Monday, June 6, 2011

Allowing Students to Use First Names

I haven't been keeping up with What's Wrong With the World as much as I used to, but this item caught my attention. In it, Jeff Culbreath passionately objects to the practice of professors allowing students to call them by their first names. He writes that

it's undeniable that an increasing number of academics in the United States prefer to be called by their first names, viewing honorifics as pretentious and arrogant. The blame for this social calamity can be placed squarely at the feet of Marxist sociology, which more or less permeates society today. For the Marxist everything is reduced to power relationships, including titles and formalities. The use of honorifics exposes power relationships that are not supposed to exist (better translated as "you're not supposed to notice") in our egalitarian society, interfering with the liberal's preferred method changing reality by ignoring it.

The first thing we know about any professor who rejects honorifics is that he defines his own position primarily in terms of power and privilege rather than knowledge or accomplishment, regarding the former as instruments of oppression. He feels embarrassed or guilty about this and prefers not to be reminded by his title. He has little respect for his own achievement, considering it something anyone else could do - which sounds deceptively humble. Behind the facade of humility there are some disturbing corollaries. It usually follows that such a man has even less respect for the achievements of others, [emphasis his] which he thinks anyone else might have easily accomplished, most especially himself. He views many of those who fail to reach his own level of achievement with either pity or contempt, as the only legitimate explanations for inequality in his egalitarian mind are: a) oppression; or b) moral fault.


Now, it's awfully amusing how he lays this at the feet of Marx. And then there's the bit in italics, about what usually follows this pernicious informality. These seem to be clear instances of exactly the kind of bad behavior our scientist friends were complaining about last week, where the philosopher asserts that some phenomenon is caused by or correlated with some other phenomenon, but where this relationship has not been subject to empirical scrutiny and has in fact just been made up. Examples of this in the quoted text include: that people who eschew titles view them as pretentious and arrogant; that they do this because of marxism; that they do this because they object to relationships of unequal power; that they nevertheless define the relationship in terms of unequal power, regardless of the details; that they feel embarrassment or guilt over this inequality of power; that they regard accomplishments as oppressive; that they respect the achievements of others even less than they respect their own; that they believe that just anyone could earn a doctoral degree; that the only legitimate reasons for an inequality of achievement are oppression and moral fault. Wowza.

I allow my students to use my first name. I do this not because I have no respect for my own achievements, but (in part) out of my tremendous respect for the achievements of real doctors. I do not see my role as defined by power and privilege rather than by knowledge and achievement; I see my role as involving all of these things. I have certain powers and privileges, and I am qualified to have these powers and privileges in virtue of my knowledge and accomplishments. But the most important thing about these powers and privileges is that they come with very serious responsibilities. I am competent to do this job in virtue of my qualifications, but they have little or nothing to do with the fact that I can be trusted with the responsibility of doing it.

I have these powers, privileges, and responsibilities, as well as my knowledge and achievements, whether or not I insist on being addressed in a way that accentuates them. I am inclined to suspect that this widespread trend of using first names is a result of the fact that the academic student-teacher relationship is, like a lot of things, now less formal than it was. People don't dress up the way they used to, and they don't use titles the way they used to.

I also have some experience with this practice from the perspective of an undergraduate. My undergraduate professors all permitted students to use first names--some allowed all students to do so, while others insisted on the honorific from students at the intro level while they were more relaxed with students in the upper division. This did not decrease my respect for them, their knowledge, or their accomplishments. I was, and continue to be, in awe of how smart and accomplished these people were and are. They were the smartest people I had ever met in real life, and I declared philosophy as my major, before I had any inkling that I wanted to pursue it as a career, in the hopes that a philosophical education would make me as smart as they were. I did not get the idea that just anyone could achieve what they had achieved.

And so it seems to me that if they respect you only because they call you doctor, they don't respect you. It seems to me that whether they call you doctor or not is irrelevant to whether they respect you. And it seems to me that, in an environment in which nobody else is doing it, insisting on being addressed as doctor will make them respect you less because they will think you're a jackass.

--Mr. Zero

P.S. Cullbreath is really distasteful. Here he is reprimanding a commenter for the "offensive" practice of using the feminine pronoun for a generic person.

63 comments:

Anonymous said...

I don't allow my students to call me by my first name. I can't imagine doing so. Part of this has to do with weird quirks with how I was raised (I wasn't allowed to call any adults by their first names until I was around 15). But a large part of it has to do, I think, with stereotypes.

I'm young for the profession (late 20s), I'm female, I'm short, I have a somewhat high-pitched voice, and I'm fat. When someone gets a mental image of a philosophy professor, I'm nowhere near what they imagine. This works against me. I don't feel like I can just expect to be taken seriously. I don't feel like I can expect my ideas and intellect to earn me respect, all on their own.

Of course, that's how I feel -- maybe my feelings aren't right.. But I suspect they are. I was surprised how many students call me "Ms X" or "Mrs X," even when I call myself "Dr X." I was surprised how many students call me by my first name, even when I give them no indication that I allow that. I don't think I can ignore what this implies about how students think of me.

