Thursday, April 05, 2012


Thoughts I Can't Shake

Thoughts I Can’t Shake

The Girl: “If you dug a tunnel to China, would the hole in the earth make a whistling sound as the earth turned?”


I first saw this piece a week or two ago, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since.  It argues that certain jobs, such as management, call on skills that are remarkably hard to discern from the outside.  Therefore in filling those jobs, employers tend to fall back on experience as a criterion, since it’s easier to see and quantify.  As a result, the piece argues, experience is overrated (and overcompensated), and capable-but-unproven people often don’t get the chance to prove themselves in the first place.

There’s some truth to that, though I’d add that experience doesn’t only reveal underlying strengths; it also develops them, at least to a point.  If that sounds sketchy when applied to administration, think of it as applied to teaching; most teachers don’t do the best work of their career in the first class they ever taught.  It takes a little while to get the hang of it.  The benefits of experience aren’t necessarily linear -- I tend to think they’re frontloaded, with diminishing returns beyond a certain point -- but they aren’t zero, either.

But you can only develop those strengths by getting the opportunity in the first place.  And that’s where I foresee administrative hiring in higher ed getting even harder in the next several years.  


‘Tis Spring, which means it’s ceremony season, which means it’s time for the ritual butchering of the last names.  

Anyone who has had to read long lists of unfamiliar student names knows the drill.  And no matter how many safeguards we build in, someone always winds up wincing in pain as the speaker turns three syllables into five, or leaves off a hyphenation, or gets stuck, starts again, gets stuck again, laughs, and generally calls attention to himself.

Even knowing how words are usually pronounced doesn’t necessarily help.  I used to live in a part of the country where Indian names were common, so I learned to pronounce names like “Sapana.”  (It’s pronounced “Suppna.”)  I surprised many a Sapana by getting that right.

Now I’m in an area with lots of French last names.  Some have adopted English pronunciations and some haven’t.  Quick: does “DuBois” rhyme with “Francois” or “Rejoice”?  (Answer: yes.)  And I still haven’t mastered “Nguyen.”  

The only helpful hint I can offer is to commit to one pronunciation, no matter how wrong, and just do it.  The start-stop-start-stop-start thing is worse than just a straight-up error.  And just accept the fact that no matter how hard you try, someone out there will think you’re an idiot.


Program Note: Since my publisher has started using phrases like “it sure would be a shame...,” I’ll be away from the blog next week, trying to make the manuscript look like I meant that all along.  I’ll resume posting for Monday, April 16.  

Re: experience being possibly overrated... one of the stranger hiring practices in private industry is asking past employers what you made. And then using that salary to guide the salary offer at your new place.

Because, we all know, that if you were underpaid in your last job, your new employer clearly can't give you a big raise (too much risk). Yet, if you were slightly overpaid, it is perfectly ok to pay you a bit more (your past employer vetted you somehow via salary).

Somehow past salary becomes a risk management tool, but I fail to see how it's actually tied to risk of hire.
On experience-sometimes you have to go out on a limb and trust your gut that the right person is sitting in front of you regardless of how much experience they have. I wouldn't have gotten my job otherwise.

On names-We still talk about my high school graduation ceremony where one students had 15 (yes, for real)names that were all read. And the reader BUTCHERED every last one. It was hysterical. And that was more than a decade ago. He was a good sport about it. I have a fairly difficult first name which they announcer got right at my undergrad ceremony because my mother was right next to her ready to hand me my diploma. She was the registrar. And you didn't mess with God or her children. :)
On the graduation name-reading: my institution's registrar instituted a policy asking every graduating senior, as part of their clearance process, to come into the office and record their name, as they pronounce it. That audio was then given to our dean, who as a result almost never pronounced a name incorrectly.
KF: cool policy. You must be at a small school? It would be lovely if our dean did that, but a) I doubt he would no matter how small the list of names and b) the list of names is not small for us. Still, cool policy!

Dean Dad: Nguyen = NuWin with the stress on "Win" (or anyway that's what it sounds like to my ears)

And yes, please, consider hiring for HE admin positions outside of the traditional "experiential" pool of deanlets & dept heads! Lots of non-tenure faculty out there with the ability, desire, and disposition, but no way to get into the existing experience pipeline.

Good luck on the book project!
I marvel at your blog output. We'll miss you, but first things first.
As someone with an unpronouncable-to-most-Americans name (long Russian name, after the 3rd syllable with unrecognized consonant clusters, they give up and mumble the rest), I take it in humor. There's no other way. A sympathetic smile more than makes up for it. Actually, for a one-off thing where you're only going to be mangling the person's name once, IMO it's best not to apologize and definitely not worth making them repeat it until you get it right. For people like me who are shy, that's a lot worse than just accepting the mangled pronunciation with a smile and moving on. That way, I'm the only one who knows it was wrong and I don't have to be singled out for embarrassment.
The other thing about Nguyen is that it's pronounced like a question. Nu-Win is close enough otherwise. (I didn't believe Vietnamese was tonal for a long time, because I'd never thought about it.)
One of my best friends has the last name of Nguyen. She told me to pronounce it as Win. So did one of my students a couple semesters later. Don't know if the Vietnamese pronounce some part of the Ng, but as a South Western US native, I go with Win.
As someone with an often-mangled name, I actually want you to GET IT RIGHT. I don't care if it takes 5 tries, I worked just as hard for my diploma as Bob, my parents spent just as much time sitting in uncomfortable chairs as the commencement speaker droned on and on as Bob's, and I expect you to pronounce my 6 letter long name (which only has three syllables and no consonant clusters difficult for a native speaker of English) CORRECTLY, not just mumble and mangle. If your English-centric computer systems would actually allow for accent marks common in many foreign languages we probably wouldn't have to have this discussion, but that's another rant.

My undergrad had us each write our names out phonetically on notecards which we then handed to the name reader. That worked pretty well, at least in my case.
If you had the time and inclination, this site would help you figure out the right way to pronounce names.
What I find ironic is that often, at my school full of difficult to pronounce names of our students, my very American first and last name are butchered, misspelled, etc. (First name has seven letters, maiden name had all of five, married name has five as well. Not difficult at all. Promise.) It's because everyone thinks they're 'easy' and are careless when they look at the names.

Yes, I'd want you to get them right, too.
Good luck with the book. Do you plan to review it here? ;-)

Pronunciation of Nguyen might vary just because of the accent of the owner of the name. My most recent example was born here and says his name without the intonation that native speakers have.

I'd describe it as between Nwin or Nwen, said sort of like like Gwen.

What I find difficult is that I know enough about several languages to pronounce the names correct, but it is impossible to know if the family has Americanized their name (like mine did). French (like your example) and slavic names are the biggest puzzlers in my experience.

But who are we to complain? We have names like Des Plaines, Illinois: the s is voiced in the city name and silent in the state name! Welcome to the melting pot.
Just found you blog and am really enjoying it.

As someone with a difficult to pronounce name, I honestly don't care if it is mispronounced at convocations or other one-off events (and it always is!). It only bothers me if someone who I am interacting with regularly is never able to catch on and get it right.
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