What are faculty in the US calling students these days?
June 10, 2021 12:00 PM   Subscribe

I teach college classes. My school typically expects the use of titles when students address faculty. My approach has always been to encourage informality as much as possible and use first names. Colleagues who have to struggle more for respect than me have suggested that doing so (in general) makes their lives a little bit harder. I'm happy to change. But, if you insist on being called "professor," how then do you refer to students? My plan is to use their full name with no title for everything. But, that also feels a bit weird. Any other suggestions?

"Mr. and "Ms. Surname" is obvious. But, then I have to guess their gender, which is tricky in person and much more challenging remotely. Students have the option to include pronouns in the roster. I include mine in many places. Many students leave it blank. Having to cross reference some other document adds a level of complexity to an email stream that I can barely keep up with as it is. Using search engines to guess the gender of students named in a language I don't speak isn't realistic. Asking someone how they want to be addressed when responding to a one sentence question about a homework deadline seems overwrought.

I know that one answer is to be very clear at the start of class. I try to do that. In the past, that has included an invitation to call me anything and usually a lame joke that calling me "asshole" might make me sad but won't change their grade. I'm no longer sure the last bit is a good idea.

I suspect students with non-obvious genders learn quickly they can safely correct me. I go out of my way to make that clear. I'm actually less worried about them than making other people in class feel bad. (I don't really call on people individually in class by name, which might change that calculation.) As a white, middle-aged guy in a sportcoat, demanding that an adult Black person call me "Dr." and then using their first name is not an option I'm comfortable with. Asking them to call me by my first name is the easy answer. But, asking students to only call the old white faculty by their first name is also a problem. Using their full name with no title works okay in text, but feels very strange in person.

I'm also happy to hear comments on the topic in general and my perception of it.

(Inspired by a recent question about kids.)
posted by eotvos to Education (45 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Sorry, what's the problem you're trying to solve? Is it that your colleagues want you to stop calling students by their first name, because... it makes the students respect other professors less?

Not sure what exactly you mean by "full name", but if someone referred to me by both first and last name in all our classes, that would be weird and alienating as hell.

To me, calling a professor "professor" isn't demanding deference; honestly, it's probably how I referred to 90% of my teachers in university, unless for some reason I had to distinguish them from another professor.
posted by sagc at 12:07 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]


Call them by their first names, unless they request otherwise.

If I was a student, I’d think you were making fun of what you saw as the petty preferences of your colleagues by doing something weird like full names all the time.
posted by acantha at 12:10 PM on June 10 [21 favorites]


If I am calling someone “Doctor,” I introduce myself as Ms. Lastname.
I expect a horizontal level of address in all situations.
posted by SLC Mom at 12:19 PM on June 10 [2 favorites]


I am pretty confused by this question. It sounds like your colleagues are asking you to have the students address you formally, not the other way around, so why would you want to return the formality if you don't need to? Maybe I'm missing something?

For reference: When I taught college courses, it was first names all around but when I was a grad student at a certain institution, we referred to the professors as "Dr. So and So" and they called us by our first names. I'm a WOC and this didn't particularly feel bothersome or demeaning then and I struggle to find it so now.
posted by sm1tten at 12:21 PM on June 10 [2 favorites]


As a white, middle-aged guy in a sportcoat, demanding that an adult Black person call me "Dr." and then using their first name is not an option I'm comfortable with

You need to be comfortable expecting things of your students that you do not necessarily return equally, because there is a power differential in a classroom, and that's not really a bad thing in and of itself, and doesn't need to be disrespectful simply because it exists.

That said, if you are uncomfortable using first names, I would strongly recommend you ask your students at the start of the course to tell you their pronouns, and then to refer to them based on their preferences.