Maybe when I'm older and (hopefully!) thinner, I can expect respect to follow me into the classroom, regardless what name I use. But I don't have the privilege right now of eschewing the symbolism of being called "Dr X." I like to think, of course, that my behavior in and out of the classroom gains me the respect of my students, but that's something I have to work to earn. I can't take it for granted that I'll be taken seriously, and so I can't take the title of "doctor" for granted, either.

Euthyphronics said...

The problem is clearly worse than Culbreath appreciates. Nobody ever addresses anyone else using a formal "you"-pronoun; we've lost that part of speech, and now all our second-person pronouns are informal (Nevermind that "thee" used to be informal and "you" formal; the latter is informal now. This is clearly a sign of the degree to which the Marxist power-flattening tendencies and lack of respect for our betters has gripped society.

C said...

"I allow my students to use my first name"

Sure, sure, but you make _us_ address you formally.

Anonymous said...

Wow. That whole rant by Cullbreath (and the subsequent claim that using the feminine pronoun for a person of indeterminate gender is offensive) is scary. However... when I was an undergrad myself, I never would have dreamed of calling a professor by her first name unless she made it clear it was her preference (and I only had one professor that did so while I was in undegrad--a prof fresh out of grad school teaching an upper-division class with only five students). I would also be offended if an undergrad student called me by my first name without an indication that that is my preference (well, I would...I am still a grad student, so I've only taught tutorials, where I make it clear I prefer my first name). This probably has to do with my upbringing--I was taught from a young age to refer to adults as Mr./Mrs. So-and-So, and I still refer to my high school best friend's mother, for example, by that title.

Mostly Anonymous said...

Well, if WWTW think we shouldn't let students use our first names, I'll be sure to announce that all students should use my first name in all subsequent classes I teach.

I'm not convinced that what Culbreath is doing here is what the scientists were objecting to last week, though ... somehow, I get the feeling that what the scientists were picking on is more respectable.

Mr. Zero said...

Hi anon 10:24,

I see what you're saying, and I don't disagree. Whatever gets you through the night, as they say.

Hi Euthyphronics,

I agree with your data, but I disagree with your interpretation of it. The pertinent consequence of your observation is that "hey you" is a formal manner of address.

Hi anon 11:19,

when I was an undergrad myself, I never would have dreamed of calling a professor by her first name unless she made it clear it was her preference

Me neither. When I was a senior, we hired a new assistant prof. In spite of the fact that my department had a long-standing "policy" (maybe it didn't rise to the level of a policy) of first names, and in spite of the fact that I was one of the most well-regarded seniors/majors, I used 'doctor' until the person let me know it was unnecessary. I did that for all my profs, now that I think of it.

Hi C,

Sure, sure, but you make _us_ address you formally

But I kick it down a notch.

Duck said...

Interesting – when I got to grad school I called my professors "Doctor _______," and another grad student said that to do so was to be a suck-up, and that I should say "Professor _________."

Bobcat said...

First, why do you read WWWTW? I may have asked you this before, and if so, sorry for not having remembered your answer.

Second, re: the actual issue: I teach at a state school with a very ethnically diverse population. Most of our students come from working class backgrounds. In this environment, wearing a suit and tie and having your students address you formally is actually thought by many of my colleagues (and, to a large extent, me) to show your students that you respect their education. The idea is, you wear a suit and tie for things that are important, and education is one of those things.

I'm guessing that this attitude isn't the same at more elite schools, and in such environments, wearing a suit and tie and insisting on being addressed formally might make you off-putting to many of the students, but where I teach, I think it has a very positive effect.

Anonymous said...

When I first started as a grad student and wasn't *that* much older than the undergrads I was teaching, I asked students to call me "Mr. X". This helped reinforce the fact that I was a bit older and the instructor of the class (I didn't want them to think of me as a friend or something, given that I wasn't that much older than them in fact).

As an older professor now, I still usually ask students to call me Mr. X. I don't recall insisting on the title "Doctor" or "Professor". "Mr." works well since it's not too formal, but it also suggests something more serious than my first name.

Tod said...

Bobcat, in response to your first question, I offer the following (at least, this is the answer in my case--I don't mean to be taken as answering for Mr. Zero or anyone else): it's a train wreck! Where else can you get people defending such wild views?! I simply can't look away.

Anonymous said...

Who are the 'real doctors' in "I do this not because I have no respect for my own achievements, but (in part) out of my tremendous respect for the achievements of real doctors." I hope you aren't suggesting that philosophy PhD's aren't real doctors.

Anonymous said...

I noted immediately the sexist language within which Gullbreath couched his rant. Taking asshole to a new level.

Each class I have said for more years that I care to recall, after reading the first roll:

"To complete introductions, I want you to know that a I'm rather informal person generally, and so when you address me you may use my familiar name "Boris" or just "Bor". Many people, I realize, feel uncomfortable with such familiarity, and as I am a full professor of philosophy, thus "Professor Badenov" is appropriate. I hold a PhD from Jock School U, and so "Dr. Badenov" is acceptable as well. I prefer you not call me "Mr. Badenov" however, because it makes tends to make me think you're talking to my father."

