So, in the interest of contributing to this discourse, I tweeted the following:
Stepping back, my first mistake was deciding to create a Twitter account in 2009. Then many other mistakes followed. My most recent mistake was the phrasing of that tweet. But mistakes are the best way to learn, so let me take this opportunity to modify and extend my thoughts on this hornet’s nest of a subject.
First of all, the “ever” was way too strong. In some places, such as in England, Australia or Scandinavia, the norm is to use first names. Which is fine in those countries where that is the norm. Even in the United States, I should have clarified that one’s first email to a new professor should include the honorific. If the prof then says, “Call me by my first name!” then by all means do so.
The point I was trying to make was that being too familiar with your instructors in your initial interactions does not make the best first impression. Erring on the side of formality is always the safer signal to send. As Laura Portwood-Stacer explained a few years ago: “Whether or not you, as a student, actually respect your professor’s authority or position, it’s a good idea to act like you do.”
What was legitimately surprising in the responses to my tweet, however, was the claim that my suggestion was based on insecurity or a desire to preserve hierarchy in a social environment that should be more egalitarian; the fact that this accusation frequently emanated from folks with “Dr.” literally included in their Twitter handle provided that extra frisson of irony that the situation begged for.
Sooo … let the rest of this column provide a deeper explanation for why I said what I said.
The truth is that I used to not care a whit about what my students called me. I attended a small liberal arts college as an undergraduate and then Stanford University as a graduate student. The ethos in both places was pretty casual; most professors encouraged the use of their first name. This was a practice I continued when I started teaching a quarter of a century ago.
And then I began talking about this practice with my female colleagues. And many of them articulated some version of this poem:
I have taught long enough to internalize the point that Harlan and many others have made. Even folks who wish to do away with academic honorifics, such as Tyler Cowen, acknowledge that “Title issues and gender issues intersect in tricky ways.” And so, while I do not punish students for calling me by my first name, neither do I encourage it. As time has passed, my graying visage has made the honorific the default opening for most of my students.
Lot of folks have contested this logic, arguing that the academic equivalent of common courtesy perpetuates hierarchy and power imbalances and whatnot. This response flummoxes me, because in academia, as in many other social systems, of course there is hierarchy and an imbalance of power. My role is to educate and mentor students, to make them intellectually (but not personally) uncomfortable at times, and then to grade them based on their intellectual growth. No amount of “keeping it casual” eliminates that fundamental bargain. Power imbalances are inherent in the system.
Pretending hierarchy does not exist does not erase it; it merely obscures it for the uninitiated. One advantage of formality is that it makes the rules of the game more explicit for those who might otherwise have difficulty parsing everything out — and, it should be noted, that confused category includes professors as well as students.
I respect that not all my colleagues might share this approach to the academy. That’s fair — this is not the worldview I had when I started my career. Obviously, there is room for disagreement. When those who prefer eliminating titles assume that dissenters must be insecure egomaniacs, however, that strikes me as the very opposite of the tolerance they so righteously and indignantly claim as their exclusive preserve.
So, my clarified advice to novices in the university: When first contacting your professors, begin by calling them “professor.” It’s the risk-averse play. In many settings the honorific will be set aside — but not always. And no matter what anyone tries to sell you, never forget that the academy is a hierarchy.