(You might also find it helpful to ask them other questions so you understand who they are - are they a full time student, or do they also work? Is this class in their major, minor, or are they taking it for other reasons? Knowing your student's circumstances will help you connect with them better in the classroom.)
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 12:23 PM on June 10 [12 favorites]


Response by poster:
Sorry, what's the problem you're trying to solve? Is it that your colleagues want you to stop calling students by their first name, because... it makes the students respect other professors less?
Sorry for being unclear. I've heard (in general, not about me in particular) that faculty who don't look like old white guys find it useful to be insist on being called by title and sometimes wish everyone did the same. I instinctively want to respond symmetrically to students if I insist on that. Guessing the title of students is tough. The question is how you refer to students if you make that choice in a way that seems respectful.

It's entirely possible (likely, perhaps) I'm over-thinking this.
posted by eotvos at 12:23 PM on June 10


Anecdotally, the few white male professors who insist on being called doctor or professor get mocked mercilessly for doing so. But I get the complexities you are working with there. You can always ask students to fill out a google doc or a paper asking how they prefer to be addressed at the beginning of the year.
posted by Corduroy at 12:31 PM on June 10 [2 favorites]


Guessing the title of students is tough.

Why guess when you could ask? The problem your colleagues have is that their students dont respect them/their wishes with regard to how they would like to be addressed. Instead of taking some long out of the way route to address this, you could model good behavior with your students by showing them respect and addressing them as they would like to be addressed (within reason).
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 12:35 PM on June 10 [4 favorites]


There's no 'symmetry'.

Use their first name, which is common, established practice.

Using titles for students will make you appear very out of touch.
posted by Ahmad Khani at 12:35 PM on June 10 [48 favorites]


Even if they're struggling for acknowledgment, I don't know why a professor would think using more than their first name would help.

If I were an instructor I would use first names only, no titles. I feel like the interjection of professor may just result in the professor being less respected in a different way.

The titles are necessary for documentation, but in an active learning environment, come on?
posted by firstdaffodils at 12:42 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]


Unless you want to affect a posh Eton accent and exclusively use Mister Lastname, use their first names.
posted by seanmpuckett at 12:42 PM on June 10 [3 favorites]


I agree that this is a situation where there is no symmetry, and that this is an institutional plus. You can be Dr or Professor or Mr and they can be John and Mammooty.

Thank you for heolping to normalise titles for women and minority academics.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:42 PM on June 10 [9 favorites]


I use “Dr. Lastname” instead of Professor because it feels slightly less formal. I also only use it for undergrads and only in the classroom. It’s only in a sizeable undergrad classroom that my title matters, because that’s the only place where the respect it confers is needed. (I also use it because I want to make very clear that “Mrs. Lastname” is NOT acceptable; I get quite a number of students who make that mistake but would never refer to a male prof as Mr., and I know because I’ve asked male colleagues what they get from the same students— usually it’s Prof or Dr.). I find it easiest to state my preference when I introduce myself at the beginning of term, and to correct anyone who uses Mrs. right away. For former students that I run into at department events or whatever after they are out of my class, I will often reintroduce myself or say “I go by Firstname outside of the classroom”.

I do refer to students by first name, partially because that’s how most students sign their emails to me, and how most students introduced themselves in person in the classroom. If I ever get a student who signs or introduces with Mr or Ms I will use that instead.
I also choose first names for students because that is mostly how they talk to each other— so back when we were in person, it’s the name I’d hear for the person most frequently.

A possible suggestion for email is to use M. Lastname; I don’t know how widespread the interpretation of that as a sign of respect independent of gender is. (I wouldn’t use Mx. because to me that’s specifically the title that goes with the pronoun set they/them; but I don’t know if that’s just in my head).
posted by nat at 12:44 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]


"Mister Lastname" also works very well in a good rich Southern accent, FWIW.

I don't think there's anything wrong with calling students Mr/Ms/Mx... way back in the 90s when I was an undergrad most of my professors called me by my first name, but I have fond memories of one professor who called us all Mr/Ms. It felt old-fashioned and formal but respectful.* I think the key is making it sound and feel natural, and if it feels unnatural to you to use an asymmetric form of address, then maybe Mr/Ms/Mx will feel more natural (though it does bring up the gender aspect).