If they still want to call me Mr. B, it's still ok.

I honestly think that one's personality and comfort level ought to dictate these things though.

I agree with the above remarks that as a student, however, my own default was to address my profs as Professor X or Dr. Y--until, in a few cases, I later discovered that their doctorates were honorary, and dropped the latter.

By the by Mr. Z, and mainly because I roomed with interns while a grad student, I really don't see medical doctors as any more deserving than academics to be called "Doctor Z"--they're just people like us who jumped over the same sort of hurdles we did. One I lived with was a 26-year old, already award-winning surgeon, who outside the surgical theater was as dumb as rocks. Academics were historically the first to get the moniker anyway, as I recall.

Anonymous said...

Duck, that's pretty funny--I once heard of a prof who responded to an e-mail addressed to her/him as "Dr. So-and-So" with a lecture on how one ought to address professors as "Professor" and not merely as "Dr." (because, after all, anyone can get a PhD, but not just anyone can get a job as a real professor).

I let my students decide what to call me on their own, partly because I feel like the trappings of professionalism get in the way of the kind of philosophy I'm trying to do, and partly because being called "Dr. So-and-So" just feels weird to me--that just ain't who I am. But I worry that in doing so I'm helping to put the spotlight on people like Anonymous 10:24. If it's noticeable that young women are more likely to announce and insist on their credentials, this can have the unfortunate effect of making them look insecure.

C said...

Hi Bobcat,

I'm with Tod. I read WWWtW for the jokes. My guess is that the same people responsible for Smoove B and T. Herman Zweibel bring us Lydia and Jeff. Profiling is cool, trust me I'm an epistemologist. Gold, man, pure fucking gold.

Mr. Zero said...

Hi Bobcat,

why do you read WWWTW?

Two reasons. I find them to be amusing (à la Tod), and I think it's important to check in with people who see things in a radically different light than I do. The nice thing about the WWWtW crowd is that they are, by-and-large, very smart, well-educated people who believe absolutely crazy things.

I agree with you about dressing up, though. I don't wear suits to teach in, but neither do I dress like I'm going to a volleyball game. Closer to the suit than the volleyball game.

Hi anon 3:26,

I was, indeed, thinking of medical doctors.

Hi anon 3:12,

I wouldn't go so far as to say that Ph.D.s are not real doctors, but if someone asks, "is there a doctor on the plane?" they don't mean me.

Anonymous said...

I'm female, short, slender, I can pass for an undergraduate unless dressed formally, and I'm unlikely to sprout a dour gray beard.

I tend to go along with departmental norms, and I think I'd be okay with first names, but I have a slight preference for "Professor X". At both my undergrad & grad institutions, undergrads used a title for profs, but perhaps we were short of Marxists. (?)

Anonymous said...

Do you teach your classes on a plane? I would have guessed that you teach your classes at a college or university, which are places where PhDs are regularly called "Doctor"-- or "Doc", even--and have been for ages.

Do you think your students might mistake you for an M.D. in some time of great medical need?

Mr. Zero said...

Do you teach your classes on a plane?

You've latched on to an irrelevant detail. If someone says, "is there a doctor in this philosophy classroom?" they still don't mean me.

Anonymous said...

"You've latched on to an irrelevant detail. If someone says, "is there a doctor in this philosophy classroom?" they still don't mean me."

Perhaps the detail was irrelevant, if you were trying to make the point that in most contexts people think of MDs when they hear "doctor." But that point hardly needs making.

If we are talking about being called "doctor" in a university classroom, I am confident that what happens on planes is the irrelevant point. Universities are places where PhDs have been called "doctor" for a long time. It is a really well entrenched practice, and--at many institutions, at least--no one finds it odd, and few are confused about the difference between PhDs and MDs. (And insofar as lots of people have been to college, lots of people are well aware of this usage.)

And I think your last point is bizarre (at least if generalized to all professors--if we are just talking about you it is perhaps not so odd, since you don't use the title). Since my students call me "doctor"--and I think professors are generally called "doctor" at my institution--I would expect that if someone stuck their head in the door and asked "is there a doctor in this room," a large number of students would be self aware enough to say something like "well, he has a PhD". That they might also think that the person was not asking for a PhD is irrelevant, because they would still grasp that I am properly called "doctor." I am not too bothered about the fact that they think I am not a physician.

Anonymous said...

I require my students to call me 'professor' or 'doctor' and there are many good reasons to do so, and I'll explain two below.

But this shit about MD being real doctors and PhDs as something less is silly.

Doctor comes from the latin docēre which means "to teach." A medicinae doctor (MD) is a "teacher of medicine" and to distinguish their profession we would refer to them as physicians.

The two reasons I typically think students should call all professors either 'professor' or 'doctor' (if they have a doctorate), is that the relationship is a professional one. One of the things students need to have is a sense of what they are doing is valuable. We aren't bagging their groceries. We don't wear name tags. We are professors and doctors. What we have to offer is valuable and when we devalue it by allowing students to think we are their friends or servers at Denny's devalues what we are doing.

