Pairs of names, inclusive version
January 22, 2018 8:42 AM   Subscribe

I teach special relativity, and there are many exercises with two observers (twin paradox, simultaneity, etc.) In 'progressive' textbooks, the names at least have some gender parity (Peggy and Ryan), which is better than the older textbooks where both are male. I'd like to use pairs of names that are less WASP-y, especially if they are from traditionally underrepresented groups (e.g. Hispanic).

Two questions:
1) What are some good names? For reasons of gender equity, it would be good to have them code as female/male. (I'm trans, so am well aware of this being slightly problematic). Moreover, I need to be able to easily pronounce them (I can't roll my r's).
2) I worry some about cultural appropriation - should I?
posted by lab.beetle to Education (35 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You know how Alice, Bob, Carol are used in some cs and math texts? I like that it has some gender mixing (Carol is more common for women now but it used to be mostly for men).

I also like that it’s A, B, C, and in my experience it makes it easier for students to follow along and not get too distracted by who’s who.

I often mix in names from non-WASPy cultures, e.g. Alessandro, or Bo, or Carlos, etc., but using all at once can seem forced to me.

So I end up using Bob and Cecilia, or Andre and Betsy, etc.

TLDR, stick to ABC’s look up names from different cultures, maybe find some gender non-specific ones. Don’t worry about appropriation - this is an easy and natural way to make your teaching more inclusive.
posted by SaltySalticid at 8:52 AM on January 22, 2018 [7 favorites]

Random suggestion: Xochitl and Hector

I spend a lot of time around Mexican families and know a number of Hectors and a number of Xochitls, including a Xochitl and Hector sibling pair.

Xochitl looks complicated but is pronounced So-chee. If you want a name that can be more consistently pronounced by a random person reading it, Itzel is also a great choice. For whatever reason, Aztec names are more common among girls. I'm not sure I know any Mexican families who have given their boys Aztec names.
posted by phunniemee at 8:57 AM on January 22, 2018

Babycenter has articles for baby boy and baby girl names that were popular in 2012. I think there are a lot of names on these lists that would be appropriate for physics exercises.

I think that cultural appropriation involves ignorant disrespect - ignorance of history or ignorance of cultural/spiritual significance. So I suppose the danger here would be using a name that sounds "cool" and "ethnic" for an exercise when that name has some deeper significance and consequence for your students. If you stick to the more popular names that shouldn't be a problem.
posted by muddgirl at 8:59 AM on January 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

Chidi and Tahani!
posted by OHenryPacey at 9:02 AM on January 22, 2018 [45 favorites]

Oh and when I need/want X,Y,Z type letters, these days I favor Xian, Yohan, and Zeke. Definitely non-waspy, and if anyone doesn't know Xian is pronounced roughly "she-anne", it's a good thing to know, at least at my experience at large state universities, ymmv.
posted by SaltySalticid at 9:02 AM on January 22, 2018 [4 favorites]

A much beloved college professor always used Mo(e) and Jo(e) which while they are pretty male-reading with the e's included could easily be short for Maureen Josephine, or a bunch of other names.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 9:03 AM on January 22, 2018 [3 favorites] has some great functionality for this. You can search by most popular names in different countries and regions, look up related names (so you can learn how to call someone John in pretty much every language), and browse names in alphabetical order and by gender so you can pick initials that work well as variables.
posted by Mizu at 9:05 AM on January 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

I say go all-in and have some girl-and-girl pairs. You know, get started early on normalising the idea that women don't need to be chaperoned by a male figure to be present in science.