But yeah, if you don't mind being addressed as Firstname and you don't mind addressing your students by their first names, I do think you are kind of overthinking this, unless your specific colleagues have pointed out a problem with your specific students. I do *not* have a doctorate but I used to do some instruction at a college where it was very much expected that you would address your professors as Doctor (even though many of them held neither a PhD nor an MD), and students would variously address me as Professor, Doctor, and Mrs. (all incorrect) and occasionally "Teacher," which I guess was technically accurate, in that I was teaching them, but "Teacher" sounds like kindergarten to me.

* And he was flexible about it and had a sense of humor about it - while I was taking his class I got internet-ordained in the Universal Life Church, and I guess I jokingly I asked him if he could refer to me as "Reverend" from now on, which he said he would not do, because that's not how Reverend is supposed to be used (i.e. because reverend needs to be accompanied by another title, like Reverend Ms Lastname - this part came with a digression about his current pastor, who wanted to be addressed as Reverend Betty or something, which drove the professor crazy), and we ultimately agreed on Sister Lastname, which was how women in church leadership were addressed in the environment where he grew up. Anyway, he was a delight! I remember actual things from his class, too, not just this whole Ms/Reverend/Sister business.
posted by mskyle at 12:45 PM on June 10


I’m a professor, and a middle-aged, Anglo-passing, male. I ask students to use either of my professional titles explicitly because I want to normalize respectful behavior toward my colleagues that students tend to see as less worthy of respect. So, I can confirm that this is definitely a thing. I also refer to me colleagues as Dr. or Prof. So and So in front of students. I think you are doing a good thing by making this switch.

I address students by their first name regardless of their age, gender or ethnicity. It’s the expected behavior, no one minds. (I have students of all stripes.). You and them aren’t really peers while on campus. So you don’t need to pretend that you are when addressing each other. (If you go have a beer with them, you can say “call me Chuck when we’re just hanging out as friends.)

Finally, while, anecdotally, some students bristle in the way Corduroy mentions, it’s my experience that those students are responding to the professor’s attitude or entitlement, not simply the request to use a title. It’s the “insisting” and it’s implications that the students respond negatively to. There is nothing stopping you from discussing the issue with your students to help them see what you are doing. I use humor when I mention it to students. It doesn’t seem to be a problem. (I also let them use an initial, Prof. O instead of Prof Oddman. And I’m clear that I’m not gonna be an ass who ignores them unless they use the proper title.)

Think of this way you’d address you grandparent’s friends as Sir and Ma’am or Mr and Mrs Whatver, but you wouldn’t expect them to use your tile. That would be weird. Same sort of thing is going on here.

(I should note that if a student explicitly asked me to address them a certain way, I would. )
posted by oddman at 12:48 PM on June 10 [11 favorites]


My high school Biology teacher addressed everyone in class as Miss LastName or Mr LastName. It sounded divinely adult to us mere freshmen.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 12:48 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]


As a white, middle-aged guy in a sportcoat, demanding that an adult Black person call me "Dr." and then using their first name is not an option I'm comfortable with.

I empathize with your feeling here completely. At the same time, I personally have never felt respected when a teacher insisted on calling me Ms. [Last Name]; I actually find it condescending and alienating. I have no idea whether this is a common reaction or not, but I'm mentioning it for what it's worth. My own experience was that every teacher I've had who did this was really into asserting their power, and most were vocally politically conservative.

I also don't feel disrespected when I call a professor "Professor"; in my mind it's a job title, not a badge of glory. Symmetry would be "Student [Last Name]", but that's not a thing in English.


In the past, that has included an invitation to call me anything

You can always ask students to fill out a google doc or a paper asking how they prefer to be addressed at the beginning of the year.

I think a combination of those two things is best. The connection between respect and naming conventions isn't universal -- it has to do with geographic location, family background, and various other factors -- and we're living in a time when we're finally starting to recognize that (a) very little in the human experience is universal, and (b) it's important to listen to what people actually want for themselves.
posted by trig at 12:50 PM on June 10 [7 favorites]


I address my students by their preferred first names. I am very bad at learning names, so I give them little table tents with their preferred first names on them, printed large enough that I can read them. They are welcome to ask for an updated table tent at any time, should their preference change.

