President's Commentaryundefined

Harvey S. Leff
July 16, 2007

What's in a Name?

In his famous Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare wrote, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Indeed a name does not change the nature and quality of the thing it labels. On the other hand, a “good” name can attract attention and make one feel good, and a “poor” name might not optimally represent that which it labels and leave one with a cold feeling.

Recently AAPT began an initiative to consider whether its name, American Association of Physics Teachers, properly describes what it stands for, what it does, and what it hopes to do. AAPT and its name are 76 years old, and a name change should not, and will not, be addressed with anything other than extreme care.

AAPT is a complex association and it means different things to different people. AAPT publishes journals for teachers at the college and pre-college levels, and for some AAPT members, the American Journal of Physics and The Physics Teacher are AAPT's sole attraction. For such people, AAPT represents little more than a publisher, and its name is likely of secondary importance.

Others join AAPT to learn good ideas to help improve their teaching. They are interested not only in publications, but also in AAPT workshops, special topics conferences, and annual meetings. For these people, the name American Association of Physics Teachers might be considered a sub-optimal description. These members are learning about teaching per se, and a name such as American Association for Physics Teaching, with the same acronym, might be more appropriate. Indeed, if a name change were adopted, it would be good (though non-essential) if the well-known and heavily used acronym AAPT were retained.

About 13 percent of AAPT members reside outside the boundaries of the United States. Some of these people find the descriptor American attractive because it suggests high quality. And for those who live in North and South America, this descriptor seems appropriate because it does not necessarily imply a specific country of origin. For others, the label American might seem less appropriate. To provide perspective, would a U.S. physics teacher feel comfortable joining, say, a (hypothetical) Russian Association for Physics Teaching? For such people, a more inclusive label might provide an incentive to join the organization. With this in mind, the prospective name Association for the Advancement of Physics Teaching has been considered. Again, this name preserves the acronym AAPT.

Recently, AAPT conducted an Internet-based straw poll, asking whether members agree or disagree with a change to Association for the Advancement of Physics Teaching. Respondents had the opportunity to explain their responses and to email opinions to Among the 1,700+ respondents, more than 75 percent expressed agreement with the name being tested. The large fraction of respondents who favor the name is impressive. From the many comments submitted, it is clear that many feel passionately about their choices, and it is illuminating to examine their rationale for approval or disapproval.

How would a name change affect AAPT? It might help to attract new members, but it also could induce a loss of members. For example, some people feel strongly that the term American should be retained. Or a new name could help to foster a stronger public image. It could help us feel better (or worse) about our professional association. It is important to understand these possibilities before further considering a name change. In this limited commentary, we can glean some information from comments provided in the recent poll.

Among supporters of the name Association for the Advancement of Physics Teaching, comments included:

"The former name did not express any purpose for the group, only a common quality shared by its members. The new name expresses a motivation…"

"Makes good sense! This further expands the possibilities, and better incorporates all types of interested parties. Great idea."

"I like the more inclusive nature of the new name."

"To this AAPT member, not a teacher but actively working on the advancement of physics teaching, the change would be a positive step. It would present AAPT less as a trade union and more as a professional society focused on serving society, aiming at a specific goal."

"I agree because I have always felt that the organization should have a more international flavour and outreach. The fact is that it is international and we just need to emphasize this nature. (From a Canadian member)"

"I'm a student who won a free membership through the U.S. Physics Olympiad, and I thought that membership in the association of physics teachers was a little weird and a waste of time. I would have had a different reaction towards a free membership to the Association for the Advancement of Physics Teaching."

"I'm a high school teacher at an international school in Europe. I have only loose ties to the U.S. (I studied there, but I'm Australian). The new name makes me feel more comfortable with the organisation and I think would encourage more English-language physics teachers across the world to join."

"(1) Association of physics teachers suggests a type of trade union; (2) the aim is better expressed in the new name and (3) to me as a European the new name would be more appealing. In that case you may try to further de-Americanize your association (not only in the name) and involve more international members."

"Much better name, also reflects a more universal mission. I like it!"

"Both ‘American’ and ‘Physics Teachers’ are too restrictive in view of the goals of the AAPT. The AAPT needs members from all countries, and the name of the association should not imply that its membership is restricted only to physics teachers. (From a non-American retired physics and astronomy teacher)"

These and other positive comments were accompanied by opinions from members who disagreed and didn't like the fact that a name change was even under consideration. One such person wrote "This is silly. Don't you guys have anything better to do?" Here is a sampling of other negative comments:

"I don't believe in fixing things that aren't broken. The arguments for the change seem to be rationalizations to justify an idea which has, from my perspective, little obvious merit. Perhaps the AAPT Board has too few productive things to fully occupy its efforts."

"The name HAS served the community well for the past 75 years. Continuity is a good thing, it seems to me. My experience has been that people get confused when names that have been around as long as this one has are changed. The comment about ‘a teacher's union’ seems to be a stretch. If it does change at least the acronym remains the same."