We have a professional position and we have to make decisions and judgements about the work of our students. This is harder to do if the relationship is seen as more familiar. I actually think students are more comfortable calling faculty 'professor' or 'doctor' than they are with first names.

Anonymous said...

I allow my students to use my first name. Except the ones I have sex with. They *must* call me Doctor. But that's because my sexual relationships are all about power, and I simply must respect my position above (or below, or behind) those students. :)

Anonymous said...

1) The idea of restricting the appellation 'doctor' exclusively to physicians strikes me as bizarre. I've studied in three countries and have never seen an academic context where that kind of restriction was employed. If an auto mechanic thought I was a physician because he heard someone address me as 'Dr.', then I'd understand. But if a college student made that mistake, I'd infer she lacked the concept of a PhD and so hadn't yet become sufficiently proficient in the discourse characteristic of American higher education.

2) I actually think students are more comfortable calling faculty 'professor' or 'doctor' than they are with first names.

On the first day of class, I announce that students are encouraged to address me by my first name. Despite this, students repeatedly address me as 'Mr.' or 'Prof.', at least until I reiterate my policy. (And I dress casually, so their politeness isn't on account of my wearing a suit, or anything like that).

I have a first-name policy, in part, because I haven't yet defended. Once I actually have my PhD, however, I may insist on 'Dr.', and for the following reason: formal training in philosophy is both misunderstood and under-valued. If using 'Dr.' reminds students (and even some fellow academics) that I've undergone a rigorous credentialing process, then hopefully it will be easier for them to recognize that what I do is different from the vulgar, wide-spread misconception of 'philosophy' as a kind of 'non-rigorous, unsystematic thinking of deep thoughts'.

Euthyphronics said...

7.14/8.01: as a matter of linguistic detail, actually, and given the example, I think Zero is right. It's perfectly normal to call PhD's by the title "Doctor", and perfectly normal to say they "have a PhD", but to call one "adoctor" generallt sounds stilted or just wrong. We tend to reserve descriptive uses of "doctor" (rather than honorific ones) for MDs --- even in the classroom.

Maybe, though, your point was that, since the descriptive and honorific uses don't pattern together, the fact that we don't use the descriptive one for PhDs should be irrelevant to whether we insist on the honorific?

BunnyHugger said...

If I didn't know better, I'd think Anon 10:24 was me. We have many similarities (except that I'm not so young anymore, but -- if I can say this without flattering myself -- I look young). Almost everything she says also applies to me, except that I request Prof. X rather than Dr. X (as it is the convention at my school). Young women, and I suspect especially short ones, have a harder time establishing authority over students. My partner (professor in a different field) is male, very tall, and looks older than I do, and some of the casual disrespect I've described getting from students astonishes him as he has never experienced anything similar. I'm not saying making students use honorifics is the solution to this problem, but allowing them to use first names would probably tend to contribute to it a little.

Mr. Zero said...

Hi anon 8:08,

But this shit about MD being real doctors and PhDs as something less is silly.

Agreed.

A medicinae doctor (MD) is a "teacher of medicine"

I guess I don't think 'doctor' means "teacher" anymore. It's ambiguous, but it's current primary meaning is "physician." That doesn't mean we're not real doctors, of course.

the relationship is a professional one.

It is possible to conduct this relationship while permitting your students to use your first name. I say this as someone who's been on both sides of this relationship.

What we have to offer is valuable and when we devalue it by allowing students to think we are their friends or servers at Denny's devalues what we are doing.

This is sort of a false dilemma. It's not as though there are two levels of authority, one for professors and the other for people who serve you your Moons Over My Hammy at 3:00 AM. And it's not as though using first names automatically puts you in My Hammy.

I actually think students are more comfortable calling faculty 'professor' or 'doctor' than they are with first names.

Some of them obviously are, which is why I don't insist on being called by my first name. I allow it; I don't require it.

Hi anon 10:47

If using 'Dr.' reminds students (and even some fellow academics) that I've undergone a rigorous credentialing process, then hopefully it will be easier for them to recognize that what I do is different from the vulgar, wide-spread misconception of 'philosophy' as a kind of 'non-rigorous, unsystematic thinking of deep thoughts'.

That might work. And if it works, I say, go for it. But I suspect that the more effective way to achieve this goal is to use the philosophy class you're teaching to show them what philosophy is and to clear up any misconceptions. If they think philosophy is bullshit, they're not going to stop thinking so because you have a Ph.D. in it. They're going to think you have a Ph.D. in bullshit.

But as 10:24 and Bunnyhugger point out, the honorific can be a useful way to enhance one's authority in the classroom and to overcome some of the latent prejudices that our students might have. Mrs. Zero has some of these same problems and uses her title to exert or emphasize her authority in the classroom. My failure to discuss this issue is a serious flaw in this post.

Anonymous said...