As for symmetry: I don't particularly care whether they call me professor, Mr., or by my own preferred first name.

At the same time, I personally have never felt respected when a teacher insisted on calling me Ms. [Last Name]; I actually find it condescending and alienating.

Another vote in favor of this. I did not like it when professors called me Mr. [Last Name]. It could be done respectfully, but it was more often done specifically to reinforce distance (we were Mr/Ms, they were Prof. or Dr.). Using first names created a more casual, collegial atmosphere for me as a student. Consider: if a student comes to your office hours, would you use their first name or continue to use a title right to their face? I find the former welcoming and the latter to be distinctly cold.
posted by jedicus at 12:58 PM on June 10


if you insist on being called "professor," how then do you refer to students?

I teach adults, but not quite college level, and my classes are extremely multi-cultural.

I always address students by their first names. However, they're not quite sure how to address me. So we discuss it, the first day. Many of my students want to call me "Teacher". I'm fine with this, or Mr. Last Name, or even my first name, as long as they're respectful -- but this "Teacher" practice enrages certain of my colleagues, who want to be addressed always as Mrs. Last Name. They think the students are being lazy or disrespectful, by omitting the last name. But when I think back to my college days, just "Professor" was okay -- the last name was optional. I wish the reverse was true, that I could just address each student as "Student" without the bother of remembering everybody's name, but addressing an underling by their rank is only acceptable in the military, I think.
posted by Rash at 1:00 PM on June 10 [2 favorites]


Note that some want to call me Mr. First Name, which I discourage. See this recent Ask for that discussion.
posted by Rash at 1:03 PM on June 10


Are you perhaps uncomfortable with acknowledging the asymmetry in your relationship with your students? This isn't a criticism of you or your intentions or your actions - I just really disagree with your premise that having a middle-aged Black student call you "Professor" while you address them by their first name is somehow unseemly or wrong or enacting oppression symbolically.

I'm a short, round-faced woman who looks much younger than I am. (Not in a good way! When I was in my mid-thirties people used to mistake me for a 12 yr old, and believe me, that is *not* fun.) But unbeknownst to me, people constantly treating me like a much younger person had allowed me to maintain a chummy camaraderie with the young 'uns, an unconscious self-image of myself as more a peer than an elder. Like, I've never asked my kids' friends to call me Mrs. ____, and even when I was a substitute teacher to high schoolers I would say "Just call me by my first name."

I have never consciously abdicated my responsibility as the elder in these relationships, and I have never consciously let myself forget I have a lot of power over the younger people in my interactions with them. Like I *think* about power all the time, you know? I'm very conscious of my role as mentor and community elder person when I'm with young people.

But you know what? Now that I have finally begun to go grey and added some lines to my face, people in shops and restaurants have started to address me as "Ma'am" AND IT FEELS FUCKING WEIRD every single time! It pushes me out of my chummy-peer-camaraderie mode which I have unconsciously been using with these folks until very recently. I never even knew I was inhabiting that space, not even in my mind let alone in reality. But every time someone calls me "ma'am", I BECOME the older person that I already was supposed to be. I see the person I'm speaking with differently, I am much much MUCH more consciously nurturing towards them, giving them more space and room in the conversation, letting them have the spotlight, consciously expressing more curiosity about them and validating their individuality.

My point is, when they call me "ma'am", it turns out I *need* that reminder to play my required role of older adult with more power and more responsibility in that interaction.