"There is no problem to be solved. There is no need to change the name. There is no evidence that international members are not proud to join. The American Association of Physics Teachers is an organization with a proud and distinguished history. That history is being besmirched by reckless public relations efforts that do nothing to add to the body of knowledge nor the distinguished work that has been done in past in the name of AAPT. The members of this Executive Board should hang their heads in shame for their own lack of knowledge or respect for historical tradition. The word teacher has a deep and important meaning. Shame on you for contributing to its demise."

"The new name is too narrow. The original name is a very clear reflection of the group of people who are members. Although I strongly agree that we need to advance physics teaching, we do much more than that."

"The title should emphasize the learning of physics, not its teaching. The emphasis of the organization should be on learning, which is not identical to teaching—in fact they are usually orthogonal. Teaching is only a part (perhaps a very small part) of the learning process. Many people learn without having the subjects ‘taught’ to them. Museums don't aim to teach but to stimulate. The emphasis, if there is to be a name change, should be on learning, not teaching."

"Tradition is worth something. You have advanced reasons for changing it but none for keeping it. Obviously it is clear what will happen; sounds like the deck is stacked. Our society would appear duplicative of AAAS with the name change. I doubt many non-teachers belong to AAPT."

"The proposed new name is much too specific. AAPT and AAPT members quite appropriately have cast a wider net."

"I do not see any evidence of tangible benefits arising from this change. AAPT is already recognized for what it is. The change seems to me to be cosmetic, and not worth the bother."

"I am a foreigner (Scandinavian) and hate practically everything your . . .administration has done, BUT I am proud to be member of the most active physics teaching association of the world, although it is nominally American. Keep the old name, keep the journal The Physics Teacher! Let us try to get more physics teachers recruited. Physics Education is already reserved. It is the exact name of the journal of IOP, Institute of Physics, of the United Kingdom. The Physics Teacher is better."

Other members expressed mixed or guarded opinions:

"Changing a name that has served so well for so long is not to be done casually, but I do believe the new one is better, while still retaining the acronym."

"I'm a bit of a curmudgeon and I was not enthusiastic about the name change until I read the statistic that thirteen percent of the membership is outside the U.S. since I am currently living outside of the U.S., I suppose it makes sense."

"While I think the new name is well chosen, I am not sure this is a wise move. It is a very serious business decision that is not without risk. Changing the name, in and of itself, will accomplish little and cause confusion. Making it pay off will require loads of background work. I hope that everyone involved understands that this will require thousands of hours of work just to avoid harm. [And] thousands more hours to achieve the desired effects."

"At present the AAPT is still too based in the U.S. If the name change includes a whole new philosophy and approach (including international conferences, involvement in global physics teaching issues (not just U.S. issues), etc.) then the name change would be acceptable. If not I do not feel the name change would be valid. (From a member in the UK)"

"I am actually mixed on the idea of changing the name. I like the old name, and identify with other Physics Teachers. There is an important human element to the old name, Teachers. We are not just a process, or a trend which can attract funding, we are people. There are many professional organizations for physicists, but I like being associated with other teachers because I have been a teacher. The new name may reflect a noble mission and my preferred focus for AAPT, but I hate to lose the identity with other teachers. Teachers are busy, and do not always have the opportunity to network and identify with each other. It is easy to feel isolated, since there are often not many physics teachers at a given institution…I am not sure which way I would vote if it comes up on a ballot. It would be nice to have a blog or other discussion on the possible name change…maybe you could post comments or arrange something."

Some members observed that the American Chemical Society, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and many other organizations function well, and with substantial international members, even with the label American in their titles.

The range of views expressed is notable and thought provoking. Obviously, there are many possible implications of changing a 76-year old name. Before a decision is made to pursue or not pursue a name change, we must fully understand what these might be. An incorrect decision could polarize the membership and weaken the association. We must avoid this. On the other hand, a wise name change could help AAPT expand its international and U.S. memberships.

As of this time, the Executive Board has expressed an interest in considering alternative names, but has not gone further. The straw poll was a preliminary step. Perhaps there should be a more extensive survey to measure responses to more than one prospective new name, or no name change at all. If interest in going further continues, the Board must find out how AAPT section representatives and area committees view a name change. Most important, a name change would require modification of the AAPT constitution, which requires that a ballot be sent to each of AAPT's 11,000+ members.

It is a sobering thought that although about 1,300 members have expressed approval of the name Association for the Advancement of Physics Teaching, representing an impressive 75 percent of those participating in the straw poll, this is only about 13 percent of the total AAPT membership. This supports the notion that a more extensive survey would make sense. As always, your opinions are encouraged, and should be emailed to

I close with a modified form of Shakespeare's well known question about a rose: "Would the American Association of Physics Teachers by any other name smell as sweet?"

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