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.


Anonymous said...

I was peeved when, as an undergrad, I noticed that students called all of the male professors "Professor X," but called both female professors by their first names. And it wasn't only an age thing, since one of the female faculty members was relatively senior.

I've been pondering this issue lately and am happy to see some discussion of it on the blog! I think it's important to consider department culture. If it's the type of institution where everyone goes by first names, great. But as a young female faculty member, if other faculty are called "Professor," I darn well better be too.

Anonymous said...

I was a visiting lecturer at an Ivy League school. I signed my emails to the class with my initials. Many students called me professor, others called me Dr, both of these were OK with me, although I have to admit that I felt uncomfortable with the title of Professor (because of impostor syndrome perhaps?) The students that I mentor in a research setting call me by my first name.

The one thing that I CANNOT STAND is being called "Mrs". As you say, we earned our title, and my marital status ought to be irrelevant to students.

Anonymous said...

I was at a pretty friendly R1 school for undergrad, and we called a lot of professors in astro by their first names because they were our research advisors/advisors of our friends (never in physics though), but there was a definite friendliness divide in terms of first name/last name (or awkwardness divide).

Anonymous said...

I have a line at the top of my syllabus about what I prefer to be called ("Dr." for undergrads, first name for grad students). Interestingly, I've had more instances of grad students not being comfortable using my first name than with undergrads not calling me "Dr."

Nicolle Zellner said...

Thanks for the feedback. I, too, sign my emails to students with my initials, an idea I actually got from my male colleague. I think it's an easy (and not awkward!) way to sign off.

I like the idea of adding a line at the top of the syllabus and I may try that next semester. Thanks!

The "Mrs." thing? Well, I think that's just carry-over from high school. I've noticed that it's usually just first-year students who use that term. Sometimes I say, "That's my mom", but the students don't always get that subtle humor.

Department culture is key; I agree with that. Some departments are very formal and some are not. From the data, it seems that Astronomy and Biology are more female friendly and maybe more friendly overall. Did the Physics grad students call their advisors by first names?

Anonymous said...

I am actually quite sensitive to the "Dr." v. "Prof." distinction, despite being American. For a while in grad school I was an adjunct professor at a local college, but did not yet have a PhD, so I could only legitimately use "Professor". Then I taught a class while I was a postdoc, but at an instructor rank, so could only legitimately use "Dr.". The first scenario is quite rare, I think, but the second is very common (with many permanent instructor-rank positions at R1s).

I follow the fairly standard "students in my class should use my title" and "students I'm working with on research should use my first name" (physics/astro).

Megan said...

I absolutely recommend signing all correspondence with students or the media as "Dr." or "Prof.", and to expect students to call you Professor (or Dr. in the case where you have a PhD but you're not a professor.) There is a tendency for students to treat women differently from men, but you can set the tone and expectations on the first day. I think it makes the students more comfortable too -- that you are an expert, that you are an active researcher. But if you're a woman, they don't assume your expertise and background as quickly as they do for men.

Anonymous said...

I started out being pretty informal about whether undergraduate students called me Dr., Professor or by my first name. Any of them was okay. Not Mr. though... As others have posted, I earned my title, thank you very much. Then a few years ago I was teaching an intro calc-based course in physics (this was at non-PhD granting institution). I had an experience that made me rethink how students address faculty.

One day after class all the students (all physics majors) approached me to complain that the homework I was assigning was too difficult and that there was too much of it. Now, I took the same course when I was a student, and i've taught it a bunch of times before and since the time in question. I think I have a pretty good idea of the sorts of problems the students need to learn how to solve and what is required for them to learn to solve them. But leaving that aside, when I was in school (we called all the professors "professor" or Dr) it would never have occurred to me to question the work assigned in one of my courses. I might not have always been happy with my workload, but I assumed that the professor knew what he or she was doing and that they assigned the work they did for a reason, that's why they were teaching the course. Okay, I know, not always a safe assumption, but it's mostly true.

Anyway, when I had this happen I decided that maybe a little more formality was called for, just to make the students aware that there is in fact a difference in experience and expertise between their instructors and themselves. I don't know if the strategy worked. Maybe it was just that one class since none before or since made the same complaint. This is just an anecdote, so maybe it means nothing, but I sometimes wonder if the increasing informality in our society, which I feel is generally a good thing, is causing us to lose respect for experts and expertise, and if perhaps the experience I had was an expression of that.

Elizabeth said...

Since I only have a MS (in Physics), I don't feel that I should be called Dr and certainly not Prof. So I usually correct my undergrads and have them call me Ms. (or Mrs.) Warner. Staff, colleagues, and grads are first name basis around the department. However, when I'm sending my reminder emails (to my faculty guest speakers), I go a little bit more formal and address the recipient with either Dr. or use last name for the grad student if they are the speaker.

I do think it is important to have some level of formality in the classroom and so I'm not comfortable with students who I'm grading calling me by my first name only. And well, I was raised in the South and was taught to address others by their title until being invited to use first name!