Might you, too, need the reminder of people calling you "Professor" in order to keep the power disparity between you and your students at the forefront of your mind? Is it really helping you to symbolically deny that the disparity exists?
posted by MiraK at 1:07 PM on June 10 [13 favorites]


Tangential to your question, but I think this

I also refer to me colleagues as Dr. or Prof. So and So in front of students.

would be an incredibly useful act of solidarity, at least as important as what your students call you, and way more important than what you call your students.
posted by danceswithlight at 1:15 PM on June 10 [11 favorites]


Maybe on the first day you could have a conversation with the group around people being called what they prefer? It could be an opportunity for them to peek behind the curtain re: the implications of using or not using professor for you and for others, and maybe you all could come up with a system that everyone in your classroom can agree on, plus then there's an opening for them to express preferences about how they want to be addressed.
posted by zepheria at 1:16 PM on June 10


Addressing someone as "Mr." or "Mrs." or "Ms" is, I think, falling out of favor in the United States in general. In my Big Tech Corporate Culture world we never use titles of any kind. The CEO is addressed on a first name basis just the same as the custops advisor. They also both wear jeans and a t-shirt.

Whether this is good or bad is not something I have well formed thoughts on, but I can't imagine any way of using formal address for students that wouldn't seem extremely bizarre. When I was in academia I just used their first name and expected them to address me that way as well (but that was also because I was still, as I shall for ever be, ABD).
posted by dis_integration at 1:26 PM on June 10


If it's the norm within the institution, this is super straightforward: "At ABC College it's expected that students will address instructors with a title. You can call me Mr. Lastname, Dr. Lastname, or Professor Lastname. I personally like Mr. Lastname best. I don't like being called sir." To determine what to call your students, you can go with what the norm is at the school ("At ABC college instructors refer to students by their first name, so please complete the handout/online form to let me know how to pronounce your name, if you go by a first name different than what's on the roster, and your pronouns."). Although I prefer calling everyone by their first name, I don't think it's inherently disrespectful or disempowering to have the instructor use a title while everyone else uses first names, because the instructor has a specific role in the group. Like, you might call a minister "reverend" while they call you Jim, or... honestly that's the only one that comes to mind, but my point is, it's not inherently disrespectful to have a person in a specialized role referred to by their title while others are referred to by first name.

But also: if your colleagues with marginalized identities are experiencing disrespect from students, I hope there's a more comprehensive effort under way to address that, and if there isn't you might use some of your privilege/social capital to push for one.
posted by theotherdurassister at 1:41 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]


Professor here. If you are responsible for grading these students, it is much better not to pretend the relationship between you is equal. It gets difficult otherwise. Ironically, your calling them by their first name acknowledges that power difference implicitly, even though it feels like it just reproduces it. But you can't change the power relation this way and therefore bright lines are good for students here.
The hardest thing for students really is the ambiguous thing that happens so frequently in academia when we faculty dislike power differences and then it's messy and weird when it's "you didn't turn in that assignment, you get a C-, Mr. So and So."
I say this as someone who doesn't even believe in grades but has to grade people.
posted by nantucket at 1:41 PM on June 10 [8 favorites]


I tell my students on day one that I am terrible with names but I will try to learn theirs by the end of the semester. When going through roll on day one, I always make sure I have pronounced their first name correctly if I have any doubts. I tell them they may call me "myrealname " but it's a bit tricky to pronounce, so they can call me Professor if they prefer.

In my experience, if you learn names quickly, students will be very impressed, regardless of whether you settle on first name or last name.
posted by wittgenstein at 1:56 PM on June 10


Assign a pass/fail quiz in the first week of the semester that asks the students for their preferred name and their courtesy titles (Mr., Ms., etc) and maybe a general getting to know you question and just move on.

The courtesy title & family name for students in the classroom is definitely out of fashion but I think you can get away with it if you don't mind being thought of as a little vintage/formal.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 2:25 PM on June 10


Anything other than first names all around feels very Paper Chase and super old fashioned.

I'm a tenured Full Professor, white, male, middle aged. I ask them to call me by my first name and I call them by their first names. It makes me feel uncomfortable to be called Professor Lastname, and I would never consider calling the students something else.

Yes, there is unquestionably a power imbalance in the classroom. Do you best to make it less, not more.

