Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Name Game

Ms., Mrs., Mr., Doctor, Professor... what do your students call you?

As we start the new school year and I teach a new crop of first-year students at a liberal arts (LA) college, I'm again faced with a big decision - how should I have my students address me?  I'm proud of the work I did in graduate school and my position at my college. We all worked hard to earn our PhDs - blood, sweat, tears, know the story. Surely, asking the students to call me "Dr." or "Professor" is appropriate, right[1]?  

I talked about this last week with a colleague of mine at a NASA agency. He spent his undergraduate years at a small liberal arts college and remembered that he "avoided the issue" entirely by never using any title. Once he got into the major, and certainly in graduate school, he called his professors by their first names. I spent my undergraduate years at a large research university (R1) - it never occurred to me (or my friends) to address my professors by their first names (unless we were outside of class, of course).  I distinctly remember my undergraduate advisor finally telling me one day, "You can call me Chris".  Once I started graduate school, I used first names more often, but not always.

I ponder the "title" issue because I've learned that several of my colleagues outside of the sciences like to "break down the walls" between professor and student and thus invite students to call them by their first names.  Results from an informal poll at my college show that across all divisions, less than half of the faculty who responded prefer to be called “Dr.” or “Professor”.  The rest use first names, nicknames or have no preference.  I'm not sure how I feel about this.  I like to think that undergraduate students should learn that the road to the PhD, ending with "Dr.", comes after many years of hard work and research experience.  Welcome to college.  Importantly, according to this poll, more scientists than non-scientists prefer to be called “Dr.” or “Professor”, and I think this tells us something about the nature of the disciplines.

To test this idea further, I also sent the survey out to members of the group, astrolrner, which is a discussion group for those interested in improving college-level astronomy teaching and learning.  Since the members teach at all types of colleges, I had them select what type of college (community college, undergraduate-only college, or college/university with Masters and PhD degrees). This time, I also had them tell me if they were male or female.  The results were not surprising.  According to the poll results, the majority of faculty at four-year institutions and at institutions granting Masters and PhD degrees prefer to be called “Dr.” or “Professor”.  Of interest, I believe, to the readers here, is that only 1/14 of female faculty at these institutions prefers that students use her first name or nickname or has no preference compared to 7/18 of male faculty.  Hmm. I expected this. Did you?

One person (male) at a four-year college responded, “Students SHOULD be referring to us by title - Prof. or Dr. Many don't... I've had freshmen call me by my first name without having been instructed to do so. Some faculty want to be 'friends' with students, and use first names. I think that is a great disservice, as students don't get the social skills they'll need in the professional business world.”   Do you agree?

What about the media?  When you are interviewed, does the reporter call you (or write about you as) "Dr." or "Mrs." or "Mr."? (BTW, did you read that, according to one study, fewer women than men are quoted/interviewed by news outlets?)  I'm always surprised when I read an article and I see scientists often (but not always) referred to as "Mr." or "Mrs." or even “Ms.”, even in prestigious national newspapers. Physics Today even accepted a letter or two about this issue.

I don’t have any answers – just data! – so I leave you with a lot of questions. Please feel free to leave comments because I think there are lots of subtleties to be explored.  Is using a title a cultural thing? Is it an LA-vs.-R1-vs.-other-type-of-school thing?  Is it regional?  As suggested by one respondent, does age, i.e, social standards of generations or the age difference between students and instructors, have anything to do with this?  

Could it be that part of the STEM issue – so few students majoring and pursuing careers in STEM fields – has something to do with titles? Or what gender of faculty uses them?  Are science courses perceived as "cold" and non-science courses as "warm and fuzzy", partly as a result of the hierarchical nature of science?  What’s your opinion?

[1] I am aware of the difference between “Dr.” and “Professor” – I chose to use them interchangeably here, as Americans tend to do.