What should my students call me?

OK, it's the time of the semester when I get a bazillion emails from students enrolled in my classes, and students trying to enroll in my classes, and assorted others. And, the emailers each choose a manner of address out of thin air, since usually they haven't met me yet and have no idea how I prefer to be addressed.

The problem is, I'm not sure how I would prefer to be addressed!

I am on record as feeling "How U doin?" is too informal an opening for email to one's professor, and as deeming beeyotch and its variants inappropriate.

I am not "Mrs. Stemwedel" (since that's my mother). I'd be pretty comfortable with "Dr. Stemwedel", but my kids tell me I'm "not a real doctor". (I don't dispense lollipops, and despite having a couch and coffee table -- with magazines fanned on it -- there is no fish tank in my "waiting area".)

My kids not withstanding, the live options seem to be:

  • Dr. Stemwedel
  • Prof. Stemwedel
  • Ms. Stemwedel
  • Janet

I go back and forth on what I think about this, so I'm asking for your help: Which of these options do you think is best, and why?

I'm interested not only in the views of other academics, but also those of current and former college students. Tell me what you like (or don't like) and what the subtext of these forms of address might be.

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What a wonderful opportunity to educate them about how, academically speaking, the Ph.D. is the highest attainable degree (which is why it is listed last) and that you ARE A REAL DOCTOR. :)

I've always felt that its acceptable to call me whatever you want, as long as it is respectful. Some students will gravitate towards more intimate, first name affiliations, some will prefer the formal distinction of calling you Prof or Doctor. But that's just me.

I struggle with this too. I've had mentors that *everyone*, even colleagues, addressed as "Dr. so-and-so", and I always thought that was crushingly formal. "Dr" or "Prof" seems OK to me for class, but for many of my students, I also work with them or see them outside of class in some capacity (lots of them work with our center as lab interns), and having them always call me "Dr. Smith" seems too over-the-top. Ms./Mrs./Miss I just hate. So, I go with "Tara" for now, even though I think some of my colleagues probably disapprove and find it way too informal (just as I find unbroken use of "Dr." too formal). C'est la vie, I guess. My two cents...

When I asked my supervisor what I how I should address him (the other students called him by his first name but I was new) he answered that his mailing address could be found on the physics website.

(He was joking)

I'd tend to say "Dr Stemwedel" or "Janet" would be best. Not "Ms" because if they're going to give an honorific it should really be something academia-related.

Not "Prof" because... well, that's harder to explain. I think one of the major traps students can fall into is creating a parent-child rather than adult-adult relationship with their teachers, which leads to them taking comparatively little responsibility for their own academic career. "Prof" seems to me to imply too much of that kind of dominance relationship, which I think is massively counterproductive for reasonably smart students with any interest in the subject.

This is speaking as a former student - no qualifications beyond batchelor's.

By Corkscrew (not verified) on 24 Aug 2006 #permalink

Go with "Prof. Stemwedel." For the very convincing reason that that is the form of address *I* used for all of *my* professors when I was in college.

It is your title. Use it. Revel in it. What's more, at least in the sciences, it's probably important that women use the "Prof" title, since there is a tendency for students to view their female professors as people who are "more approachable" and "more friendly" than the male professors-- which can cause trouble when evaluation time comes, as students are less forgiving of the "mom figure" than the white male imposing arrogant professor figure. (I was surprised to find out about this effect when told about it several years ago by a couple of female professors, but I've heard about it enough now that my impression is that it's a pretty general effect.)

Some people call me "Mr. Knop" -- this is usually freshmen and the like, who are used to calling their teachers "Mr." and "Mrs.". Eventually, there are always some students who develop various nicnames for me. A couple of them end up calling me "Doc" typically. Since I'm in the genteel South, there are always a couple who call me "Sir". Only a very few end up calling me Rob, and those are generally some of my research students. (Not even all of them do -- and I can understand why. When I was a senior in college, my advisor told me I could call him Shane, but I couldn't bring myself to do it-- he was Prof. Burns to me.)

The grad students (almost) all call me Rob, and that's how I'd like it to be. Grad students are closer to colleagues than undergraduate students, plus we work together so much and so often that the formal title gets to be a bit too much. I'm with Tara on this one and in this situation.


"Prof" seems to me to imply too much of that kind of dominance relationship, which I think is massively counterproductive for reasonably smart students with any interest in the subject.

Huh. Interesting. I always felt that "Doctor" seemed more stilted and separating than "Professor."