I remember an episode of Growing Pains in which someone asked, "Is there a doctor on the plane." Dr. Jason Seaver said "yes". The woman who he assisted was upset to learn that he was only a psychiatrist.

Mr. Zero said...

That's funny, anon 7:28, because psychiatrists are medical doctors. It's not like Dr. Phil (who splits the difference by using the title and the first name) delivered the baby.

Anonymous said...

I insist that my students call me 'Professor X'. They think I work for the Mossad.

Ben A. said...

My only concern is the imbalance between students calling me Dr A or Professor A (rather than by my first name) while I call them by their first names (rather than Ms X or Mr Y). This dynamic seems to suggest that they are children; but of course we're all adults - even if it's easy to forget this in a classroom dominated by 18-22 year old students.

I could call all students Ms X and Mr Y, of course, and I have no complaint against instructors who make this choice. But this would be a much more formal classroom environment than one that works well for my pedagogy.

Do others agree that there's an imbalance in instructors calling students by their first names while students call instructors by their honorifics and last names?

Anonymous said...

I agree that different forms of address signal an underlying imbalance, but that imbalance is real and I prefer to acknowledge it. I don't think everyone in the same classroom is an intellectual equal even if they are all adults (something I'm not sure I agree with... depends on what you mean by 'adult'. Speaking in terms of either typical behavior or brain development 18 year-olds are not adults). Professors (mostly) have studied what they are teaching a heck of a lot more than their students. Why not acknowledge that very real difference with a title? In my own teaching experience I've found it invites students to take the course more seriously.

Anonymous said...

I call all my students by Mr. or Ms.

In part I do this because as young college students it is really the first time that they have ever been addressed in such a manner but they are adults, not children, and I think it helps to remind them of that fact.

I also do it in the hope that it will lead them to call me by my formal name (though I never tell them to call me Dr. or Professor), which only seems fair to me.

And I do it because the tone of my class, with its emphasis on discussion, is so generically informal that I need something to offset that.

Oh and in high school one of my favorite teachers called all the students Mr. or Ms. and I thought that was cool.

Anonymous said...

I introduce myself as 'Dr. X', although I don't think I've ever had to say, "Please call me Dr. X." At my old institution, where 'Professor X' was the convention, I went with 'Professor X'. I think my tendency is to go with whatever the local convention is and to prefer conventions that don't use first names for instructors (for all the reasons that others have mentioned).

I generally have at least one or two people in each class who are older than I am--sometimes much older. I usually sign emails to them using my first name, since I would feel ridiculous insisting on their calling me Dr. X. They seem to get the idea. Some address me by my first name via email and in private conversation after class, but as 'professor' or 'Dr. X' in class.

Anonymous said...

So we've all found things that work best for us and realize that others have found completely different systems that work for them. This is unusual for philosophy. Where's the generalized argument that all x's my call y by honorific z?

Anonymous said...

Actually, doesn't 'doctor' is the past participle of 'doceo', doesn't it indicate that the person in question is learned rather than a teacher?

CTS said...

So, I think we can conclude that there are various practices that fit various situations.

When I started out teaching as a young woman, I asked students to address me by my first name. I rather quickly learned that this undermined any intellectual authority I had. I also learned that asking older students to address me by my first name had the same effect – except for those who insisted on using the ‘honorific, ’ which they respected and enjoyed.

I have also tried the device of addressing students as Mr. or Ms. However, this only works in certain institutions. In both a large university and my current SLAC, I learned that students think this is cold/distancing – or, in some way, unfriendly. They like to address me as Doctor or Professor, but they want me to address them by their first names.

At this late stage of my career, I have come to some conclusions on this matter:

(1) We are in a power relationship with our students, like it or not. We give them grades, we report them for cheating, we write their recommendation letters, and so on.

(2) We are their professors. That is, we are experts in our field[s], and they come to us to learn. We might learn from our interactions with students, to be sure. But, we are presented to them as people with special wisdom; when we try to pretend we are ‘just like them,’ we insult their efforts as well as our own accomplishments.

Anonymous said...

"when we try to pretend we are ‘just like them,’ we insult their efforts as well as our own accomplishments."

And going on a first name basis is pretending to be 'just like' them ?

Anonymous said...

In response to anon 12.55: while going on a first name basis may not amount to be pretending that we are "just like them", I nevertheless would agree with the general tenor and spirit of CTS's comment: going on a first name basis strikes me as being a bit disingenuous about the very real power relations that are at play.

Anonymous said...

1255 here.

I'd imagine that the way I carry myself, the fact that it's *me* at the head of the class and *them* in their seats taking notes or asking questions that makes the power relations constantly clear.

I don't forsake those who want to go with Professor, Doctor, or Mr. or Mrs. or Ms. or what have you.

If it makes *you* feel more comfortable or better then by all means go with what feels good. I doubt that it makes much a of difference for the students however in itself. If you're confident and comfortable in front of them then you will have the respect of most students and the rest all have to be managed in one way or another. If using honorifics affects your confidence or comfort then by all means.

But let's not make this argument on the basis of "won't anyone think of the children" pleas, that's disingenuous.