I know at my institution, a school-wide DEI initiative has been moving steadily towards a DEI transformed classroom. Recognizing that learning is something that happens within a student who feels included. Not something imposed from without by sages on stages.

It's not about formality, it's about making students feel seen and heard.

Call them by what they want to be called.
posted by MythMaker at 2:28 PM on June 10 [4 favorites]


It may help to lessen your uncomfortableness if you directly address why you would like to be called Dr/Professor/Prof - i.e. that your colleagues don’t get the automatic respect you do as a white male so you’re providing your support to them by being upfront about the situation.

I would strongly lean towards first names (as an ex-academic) in a classroom setting but by providing the justification, you may get some difference preferences when you ask.
posted by hydrobatidae at 3:04 PM on June 10


One more point: you are asking your students to call you Professor/Dr in order to support the colleagues of color/female colleagues who have asked you to do so, -- so go ahead and do it wholeheartedly, or else just go your own way and let the students call you by your first name. But be clear about this: your colleagues are not asking you to create a loophole where again you can rest on your inherent authority as a white man that remains intact even while calling your students formal titles. No, your colleagues are asking you to collaborate in making a culture where they are awarded the respect the deserve by making it into a convention. . Yes, this means a distinction is made between the student, and the professor who earned a PhD and is in front of the room imparting knowledge and is doing the grading. But calling everyone by a formal title is again being secure enough in your automatic innate social authority that it is almost the same as calling everyone by their first name. So if you want to help bolster that convention then do what these colleagues are doing. You don't have to do this, but don't try to make a workaround.
posted by nantucket at 5:48 PM on June 10 [15 favorites]


Another professor here (young female) chiming in...

I've heard (in general, not about me in particular) that faculty who don't look like old white guys find it useful to be insist on being called by title and sometimes wish everyone did the same.

This is true, though as someone who has also followed these discussions in my peer-group and on Twitter, there is some variation between different institutions. If you're at a SLAC, it's possible first-name is still normalized.

But yes, otherwise I thank for you taking this into consideration and being willing to change for those of those that don't as easily command respect from students. I agree though with the general consensus that calling students anything other than their preferred first-name would be very bizarre. I tell my students my preference is Dr. coffeecat or Professor. If they call me Mrs/Ms/Miss coffeecat I generally don't bother to correct them, first-name gets a gentle "I realize learning what to call professors can be confusing to students, but please note that it's generally best to refer to your professors as...."
posted by coffeecat at 6:47 PM on June 10 [2 favorites]


Let me just say that my very wonderful and dear professor in my foundational masters graduate class really screwed me up with titles so I appreciate this question. My professor (a PhD and a white woman about 10 years my senior) invited us all to call her by her first name. It had been about 10 years since undergrad and frankly I can’t really remember what I called professors there but it was a small liberal arts institution so informality was more common so I figured “ah, yes! We are getting advanced degrees so now we are more of colleagues! First names make sense!” It was only about 1/2 of the way through my degree that I found out this was NOT standard practice and like you mentioned, was particularly frustrating to POC professors. It hurts me to think back and realize I may have inadvertently offended people who I deeply respect. Additionally it was an educational failure. By making those expectations clear you hurt not only your POC colleagues but also students who may not have the cultural capital that other do and erode it further by misaddressing professors.

It was a failing of my education to not have been given that directive earlier on how to address my professors and causes me major cringe to look back on. Please please begin your class with something along the lines of “Call me X, but know that you should call your professors Dr. X or Professor X unless invited to do otherwise. I’ll call you but first names but if you’d prefer something else, please let me know by email (or whatever)”

I saw a tiktok recently with black women talking about how they would NEVER refer to Michelle Obama as “Michelle.” This naming dynamic is very real! And I appreciate how it affects your learners as well! Especially at PWI where POC might not be getting deserved respect this is especially true. Many people use the Ms/Mr First name naming convention as an acknowledgment of respect but also familiarity.

