Adventures in Ethics and Science

Thanks to all readers who responded with suggestions as to what my students should call me. As a number of you pointed out, what I choose here isn’t just a matter of local custom (there seems not to be a unified custom on this at my university), nor of personal comfort (for me or my students). After all, the form of address is going to play a part in setting the tone for my interaction with my students.

And here, maybe my indecision about the right form of address reflects the fact that I have aims that are potentially in conflict with each other.

On the one hand, I am working very hard to shake a large subset of my students out of their belief that my job is to pour knowledge in to their skulls. The last thing I want is to be the professor yammering at the front of a room full of people who transcribe my every word.

My understanding of learning is different. I see it as a process of actively engaging with texts and ideas. And, I want my students (who are mostly juniors, seniors, and grad students) to start believing that they will be capable of learning stuff they want to and need to in the (rumored) real world once they are no longer officially students. In order to get them more actively involved in their own learning, I tend to try to decentralize authority in the classroom. Before I tell them what I think philosopher X is trying to say, or what I think is promising or problematic about that view, I want them to tell me what they thought philosopher X was trying to say. I want them to be brave enough to put forward their own interpretations, and to challenge (or endorse) their classmates’ interpretations. In other words, I spend a lot of time facilitating more than “professing”.

That would suggest “Janet” at the right form of address to set the tone.

However, I also run into a good many students who think philosophy is an area with “no wrong answers”, where anything goes. Everyone gets an A! Only, there are plenty of wrong answers, plenty of bad arguments, and plenty of undefended assertions, not to mention sentences so structurally unsound that they should be red-tagged. I need to clear up these mistaken impressions that philosophy amounts to freestyle-BSing.

It’s not just students with such mistaken impressions, I’m sad to report. It turns out that certain academics in other fields are utterly convinced of their ability to practice philosophy with no training whatsoever. There are established scientists who put out what they consider to be deep and important musings on the philosophy of science — altogether innocent of any of the existing work on the philosophy of science, or even on philosophy more broadly. (C’mon, it’s not like doing philosophy is the kind of thing that requires a graduate training of some sort!) As well, there are professors in certain departments of social science which are also derided by folks in Departments of Enduring Value (like Math, English, History, or a Real Science) who have the chutzpah to say, “Hey, I can teach the Philosophy of Science course in our Study Abroad program! We’ll start with Kuhn and … gee, I’m not sure where we’ll go from there.”

So, I’d like to communicate that philosophy is a real academic field that requires real expertise. That would seem to argue for “Dr. Stemwedel” or “Prof. Stemwedel”.

Of course, lots of my students have trouble saying my last name (even though a few generations of forebears in Illinois altered the original German pronunciation, so that it sounds exactly how it looks to American eyes). Then again, I find some of their last names challenging, too; I generally address them by their first names. More weight behind “Janet”?

Frustratingly, there are several contexts in which I am mistaken for a student (e.g., when I come to the bookstore to straighten out textbook orders, when I turn in change of grade forms, etc.). This makes me whip out the “Dr.” right quick (’cause I’ve been waiting in a line to handle some fairly unrewarding task, and when I’m taken for a student in such circumstances it is always done dismissively). But these situations also remind me that I come off as “young” … or maybe as lacking authority?

Is this a bad thing when it comes to my interactions with students, or a good thing? Would insisting on “Prof. Stemwedel” and wearing a grown-up costume restore the aura of authority? Do I really want the source of my authority to be a title, as opposed to what I know or how I teach it?

I guess until I sort this all out, I won’t know what I should ask my students to call me.


  1. #1 John Lynch
    August 26, 2006

    I’ve always kind of hankered for the “wearing gown” days – this could perhaps be because I’ve worked on natural scientists in Cambridge in the 19th C!

    I generally let students refer to me as they wish – Prof Lynch, John, or even Lynch. Like PZ, in the Honors College @ ASU, we build up long term relationships with students, so the familiarity is not a problem to me, though I know some of my colleagues maintain a greater distance.

    An old friend of mine once said that the only reason to go by “Dr” is because when you phone up MDs for appointments, you get better treatment.

