Volume 12, Number 3, 2004

Parent TIMES

Point of View: Call me 'Prof'

I'm not ready to endorse with absolute certainty the statement that everything relates to The Simpsons, but I haven't found any evidence to the contrary. Bolstering the proposition was a bit I recently saw in a rerun of an episode called "Lisa the Tree Hugger." Bart gets a job hanging menus for a Thai restaurant on doorknobs. The restaurant owner explains the business strategy to him: "I get more business. Send daughters to small liberal arts college. Swarthmore. Maybe Sarah Lawrence. Call professors by first name." Due to one thing and another, Bart ends up throwing the menus in a dumpster. The restaurant owner sees him and wails, "Now restaurant fail. Children go to state college. Serious students powerless against drunken jockocracy. Baseball hats everywhere."

This sequence got my attention, possibly because it so directly referenced my own life. I would not exactly call the university where I teach a jockocracy, but there are a lot of baseball caps. What's more, I live in the town of Swarthmore, Pa., spend a lot of time on the Swarthmore College campus and have taught seminars there on a couple of occasions.

Especially interesting was the restaurateur's fixation on how professors are addressed. The issue had been in the back of my mind for some time. I came to teaching mid-career, without a doctorate, and didn't give much thought to what I wanted students to call me. Somehow, "Ben" didn't seem right--even though, in the professional world, college student interns always had called me that, no problem. What I wasn't prepared for was being addressed as "Dr. Yagoda." I corrected that the first couple of dozen times, then stopped after it became clear that my quip of choice--"I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV"--wasn't that funny. I realized, in any case, that I had to give students a clue to my preferences, so I started signing e-mails and syllabi "Prof. Yagoda." I continued to do so when I taught at Swarthmore, and students didn't seem to have a problem with it--all except two (males), who were so intent on calling me "Ben" that whenever they encountered me on campus, they inserted the name when it wasn't necessary, the way bad screenwriters do. I stared icily back at them, to no effect.

Seeing the Simpsons episode got me interested in how this issue gets played out for other people in other places. I checked a bunch of books out of the library--The Art and Craft of Teaching, The Chicago Guide to Your Academic Career, McKeachie's Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers and New Faculty: A Practical Guide for Beginners--and was surprised to find that none took up the question of what professors should be called, even when it would have seemed pertinent. Jeffrey Wolcowitz's essay "The First Day of Class," in New Faculty, appears to cover every possible piece of information instructors should convey to students on the first day of the semester, including "the acceptability of raising questions: will there be times set aside for questions during class or can students raise their hands at any time or should all questions be saved for office hours?" But nothing about telling students what you want to be called.

I Googled, of course, and came up with but two nuggets. Carleton College succinctly advises students to refer to instructors "by the title Professor + the last name unless she indicates otherwise." The University of Chicago's web site gave different advice, and was more voluble about it. A Q in an FAQ section is "What should I call my professor?" The answer: "This is an intensely personal decision, Within his or her hearing, Mr., Mrs., Ms., or Miss is suggested, unless you are invited to use the first name. By tradition ... Chicago faculty members do not use 'Doctor' or 'Professor.' It was pronounced publicly in the first issue of the campus newspaper, the University of Chicago Weekly, which came out the summer before the university opened [in 1891]: 'By mutual agreement between the faculty and offices of the University now on hand, the uniform appellation of "Mr." has been adopted in mutual intercourse, thus doing away with all doubts and mistakes as to the proper title of any man connected with the institution.' This custom is also a form of, well, snobbery: since everyone around has a doctoral degree, it's not worth making a fuss over."

Being a journalist, I am a longtime devotee and practitioner of pseudo-social science, so I constructed an e-mail poll on this issue and sent it out to my English department colleagues at the University of Delaware and to some professors I know at Swarthmore. The answers from Swarthmore bore out The Simpsons, somewhat. Of the eight professors who responded, four--a classicist, a historian, a linguist and a sociologist--said they asked students to call them by first names. (The linguist said, "I tell them that I want to call them by their first names and I won't do that unless they call me by my first name.") The other four didn't specify anything, leaving the form of address up to the students. This seems sensible when the professor doesn't really care, a bit passive-aggressive when there is a hidden "right" answer. One political scientist told me that, like me, he icily stared at students when they called him by his first name. He didn't have any better results with this than I did.

