What's In A Name? Academia, Name Changes, and My Experience

Today I read a piece that hit close to home. The Chronicle of Higher Education published a piece by Andrea N. Geurin-Eagleman on dealing with academia, divorce, and name changes. The article does a good job of relating the concerns of many female academics I've talked to--namely, that changing your name may effectively erase all of the name recognition we've been building in our fields since we started out into the hallowed halls of higher ed.

Fabulous Husband and I are approaching our second wedding anniversary at the end of this month. Both before and after our actual wedding, we talked long and hard about what we wanted to do with our names. Our conversations covered a lot of territory, and these are some of the facets of the issue that came up:

  • I already had a significant number of publications under my maiden name, and was concerned about the academia/continuity-of-recognition factor;

  • We were both over 30 years old when we married, so each of us had significant years behind our birth names. To change them drastically felt jarring and awkward;

  • We also wanted to represent that we were both *adding* someting important to our lives, not erasing earlier portions of it;

  • I'm not particularly proud of my father's side of my family, but I worked long and hard to make my birth name correspond to something good, and that was important to me;

  • I didn't want Fabulous Husband to feel slighted by my struggle over this, and by my lack of assumption that I would automatically take his name (to his credit, he was incredibly understanding of my angst);

  • I didn't want Fabulous Husband's family to think I felt like I didn't want their name;

  • I *did* want to take Fabulous Husband's name;

  • We very much wanted to legally share the same last name;

  • I had poet-angst about the Naming of Things, and what it meant for identity and self and movement through the world to change one's name.

After much long discussion, we decided to hyphenate and become the Harris-Keith family.

That's right. My name is Dr. Colleen S. Harris-Keith, and I am a hyphenator.

We both legally changed our names, so Fabulous Husband had to go before a judge and swear he wasn't changing his name to escape debt, avoid authorities, or avoid identifying himself as a sex offender. It was a lot of work on Jed's part--not just the court paperwork and cost, but reassuring Worrywart Wife that he really wanted this and did not feel pressured, and dealing with his father's side-eye. (To be fair, my mother gave me similar side-eye, and told me to just take Jed's name and be done with the Harris part of things.)

Every couple has their own decision to make in this area. It's an incredibly personal decision. I didn't realize how much of my own personal identity I had attached to my birth name until I was asked if I wanted to change it, so I don't throw shade on how anyone else decides to handle the issue. The naming of things is a powerful force--I believe this as a human and especially as a poet. The naming of ourselves is a significant power, and one many of us don't really consider until we are faced with the option of changing it. (Librarian side note: this option always exists, and you can change your name in most places with just some court fees and paperwork--check with your county clerk office--but I know I didn't truly think of it as an option until I got married.)

I did not, at the time, consider that the DMV, doctor offices, and various other necessaries in life work with software that is particularly unkind to those of us who hyphenate, but they figure it out eventually. I'm called Mrs. Keith, Ms. Harris, and any number of other permutations of the letters in our name, and take it with general good humor (while double-checking that the name on file is actually accurate).

Effectively, I feel like I got to have my cake and eat it too. (After all, what good is cake if you cannot eat the stuff?) In my case, it makes it relatively easy for my CV and other academic work. In my earlier career I appear as Colleen S. Harris, and now it's Colleen S. Harris-Keith, so I feel like I am still recognizable. My husband and I share the same last name, which makes us happy. We're both happy with the identity marker that includes our birth and married names, and it's relatively easy to pronounce (though it makes us sound uber-British, which we're not).

And when Fabulous Husband finishes *his* doctoral program, name-wise we will be The Doctors Harris-Keith, which, you have to admit, sounds pretty damn cool.


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