  2. #2 Chris
    August 26, 2006

    I’d suggest starting off the year by introducing yourself as Dr. Stemwedel. Later, if the class is going well, and you’d like to encourage more informal relations, you can always relax a little and ask them to call you Janet. This comes as a pleasant surprise to students and makes you look cool.

    If you start out with an informal tone, though, and start losing control (people don’t take the class seriously, etc), it’s much harder to go back to more formality and the “Dr.” title without the impression that you’ve suddenly become uptight.

  3. #3 jepalmer
    August 26, 2006

    If you are already coming off as “young,” I’d opt for “Dr.” At least at first.

    For the last two years I told my students to call me by my first name, and I regret it now. Some of them never realized that I actually had a PhD, and ended up addressing me as “Ms.” (I never use the honorific outside academia, but I do want my students to know i’m qualified.)

    The situation was exacerbated by my age (I’m 30 and look younger), and by being a female in a conservative area. By the end of last year, I was putting far too much effort into maintaining control of my classes, especially the snarkier students, who were treating me like a classmate, not an instructor. When I didn’t respond to them like a pal, and expected them to actually take the class seriously, those students decided I was bitchy (as Chris predicts).

    Next time around, I’m stepping back and establishing some space between myself and the students. Using “Dr.” is an easy way to remind them that I expect respect. The only thing that I don’t like about it is that I have students who are almost twice as old as I am, and I hate to call them by their first names if they’re calling me “Dr.” It’s awkward.

    Good luck with your decision and with the semester. 🙂

  4. #4 David Harmon
    August 26, 2006

    “On the one hand, I am working very hard to shake a large subset of my students out of their belief that my job is to pour knowledge in to their skulls. ”

    Or to put it another way, you want them to get off their metaphorical butts and start in with some intellectual heavy lifting….

    “In order to get them more actively involved in their own learning, I tend to try to decentralize authority in the classroom.”

    This sounds like a mistake, and it’s one that comes directly from the tension between community and heirarchy. What you’re trying to say is “do your own thinking”. But you’re casting this as a peer-style “I’m not going to do your work for you” (“… so if you don’t do it, it won’t get done”). But as I said before, these are not your peers, and as you’ve said, they’re not too clear on just what does need to “get done”. They need leadership!

    What you want to say is more like: “memorizing my lectures is not enough to pass my class. I will now explain what is necessary to pass …”. But to make that stick, you need to maintain authority over the students, and use that authority to hold them to an honest standard. Authority, properly used, does not have to say “shut up”. It can just as well say “show me”….

  5. #5 Shawna
    August 26, 2006

    I’ve had professors use first names, Dr. lastname, and prof. lastname.

    My favorite form of address is Dr. Firstname and or Dr. nickname. So Dr. Stanikewicz becomes Dr. Stan. and Dr. Margaret Smith becomes Dr. Meg. That way you still have authority and a bit of informality at the same time. Bonus: takes less time to say!

  6. #6 Sean Carroll
    August 26, 2006

    I’ve never really cared what undergrads call me (for grad students it’s always been first names), but your discussion has convinced me to come down more definitively on the side of asking them to call me by just my first name. I would argue that the two goals you very sensibly describe above are not really in conflict. In the first you want to give the impression that we’re all in this together, exploring knowledge etc etc. In the second you want the students to have a proper respect for right/wrong, correct/incorrect. But deep down that’s not a respect for you (although that would be nice), it’s a respect for the material. And, although referring to the professor by their title is one way to establish a respectful atmosphere, there are other ways, and I will come down on the side that says it’s more important to establish that the subject matter is bigger than all of us.

    And that leaves the honorific waiting to be deployed to devastating effect when appropriate. I remember a talk at an amateur-astronomy meeting given by a local professor. Afterward, a particularly obnoxious questioner kept pestering him with “Mr. Smith, don’t you agree that…” He smoothly replied “Actually it’s Dr. Smith, but you can call me Joseph.” Very effective.

  7. #7 Bill Hooker
    August 26, 2006

    even though a few generations of forebears in Illinois altered the original German pronunciation, so that it sounds exactly how it looks to American eyes

    Dammit! I’ve been saying “Shtemvaydel”, European “l” and all, in my head. So it’s, what, “stem” as in long-stemmed rose, “way-dl”? Stemwaydl? StemWEEdle?