If you don't like "beeyotch" howsabout "lady". As in "hey lady" said in the most nasal Jerry Lewis voice. That would be real annoying, but it could be tolerable if you become desensitized to it. Or maybe just "Janet".

I should note that the reason "Ms. Stemwedel" is even an option is that I attended a college where the convention was to address professors as Mr. X or Ms. Y or Mrs. Z -- nary a "Dr." in the lot. (The convention was so entrenched that it was enshrined in the course catalog listings, indicating that Mr. X was teaching this course, or that Ms. Y would be on leave in the Spring of that academic year.)

It seemed really normal there. Here, I'm not sure it would.

I think Prof, Dr or Firstname are all fine. I think there's something to be said for a woman or person from another typically underrepresented group to be called Prof or Dr, because it contradicts societal crap about our invisibility/inferiority/lesser worth.

That said, there is some real adultism to insisting on being called Prof/Dr when the people you're teaching are young adults.

I guess I'm saying I have no real answer. In fact, what I've noticed is that when people address me as Firstname my inclination is to be a little irritated and wish they had asked first, but then when people address me as Ms. or Mrs. (I'm a few months from my PhD) my inclination is to want to immediately correct them and have them call me Firstname.

As an undergrad I always addressed my email to "Professor Lastname", mainly because there were some instructors who were not PhDs and therefore could not be "Dr. Lastname". Conversely, everyone was certainly a professor. At my undergrad school we never used first-names or Mr./Ms. I was quite shocked to get to grad school and find I could call the professors Bob and Mary.

As far as emails, when they have never met you or corresponded with you previously, I think anything other than Prof. or Dr. Stemwedel is inappropriate.

Once they've met you and you've made it known somehow what's appropriate, I think it's a matter of what you're comfortable with, but I'll give some thoughts:

# Dr. Stemwedel - Wouldn't be my choice, it seems a little overly formal to me, but I don't get this not-a-real-doctor thing. The sense of someone who has earned the highest degree in their field is older than the medical sense, and etymologically it actually means teacher. I understasnd avoiding it in situation where there might be confusion (I wouldn't go answering yes to "is there a doctor in the house?" ;) ), but there isn't likely to be confusion in an academic setting.

# Prof. Stemwedel - Most of my professors have gone this way.

# Ms. Stemwedel - I don't get this one. It seems just as formal as Prof., but seems a bit unnatural. With, in my experience, most professors using Prof., using Ms. (or Mr. or Mrs.) seems like trying too hard to *not* be a professor, but still insisting on the formality of a title.

# Janet - I've had several professors who've gone by their first name, by just their last name, or by a nickname based on their last name. They've generally been the more approachable ones, but I don't knwo which is the cause and which is the effect.

Another thing I've noticed is that the relationship matters. Most of the professors I've known that go by their first name are still addressed as Prof. by freshmen. At some point (which varies by professor and somewhat by student) there's a transition. It may be that the older students use the first name. It may be that the research/thesis/independent study students use the first name. Or it may be, at schools that have this, that the grad students use the first name.

So... I'd go with Prof. Stemwedel or Janet depending on your personality/comfort level with the terms and your relationship with the student, but I'd expect the sudents to address you as Prof. (or maybe Dr.) until they had reason to know what you wanted to be called.

Historically speaking (as in "centuries of history), it is only recently that physicians earned the right to be called "Doctor". While people got their doctoral degrees at Universities all across Europe by studying geometry, astronomy, music theory and theology, physicians were still using leaches, blood-letting and sawing the limbs off. It is time for your students to learn this fact - studying makes a Doctor, not the practice of medicine.

Doc Holliday and Bugs Bunny ("Whats up, Doc?") made the word 'Doctor' much more colloquial and comfortable than 'Professor' which still has that air of stodgy German slave-drivers with monocles.

My students call me 'Mister Z'. When I become one, they will call me Doctor Z. Once the class is over and the grades have been submitted, if some of them became friends with me enough to see me in situations outside the classroom, they start calling me Bora.

I think that Honeybee is getting at the pertinent matter. It's a question of relative ages. You, now, as a relatively young PhD can feel comfortable - as can your students - with MS. As the age gap widens, and you grow more sure of yourself as a scientist and as a teacher, you will probably become more comfortable with Dr. and then eventually as Professor.
A question for you. How do you address your students - by first name, or by last name, or by Mr/Miss? What about the situation where you have an older (than you) student, would you address him/her by first name?

