Wednesday, September 6, 2006

What's In a Name?

What’s in a name?  Or, to be more specific, does it make any difference (within reason!) what we choose to call our programs?  Are students more likely to work with us if we bill ourselves as an Academic Excellence Program as opposed to an Academic Support Program?  Do students really feel stigmatized if the enter an office with the word support prominently displayed on the door?

On the one hand, as an attorney I understand the power of words and even punctuation.  Change a single word or move a single comma, and you may dramatically alter the meaning of a sentence or phrase.  Applying the point to the academic world, think about the difference that a single word like “Professor” can make.  Professor Ramy is entitled to respect and is assumed to possess a certain level of expertise and knowledge.  Mr. Ramy, on the other hand, is more likely to be blown off by his students and has to work harder to be taken seriously.  All that being said, I’m still not sure how much of a difference it makes if I use the word excellence, as opposed to support, to modify program.

I can, however, follow the argument.  The word “support” suggests a program for students who need help.  To some, the word may even suggest a remedial program.  If students perceive our programs as providing only remedial assistance, then we are inadvertently contributing to the stigmatization of our students.  Then, students will stop coming to our offices or attending our classes to avoid appearing like students who need help.

A term like “excellence,” however, suggests a different type of program.  Instead of a program that emphasizes remedial assistance, “Excellence Programs” are for any student who wants to achieve a high level of success.  Even the school’s very best students might take part in an “Excellence Program” in order to hone their already considerable skills.

While I can follow the above argument, I’ve never seen data supporting it.  Has anyone interviewed students as to how they perceive an “Academic Support Program” vs. an “Academic Excellence Program”?  Is the argument so obvious that supporting data is unnecessary?

Assuming for a moment that a program’s name does carry with it some unintended baggage, it seems to me that students are smart enough to go beyond a program’s name and judge it based on who we serve.  If I work exclusively with students who have low LSAT scores, or with those who are on probation, then my “Academic Excellence Program” will quickly be perceived as a remedial program.  Similarly, if I work with students on law review, those taking part in clinical programs, and students with low LSAT scores, then my “Academic Support Program” won’t be perceived as a remedial in nature.

We can change a program’s name, but our students are smart enough to figure out who we truly serve.

Just my two cents . . .

hnr

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