  8. #8 colleen
    August 26, 2006

    I guess I don’t see that your goal of decentralizing learning has to conflict with you using the term “Dr.” After all, isn’t it a good lesson to learn that the more education you have, the more aware you are of your interpretation being involved in teaching texts? It would, I think, be a nice juxtaposition with the assumed “authoritarian” sense to the term.

    We had a presentation on establishing authority in the classroom–by a prof at Washington University (I wish I could remember her name!). She made the point that your authority derives from your knowledge and your role, not your title, but that you ought to decide early on what you want to be called. She suggested that if you go for a title, it makes sense to call your student Mr. and Ms., too, to promote a sense of professionalism.

    That might seem stifling to your classroom…or it might add to your project of everyone being in it together, by bringing the students up a notch. Later in the semester, once the tone has been established, you could–like the first commentor suggested–move towards first names on everyone’s part.

  9. #9 sciencewoman
    August 26, 2006

    Thanks for the interesting discussion as usual. It’s pertinent to all of us wannabe-profs as well. Although I’d never really preferred it before, I’m leaning toward Dr. Janet in your case (and maybe in mine down the road). It seems like it conveys the right mix of informality that helps engage students and formality (there are wrong answers). Just my 2c. You’ll have to let us know what you decide.

  10. #10 Chad Orzel
    August 26, 2006

    Like Sean, I’ve never really cared one way or the other how my students refer to me. I’m comfortable with having them call me by my first name, but I also recognize that some of them may not be willing to do that– there are teachers at my old school who are good friends of my parents who will always be Mr. or Mrs. Lastname, because it’s so deeply ingrained.

    I suspect, though, that this is a luxury I can afford because I’m large, loud, and male, and thus automatically presumed to have authority. If anything, I usually need to deliberately push things in the other direction– it usually takes a couple of weeks with a new class before they’ll accept that I joke around a lot, and I practically have to dance like a monkey to get that point across.

  11. #11 SteveG
    August 27, 2006

    I have always had undergrads just call me Steve. Pulling rank as a solution to the lack of respect the discipline gets from students and faculty members (especially in the sciences) is at best a very small band-aid on a very large wound. It is a problem that needs to be approached in a number of other ways. Demonstrating that you know the secret sceince handshake will appease many (mostly male scientists and sceince students), but ends up an exercise in exceptionalism and only reinforces the idea that the rest of those philosophers are worthless nonsense spouts. It is a question that needs greater discussion in the community. I think that we have marginalized ourselves and left a vacuum in the contemporary discourse that has been filled by frauds and charismatics. But insisting on Dr. or Prof. only makes us look insecure and doesn’t really go far in fixing any of these problems.

    All that said, using Dr. or Prof. does have one great advantage — it puts you at arm’s length from the students and this is some insulation from the clingy students. As “Steve” they are much more likely to think of me as the friend who has no other students, classes, friends, family, work to do,…and wil hang out in the office for hours on end.

  12. #12 Jess
    August 27, 2006

    As I mentioned before, I’ve never had to deal with the “Dr.” honorific in the classroom except in telling students right off the bat that they weren’t to use it. (I usually invoke an imaginary oversight committee that checks to make sure TA instructors aren’t being called Dr.) But I am very much in favor of the first-name-plus-very-clear-rules-about-respect MO. I tell students on the first day of class that they should be very thoughtful of how they sound when they email me (or any instructor), for instance. And I still have to nip some behavior in the bud — I have certainly gotten emails where the student wants to talk “as one adult to another,” and I have to say “we are not two adults; I am the teacher and you are the student.” Basically, if you want to empower kids (and make yourself more comfortable) by being basically informal in the classroom, it necessitates a willingness to a) give bad grades when they’re deserved and b) lay down the law on the first couple of disrespectful tones you get. But I don’t see you being unwilling to do either of those.

    I actually think that polite takedowns for lack of respect and bad grades for phoning it in have more impact when they’re coming from someone who is not unduly aloof or stern. That said, my students complained a little my last semester about how much I nagged them the first few weeks — I didn’t let any “I didn’t finish the reading but” remarks go unchallenged, and I checked with my pal at the copy shop to see who bought their readers late. But after I established myself as someone who would totally spank them if necessary, we got to have a wildly fun and useful semester.