As a current undergraduate I call all my Professors, well... Professor, in emails or in person, regardless of how they sign their emails unless they specifically ask me to call them something else. Most of the time Profs I have done independent studies or directed reading courses with will eventually ask that I address them more informally, but I figure that is their call, not mine.

One professor, a 65 year old Emeritus bear-of-a-man, the first 10 minutes of his first lecture telling the class that he specifically was NOT a teacher, he was a Professor, and that the difference was that a teacher teaches while a professor professes what he believes to be true, which seemed a sensible definition to me. He was, BTW, a evolutionary psychologist.

Maybe it's because I'm from Colorado, but I would never have considered addressing any professor by anything other than his or her first name. That's the cool thing about college--no more phony Mr.-this or Dr.-that is required--at least not in Colorado. But if you can't be that informal, then I suppose Dr. would be best.

The grad students (almost) all call me Rob, and that's how I'd like it to be. Grad students are closer to colleagues than undergraduate students, plus we work together so much and so often that the formal title gets to be a bit too much. I'm with Tara on this one and in this situation.

That's one thing I should have noted--my students are all masters' or PhD students; the only undergrads I have are lab interns. So there's that, if the undergrad/grad student distinction should be brought into it as well.

When emailing professors, I tend to be as formal as possible so I use Prof lastname or Dr lastname, but then again, I rarely email professors and am more likely to stop by their office. In person, I usually just say Professor. If I'm less comfortable with them I'll be more likely to say Professor Lastname. I don't know that there is any rationale for me doing so.

Also, in an attempt to be as creepy and stalkery as possible, I would like to point out that I just randomly stumbled upon http://www.librarything.com/profile/doctorfreeride . I saw the category "Philosophy of Science" on the main page, thought of this blog, and sure enough, at the top of the list of people who use that tag was our very own Doctor Freeride.

Like my colleague, Honeybee, I always defaulted to either Professor or Doctor when referring to instructors. Those who felt so inclined said something like, "please, call me Abel," and we'd go from there. However, there are still some key mentors who will always be "Doctor" or "Professor" for me not matter how old I get.

As a then 28-year-old asst prof, I felt uncomfortable having 50-year-old returning pharmacy students call me, "Dr Pharmboy." So, I'd simply use this time in the academic yr as an opportunity to say that they should call me what they were comfortable with, but to respect the fact that while we were partners in their learning, I still called the shots in my classroom and with regard to policy, etc.

btw, I am your contemporary of yours yet I prefer for some reason to call you, "Professor Stemwedel," perhaps out of respect for your expertise in a discipline outside of mine. If you were in my field or my dept., I'd probably call you Janet or, if we were at happy hour, Jersey Girl.

I went to an undergraduate institution at which the norm was to address faculty members by first name, coming from a cultural milieu in which anyone over one's own age or suspected to be such (and age was a cause for respect!) was addressed by title: it was a little disconcerting, to say the least, but I adapted. On the other hand, teaching in an urban environment, I always tell my students that they can call me either "Prof. Night" or "Prof. Musing" - whichever they like - as long as it's got Professor in it. The reason is that if I ever let them even momentarily think about calling me "Ms. Musing" they start to think that they are in high school, with all that implies. I reinforce it in class. "Yo, profe!" is fine, but "hey miss" is a non-starter.

Some go the first-name route and some the last-name, but they all seem to take my point.

But, depending on your audience, your milage may vary.

I would go with Prof. Stemwedel (that's what you are), unless the student is working directly with you, in which case I would go with "Janet". Although "Dear and Benevolent Leader" is good too...

I always address people as "Dr Lastname," even when they repeatedly tell me to call them, let's say, "John." I imagine it's annoying. I never learned the "Prof. Lastname," and I think there was a meme or something going around awhile ago about it, and it turned out to be a Dr/Prof split based on geography.

Dr. Janet?

Undergraduate/graduate distinction is important. As a graduate student I called Dr.So-and-so everyone who was faculty at the time I started grad school and was older than me, and John (or whatever) everyone who was hired after I started and was (usually) calendrically younger than me (I was already 28 when I started grad school, so this was normal).

Ask the students to comply with the old German way: list all titles, in order of importance, at all times. "Frau Doktor Professor Stemwedel" - it has a certain ring to it. Of course, if you have a degree in philosophy too, that should be squeezed in at the appropriate place (and yes, being "doktor doktor" is allowed).

After a week or two, the students will be frustrated enough saying the whole shebang- and you'll be tired enough of hearing it - that you'll consensually gravitate towards a common form you discover you can all live with.

