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.


Trish said...

Hey, thanks for this! I haven't read the original article (yet), but I have long struggled with what to ask students to call me-- as an adjunct with an MA, I'm not technically (by job title) a professor, nor am I, of course a Doctor. Mrs. X--- still feels like my mother-in-law, so I've defaulted to my first name, but sort of felt weird about it. Thinking about it in terms of what I've called all my employment supervisors over my working life makes me realize that first names are completely appropriate!

Nicole Papaioannou said...

Thanks for your comments, Trish! I agree that it's not easy to figure out who you want to be when you're stepping into the classroom and still a student yourself or when you aren't part of the traditional hierarchy of tenured faculty. I just think there's a difference between formality for formality's sake and a demonstration of legitimate respect.

Thomas Braylen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.