Anonymous said...

I doubt that it makes much a of difference for the students. . . .

I don't object to my colleagues insisting on being addressed in whatever manner they prefer--I prefer first names, but others may not. But it isn't really quite so simple as that, since the students--my students, anyway--have definitely noticed that different faculty members have different preferences, and I think it's feeding their biases against some of my excellent, but more formal, colleagues.

Asstro said...

There's too much here to read thoroughly, so I apologize if someone has already said this, but one of the reasons I insist that my students call me by my first name is that I think it's important for them to grow the fuck up and stop accepting the shit that has been handed to them by their high school and elementary school teachers as unquestionable fact. I want them to challenge me, to feel comfortable challenging me, so the first thing I do is level out the classroom.

Maybe that's Marxist; but if it is, Marx knew a thing or two about philosophy pedagogy. You can't teach undergraduates how to do philosophy if they think for a second that you have a hotline to Socrates.

WV... "Shnext"

Anonymous said...

This is much ado about nothing...especially when so many young philosophers are currently unemployed or underemployed.

Kieran said...

The blame for this social calamity can be placed squarely at the feet of Marxist sociology, which more or less permeates society today

Man, I'm sorry I missed this when it was fresh. I need to start reading this guy more often. The whole angry Catholic angle is an added bonus.

Anonymous said...

In a previous post about the Synthese hooplah, Mr. Zero suggested that Beckwith referring to a professor as 'Ms.' rather than "Dr." was dismissive, and many argued further that it was sexist.

I wonder if anyone thinks these cases have any relevance to each other or could help enlighten the mutual issues in each?

I'm not suggesting they're identical or interchangeable. But surely the criticism in the Synthese case is of a failure to recognize a real and relevant inequality of knowledge and expertise (of expert over layperson), while the view in the present case is (often) that it's somehow wrong to formally recognize precisely such a real (and perhaps relevant) inequality.

I frankly don't have a conclusion about either case or whether they're analogous. Maybe the failure to use 'Dr.' in one case is offensive and, on the contrary, the use of 'Dr.' offensive in the other.

However, I don't really understand why, and I'd be interested in hearing from those who think they do.

Mr. Zero said...

Mr. Zero suggested that Beckwith referring to a professor as 'Ms.' rather than "Dr." was dismissive, and many argued further that it was sexist.

One thing to notice about the Beckwith case is that Beckwith had not been invited by Dr. Forrest to be informal. Another thing to notice is that Beckwith did not use an informal mode of address; he used a formal mode of address--"Ms"--that ignores her actual credentials.

Anonymous said...

The longer this discussion goes on, the more it seems that there are some comfortable with it, and others are not, and that really both options are fine. (I think it's pointless for either camp to try and convince the others camp, though obviously some philosophers won't rest until they prove those who disagree with them wrong.)

I don't see how being informal is bad, nor do I see how formalities make anything better. As with any social relationship, one should be addressed as one prefers. When someone states a preference as to how they wish to be addressed - provided it's not inappropriate or misleading - others should respect that.

Anonymous said...

A few weeks ago, in a courtroom setting, I saw a 70-ish male witness respond to the 50-ish female judge as "Miss". She responded that he should refer to her as "your honor" but he just couldn't manage it and continued to call her "miss" while she continued to correct him. Strange!

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that Mr. Zero should get off quite so easily with his response to 10:24. If 10:24 is right that she needs the symbolism of honorific titles, then surely she would be better off if such honorifics were used institution-wide. If all of us who naturally command respect (e.g., those of us who are tall, white, male, have commanding voices, etc.) have our students address us by our first names, then those who ask students to address them as "Dr. X" run the risk of merely drawing attention to the fact that they don't feel comfortably in control.

So even though I myself couldn't care less what my students call me -- heck if they want to refer to me by number, that's fine with me -- perhaps I have a responsibility to help maintain certain social practices that do matter to others.

Anonymous said...

How far does that extend, Anon 7:31? Suppose you suspected (or knew) that you have a colleague in the department who never makes jokes or smiles in class because she feels that doing so would make her students take her less seriously given her sex, voice and physical proportions. Would you then feel it incumbent upon you to stop smiling in your classes to help her out in this attempt? All this seems to be going too far. Unless someone produces excellent empirical evidence showing that there's a clear causal relationship here -- and perhaps even in that case -- this appears to be overkill.

Mr. Zero said...

If 10:24 is right that she needs the symbolism of honorific titles, then surely she would be better off if such honorifics were used institution-wide.

I don't know. I realize that my "jackass" remark in the original post supports this point. But I think that Asstro raises an excellent point, that there are dangers associated with commanding too much respect (for lack of a better word) in the classroom. And I think that 2:09 is right, too. You have to strike a balance, and there is no one set of behaviors that will work for everyone.

Anonymous said...

Anon 2:09:

"I don't see how being informal is bad, nor do I see how formalities make anything better. As with any social relationship, one should be addressed as one prefers."

