Monday, March 10, 2014

What's in a Name?: A Response to Katrina Gulliver's "Too Much Informality"

A recent article on Inside Higher Ed called "Too Much Informality" by Katrina Gulliver sparked controversy when it proclaimed that every professor should call themselves by title (Dr./Professor), call students by their title (Mr./Ms.), and expect the same treatment from students. It claimed that using first names promoted a lack of respect and professionalism. Her ideas definitely didn't sit well with me.
For starters, it really upsets me when people blame students and generalize entire populations of young adults as rude and disrespectful. I would argue that those students are the minority. I would even go so far as to say that many of those who blame the students for having no respect, often do not respect the students and consider them beneath them, as I think Professor Gulliver does.
At my first teaching job, I used my first name--Nicole. As a doctoral student, I didn't quite feel comfortable being addressed as professor, and I use more of a guide/coach strategy than acting as the authority, so I thought using my first name reflected my values. Some of my students did not feel comfortable using just my first name, so they called me Professor Nicole or Ms. P. We had a great relationship. They wrote evaluations that praised my teaching and continue, years later, to ask me for advice on school and writing and recommendation letters. I earned their respect by showing them I had their best interests in mind and that I knew my stuff. I didn't simply expect the "professor" title to make me a professor.
I carried that same notion into my next teaching job. After reviewing course evaluations, where students referred to me as "Nicole," I was scolded by the chair who asked me not to be be so informal. I explained my position and why I allowed students to use my first name and was told, "you are the authority." In other words, I had no choice but to refer to myself Professor Papaioannou, even with my returning adult students. Don't get me wrong. My chair isn't a bad-guy figure. I respect her and find that she is an advocate for pedagogy based on scholarship. This is one area, though, where I am forced to comply with a policy that I think is dated.
Regardless of what I call myself, I see little change in students' perceptions of my ability to help them improve their writing. It is as Will Miller states in his rebuttal "Professionalism and Formality": "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." If you're doing a good job, your work will demand respect.
Furthermore, what many people consider rude, may just be opportunities for teachable moments. Emails like the "Hey prof" may be based on a lack of understanding of the rhetorical functions of an email to a professor or may even be a sign that they find you likable enough to say "hey." Most high school students are unaccustomed to emailing their teachers, and most high school jobs are set in casual atmospheres-- camp counseling, waiting tables, working a register, babysitting-- that would not require formal transactions with bosses. Students can't be expected to know what they've never been taught.

Moreover, how you are addressed is often tied to culture. As Gulliver points out, she became more conscious of this shift after seeing how students referred to her in different cultural contexts. She writes: "Perhaps this [tendency to use first names] has struck me particularly as I went from living in Germany, where even to colleagues I was 'Frau Gulliver,' to teaching in Australia where students seem surprised I even have a last name." For one, it upsets me that she positions the German way as better than the Australian way. And of course, Australia is not alone in the first-name basis method. Again, what appears evident is that names have very little, if any, impact on students' ability to act as professionals. The article seems to promote elitism far more than professionalism.

And finally, it made me extremely upset that Gulliver decided that the "Miss" or "Sir" students had used to refer to high school teachers was inappropriate because professor is a much higher position than a mere teacher. First, she disregards that students are, in fact, trying to show respect and makes them seem foolish, instead of recognizing that they don't know what they haven't learned yet. But even more problematic is that she is creating a hierarchy where professors are better than other types of educators. We are cut from the same cloth. 

Most importantly, professionalism is context-based. Professional means something different in different disciplines, cultures, and spaces. In some cases, people are even offended by over-formality in professional settings. Students develop professionalism by participating as members of their field, learning the conventions of their discipline,  and reading scholarship related to their future prospects. It has little to do with what they call their teachers. I called teachers by their first names if they asked to be called that, and it did not influence whether or not I respected them. If anything, it made me more likely to email them when I had legitimate questions or to collaborate with them. Just think of it this way -- Do you call your boss by their first name? If you do, does it make you respect them less? I'd bet not. 

Instead of emphasizing formality, Gulliver should emphasize teachable moments, close reading skills, rhetorical analysis skills, and opportunities for exploring professional discourse. Those are the skill sets that lead to proper, context-appropriate interaction and success in professional settings.

So before you judge a student, consider your own perceptions and treatment of them. Then, select a name for yourself that you are comfortable with.

*This post is a revision and expansion of a previously submitted comment to Miller's "Professionalism and Formality."