Antipodians seem to have it fairly simple by comparison. Prof and Assoc Prof is resereved for senior scientists who have earned the title after many years. We don't have Assistant Prof so junior scientists aren't going to worry about students calling them anything of the sort.

I used to work on the rule that as an undergrad or a just starting postgrad student I would call people Dr until they had told me to call them by their firstname (which is usually straight away round here). As an established grad students I usually just went straight for the first name unless I had never met them before and they didn't know me either. As a postdoc I can everyone by their firstname unless I'm writing to someone I don't know.

Working in a medical mileau makes it a bit trickier. Not so much with the physician/scientists who tend to be as informal as general scientists. It's the older clinical only physicians who tend to be a bit prickly about their titles. Then to add an added layer the surgeons often go by Mr in commonwealth countries and can be very prickly about that.

Speaking as a graduate student, it seems that professors in the teaching role stick with (or we a just seem to use) the Dr./Prof. form of address, but professors that we have some other relationship with (TA for, research, something else) generally go by first names.

You can decide to answer to anything polite, and just stop worrying about it. You can even tell them up front to call you Janet or Dr. S or Dr. Free-Ride or whatever feels comfortable to them.

My department (I'm a grad student) has a policy of first names for instructors. I haven't actually heard any students -- at least, not in the major classes -- take that as license for impoliteness.

Given that, as of now, it is fashionable to reduce the names of celebrities to simple monikers - J-Lo and K-Fed immediately come to mind - and given that you are a celebrity of sorts, I suggest your students address you as J-Stem.

By Rev. Krull (not verified) on 24 Aug 2006 #permalink

As a current college student, an undergrad, I have to say that I've never called someone a Professor unless it's the first day and I don't know their real name, or if I'm talking about the course to someone else who wouldn't recognize the name.

That said, you should probably find out if your institution requires more formality before you start causing a scandal.

Surely the important issue is, how do you feel when addressed as Dr., Prof., Ms, or your first name? I'm still at the stage where having students address me formally just feels too plain weird to make me comfortable. Some students have taken to the Dr. firstname form, which I don't mind. But I know some people who react in the opposite way, although when one was addressed as 'Professor dude' I could see his point...

I think this question depends a lot on how you address your students.

Call them by their first name? Then have them call you by your first name.

Address them as Mr. X and Ms. Y, then have them address you as Ms. Stemwedel. (This is the way we did it at my alma mater, St. John's College, and the one I prefer. It creates at atmosphere of mutual respect without being chummy).

If you want to go with Prof. Stemwedel or Dr. Stemwedel, then make sure you call them Student Smith or Undergraduate Johnson.

"Hi, everybody!"
"Hi, Dr. Janet!"

Law school convention is that the professors call on students as Mr. X or Ms. Y, always formally, and usually identified from a seating chart. So the standard is to respond with Professor Z. I have always winced a bit, though, when students have chosen to use the honorific alone as a mode of address. I keep waiting for a prof to respond "Yes, Student?"

As for whether or not you're a real doctor, are you going to let lawyers use it and still be hung up? http://www.txethics.org/reference_opinions.asp?opinionnum=550

By Unlearned Hand (not verified) on 25 Aug 2006 #permalink

Yo, Yo, Yo, Herr Rev. Krull! I believe that should be Frau Doktor J-Stem. Yawohl?

I kinda like "Dr. Janet"... I had a student call me "Miss Jess" for a while until I complained that it was so 1865.

I think it depends on the size of the class. In a seminar, I highly recommend having them use your first name. It gives the impression of a level intellectual playing field -- you're still in charge, of course, but seminars are best as mutual explorations that can surprise even the teacher. In a larger class, I'd choose "Dr. Stemwedel" over "Professor" only because you have a v. long last name. "Professor Stemwedel" does scan nicely though.

Overall I'm in favor of first names, with the knowledge that a) some kids will always call you Dr. or Prof. because they aren't comfortable calling you by your first name and b) you may have a couple of false starts with students who think that being on a first-name basis means they can start in with the "how u doin" emails. You might have to be a bit more stern at first.

It's funny, I always had more trouble getting students NOT to call me "Dr." Because I'm not, and maybe even at the time I had the intuition that I wouldn't be (at least anytime soon). I told them they could call me Jess, Ms. Henig, or Mr. Henig, but not Miss, Mrs., or Doctor. A lot of them called me "professor" anyway.