In my masters programs there were also medical doctors. They were my friends so I called them by their first names for that reason but also I wonder if they would have also preferred to be called Dr. Y in a learning setting. Give them that opportunity to make that correction for you as well.
posted by raccoon409 at 8:47 PM on June 10 [3 favorites]


When I attended UVa, it was drummed into us that Thomas Jefferson, Mr. Jefferson, did not want the teachers to be called professor or doctor. You were to call all of your teachers either Mr. Lastname or Mrs. Lastname, or Miss Lastname. In turn the teacher called us mostly by first name. Some called us by Mr. or Ms.

It worked well in my opinion. It both acknowledged the power dynamic, the teacher - student dynamic and it kept the pretentiousness of titles earned such as Dr., from creating a rift in the dynamic.
posted by AugustWest at 9:23 PM on June 10


I agree strongly with nantucket. It sounds like your colleagues are saying: The power imbalance between professor and student is real, it's earned, and it's nothing to be ashamed of. Pretending that it isn't there doesn't cost you as much as it costs us. It makes you look cool and friendly to your students, while other aspects of your status do the work of maintaining your authority. We can't get away with that.

If they're using their titles in the classroom while calling students by their first names, then the best way to give them cover, if that's your goal, is to do likewise.

(Is this giving me second thoughts about my answer in the other thread? Yeah, kind of.)
posted by aws17576 at 9:27 PM on June 10 [5 favorites]


…did not want the teachers to be called professor or doctor. You were to call all of your teachers either Mr. Lastname or Mrs. Lastname, or Miss Lastname.

Appreciate this, but this does not hold today in the 2020s.

You can call be by my first name first. That's fine—and this is at a large R-1 institution. Professor or Dr is also fine. But Mr? will always get a sideways glance and is seen as disrespectful. And I think my peers feel similar.

As for other faculty, in the presence of students I always refer to them as either Dr or Professor 'so and so'.
posted by Ahmad Khani at 10:07 PM on June 10 [3 favorites]


It makes me feel uncomfortable to be called Professor Lastname,

right but as the older person with the power and authority, to whom the money flows, you have an obligation to put student comfort above your own. College students are mostly technical adults, but very young ones, and the unearned and unwarranted intimacy of being asked to speak to an older authority figure as their good buddy, their pal, is deeply uncomfortable for most of them.

With exceptions, for sure. and the exceptions are also the most likely to boldly call you Johnny or Sally with or without asking permission first, because after all it's your name and your name is printed on the syllabus. so that's a solved problem.

18-22 year olds are used to calling everyone in their lives of any age by their first names: except teachers, doctors, and parents. attempts to get on their level, as it were, are not inherently skeevy; all kinds of people feel the idealistic pull to be not like a regular professor, but a cool professor. but a regular professor, with boundaries and a heightened sense of responsibility to the young, is not a bad thing to be. and professors who are reluctant to be called professors often display similar resistance to behaving like professors. pretending the power differential doesn't exist does not help to break it down; it makes it easier to exploit and harder for its victims to pinpoint, identify, and name.
posted by queenofbithynia at 11:23 PM on June 10 [3 favorites]


I give them a survey called “introduce yourself” on our LMS (Canvas) and one of the questions is, “What would you like to be called?” I also use the setting that puts my pronouns after my name and I tell them how to access that setting if they would like to do the same.
posted by Knowyournuts at 8:22 AM on June 11


Addendum: I don't think suspending titles has to do with being a "cool" professor, and yes, if someone is pretending influence or power constructs don't exist, it's bound to be problematic.


However, if they're actually suspending those constructs and not pretending, I think they'll have far more success in conversational matters and accruing basic rapport regardless of identity or orientation.

It isn't about being cool, it's about creating an independent zone where people can suspend typical definitions or boundaries (aside those needed to learn) to better learn or consider new concepts. These perspectives are coming from students I saw who were bright but disenchanted, and would've done remarkable work if approached slightly differently. I don't disagree with engaging the influence of a 'normal' professor at all, but I don't think the suspension of conventional roles should be set aside completely.

