Podcast: What’s in a Name?

On the eve of Smith College 2017 Commencement, Margaret Bruzelius was assiduously rehearsing the pronunciation of 200 student names. To get it right, she made no assumptions. This year a new technology simplified her task. She used NameCoach, Smith’s new name pronunciation software (easy to use and available campus-wide). Listen to her story, featuring interviews with Margaret Bruzelius and Dwight Hamilton.

Length: 5:55 mins
Written and Produced by: Yasmin Chin Eisenhauer, ’94
Photo credit: Jim Gipe. 2017
cdk – Sunday by cdk (c) copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.


Has this ever happened to you?

Someone walks up to you at a party, addresses you by name. You know their name, but choose not to say it because, well… you’re not sure how to pronounce it. Unless they refer to themselves in the third person, you’re stuck… waiting for a lifeline.

Now substitute “commencement” for “party.“ In the case of Margaret Bruzelius, Smith College dean of the senior class, associate dean of the college, and one of three name readers at commencement, she has more than 200 names to learn and pronounce.

I sat down with Dean Bruzelius, on the eve of her final appearance as a reader, to discuss how she does it.

Basically every free minute from now until next Sunday I sit down with my list of names and Donna sits down with her list of names and we just go over them again and again and again till we have them sort of in our heads. Everybody’s nervous crossing that stage but Donna and Andrea Rossi-Reder and I are intensely nervous that we’re going to skip a name, that we’re going to do it wrong. So we’re there spotting each other the whole time, and we practice quite assiduously to be sure that we get the names right.

In getting it right, she makes no assumptions. This year a new technology has simplified her task. She’s using NameCoach, Smith’s new name pronunciation software. It’s easy to use. Users voice-record their names, and then listeners, such as Dean Bruzelius, are able to access the recordings online, as often as needed.

So here’s a name that appears “B-R-E-I-N-G-A-N.” My guess is “Breingan” and my guess is wrong. [student reads full name] “Breingan.” Here’s another one “Beasia Sierra Dozier.” I happen to know this student [student reads full name] so that one’s pretty easy. Here’s another one. “Samantha Luangkhot,” I would guess [student reads full name] “long coat” [literally like a long coat] See so if I didn’t have the machine, I wouldn’t know.

I mean I don’t really think that I’m going to be able to authentically pronounce every student’s name but at least I’ll be kind of in the same ballpark that’s the hope at any rate.

This year the Registrar contacted all graduating students and asked them to indicate their preferred name, as well as how to pronounce it.

So we have students who whose preferred name is quite different from the name that we have and whatever they give us we pronounce. So it’s an attempt to make as many as people as we can happy and we really hope very hard that on the day we don’t make a mistake but you see how easy it is.

Beyond its usefulness for graduation, how might NameCoach be used in future instances?

Next year, my understanding is that every student coming in is going to record her name all the first years will be recording at central check-in and I don’t know how they’re going to get the upper class students in but it will be wonderful to be able to go to the directory. I’m assuming that faculty will also record their names and some faculty names are not particularly easy to figure out.

Speaking of faculty, Dwight Hamilton, Smith’s VP for inclusion, diversity and equity, believes that most of our faculty want to create welcoming, inclusive spaces, and NameCoach might help in this effort:

One strong way to put people in a mental space where they feel that they belong is to acknowledge them and learning their name and pronouncing it correctly is key in doing so. We have people here who learn all sorts of “difficult-to-pronounce” names. Beethoven doesn’t read the way that it looks, or Goethe, for example, but people don’t seem to have the difficulty in making the effort to learn how to pronounce those names correctly. I believe that members of the community deserve that same type of effort.

Studies show that our brains are activated when we hear our names spoken. As it turns out, similar regions of the brain are engaged when we make judgments about ourselves.

How many times have you been in a space where you’re just sort of paying attention or maybe not even paying attention but your name comes up and all of a sudden, you’re there?

Eleanor Willemsen stated that, “When the professor engages the student in personal conversation, recognizes her by name and seems to include her in the domain of attention, the subject matter seems more accessible. The nonverbal message goes out that the student is part of the community of people who can do mathematics, statistics, chemistry or whatever, the subject matter is.”

Ultimately, to make this end goal less daunting, the technology must be seamless. The fact that NameCoach has a very low learning curve should make adoption easier.

NameCoach is just like a gift. It also has a little gizmo here so if somebody hasn’t recorded their name I can send them an email and say please record your name. And the compliance with this has been really great.

So Dean Bruzelius, before we conclude, may we please address the elephant in the room. You have an uncommon name and I’m not positive I’ve been saying it correctly.

Okay, so my last name is B-R-U-Z-E-L-I-U-S and it’s pronounced “Bru-sail-ius,” not “Bru-zee-lious” or sometimes I get “Bru-zoo-lini”. I’ve gotten all sort so things. I got a student running after me once saying, “Hey Professor B, whatever your name is” but it’s “Bru-sail-ius.”

Thanks for joining us today. For more information, visit: www.smith.edu/edtech and search for “NameCoach.”


Carmody, Dennis P., and Michael Lewis. “Brain Activation When Hearing One’s Own and Others’ Names.” Brain research 1116.1 (2006): 153–158. PMC. Web. 18 May 2017.

Sue, Derald Wing, Capodilupo, Christina M., Torino, Gina C., Bucceri, Jennifer M., Holder, Aisha M. B., Nadal, Kevin L., Esquilin, Marta. “Racial microaggressions in everyday life: implications for clinical practice.” Am Psychol. 2007 May-Jun; 62(4): 271–286. Web. 18 May 2017.

Willemsen, E. W. (1995), “So what is the problem? Difficulties at the gate.” New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 1995: 15–22. Web. 18 May 2017.


Related Documentation

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