Maybe formalities do or don't make anything better, but they must surely have a causal explanation, they must be used in every culture in every time because they serve a social function, good or bad. So we need to ask why they exist, not simply ask about preferences.

I'm inclined to think they serve as symbolic indicators of social hierarchy, which both enforces and maintain that social organization, but also helps people negotiate it, knowing who plays what role, what social authority is given by that role, and what broader social expectations are in dealing with people in that role.

So, even if we were to suggest that these social roles or their hierarchical relation are unjustified or impractical, given that they exist, these formalities may be useful -- to preserve a social order (if you happen to support it) and, even if you don't, to help those who must of necessity negotiate it (even if critically), to understand that social order and navigate in it.

For example, if many profs tell students to use first names, they may get the impression it's the norm, and then annoy or piss off some bigwig who doesn't like it, harming their academic performance or relationships. It would be better if bigwig didn't care, but he does, and so there are practical reasons for making students aware of these structural restrictions in the culture and profession. And if I want to change that culture, I won't do it by accidentally disadvantaging students who agree with my preference.

On the other hand, if the culture removes all symbolic indications of inequality of experience and expertise, including titles, dress, behavior, etc., the end result could--while in principle being an admirable recognition of basic human equality--instead promote a mistaken attitude among students that experience, knowledge, and expertise have no real value.

Of course, many already have this opinion, but we want to discourage it in the general populace, not encourage--particularly among the educated--the associated views that all humanities programs should be shut down, that intellectuals are evil, lazy, or irrelevant, that everyone has their own personal truth and morality, etc.

Finally, I'm suspicious of the "preference" solution. Faculty are increasingly adopting informality, but I don't think many feel strongly about it either way. So, in reality, I think this is the *students'* (and their parents') preferences being culturally and institutionally imposed on teachers. I think it's rather obvious that this trend does not accidentally coincide with the consumer model of education. It doesn't denote equality and personal preference, but inequality: moral, economic, and political superiority of the managerial class to the newly developing intellectual service industry.

Anonymous said...

7:31 here.

In response to anon 9:19, let me first say that I wasn't wholeheartedly endorsing the line of thought I expressed before (the 'perhaps' was supposed to sound reflective/thoughtful rather than sarcastic or something like that). It just seems to me that sometimes it's too easy to say "you do your thing and I'll do my thing", since sometimes my doing my thing affects, obviously or not, how well you can do your thing. I wanted at least to raise the possibility that this business about honorifics was one such case.

I agree that one could go too far with the line of thought I suggested. But that doesn't strike me as much of a criticism. That just goes to show that, as in many other cases, practical wisdom is needed in figuring out how and when to apply principles. It seems clear to me that sometimes I should do things to make life easier for others and that sometimes I needn't. The question is which situations fall into which category.

It also seems plausible to me that not joking in class is both (a) likely to less significantly benefit my colleagues and (b) likely to more seriously harm my own classroom than asking my students to address me with an honorific. If that's right, then it might well be the case that I should ask my students to use an honorific without it being the case that I should refrain from joking in class.

It also seems relevant to me that 10:24's strategy requires a more general practice of using honorifics. If everyone but 10:24 adopted Mr. Zero's approach, her strategy wouldn't have a prayer in hell. And it wouldn't matter how much we all told her that she was welcome to do whatever works for her. It just wouldn't work. Imagine if instead of asking her students to call her "Dr. X" she asked them to call her some honorific she made up or some ancient honorific no longer in use in our culture.

On the other hand, it's a good deal less clear to me that a strategy of not joking will be similarly useless if the rest of us joke away.

Anyway, as an autobiographical note, I never have asked my students to call me "Dr." or any other honorific. I was just entertaining the thought that perhaps I should even though I don't care what my students call me.

Anonymous said...

7:31 here again.

But I think that Asstro raises an excellent point, that there are dangers associated with commanding too much respect (for lack of a better word) in the classroom.

I actually agree. I'm a tall, white, male and generally get a good deal more respect in classrooms that I feel comfortable with. So, as it happens, I make a good deal of effort in my classes to make my students feel more at ease and freer around me (this is why, for example, I respond more positively to asinine comments in class than many of my colleagues do). But I was entertaining the thesis that at least in some cases I should be thinking in broader terms than just about what makes my classroom work best.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I only got through half the comments, so maybe this was already mentioned. But: I think formality is good--obviously having students call you "Professor" (which I prefer to "Dr.") need not be snobbish or elitist; rather, it's one part of establishing an atmosphere of respect. But:

At a previous institution where I taught, a high-ranking member of the department insisted that we should be calling our students "Mr." and "Ms." That would (1) dispel the appearance of elitism in having them call us by titles,(2) demonstrate our respect for them, as we demand respect, and (3) be conducive to their thinking that they are in a serious place where people address each other like adults.

This doesn't sit well with me: I find it very weird to call someone "Mr." unless it's absolutely expected in the circumstances, and I definitely find it weird when people call me "Mr." And the fact that almost nobody in academia does this does seem like a strike against it.