Interesting. In Sweden you would make a fool of yourself if you addressed anyone (other than the royal family) with title and last name. But I thought that Americans always wanted to be addressed with their title. Maybe I was wrong. That would be nice.

When I was first a student, I don't think I even had a clue that professors almost always had PhDs or that people with PhDs got to be called "Doctor"". (Plus my dad's a physician, so everyone I'd met who got addressed by Dr. So-and-so was also one.)

I dropped out of school and eventually understood the idea that earning any doctoral degree merits being called "Dr." So if I were to go to, say, a book signing by Jared Diamond, I'd address him as "Dr. Diamond" during Q & A.

Now I'm a student again, and it seems more appropriate to say "Prof. So-and-so" when approaching a Prof after class, but I'm always totally befuddled by which to use when addressing someone at my school who's a professor, but hasn't and probably won't teach me.

I wouldn't call a prof by first name unless they've already okayed it, but I don't really get the point of those who would refuse to allow it.

Back at the University of Belgrade, we always hated that Profs called us "Colleague" or "Respected Colleague", but we were absolutely NOT allowed to say the same in return - they were always "Professors". How non-colle(a)gial. How hierarchical. How European.

Is it acceptable to answer a Professor's yes or no question with "Ja, mein Fuhrer!"?

By valhar2000 (not verified) on 25 Aug 2006 #permalink

I went to a magnet school with all PhDs my last two years of high school, so I got used to calling professors "Dr." fairly early on. Not that many of them were stuffy about it, but there's a distinction between a 16-year old high school student and an 18-year old university student a play here, as well.

Over this last summer I had a non-PhD teaching my organismal biology class, who instructed us on the first day _not_ to call her "Dr." but never exactly told us what we _should_ call her. For better or worse, I never had the opportunity to worry about it -- I'm the "sit in the back and takes notes and ace the tests" type whenever possible, and didn't contribute a lot of commentary or questions for myself.

I would like to ask how the rest of the peanut gallery feels about grad student/lab instructor-types? Calling someone who's maybe a year or two older than me (or less, I'm a bit old for an undergraduate) "Mr./Mrs." feels wrong, but it feels equally wrong to refer to an instructor by his/her first name, unless specifically asked to do so (and none of my lab instructors has asked). I go with Mr./Mrs. whenever uncertain in these environments.

There's another option that you haven't listed yet: "Janet Stemwedel". It sounds odd when being addressed that way, but it's not any bulkier sound-wise than "Professor Stemwedel".

My mother-in-law works as a secretary at a Quaker K-8 school and this is the convention there for everyone - administrators, teachers, and students. Everyone is addressed as "firstname lastname", though in the lower grades the students are often addressed by first name only. Quakers however have a somewhat fanatical devotion to equality and an aversion to titles.

According to her, it stops sounding weird after about three days of hearing everyone use that convention.

"Interesting. In Sweden you would make a fool of yourself if you addressed anyone (other than the royal family) with title and last name. But I thought that Americans always wanted to be addressed with their title. Maybe I was wrong. That would be nice."

Its a good bet to always refer to someone in the US by title unless you know differently. In many areas of the US, its not such a big issue.

However, I can't imagine calling even a Teaching Assistant at my former (Southern) university by their first name during a professional situation. If we were out for a beer, then I would, but during class or in lab, etc. it was always Mr., Ms., Dr., Professor or Instructor.

As for what to call grad. student TAs, I can only say don't be the first person to use "sir" unless you want the TA to stand there in shocked silence for a second or two as they collect themselves and realize that, yes, they are an authority figure in this situation.

I know it freaked me out the first time some 18-year-old frosh called me that (I would have been 23 at the time); however, I got over it - one adjusts to extra deference fairly easily.

As an undergrad I always addressed my email to "Professor Lastname", mainly because there were some instructors who were not PhDs and therefore could not be "Dr. Lastname". Conversely, everyone was certainly a professor.

Professor is a university appointment. If you are instructor (PhD or not) you are not a professor. I had a stats instructor as an undergrad who explicitly told us halfway through the semester to NOT address him as "professor" because it was against university policies -- he was an instructor.

I think it's important to recognize that there really is a status heirarchy which encloses both you and your students. This heirarchy is pretty flexible, but bending it too far can have drastic consequences! In particular, if you pretend to either a much higher, or lower, status than you actually have, you will risk (different sorts of) social penalties. Trying to destroy chunks of the heirarchy will draw major fire from your superiors!

