Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Me, I'll Answer to Anything

Talk about self-conscious: I walked into day 1 of a class with our blog conversation  still ringing in my ears. I was curious to see whether it would change my practice, but it didn't. I told my students, as I do every year, "Address me using whatever makes you comfortable. I will answer to Dr Zwicker, Professor Zwicker, Heather, or even the time-honored <mumbleskipomit>. What doesn't work so well is Mrs Zwacky." (It's funnier if you say it out loud.)

I am not a casual person, but I am very casual about this. I think it's partly because I have always found institutions, and the academy more than most, mysterious places navigable only by a deep local knowledge that I never seem to possess. It's like I'm stuck on Level One of the big university video game, desperately trying to find the golden key that will unlock all the mysteries. For instance, I am not actually very clear on the distinction between Dr and Professor as modes of address, in spite of scrutinizing Lindy's and Weathering's comments (aha! clues!), which I'm pretty sure is not how I've heard this explained to me before. I do not understand the British academic system At All, and I'm hopeless with titles in Germany. True story: I have only recently figured out the Assistant (nonacademic) and Associate (academic) distinction in named administrative positions. And what did I learn the week after cracking that code?: sometimes Assistant Deans/Provosts/etc can be doctorate-toting academics too. So how are you supposed to know, especially in the context of first-name managerialism?

By first-name managerialism I mean administration with a friendly face, the new-world roll-up-your-shirtsleeves we're-all-in-this-togetherness that makes you feel like you could text yr prez ("Dude! What up with the cuts?"), which is good, but at the same time produces baffling advice like "Oh, you should ask Lois." Um, Lois who? Where does she work? Who is she when she's on email? Yeah, that's right, I'm so dumb I don't know who the hell you mean.

That's one way first-name-ism works, whether consciously or not (and I suspect mostly not): it establishes and enforces power relations. That's not to say it doesn't also work in other ways. In Monday's comments SC refers to the first-name ethos as a democratic impulse, which I agree is one of the things I find among teachers - sorry, instructors: a genuine commitment to leveling the playing field in the name of acquiring knowledge together. I love that.

And it's in fact in keeping with that democratic commitment that I have to say I am not comfortable expecting students to call me either Firstname or Dr/Professor Lastname exclusively. I am sensitive to the issues about authority and I take the points about being proud of your doctorate. But students come to the academy from all over, and in my experience they are mostly doing their best to navigate a mystifying institution where the rules always seem to be in flux. More to the point, I have an allergic reaction to asking students to do what we do not (see "expository essay" vs "critical theory"). Using first names is no shortcut to equality. Likewise, asking students to use academic honorifics when my bosses don't makes me feel uneasily like we are playing at Seventeenth-Century Academy. I can't help thinking we'd be better off texting the prez about the budget.

3 comments:

  1. You raise some excellent points, and the UK vs. North America thing is not insignficant. In the UK ONLY full professors can use the title Prof. Thus the only honorific available to lower ranking academics is Dr. or Mr./Mrs/Ms which in a system where people use Dr can indicate lack of a PhD.

    But I also know that many women really appreciate having the gender-neutral Dr to use, not to mention the whole marital-status indicator of the other options. (As my MIL says when asked to indicate an honorific from the standard list: "Why does who I'm sleeping with concern you?")

    As I understand it, usage in French (at least in Canada) does not allow Dr before a name though you can put PhD after your name. Not sure if it is the same for medics (MD at the end rather than Dr at the front?). Though in the UK, interestingly, the highest ranking medical doctors (consultants) do not use the honorific Dr. as they do when they are lower in the hierarchy but revert to Mr./Mrs./Ms.

    I worked in an academic department that believed we should all have the same style for the nameplates on our doors and the whole Dr. Initial Last-name vs. Firstname Lastname thing was a huge topic of debate. I'm not sure if we compromised with Dr. Firstname Lastname though I think that then gives you the option to let students know how to address you.

    Very tricky. We all navigate this differently. And once we are old enough or have been around long enough that we are unlikely to be confused with students, some of the issues disappear.

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  2. Oh! Heather there are many things I'd like to text the prez about...great idea!

    Thanks for your post, too: it has given me quite a bit to think about. I've realized that while I let students know what I prefer to be called (Dr. or Professor) I don't correct them when they email me as Erin, Miss, or Ms. I do, however, correct them when they call me 'Mrs.'

    I've been thinking about why. First off, "Mrs." is the only incorrect title. I could conceivably be any of the others. But, more so, I think my correction comes from the same place that prompts Pantagruelle to explain to her students what titles mean and how they work. In correcting a student who calls me 'Mrs' want to trouble the assumption that if I am of a certain age I must be married/have taken a spouses last name. This too is a deeply personal choice, of course, and all I want to do is fissure the (unconscious?) heteronormative assumptions that this misnomer implies. That said, I aim not to correct in anything but a matter-of-fact tone.

    I absolutely appreciate your point(s)--well said, well made--about the power relations established and enforced both by Dr/Professor Lastname AND by first name managerialism. Indeed in thinking about titles and requests of students I've been more mindful about how I make my requests to be called Dr./Professor (Dr.Professor!)

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  3. I think the problem is less in what they call us than in what they call us in relation to what they call their male professors, our colleagues down the hall.

    If students are calling us Liz, Debby, Candy, or Pam, and calling their male professors professor So-and-So, then there is the germ of a problem. They are less likely to rate female professors as highly as male professors on student evaluations (even when calling us all by the same moniker), and I think they are more likely to expect and insist on extensions, higher grades, and special favours from someone with whom they are on a first-name basis.

    I think it also makes for a situation in which nobody calls you anything at all in a classroom when some students feel comfortable calling you by your first name, others feel better calling you Prof and others like the sound of Dr. In that situation, I think you end up with NoName. Generic. And I don't like those salutation-free emails. I like my students to use some name for me. Not just "hello."

    I had a very bright female student in a 4th-year Honours English course last winter repeatedly address her assignments as being submitted to Mrs. Banting. Not only was she using Mrs., which has been out-dated for 40 years (my 84-year-old mom uses Ms), but my husband visited that same class to talk about writing so if she was so insistent on thinking of me in terms of marital status she might have at least attached his last name to the Mrs. she was repeatedly saddling me with, despite my polite and humorous jests about her marrying me off!

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