As far as suggesting names, I'm not really from an underrepresented culture so I don't feel able to suggest name pairs from them. But I am Irish and I can give you a couple of my favourite "appears-unpronounceable-to-non-Irish-speakers" names, spelled traditionally:

Caoilfheann (pronounced Kee-lin)
Aoife (Eefa)
Áine (Awn-ya)
Caoimhe (Kweeva)

Dómhnall (Dow-nall)
Cathal (Cahal)
Colm (just like it seems - not every name has a booby-trap silent letter, haha)
Oisín (Usheen)
posted by DSime at 9:06 AM on January 22, 2018 [14 favorites]

In linguistics, the pair that's almost always used in Mandarin examples is Zhangsan and Lisi. I understand that Zhangsan is something like "John Doe."
posted by karbonokapi at 9:16 AM on January 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

And I was going to suggest Jose and Maria. How conventional!
posted by SemiSalt at 9:17 AM on January 22, 2018 [4 favorites]

The LSAT logic games section is full of these (sometimes they use last names, which solve the gender problem). Here are some lists you can pull from:

Manolo, Nadia, Owen, Peng, and Rana
Powell, Shihab, Taylor, Vaughan, Wood, Young, and Zabel
Franco, Garcia, Hong, Iturbe, and Jackson
Frank, Gina, Hiro, Kevin, and Laurie
Myers, Ortega, Paine, Schmidt, Thomson, Wong, Yoder, and Zayre
Farrell, Grant, Hong, Inman, Kent, Lopez, and Madsen
Rao, Smith, Tipton, and Ullman
Mangione, Ramirez, Sanderson, Tannenbaum, Ujemori, and Wong
posted by theodolite at 9:33 AM on January 22, 2018 [13 favorites]

One choice would be Albert and Mileva.

Luis and Maria (from Sesame Street) might be a Hispanic option. Susan and Gordon on Sesame Street are black, although that isn’t obvious from their names.
posted by Anne Neville at 10:05 AM on January 22, 2018

What I do for this is have a notepad file where I jot down cool names and then use them in quiz questions and examples. I apologize to my social media friends for doing this and usually send them a screenshot of the question.
posted by k8t at 10:27 AM on January 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

Boris, Natasha

loved to see the Irish names, many of my Irish cousins' children have such names. We have a Cathal, Roisin (Rosheen) Darraigh (darag) among others.
posted by mermayd at 10:42 AM on January 22, 2018

Misc ABCD girl names: Ava, Beryl, Carmen, Deja
Misc ABCD boy names: Arjun, Bjorn, Chang-Su, Daquan

For examples in textbook puzzles, I'd focus on names that are easy to pronounce for English-only readers; having them pick the wrong pronunciation and letting that stick in their heads for years can cause problems later, when they unknowingly insult someone who has that name.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 11:04 AM on January 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

Think about names popular in multiple cultures, like Maya and Lee.

You risk sounding condescending if you make a show of it (Alex Trebek-style overpronunciation; saying “Mary and Joe, EXCUSE ME, I mean Maria and Jose”; always pairing WASPy names together and othering the non-WASPy names; etc.)
posted by kapers at 11:05 AM on January 22, 2018 [5 favorites]

If I'm struggling to think of names, I open up an old class roster and pick names at random from there. (I suppose I wouldn't use a very unusual name, because I wouldn't want to embarrass a student by conspicuously talking about them in class!)

The advantage of this method is that ensures that, roughly, the names you use match the demographics of your institution...
posted by HoraceH at 11:09 AM on January 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

Great thread and great question! I like to use my students' names from prior years also it feels the most authentic to me.
posted by Wulfhere at 11:12 AM on January 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

You can try the first names of the recent Nobel Prizes in Literature. Working backwards I get:

Kazuo, Bob, Svetlana, Patrick, Alice, Mo, Tomas, Mario, Herta, Jean-Marie, Doris, Orhan, Harold, Elfriede, John, Imre, Vidladhar, Gao, Gunter, Jose, Dario, Wislawa, Seamus...and so on.

Physics is good for diverse male names at least.
posted by vacapinta at 11:14 AM on January 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

How about non-gender-specific names? Leslie, Pat, Lee, Jay, Harper, Jamie, Jean, Jesse, Jordan, Jules, Alex, Charlie, Chris, Corey, Drew, Reed, Riley, Morgan, Kelly, Dana Val, Tyler, Sam, Ryan, Andy, Devin, Francis, Carter
posted by theora55 at 11:25 AM on January 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

I like the idea of looking at rosters for ideas, BUT if you stick to names from past classes you risk preserving institutional inequalities/underrepresentations.
posted by kapers at 11:27 AM on January 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

