Monday, September 9, 2019
Call Me Professor
What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. – William Shakespeare
Academic and employment titles vary greatly by school. Recent research, according to fastcompany.com, indicates that your job title can affect everything from your identity to your level of significance within your institution and your marketability for future positions. Law school monikers are widely varied and yet almost universally understood to denote status. Instructor, lecturer, adjunct, assistant, associate, executive, coordinator, director, dean, manager, professor – regardless of the job description, the job title suggests a hierarchical significance. But what may matter much more than our varied titles, is when students (and perhaps our faculty colleagues) fail to use them.
I have seen more professors than I can count turn to social media to vent about students not referring to them by their titles. Faculty who teach in law, medicine, humanities, and social sciences have recounted stories of students who refer to them e.g. as “Ms. Clarence”, or “Mr. Stacey”, or worse yet, by first name alone. The responses to this phenomenon of first name or titleless reference are as diverse as the individuals who experience it. I am aware that some faculty members allow, insist, or prefer that their students address them by first name. I fully respect professors’ right to dictate how they wish to be addressed. But barring an express invitation to do otherwise, a student’s refusal to address a professor by title signals (conscious or subconscious) disregard.
Consider the redacted text from an actual email I received from a law student last month:
I am [Name Withheld] a 2L. I was referred to you after speaking with Professor [Omitted] (who is copied on this message). . . . I would like to meet with the both of you to work on my writing.
Please let me know when we can meet.
To which I replied:
Hello [Name Withheld],
Thank you for reaching out to me and welcome back! I can meet with you on [date and time] in my office, which is located in the dean’s suite.
Please use my title and surname in your communications with me, just as you have with my colleague Professor [Omitted].
Thank you and I look forward to working with you.
I did not react to this email —or the countless other messages with similar salutation— with anger or frustration. I genuinely believe that the student was unaware of the status disparity conveyed by the lines of text in the email message. The student later apologized to me and we both carried on as nothing had happened. But this email is not an isolated incident. I hear students, and sometimes other faculty, refer to professors (most often female or minority faculty members) by first name.
Unfortunately, sometimes the titleless reference is intentional and, whether overt or in passive-aggressive stance, must be addressed. It must be addressed not for the sake of title, or even for the sake of the years of education and struggle it took to acquire said title. It must be addressed because status issues resound throughout the institution of higher education. The way we are addressed by our students and our peers is a reflection of perceptions about our status and our positional significance. After all, how can we teach our students the importance of developing professionalism skills, if we cannot insist on having our own professional identities recognized and respected?