In this context, your status (from your blurb) is "Assistant Professor of Philosophy", i.e. very junior among the faculty, but definitely senior to any student. You are also female, which gives you a distinct penalty in pecking-order (I think of it as a "half-rank" disadvantage). In this context, it is my advice that you really "ought" to take the trouble to maintain your status dominance over the students!

Letting students ("subordinates") freely use your first name, invokes the horizontal relations of community, at the cost of the vertical relations of status. You clearly prefer the former, but in this case, I think it's worth standing up for "Professor Stemwedel", just to set the tone. Asking for "Doctor" would be reasonable to the students, but might grate with a few of your superiors in the department, because the PhD is out-of-field. (On the other hand, if you happened to teach a Chemistry class, you would ask for "Doctor" from those students.)

By David Harmon (not verified) on 25 Aug 2006 #permalink

Weird. As far as I can recall, every TA I've ever had was fine with being addressed by first name.

re: "I would like to ask how the rest of the peanut gallery feels about grad student/lab instructor-types?"

I'm one of those types. I teach a section of freshman composition. I told my students "Call me Julie, but always refer to any other instructor as Dr. Lastname or Prof. Lastname until they tell you otherwise.

What I don't get is that some of my non-PhD, MA-holding, lecturer colleagues tell their students to call them "Prof. Lastname." Maybe it's because I always opt for calling someone Dr. Lastname and not Prof. Lastname, but I can't imagine calling anyone without a PhD (or the terminal degree in their field) "Prof. Lastname" because it seems disingenuous to me. I mean, "professor" is part of the rank -- Assistant Prof, Associate Prof, full Prof -- and unless you're one of those things OR you have a PhD/terminal degree, I don't see using "Prof." But that could just be me.

Call me anything (just don't call me late for dinner!) -- I'll figure out for myself whether you're being disrespectful or not. I introduce myself as "Bill" in all circumstances though, so most people use that.

In email, I start out formal and then go with whatever the reply is signed; I first sent mail to "Prof. Stemwedel", but the reply came back from "Janet" so that's how I have addressed subsequent messages. If the reply had been signed "Dr Stemwedel", or even "Janet D. Stemwedel, Prof, etc" I'd have stayed formal.

At university, it was "Dr Lastname" or "Prof Lastname" until we started taking long lab classes in second and third year, when it became "Firstname" for most people. I was a bit shy and had been brought up with pretty formal manners, so I stuck with "Dr Lastname" until someone explicitly said "call me Firstname", which they all did as soon as they figured out where I was coming from. But then this was in Australia, which is a pretty informal society by and large.

As for the medical doctor thing, my advice to fellow PhDs is "get over it already". Language evolves, words lose and acquire meanings according to how they are actually used, and "doctor" now means "medical doctor". Insistance that "I have a PhD, I am SO a real doctor!!!!1" only makes you look like a wanker. If you need a title to bolster your ego or reinforce your authority there's something wrong with you.

At my old university (a large place where I did both undergrad and grad, and incidentally is located several cities north of Dr. Free-Ride's), the default convention for undergrads is Prof Lastname. Depending on the instructor and the student, that may shift to a first-name relationship at some point, but you can't go wrong with Prof as an initial assumption. For graduate students - the master's degree students who are in "just take classes" programs usually also use "Prof", but grad programs that foster more working relationships usually begin and end with first names.

Staff-to-faculty relationships varied - admin staff often used titles, but not in all departments. And other support staff (IT, central admin groups, etc) went with first-name relationships. It made things tricky when I shifted from being a staff person back to finishing my undergrad work - I actually took a class from a prof I knew fairly well (but not closely) in my professional life, where I called him "Ike." Because the class I took from him was a lower-level undergrad class (filled a requirement), I called him "Prof Eisenhower" in class, as did everybody else (names changed to protect the innocent).

I've always thought this is a matter of personal style and cultural context. Empirically (well, anecdotally anyway) female TA's - especially those only a few years older than their students - have a much better time managing class discussion and generally commanding respect if they go with Ms. or Mrs. The same presumably goes for younger women faculty, although I don't have as many direct reports on that front. I imagine that the greater the age gap between student and teacher, the less the formality of address matters.

Unsurpisingly, male TAs/professors who choose informal address don't suffer any negative consequences in terms of respect from students for their informality. Welcome to the patriarchy.

