What’s in a Name?

A few months ago, I was checking my professional development account and realized that I had some money left – not a lot, but enough to cover a couple of plane flights or conference registrations. Over the past 25 years I have always tried to attend both the Canadian Society for the Study of Education (CSSE) conference and, also, the one held by the British Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society (BELMAS). These are traditionally held in early June and mid-July, respectively. As this was going to be my last year as a full-time (i.e., paid!) prof, it seemed appropriate to try and go out with a bang. So, I submitted a proposal to each conference and was, fortunately, accepted.

I contacted Accounting to confirm that the PD money was there, and to make sure I could use it as I envisaged. For my Canadian conference in Vancouver there were no issues, but the BELMAS conference in England posed a problem.

“But it’s not until July.”

“Yes, but I want to buy the ticket now, in March, because there’s a seat sale.”

“But you’re not travelling until July.”

“And I have to pre-register before 30 April to get the early-bird rate.”

“But the conference is in July.”


“And you are retiring after 30 June.”


“So, you can’t spend the money for that. It won’t be available then.”

“It’s available now.”

“You’re not retired now.”

We went around this a couple of times and then I gave up. “I’ll show them”, I thought, “I won’t put my university name on my name badge.”

I registered for the conference and when I arrived in Leicester, I was pleased to see that my badge read ‘Private Scholar’.


That’ll show them, I thought, that’s putting it to the man!

A number of colleagues commented on the badge, as it was the only one there with no university affiliation, and I happily regaled them with the story. Most laughed, some just shook their head, but one colleague and friend of many years said: “Why Private Scholar? It sounds like a rank.”

We chatted about that for a bit, and then he suggested “Independent Scholar” would be more appropriate. I said I’d consider that for next year. And we left it there.

Then, as I was driving down from Leicester to London, I started thinking about his comment. What would happen, I wondered, if I turned up at a conference with such a name badge. What would people think? Would they take umbrage at my audacity, would they feel that I was ‘having a go’? After all, are not all scholars independent?

If I were to define myself as such, then what am I saying about everyone else? That their independence has been compromised by their positionality within the academy, by the salaries they receive from the institution? Surely that wouldn’t be what I meant at all.

The second question that came to mind, then, was why is the name of the institution included at all? If all scholars are of independent mind, then what is the purpose of stating where they work? Is there an inherent status involved, so that one might adjudicate the value of a contribution based on the working domicile of the professor? This issue carries on to the various sessions, where anyone in the audience who wishes to ask questions of a presenter is requested to state their name and where they are from, in a job sense. To what end, I wondered, as I navigated the merger from the M40 to the M25.

I have spent the past quarter century going to conferences, and I have acquired a huge collection of name badges identifying me as being from (in sequence) the University of Saskatchewan, University of Alberta, St. Francis Xavier University, University of Calgary, and University of Prince Edward Island. Is this just the academic equivalent of the name on the headband of a Wimbledon tennis player or the shirt of a footballer, basically the name of one’s sponsor? When I transfer ‘between teams’, is it simply expected that I have to wear the colours of the new team and show my allegiance?

In a profession, or a vocation, such as education, where ideas are paramount and contributions are measured by both their experiential and conceptual clarity, then what is the added value in identifying oneself as a person from a particular institution? If the idea is good, then to what extent does the provenance matter? We no longer expect to see a gender identified, and many of the name badges at contemporary conferences do not even contain an academic rank such as ‘professor’ or ‘Dr.’ So why the institution?

Perhaps it is now time to go the next step, and simply have a name badge with one’s name on it. Apart from anything else, this would have the advantage of providing a more sustainable alternative. One could have a name badge prepared for one’s first conference, and then simply keep reusing it until it fell apart or was lost. Or the conference organizers could prepare one for you, with your name and theirs, and then collect them at the end for re-distribution the next time you attended.

But then, of course, one would not have a collection of 100 name badges hanging from a hook in one’s office, to show new colleagues and graduate students quite how prolific one has been in one’s career!

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