For Mark Kuperberg, an economist, this was indeed an intensely personal decision. He wrote me: "I think you have touched on one of the great conundrums of life. I spent my entire student life trying to create meetings with professors in such a way that I would not have to commit to any particular salutation (sort of like, 'Hello, there'). I never found a greeting I found comfortable with. As a professor, I don't recommend anything. I write M. Kuperberg on my syllabus (perhaps subliminally, I still don't want to commit myself). I do think Mark is too informal, but I only correct students if I know them well and in a joking way. And even then, I don't really 'correct' them, since I don't give them my preferred alternative."

Kenneth Gergen, a longtime professor of psychology, said the first-naming thing began in the 60s and 70s: "When authority was thrown into question, all formalities in address virtually disappeared at Swarthmore. As the society reverted into a more conventional (and conservative) form of life, so did the formalities begin to emerge again. But not in all cases. I now find that there is no mainstream student culture. Rather, there seems to be a multiplicity of subcultures, each with its own norms. I have students who call me by my first name, others who use Professor or Doctor or sir, and many who are not quite sure what they should do."

Not surprisingly, things are a bit different at the University of Delaware, which is state-supported, medium-big (13,000-plus students, as opposed to Swarthmore's 1,300) and driven by engineering and business rather than the liberal arts. Only three out of 22 respondents said they asked to be first-named. That makes sense when you consider that they are, respectively, one of the youngest professors in the department; a teacher who mainly gives small fiction-writing workshops; and a longtime adjunct composition instructor and self-described "informal person." Another colleague, who, like me, came to teaching after a long career in the working world, said he asked students to call him "whatever they feel comfortable with," pointedly adding, "I don't feel worried about any loss of credibility by their use of a familiar name."

All of the above are male, which seems germane. Several woman professors indicated that a formal title was helpful or important in establishing a respectful relationship with students. A youngish woman professor said, "I make my students call me Prof. or Dr. since I had some serious boundary issues when I first started teaching (i.e., students thought they were the same name as me, tried to be friends, etc.)." The imposed formality can present a problem, or at least an issue, when student and professor come to work together closely and develop a relationship. Two women told me independently that their solution is the ironic honorific "Doc." "There have been a few young women whom I mentored who landed on 'Dr. Mom,'" one of these professors said. "That was much more complicated to deconstruct."

I have racked my brain trying to remember what faculty were called when I attended Yale as an undergraduate in the '70s. I attribute my difficulty not to the substances for which that era is famous, but to the fact that I didn't have much occasion to call the professors anything at all. There was no e-mail, I wouldn't think to phone a teacher to ask for a higher grade, and if I happened to wander in during office hours to discuss free will or the nature of the universe, the conversation could be negotiated without any requirement for direct address. But, if the need ever did arise, I seem to recall, the preferred form--as at the University of Chicago--was "Mr.," "Miss" or "Mrs."

That contrasts starkly with present-day University of Delaware, where "Mr." is almost never used and the faintly Teutonic-sounding "Dr." beats out "Professor." Several of my respondents confirmed my impression that "Mr." is an elite-college thing, with a faint aroma of prep schools and, as the University of Chicago's web site acknowledges, a suggestion of reverse snobbery. At an institution where respect isn't automatic, by contrast, an exalted title would seem an easy way to curry it.

My conclusion? Forms of academic address are not only intensely personal but are tied up with far-ranging trends and issues of gender, prestige and cultural change. More research is clearly needed, but it would seem that the restaurant owner on The Simpsons made a good first step in assessing the current state of affairs. To take it a bit farther, significant factors leading to first-naming professors appear to be: smallness of college and class size, location in California or the northeast, nearness to the humanities of the subject taught and youth and maleness of the professor. In other words, while you can never be sure, it's a fairly good bet that a 62-year-old professor of engineering at Mississippi State wouldn't take kindly to a student in her lecture class greeting her with a "Hi, Susie."

--Ben Yagoda

Ben Yagoda, UD professor of English, is director of the University's journalism program and author of Will Rogers: A Biography and About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made. He also is co-editor with UD English Prof. Kevin Kerrane of The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism. This essay originally appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education.