  13. #13 Josie
    August 27, 2006

    Hi Janet
    Sorry to be off-topic here. I’d like to get your (and your readers’) take on the recent posting on titled “Don’t marry career women” the reason being (quote)
    Because if many social scientists are to be believed, you run a higher risk of having a rocky marriage. While everyone knows that marriage can be stressful, recent studies have found professional women are more likely to get divorced, more likely to cheat, less likely to have children, and, if they do have kids, they are more likely to be unhappy about it. A recent study in Social Forces, a research journal, found that women–even those with a “feminist” outlook–are happier when their husband is the primary breadwinner.

    Forbes removed the story for a brief period after the initial onslaught of protests and later, reposted it alongside a rebuttal from another one of their writers.

    Here’s the link:

  14. #14 David Harmon
    August 27, 2006

    Sean Carrol: “But deep down that’s not a respect for you (although that would be nice), it’s a respect for the material.”

    Idealistic indeed — but in practice, you’re dealing with post-adolescent primates. If you want them to respect the “material”, the traditional way to get that is to get them to respect you, then nudge them to extend that respect, to what you’re representing to them.

    “And, although referring to the professor by their title is one way to establish a respectful atmosphere, there are other ways…”

    Well, yes, because there are a lot of factors in social pecking orders. As I noted in the previous thread, being male helps a good deal right off. Having degrees helps in an academic context, as does tenure, and merely being older. If you already have multiple dominance advantages, it may well be appropriate to reduce the gap between yourselves and your students, in the interest of collegiality. However, our host is a fairly young woman near the bottom of the faculty heirarchy, who’s expected to guide and teach a bunch of students. If she wants them to respect her, she needs to play the game, and specifically to assert her place in the pecking order over the students.

  15. #15 Eli Rabett
    August 27, 2006

    I think there is not a single right answer, but there is a single wrong one (Mr or Ms)

  16. #16 frumious b
    August 29, 2006

    so Dr. Free-Ride isn’t an option?

    Do you have a lot of problems with students not taking you seriously? I taught as both an undergrad and a grad student, before I earned the Dr. I wrote my full name on the board the first day of class and told them to use my first name. I never had a problem with authority.

  17. #17 Mouth of the Yellow River
    August 29, 2006

    Ni Hao! Kannichi Wa!

    For a week or two after arriving at the MRC (Medical Research Council) Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK, in 1962, a young graduate student, Mark Bretscher, addressed Francis Crick as “Dr Crick”. Crick told him to “stop that nonsense” and to call him by his first name. In the MRC, Crick explained, distinctions based on rank reduced communication and were inimical to progress. From Rank Injustice by Peter A. Lawrence. Nature 415, 835-836 (21 February 2002) | doi: 10.1038/415835a


  18. #18 Bro. Bartleby
    August 30, 2006

    I think titles have a purpose, they are societies way of dispensing with having to constantly qualifying oneself, especially in the work setting. And the classroom is your work setting. If you’re “Janet” then you are simply another friend, pal, buddy … but one that will have to prove oneself daily, to remind your “buddies” (students) that you indeed are the “smart buddy” … informality has its place, outside the classroom. After all, you are preparing students for careers in the world, where the corporate president isn’t everyone’s buddy.

  19. #19 beajerry
    August 30, 2006

    Dr. FreeBird!

    *cue music*

  20. #20 Prup aka Jim Benton
    August 31, 2006

    These comments, including the original post, are fascinating. You are trying to decide this in advance, and then, in effect, ordering your students to make the choice you have already made.

    I’d suggest either of two courses. First, start the first class by discussing the problem, or hand them the entry from the blog, and ask them what THEY would prefer. Or, and this would be my preference, simply say that each of them should use the form of address they feel most comfortable with, and don’t worry if some say “Janet,” some just say “Professor” and some say “Dr. Stemwedel” (however they pronounce it.) I MIGHT rule out “Hey, you,” though.

  21. #21 Eli Rabett
    September 5, 2006

    Somewhat late, but I think I have found a neat straddle. Sign your Email Jan Stemwedel, Professor of Chemistry. Preserves formality, but the short form of your first name shows flexibility (of course you may hate Jan….)

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