My advice is simply to choose what works for you. I'm a large-ish man with plenty of silver hair (ah, the authority of age, or apparent age) and a presence that some students have (later) claimed to find intimidating. So I go for extra informality: I write my complete name on the board, I cross off the last name as I explain that I'm not particularly big on formality. Then I cross off all but the first letter of my first name, telling them, "But most of my friends call me G. That works, too." I can almost see them relax and say to themselves: Okay, this guy's pretty cool. Then I go on to give a very scary opening day presentation of the syllabus, which goes on about high writing standards and tough grading. It's all about balance.

But if I had a more retiring manner and a quiet voice, I might want to be addressed more formally in order to create an aura of authority (rather than using informality to defuse intimidation). Reflect on the impression your personal demeanor and style gives students, and choose your mode of address to work with that to accomplish the goals you want. If you're unsure, try formality this semester and informality next semester to see which works better: When theory fails, conduct an experiment!

I haven't yet finished my dissertation, so I'm not offically a "Doctor," but I wouldn't want to be called that anyway. I agree with Corkscrew's initial point, and Rob's refinement, that both "Professor" and "Doctor" establish a hierarchical relationship that undermines the kind of classroom I like to keep. I invite students to call me by my first name on the first day of class. Some do immediately, many stick with Professor M--- for a while, then use my first name, others always waffle and occasionally persist in Mrs. M---, which is neither accurate nor to my liking.

As PZ suggests over on Pharyngula, if I did want to go the title route (Professor is what's accepted nomenclature for ajdunct faculty at my school), I would feel awkward about addressing my students by only first names, then.

My Shakespeare prof instisted on Dr. x-y or Prof. x-y when I was an undergrad. When I had her again as a graduate student she said that "I consider you to be my peers. I will edit and critique your work, but I expect you to do the same for me. For this department, graduate classes are a discussion between equals. Call me Margaret." We received the same speech from all of the professors, and I always thought that was a classy way to approach the issue.

It also made a larger distinction between graduate/undergrad in the department, and made us feel more like a part of the staff.

I forgot to add that although I prefer face-to-face informality, and I don't especially mind some level of informality in e-mail (although I try to deflect L33t 5p3ak by warning them that I'm old, so if they're not using relatively standard English spelling, I'm likely to be confused and unable to help them). However, I've been burned by informality in evaluations. Not as badly, however, as a friend, who found himself explaining to his department chair (who has some issues with idiom from time to time, as English is not his first language) that a student saying "Mr. K is the SHIT when it comes to biology!" was actually a good thing.

Me: "If you need a title to bolster your ego or reinforce your authority there's something wrong with you."

G: "Empirically (well, anecdotally anyway) female TA's - especially those only a few years older than their students - have a much better time managing class discussion and generally commanding respect if they go with Ms. or Mrs."

See also: large white males, cluelessness of. Sorry.

*bes sheepish*

Dr. J. Simple, elegant and all gen-X retro-y

By Uncle Fishy (not verified) on 25 Aug 2006 #permalink

Because you are asking, I assume that you don't think that one option rather than another will undermine your ability to command the attention of students. If that assumption is wrong-- as it is anecdotally for many women-- then Doctor or Professor as you prefer. (Frau Professor Doctor Freeride?)

For my own part: If students feel better using 'Professor', then I let them. If they feel better calling me 'P.D.', then I let them. I use my full name at the bottom of e-mails, and I let them decide how to address me. Trying to force the issue one way or the other will just make some of them uncomfortable.

Thanks to those who talked about how to address TAs. I always figured that it wasn't really necessary to refer to them by last name, but it's easier to be more formal than necessary than less, to me at least.

So far as our illustrious hostess, I'm leaning towards the above commenter in "Dr. J" -- gets across the degree and the student/teacher relationship nicely, but keeps it fairly informal. And since I'm assuming that your classes are similar to your blog in tone and formality level, it seems to be a good fit for you.

To throw in my brief 2 cents as college student -

I generally find myself using "Professor" without a name when speaking to a professor of any sort. If I use their name, it generally becomes Dr. so-and-so.

I also say I am far more formal in email greetings than in person, as I prefer written communications to be a bit more formal.

By Christina (not verified) on 25 Aug 2006 #permalink

How about "To whom it may concern?"

This has been an interesting exchange. I have been a member of university communities in the Southeast, Midwest, and Pacific US in a liberal arts college, a medium sized private university, the UC system, and a large state school. I find that there is considerably more variation in what is deemed acceptable than one might expect.