Anonymous said...

I'm only in grad school at the moment, so this may be coming from a slightly different perspective than other commenters...

I also went to a small liberal arts college for undergrad. It wasn't really until my junior and senior year that I felt comfortable enough to refer to and call my professors by their first name. It was at this point that two things were happening: 1. My professors began signing their first name instead of Professor X in emails to me and 2. I was becoming more and more involved in a very small department. I do think it helped the small department that the faculty were very comfortable with each other and the older students. I felt very attached to my department by graduation, because there was this sense of community that was almost inescapable.

I then worked for a year teaching physics labs at another small liberal arts college. At this point, I attempted to get students to NOT call me by my first name -- mostly to create some separation and prove to them (and myself) that I was the one running the class and, despite a small age difference, I wanted some respect as an instructor. And, I actually had this conversation with the professors I worked with, about what to request my students to call me.

For the past few years, at a TA at large research institution, I've given up the fight to retain any kind of title. I find it very difficult as a TA to demand that sort of recognition. Some students remain polite and call me by my last name, or even occasionally 'professor' (though obviously, I'm not), but most call me by my first name without invitation.

I feel that for some years after I get my PhD I will attempt to convince students to call me professor or Dr, because as the article says -- we have earned that right. But I also feel, after a while, after I have grown comfortable with my title and the authority that will (theoretically) bring, I will grow more lax and probably go by my first name with students I know well.

Cole said...

I believe titles are used to create boundaries and establish the pecking order in a society. Both of these in the classroom interfere with learning. We have spent 100 years learning about learning, and the "sage on the stage" model is not the most effective method. It is a great model if you want to thin the herd, which is why I think people are quick to say "I earned the title;" we lived through a horrible system of education (notice the word choice "earned" not "awarded" or "participated" suggest a boot camp and/or survival).

But if we want to create a better system perhaps we need to remove the boundaries and ivory towers. I do not want my students to believe anything I say simply because it came from "Dr" Foster. I'd rather they believe it because I made a logical, evidence-based argument. Any other reason and I have failed to teach them to be critical thinkers. In our better model of teaching, students own what they know.

Many of the comments hint at this better system. They allow those students who work with them directly to call them by first name. This lowers a barrier and allows meaningful learning and mentoring to occur. Why not bring this model of learning to all students?

Anecdotally, I have had M.D.s as students in some of my non-traditional classes, including astronomy. I have never had one of these students demand to be called "Dr. X" when I talk to them.

One last comment: This Name Game issue comes more from self-esteem then any where else. Why care how someone else is adressed? If you get "Mrs.," rather than be offended, why not ask the other person why they chose that title? Then listen.

L. Trouille said...

(Comment ported from the AASWomen blog post to this one).

Douglas Duncan said...

For what it is worth, students sometimes call me, "Dr. Doug."
That usually happens in smaller classes where it is possible to establish a good classroom climate. In a class of 160 it is a little more formal.

I encourage "Dr. Doug" because it acknowledges my degree but also an aspect of friendliness. I expect respect in the classroom (student-student and student-faculty) but I am also very aware that many students are intimidated about speaking up. I make it clear that thoughtful answers that are wrong are appreciated and won't be held against students. In fact, we talk about what the classroom atmosphere should be, and I tell them what it is like at scientific meetings. They are almost always amazed. They think that faculty only speak the truth, and are sedate, because that's how we behave when they see us. They don't see us with our peers.

L. Trouille said...

I taught at Chicago State University, a minority serving institution on Chicago's south side, last year. My mentor there, Kim Coble (Dr. Coble), gave me the advice to go by Dr. Trouille. Many of the students at Chicago State come from a background where they may not have had exposure to people who get PhDs. It was important for the students to know their professors were also role models for the PhD career route, that they were being taught by people with that level of expertise, and that these were just regular people (which can help make a particular goal seem more attainable).

Dr. Trouille seemed too formal to me (I agree with other comments about how that can cause an unnecessary distancing), so I went with Dr. T instead. Seemed like a good compromise, along the lines of Dr. Doug.

Anonymous said...

I can agree with the person who stated that letting research students call you by the first name works because there is a mutual understanding of working together towards an endgoal, such as in a research project. In that scenario, a mentor/mentee relationship develops that goes beyond classroom boundaries. Good point.

However, when there is a large class of students, including first-generation college students, asking to be addressed by "Dr." or "Professor" doesn't necessarily promote a pecking order. What it does do is a present a chance to educate students about the path needed to obtain the position a college instructor holds.

Regarding Cole’s other comment, using a title has nothing to do with self-esteem and has everything to do with how comfortable an instructor feels with the familiarity that using first names assumes. Most people would agree that first names are usually reserved for colleagues, friends, and family.

Finally, it seems reasonable that people with MDs don’t require instructors to call them “Dr.” when they are students in an astronomy class. Cole, when you go to the doctor's office, do you call him/her by his/her first name?