Came here to recommend Behind the Name, because it is so useful for this sort of thing. Found out someone beat me to it already, which is completely understandable, because, again, it is so useful for this sort of thing.
posted by meese at 11:35 AM on January 22, 2018

My first thought was of Hurricane Names - alphabetical, alternating between male and female. Storms are named all over the world, and the countries surrounding the bodies of water each "contribute" names to the list. Some are just one country, but others have many contributors. For example, storm names in the Western North Pacific/South China Sea are contributed by Cambodia, China, DPR Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, Laos, Macao, Malaysia, Micronesia, Philippines, RO Korea, Thailand, the USA, and Vietnam.
posted by Elly Vortex at 12:28 PM on January 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

I think you want to stick to names that will be easy to read and pronounce for people unfamiliar with the name and/or native culture. Physics is hard enough without having to spend brain power trying to decode the names being used to indicate different observers. It doesn't have to be familiar, just phonetically sensible - most of the names on vacapinta's list would quality (I think - I'm just guessing "Herta" is "her-ta" in which case it is easy if unfamiliar. If its pronounced differently then I wouldn't recommend it)
posted by metahawk at 12:36 PM on January 22, 2018 [4 favorites]

For the sake of your ESL and/or international students, it's important to pick names which are as unambiguous as possible - not everyone has the same exposure to Spanish/Chinese/Gaelic orthography. Conversely, students who are familiar with the language might get tripped up because they'll have to pick between the original and Anglicized pronunciations (shoutout to all the Cui's, who have to listen for Tsway, Sway, Tsooey, Kooey...).

Some Chinese family names (from a variety of romanization systems) which I think would work:

Ai, Da, Fei, Fu, Gao, Hu, Ko, Li, Lo, Lu, Ma, Mao, Mo, Su, Wei, Wong, Wu, Yao, Yi
posted by airmail at 12:53 PM on January 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

Just a quick shout out to the Welcome to Nightvale podcast, which in addition to being delightful also has a lovely selection of diverse character names.
posted by Space Kitty at 1:04 PM on January 22, 2018

I like Mari in this kind of context for a girl; it's a Japanese name and also a nickname for the multitudes of Maria-related names, and it's easy to read and pronounce. Also Gina or Jina, which can be Chinese or Korean as well as European. Ditto Dan for a boy, or Min for either gender.
posted by huimangm at 1:17 PM on January 22, 2018

When I've taught special relativity in the past, I've asked for the class to suggest names. Usually I ask for ones that correspond to the Alice/Bob convention that our book uses (so, in other words, a female "A" name and a male "B" name). This has generally worked at getting more non-WASP-y names and also getting some additional buy-in from the students.
posted by Betelgeuse at 1:41 PM on January 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

One of my old French textbooks used a brother and sister named Denis and Denise.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:49 PM on January 22, 2018

posted by raccoon409 at 2:07 PM on January 22, 2018

Ali, Abu, Abdul, Ahmad, Muhammad, Nor, Nurul, Siti are kind of the John and Jane of Malay names.
posted by divabat at 3:30 PM on January 22, 2018

Wikipedia has a fascinating article called List of Placeholder Names by Language. (e.g. the equivalents of John Doe)
posted by AFABulous at 5:32 PM on January 22, 2018 [9 favorites]

Why not goofy nonsense names? Plib and Plob? Iffy and Jiffy? It'd be kind of funny and nobody will feel left out.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 7:17 PM on January 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

Echoing kapers, I (female POC) would probably roll my eyes and think, "Great, another white person trying to be Enlightened, can we get on with the physics already?" if you insisted on switching things up with obviously "ethnic" names. I'm being uncharitable (and making some assumptions) here but it just feels forced and clumsy, and doesn't make understanding relativity any easier.

On the other hand, I would definitely notice and appreciate it if you picked a set of ethnically ambiguous names that still managed to be easy to remember and didn't feel like they were being put up on display.
posted by yeahlikethat at 9:06 PM on January 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

Thank you all! I really appreciate all the suggestions, both of the actual names and sources for them. I'll do my best.

Good luck with the semester!
posted by lab.beetle at 4:00 PM on January 24, 2018

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