**update 5/30/14 -- A student recently pointed out to me that using Miss/Mr. to refer to students is also a problem because it assumes their gender identity. She also pointed out a moment where a student was referred to by the wrong gender label (Mr. when she was a Miss) and horribly embarrassed her and set the tone for student interactions in the class for the rest of the semester. The use of first names would easily have prevented that issue from occurring.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Measure of a Scholar: Doubt and Insecurity During the Dissertation

Right now, I'm at the beginning phases of my dissertation study. It's been quite a journey getting to this point. One I'm not sure that I was prepared for. One that has taken much longer than I thought it would. I'm writing this blog post because I'm sure there are others out there, like me, who will be totally surprised by the path their graduate work takes them, who will be a bit shaken when things don't go quite according to plan, but who probably also need to know that that's ok.

In May 2012, I passed my comprehensive exams. I was so excited! I figured, "it's go time!" In my Virgo over-planning mind, I figured I'd have my prospectus done in the middle of the fall semester, I'd write my first chapter by the middle of Spring, knock out the rest by the following year and defend soon after that. I figured it would take just a little longer than my lengthy thesis for my masters program. I couldn't wait to be Dr. P!

It's been almost 2 years, and I haven't even started writing chapters. 

Instead of the process I imagined, a year and a half to write a dissertation, it took me a year and a half to get a prospectus approved. It wasn't because I was lazy and put things off. I was writing and reading the whole time. I think I have something like 31 drafts. When I sat in my dissertation workshop week after week and heard my peers get their prospectuses approved, start chapters, and defend, it made me feel really inadequate. The hardest one for me to swallow was when a student who began her work only a bit before me-- and who seemed to have followed the same path from lit to writing studies-- managed to complete her dissertation in about a year. I didn't understand why I was falling so far behind. From time to time, I even thought maybe I just wasn't cut out to be a doctoral student, that I wasn't of the caliber to do that kind of research.

Sometimes, I still have those thoughts. It's almost mid-semester, and I've been working on recruiting undergrads for my dissertation study for a few weeks now. I guess because I strongly believe in the work I'm doing, I thought on some level that others would be equally excited. I imagined being overwhelmed with responses rather than underwhelmed. I didn't really take into consideration how difficult it would be to find participants. I thought I'd be doing interviews and have notes already.

My biggest challenge is managing myself.

The dissertation comes with many challenges. It's time consuming. You must learn the conventions of your discipline as you research and write. Sources can be hard to track down. Participants might not flock to you. None of these will be as difficult as managing yourself, though.

It's much more difficult to stop thinking about your insecurities-- how much you don't know, how many times you mess up along the way, how many times you had to ask for help, how slow you must be because Suzie Q is so much further along with her project, how your writing is no where near as good as Dr. X's, how you can't even process thoughts as deep and insightful as the great-and-all-powerful Oz. The worst one for me... how my friends are buying homes, getting married, and having babies while I had to move back in with my parents and am working part-time jobs to make ends-meet.... There's just an endless list of doubts and flaws. You can get lost in the way you don't measure up.

If you're like me, or if you might be about to be like me, then, I have three words of advice for you:

Knock that off!

Seriously, the hardest lesson for me to learn and something I have to constantly remind myself of is that I must stop comparing myself to others in a competitive way. It's great to look at what someone else is doing and use it as inspiration or just notice how well what they are doing is working for them, but saying "why can't I be like that?" is only counterproductive. It clogs up your focus and makes you feel incapable of things you are certainly most capable of. Sometimes, it even makes you want to throw away years of work and sacrifice to have it go away. In simplest of terms: it's bad; don't do it.

Once I figured that out, things got a little better. I try to keep in mind that I am my own person with my own journey. In my case, I have to give myself a little credit for shifting gears and remember that it takes time, probably a lot more than the 2-3 years I've had, to become fluent in a discipline. Changing over from lit to writing studies left me with some things to learn. And qualitative studies definitely take more time and have more variables than making an argument about published texts that are not in flux. I'm also younger than many of my peers in the doctoral program and had some growing room to take up. Plus, assuming I don't get hit by a bus or fall off a cliff any time soon, I'm looking at an 80ish-year life expectancy with plenty of time for buying houses and making babies that I'm not sure I want yet anyway. It will be much harder for my friends who have all that responsibility to decide to pursue my level of education for the next 25 years or so at least. I'll get where I need to be as long as I stay focused.

So, next time you're feeling down, think about this:

If you're working on your doctoral degree, you have an opportunity that most people will never have in their lifetimes. Not just one person, but a whole committee of people, agreed that you were the right choice for that program when pooled with a giant pile of program applicants.

And if you're working on a dissertation, there is a committee of people who believed enough in your ability to perform scholarship that they were willing to take time out of their work to see you complete yours.

Now, go be productive :) and remember....