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.