Wednesday, January 25, 2006

That's "Dr." Cuz

What do we call our professors? At the time I was there, my undergraduate school had a policy against hiring anyone without a Ph.D., so all of my professors were "Dr. So-and-So." The culture of the school made this address normative, so once when I accidentally slipped and addressed Dr. Mason as "Doc Mason" to his face, my friends nearly had strokes on the spot (Dr. Mason didn't seem to notice or care).

In graduate school, though, everything got fuzzier. Some professors liked to be called by their first names, some by their titles. Some were very aggressive about one form of address or another.

The subject has come up again recently in the Chronicle, both in an article by the pseudonymous Thomas H. Benton (subscription link, I think) and the notorious Ms. Mentor who notes that junior faculty should refer to senior faculty by their first names "even if they're old enough to be your grandparents. If they are, they don't want to be reminded." And, naturally, the subject came up in class.

In the first week of class, a student addressed me as "Cuz." Now, this form of address is disrespectful, but I ignored it, until he repeated it several more times, at which time I said, "That's Dr. Cuz or Prof. Cuz to you." He got the hint (sort-of), and began referring to me simply as "Doc."

I hate when students refer to me by first name, particularly because I refer to them (in the freshman and sophomore classes) by title and last name; my general education classes aren't populated by Treys and Courtneys, they are populated by Mr. Smiths and Miss. Joneses. Regardless of how I refer to them, however, it seems to me that students who insist on calling professors by their first names (or "cuz" or "dude") rarely do so innocently -- rather, it strikes me as a form of aggressive disrespect, the subtext of which is "you can force me to be here and do your stupid assignments, but you can't force me to learn anything or respect you." On top of that, given that I offer the students the courtesy of title, the refusal to return the favor feels like an attempt to establish power over the professor. Silly rabbit.

I started addressing students by title and last name at Wayne, as a way to cut back on disruptive behavior. It worked very well. Freshmen who were just in high school three months earlier often have trouble understanding that the stakes are higher, but when they enter into a space where they are "Mr." or "Miss" controlled by someone who is "Dr." or "Prof.", they tend to get the idea quicker. People in the upper division classes, though, I tend to refer to by first name. By the time they are juniors, they tend not to need such little tricks to keep their behavior at an adult standard, and besides, I like it as a term of endearment. The students seem to get that element too -- I've noticed that my English majors often beam the first time they get a first name address from me ... and they should, because it really does mean they are maturing as scholars.

What about that awkward moment after graduation? The truth is, at that point I don't care anymore, though I rather like the courtesy when they ask "What should I call you now?" I usually reply, "Whatever you're comfortable with," which seems to work well. Some students like the affirmation of being able to call me "Scott" at that point, and a few awkwardly call me "Scott" before returning to "Dr. Nokes." Interestingly, I've noticed that the students I was closest to tend to call me "Dr. Nokes" after graduation, while others slip more easily into "Scott." In the few times I have met my undergraduate professors in the years since, I have called them "Dr. So-and-So," even though I'm certain they would not have been offended had I called them by first name; I simply want to show them the respect I hold for them still.

But isn't all this just a pompous windbag grasping tightly to the small benefits his office offers? I don't think so, because I was the same way in graduate school. I referred to all of my professors by title and hated it when they insisted I call them by first name. It seems to me that the insistence on the first-name basis obscures the power dynamic that defines our relationship. OK, so I can call you "John" -- does that mean you won't be giving me a grade at the end of the semester? It's a faux egalitarianism. I would rather call you "Dr. Jones" rather than pretend we are buddies hanging out for three hours a week.

Of course, all of these principles are affected by personality and relationship. I have one senior former colleague whom I still refer to as "Dr. Lee" because I sense that offering him that respect feels more like affection than distance to him. I now refer to my dissertation advisor as "Lissy" in address, but still refer to her as "Dr. Sklar" in the third person, which I suppose is my way of saying "I am fond of you, but others shouldn't assume that familiarity has bred disrespect." In the same way, I call my colleagues by first name, but always by title when talking about them to students. Even then, I avoid the titles "Mr." and "Mrs." about faculty, and refer to the non-Ph.D.'s as "Prof. So-and-So" to remind the students that I expect my colleagues to receive a degree of respect. Even then, though, there is an exception to this rule when we have married couples with the same last name and it becomes confusing.

Yet, somehow, I've never referred to any of them as "Cuz."

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