In my experience, I have found a more formal approach with undergraduates helps to maintain authority and structure in discussion (Dr X/Prof X) while an informal approach with graduate students and undergraduates is important to build the collegiality required for sustained interactions such as accompany research.

One thing that has not come up in this discussion is the relevance of audience. One potentially tricky situation is a mixture of undergraduates and grad students. Perhaps your student (who ordinarily calls you by your first name) is your TA and therefore possibly attends your lecture. Suppose she needs to address you in front of undergraduates, how should she do it? I think it is least disruptive, and sets a precedent for undergraduates to follow, if she reverts to the more formal for this particular interaction. This would be particularly important in the event that she is correcting a mistake (tactfully, of course!) or pointing out some other error.

I have also wondered what to have my students call me, since I just started TAing as a master's student. I figured that at my level, Tom would suffice.

One of my former profs suggested we address him as dude what marks my papers.

By litreofcola (not verified) on 25 Aug 2006 #permalink

Ni Hao! Kannichi Wa!Never been addressed personally or looked in the eye by an undergrad. In respect to grad. students, before qualifying exam, usually Dr. YELLOW RIVER. After qualifying it's about 50/50, Dr. RIVER v. just MOUTH.Use of MOUTH also generally seems to correlate with level of confidence and independent thinking, for example after a first first author publication.I never addressed my grad mentor by other than Dr. LastName until years later when I was a mentor.MOTYR

By Mouth of the Y… (not verified) on 25 Aug 2006 #permalink

Yes, I agree with Rosie -- there's definitely an element of sexism here. Most students instinctively call male college teachers Dr. or Professor, even when they don't hold that rank, but many students will address any woman older than themselves as "Mrs."

They definitely need to realize that this isn't cool.

OTOH, if you're comfortable with them calling you "Janet," or whatever, then that should be fine.

On a sort of aside, this reminds me of hearing about certain professors who would become upset if students would refer to lecturers and preceptors (i.e. non-tenured, just-for-teaching hires) as "Prof. So-and-so." I thought it was the most shallow thing in the world.

By UndergradChemist (not verified) on 28 Aug 2006 #permalink

Prof. (just retired): I guess I was a product of time and specialty (social psych) when we wore Jeans and set up relationships on as informal a basis as possible. Power was a real issue. I insisted on calling my prof's by their first names and only got dressed down once with a lecture on how hard it was to earn a Phd....etc .

Since then I have been in annual discussions about the appropriateness of various titles and have found the younger faculty a bit more tied to their title (not implying anything more than generational). Even as a department chair, I allowed (invited) students to call me whatever they were comfortable with. A few less timid souls used my first name. The more informal ones used Dr. G (I liked that) as a compromise. Most others used Dr. or Professor, but I left it to them. Another aspect of this is that I feel that in the ideal we have "Expert Power" over students. When we have been drained of our expertise, no other formal power is necessary (see Rogers' view of higher ed).

As an undergrad I always addressed my email to "Professor Lastname", mainly because there were some instructors who were not PhDs and therefore could not be "Dr. Lastname". Conversely, everyone was certainly a professor.

Professor is a university appointment. If you are instructor (PhD or not) you are not a professor. I had a stats instructor as an undergrad who explicitly told us halfway through the semester to NOT address him as "professor" because it was against university policies -- he was an instructor.

I know I'm a little late to the party, but...

Depends on your institutional environment, I think. I just graduated from Olin College of Engineering (in Massachusetts) and as a brand new and very small institution, there was a directive on day 1 that everyone would be going by first names. Even the president and VPs are Rick, Sherra, or Charlie to us (though when referring to them to others, we usually say "President Miller" or "Dr. Kerns"). It's generally worked out well -- granted, we have a youngish group of profs, so I think it seemed more natural that way and no one was entrenched in any "Professor" or "Dr" tradition. The only two profs who wanted titles were the dean of faculty (who wanted to be Dr. M in class, but was okay being Mike in casual settings) and a prof who was Prof. Spence in class, but Sara in casual settings. We were all kind of rubbed the wrong way when they initally declared that they wanted this, but after a while it just rolls off the tongue either way and no one thought twice about any of our conventions.

But again, that was due to the culture of our school. I took a class at Wellesley college and I was the only one calling the prof by his first name (which on the first day of class he said was fine) -- everyone else was too scared to call him anything but "Prof. Starr."

We called my favorite professor in undergrad "Phud" - as he had just received his PhD during the term he was teaching us. It helped that he was maybe 6 years older than we were, but to this day I can't think of him as anything else but Phud.