of time, I can run to NameCoach and double check their pronunciation and pronouns.”
McGreevy said she thought NameCoach could help develop a sense of belonging. Not only does the sense of belonging make students happier, but it also can positively affect how they’re performing in the classroom.
“A big part of developing a sense of belonging is feeling like you’re a part of a group that respects you and your identity,” McGreevy said. “If the classroom culture adjusts to where we’re using and respecting your chosen pronouns, I think we can help students, particularly students that are transgender or gender-nonconforming, feel like they belong because we are respecting their identity.”
Belkys Torres, the executive director of global engagement, said she knows fully well the feeling of others mispronouncing her name or struggling to get it right.
“Instead of building relationships, we create awkward moments,” Torres said. “With NameCoach, before we meet, I can prepare by checking out your NameBadge to make sure I have the correct pronunciation of your name and understand your preferred pronouns to avoid those uncomfortable silences.”
Torres hopes the entire Pitt community can embrace NameCoach within a few years by adding it to email signatures or sharing it on Canvas. By using it to educate others on who we are and how we identify, Torres said she believes NameCoach can help establish more respectful first impressions and environments, whether it’s in person or online.
“We should all take a minute to remember that we have a really easy opportunity to be welcoming and inclusive,” Torres said. “I think a lot of times we live in a world where we have these very ambitious goals for creating inclusive and diverse environments that it becomes difficult for us to realize that it’s just these small but important steps that make a difference.”