“Doctor”? “Instructor”? “Professor Staff”? College Students Don’t Know What to Call Teachers Anymore.

Getting schooled.
March 13 2014 7:27 AM

That’s “Doctor Instructor” to You

In the adjunctified university, what to call professors is more confusing than ever.

140312_professors
"Hi, Bow-Tie Ivory Tower Guy!"

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer

What are you supposed to call a professor? Her first name? “Professor”? “Mrs.” or “Ms.”? “Doctor”? Or, my students’ perennial favorite email honorific, “Hi”? The complexity of this answer—the innumerable rules for who gets called what in the modern university—will astound you.

Rebecca Schuman Rebecca Schuman

Rebecca Schuman is an education columnist for Slate.

Katrina Gulliver, a professor at the University of New South Wales, is in the midst of what she calls an “epidemic” of familiarity—indeed, her Australian students seem “surprised” she has a last name at all. She explains in Inside Higher Ed: “I’ve tried joking about it when students use my first name in class, or writing in emails that I do not do first names with undergrads.” But, she writes, “It’s hard not to come off as uptight, and some students seem genuinely surprised. Other times it’s clearly an attempt to rile me with some disrespect (typically coming from male students who like to undermine female authority).”

Gulliver’s final point is important, and not limited to female faculty: Recent studies show that college students tend to view women and minorities with less respect from the start, and that is often reflected in bestowing names, titles, or lack thereof. I don’t blame Dr. Gulliver for being annoyed; I myself feel rankled when someone who knows full well I have an earned doctorate refers to my male peers as “Professor” or “Doctor” yet calls me “Ms. Schuman.” It happens all the time, and I often hear a sneer in the “izzzzz.”

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However, not everyone is as sympathetic to Gulliver’s plea for proper titling—or the idea that informality comes from disrespect, or that disrespect is even a bad thing. As soon as Gulliver’s column went academic-viral, Flagler College’s Will Miller was ready with a response, which largely amounts to: What’s with the focus on titles, man? That’s a crude paraphrase, but his rejoinder includes the admission that he sometimes teaches in jeans—and that some people (he’s not going to say who; he doesn’t care; their names are definitely not “Will Miller”), find him “cool.”

And as far as the assumed authority his pallid maleness affords him? Not so fast. “I may be a white male,” Miller writes, “but this has nothing to do with why I am comfortable in a classroom.” This assertion caused some definite eyebrow-raising in the faculty world—My whiteness and maleness have nothing to do with the level of inherent respect I am afforded, insists the white guy; pope isn’t Catholic; bear doesn’t crap in woods. But that’s not actually the most troubling part of his rejoinder. That would be this: “I did not pursue a doctoral degree with visions of becoming Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. Instead,” he insists, “I worry about making sure I deserve the respect of my students rather than expecting my title or position to simply demand it. I want students to respect me as an individual, not solely for my role, title, or degrees.” It takes a particularly privileged individual to insist, though he commands unearned respect when he walks into a room (even in jeans), that respect must be earned.

But most students do not believe this. The fact is, the vast majority of college students often call their professors by the “wrong” name or title because the conventions for this are massively, overwhelmingly confusing.

Here’s why. First off, at large research universities, a lot of “professors” aren’t professors at all—they’re graduate TAs. Many are a year or two older than their students, and as such most go by their first names. However, they are almost always listed as “Instructor,” which leads to absurd misnomers—I laugh so much about being called “Instructor Schuman” that my husband had it embroidered on a bathrobe for me.  

In addition to grad students, a lot of professors are adjuncts, like me (for eight more weeks!), and though you can technically call us “Professor,” on the roster we’re usually just listed as “Staff.” We may even ask that you not call us “Professor” so that you recognize that the school treats us differently. But many of us have doctorates, so we like to be called “Doctor.” But some of us don’t!

It gets worse: Many full-time professors don’t have doctorates (MFAs, for example)—so they can’t be “Doctor” either. But they’re tenured professors, so you’d best call them “Professor.” And worse yet, at some institutions, such as Mr. Jefferson’s Universitah, there has long been a tradition of professors with doctorates going by “Mr.” and “Ms.”

If you can remember all these exceptions, then you should have no problem with organic chemistry.

Most students, then, have no idea what to call us, so it’s up to us to let them know, immediately. On the first day of class, and in the syllabus, say: “I’m Dr. Schuman.” Or, “I’m Martika.” Or, “I’m Count von Count.” Whatever you want to be called, name yourself this thing in person and on the syllabus—and if the students don’t catch on, don’t be afraid to correct them (even if, in Gulliver’s case, you have to do this over and over). And here’s one for the ladies: If you ever get called “Miss,” don’t be afraid to tell them that if they’re going to treat you like a dance teacher, they’d best be ready to plié.

Obviously, that slim minority of the willfully disrespectful will just carry on, and there’s nothing anyone can do. And sure, they don’t respect us because they’re “smarter” than we are, but we grade those twerps—and you’d be surprised how often the openly disrespectful are poor students. But most students are truly, understandably clueless as to what to call us. So not only should we tell them what we want, we should also be patient while they figure it out. Me, I’ll be grateful if they ever stop opening their correspondence with “Hi.”

And if you’re a student and unsure? Err on the side of respect and let them correct you downward. Your professors, adjuncts, instructors, and staff worked hard to get where they are, and it never hurt anyone’s grade to acknowledge that.

Rebecca Schuman is an education columnist for Slate.

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