Obviously it's going to be circumstantial to the instructor and their subject or medium.


And honestly, if someone is trying to be cool it's sometimes palpable: the student's will pick up a 'cool guy' right away, and this may be even more problematic in some ways.
posted by firstdaffodils at 3:06 PM on June 11


Perhaps it's dependent on discipline and institution. I teach filmmaking at an internationally ranked program and don't know any full time faculty who go by anything but their first names at my institution.

But, as I observed above, our institution has made a deep, multi-year effort around DEI which is inherently about flattening the classroom. It's not about anyone being "cool." Quite the opposite. It's about leveling the power dynamic to be more inclusive of a diverse student body.

Setting one's self up in an extreme hierarchical power dynamic, trying to strengthen it, rather than smash it down, only alienates students.

Include the students. Create an equitable learning environment. Learning is what the students do. Creating the opportunities for learning is what we do. Be a guide, not a boss.

Hierarchy is real and oppresses diverse people. Help them to not feel like they are at the bottom. Create equity. Be part of the solution, rather than strengthening the status quo.

Call them by what they would like to be called.
posted by MythMaker at 10:59 PM on June 11


1) Explain your gender-related dilemma to the class
2) The above justifying your introduction of a new practice, calling all them by the title of "Student". "Student Smith, Student Doe" etc. Because you explained that you're solving the dilemma, it's less weird and even something to be proud of.
3) If some Students object, you can take all their alternative suggestions that solve the dilemma (if they have any) and put it to class vote, including the Student option. Emphasize that the result of the vote, if reasonable, is *binding* and will be enforced
posted by Bwithh at 7:31 AM on June 12 [1 favorite]


Whatever you decide to do, you might want to consider asking your students to record themselves saying their name instead of just writing it down or relying on the written record that your institution already has on file. If you're using a modern learning management system like Canvas, that will be easy to do if you make this an "assignment" or even a discussion board topic because the software allows students to record audio and video from their browser. If you're not using one of those tools, you can also make your own recording in class on the first day; I've done this with my cell phone as I asked each student in turn to please speak their name slowly and clearly. In any case, it's sometimes really nice or essential to hear them pronounce their name correctly and in a medium where you can listen to it in private several times to try to get it right yourself.
posted by ElKevbo at 9:32 AM on June 12 [5 favorites]


I've heard (in general, not about me in particular) that faculty who don't look like old white guys find it useful to be insist on being called by title and sometimes wish everyone did the same.

I am at an institution that used to be very proud that students used professors' first names. It was definitely the Done Thing when I arrived, and I'm used to it, and, besides, I have a long last name and honestly don't want to listen to people mispronounce it all day. I have other ways that I ask/expect my students to express their respect, and, despite being a woman in STEM, I am still a White, cishet, not-disabled-presenting person, so I have those privileges working for me.

But, as you have noted, many of my colleagues have found that it creates a better classroom climate and they have better relationships with students if they are addressed as Dr. or Professor.

I explicitly say to my students that professors have different preferences, but that I would like them to call me by my first name, as long as they are comfortable doing so, and if they would rather not, then I prefer Dr. or Professor Lastname.* Then I always, always model my respect for my colleagues by referring to them as "Prof. Lastname" when speaking to students.
posted by BrashTech at 2:58 PM on June 13 [1 favorite]


An article was published yesterday in College Teaching that may be relevant: The Position of Instruction: Faculty Perspectives on Forms of Address by Ruth Poproski, Janel Seeley, and Jenay Robert.
posted by ElKevbo at 8:36 PM on June 15 [1 favorite]


Response by poster: Thanks, all, for the very thoughtful (and in some cases humbling) responses to a poorly constructed question. I appreciate them all and will spend time thinking about them.

I think the immediate take-home messages are that: I'm probably overthinking this, recognizing actual differences in rank is important, and doing things that feel artificial aren't likely to work out well for anybody. I'm still working through the finer points.
posted by eotvos at 12:11 PM on June 17


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