On the other hand: I think reasons (1)-(3) are pretty good ones, and confess that I don't have a *rational* response to them other than just pointing to my comfort level.

Thoughts?

Anonymous said...

What do you think: would Socrates have asked people to use a special honorific when they came to learn from him? If not, did he blow it by not doing so?

Also, if it's 'rather obvious' that the trend toward first-name use is a result of the consumerist model, then why we now much more apt to call our colleagues by their first names?

I had a colleague once who tried calling students by their surnames, with honorifics. His students said they found it distant and cold.

As for the woman who insists on being called Dr. X by her students: she has my sympathy, but I hardly think that such a clearly desperate grab for the trappings of respect is likely to do much good. Think about it for a minute: if someone you disrespect demanded that you extend an expression of honor to him or her, would it make you think more highly of that person?

Work needs to be done, surely, to prevent discrimination in the university. But it is difficult to believe that this is likely to succeed.

It's interesting that she herself admits that the strategy seems ineffective: she tells us that even after she insists on being called 'doctor', students continue to call her 'Ms. X'.

One possibility is that asking students to call you something is just hopeless at solving the problem in question. Another, I suppose, is that her students never call any of their instructors 'doctor' and are doing this with her for reasons completely unconnected with her sex and height.

Anonymous said...

There is an interesting parallel in this case as there is with the kind of clothes we wear in the classroom.

I for one don't wear shorts or t-shirts to teach in, and I poke fun, playfully of course, to those students who wear PJs and slippers to class.

I wear dress shirts without a tie. And I don't tell students to call me by my first name. Just by the way I present myself, they call me Dr/Prof.

I would bet that most of the first name people are t-shit and shorts or at least more casual clothes than business casual. When they teach. And from everything I have witnessed from grad school to my current job, women in particular cannot pull off really casual clothes in the classroom without some kind of an issue. I also don't wear a baseball cap to class.

So I think it would be interesting to poll the readers about their habits relating to both modes of address and manners of dress. I would be willing to bet there are some strong correlations there.

Oh, and I bet none of the call me by my first name people would go to an APA interview in even business casual clothes. That topic has been debated a lot on this blog. Perhaps an analogy there would be interesting to explore.

Small Fish said...

I like anonymous' suggestion here though I think the correlation may not turn out to be so strong as s/he believes.

I, for one, am quite informal in terms of address.

On the other I dress semi-formally whenever I teach. (Long sleeve shirt, tucked in, slacks, some kind of blazer or jacket, etc).

I think the only correlations here are likely to be at extreme ends of the dressing/addressing spectrum:

hey you + shorts and a tee or

excuse me Dr. + business formal

Anonymous said...

"I would bet that most of the first name people are t-shit and shorts or at least more casual clothes than business casual."

That's a silly thing to bet.

Anonymous said...

"I wear dress shirts without a tie. And I don't tell students to call me by my first name. Just by the way I present myself, they call me Dr/Prof."

I wear t-shirts, and most of my students still call me Dr./Prof. unless I tell them not to. It seems to be the default position. So I wouldn't attribute that to your success at impressing your students with your choice of clothing.

"Oh, and I bet none of the call me by my first name people would go to an APA interview in even business casual clothes. That topic has been debated a lot on this blog. Perhaps an analogy there would be interesting to explore."

Sure. What analogy? I presume it must be something intelligent and interesting, but I can't imagine what it might be.

Committee Member #3 said...

I think Sgt Hulka said it best:

"You don't say 'sir' to me, I'm a sergeant, I work for a living."

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that the sensible point to take from this discussion is that students, like it or not, react to us in large part for reasons less elevated than the simple apprehension that we are serious people engaged in a serious effort for their own intellectual benefit. Their reactions are, like it or not, shaped by the presence or absence of various markers. And it's not crazy to use that fact for the sake of enhancing the respect and seriousness they bring to the class, not because it's so important that they bow to our degrees, but because they will typically learn more if they take the class and the teacher seriously.

On another note, the comment about "doctor" being a past participle in Latin, and the lack of any rebuttal, suggests we don't have too many medievalists commenting on this blog!

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 12:09:

I don't think that was established at all. All that's established is that some participants in this discussion _believe_ that students treat them with more or less respect based on their appearance and the titles they do or don't ask students to call them by.

The positive evidence presented in support of that speculation is, as far as I have seen, nothing whatsoever.

Anonymous said...

The grad school I'm at is on a first-name basis for all persons, including its president. It's a long-standing part of the school's culture and fits the larger concepts under which education is organized here. But I am rather older than the other students. When I was in college & grad school years before, we always used either "Prof." or "Mr." Only a few younger faculty demonstrated their hipness by allowing first names. When I came here I used my old practice of addressing faculty as "Prof." For some reason, I thought it was beneficial to do so. But because everyone uses first name and short first names, I felt like a ridiculous old geezer whenever I said Prof. and so dropped the titles in less than week.

Anonymous said...

I often ask my students to call me "Professor X", but they always end up being surprised and distracted by the fact that I have hair on my head and am able to walk. I think next semester I'll just ask them to call me "Magneto".