Are certain forms of address ill-suited to academe?

A comment on ScienceWoman's post (concerning, among other things, how her students tend to call her Mrs. ScienceWoman and her male colleagues Dr. MaleColleague), got me thinking about the norms around addressing faculty that prevailed at my undergraduate institution and whether, if they still prevail, they're worth abolishing.

The commenter wrote:

No one I know (just graduated college) would ever dare address a professor by Mr. or Mrs.... As far as I'm concerned, those titles are related to marital status--which has nothing to do with education or as a sign of respect... Addressing a female professor as "Mrs" to me means that you think her primary "claim to fame" is that she's married. No! As a student, you care about the fact that she has an advanced education and has lots to teach you: hence Dr. or Professor.

The convention at my undergraduate institution (reinforced by how the instructors were listed in the course catalog) was to refer to the faculty members as Mr. Lastname, or Ms. Lastname, or Miss Lastname, or Mrs. Lastname. (I assume that female faculty members were given the choice of all three salutations regardless of marital status or history.)

No one addressed a faculty member as Dr. Lastname or Prof. Lastname. It just was not the prevailing convention.

I do not know where this convention came from, although it had clearly been the way of things for a long, long time by the time I entered college. Perhaps the idea was to play down "credentialism"; some very gifted teachers might have a masters degree rather than a Ph.D., and in some fields the terminal degree is a masters degree. If we had any question about the degrees the people teaching us had earned, it was easy enough to flip to the back of the course catalog to find out.

If such mode of address is well-established at a college (rather than applied differentially depending on the gender of the faculty member being addressed), do you think it's problematic?


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Naah. UVa has the conceit that no-one should be addressed as Dr. because TJ didn't have a doctorate, and hence 'his' University shouldn't be impressed by such. Which is cute, and seems irrelevant. On the other hand, having a female pronoun that is tied to marital status is frankly silly anyway.

I have the hardest time getting students to use 'Ewan' which is what I strongly prefer. If someone tries 'Mr. M' I am unlikely even to register that they're talking to me, so it's not very useful to them; if they try 'Dr. M' I usually tell them that my wife is not around. 'Professor M' is also out for me because in the UK system I grew up in that connotates full Prof.

So - 'Ewan.' Please? :)

I once taught at an institution where Mr. or Ms. were the titles given in the catalog. And I think it was a bit of a problem - the students didn't seem to realize that their professors had more education than their high school teachers (in most cases) had. The problem seemed worse for female profs, and was especially worse for female science profs - there were a lot of incidences that indicated a lot of disrespect for female profs. (My example: I asked students to write a question on notecards on the first day of a large intro class, and got questions like "What's your sign? Who's your daddy?")

Would a change of address have made a difference? I don't know. I know some of my friends felt that a slight difference in address would have made a difference.

At the University of Chicago the tradition used to be that everyone (including students) was addressed as "Mr.", "Ms.", and so on. But by the time I was there in the late 1980s, students were generally called by their first names, while faculty retained the "Mr." and "Ms." convention.

I think the point (originally) was supposed to be a conversation among equals. I don't know what the point was when faculty started to address students by first name. Perhaps just "we're uncomfortable being so formal with our students, but we're also uncomfortable with our students being so informal with us as to address us by first name only."

There were still a few older professors who continued with the older tradition of "Mr." and "Ms."ing the students. I liked those classes.

Err, you do recognize that your undergraduate institution's approach is a bit unique, yeah?

anyhow, two things I haven't seen brought up in the aforementioned discussion nor ones over at FSP in the past.

IME, there is a difference in whether one uses "Dr." or "Professor" and for those that actually care about it, "Professor" is considered distinctly better than "Dr.". Which makes sense when you think about it since there are more Ph.D.s floating around than there are professors. (yeah, yeah, all those grandfathered-in nonPh.D.s and community college etc., etc. ) I think I got dinged by the ruler lady for screwing this up on my dissertation face page committee list looooong ago.

second point is possibly way out of date but heard rumour of the expectation at German universities that one is supposed to stack up all the honorifics. as in "Herr Doktor Professor Schnitzel" or some such.

I think it's fine if profs are addressed as Mr. or Ms., if that is the standard of the institution. However, I really don't like the delineation between Ms, Miss, and Mrs, because I don't believe one's marital status should be relevant to how someone is addressed (and it is a subtle gender bias!).

In my experience, undergrads address anyone with authority (professors, instructors, adjuncts, TAs, the orgo lab glasswasher) as Professor.

Now that I'm a peer, I usually begin emails to unfamiliar researchers with "Dear Dr. ____ ", although Europeans usually use Professor in that context.

There seems to be no real norm at the college I attend. I can't recall anyone who did not have a Ph.D. Some ask or allow us to call them by first name. Others have been addressed as Dr.(whatever the last name is) not necessarily because they insisted upon it, but because they never specified or gave evidence to suggest they wanted students to do otherwise, like signing emails first name only. Even the professor with whom I am most friendly I still call Dr.(last name) because that's how she referred to herself on the first day of class.
Actually, I did have one professor who insisted/insists upon being called Professor(last name), to the point that she required each assignment to have a cover sheet, with one of the things required on it being Professor(last name). If a person had anything, like Dr., or Mrs., he or she had to make a new cover sheet. These were assignments that were handed directly to her, not left with a secretary , slid under a door, etc., so why her name was needed, I do not know. However, that's a different issue.

I'd agree with addressing an unfamiliar academic (whether male, female or otherwise) as "Dr." unless I have reason to believe otherwise. It just seems the safest option. Calling someone "Professor" when I don't have a reason to believe they actually are one seems like overdoing it to me. Mind you, I believe in some countries "Professor" applies to almost anyone with an academic position, not just the head of a department as it is here (and does someone continue to be a "Professor" even after they're no longer holding the position? I suspect that they do.) And yes, Drugmonkey, the German tradition does list all titles.

If I was addressing a woman (non-academic) for whom I was unaware of the appropriate address, I'd probably use "Mrs.", but only because it seems the most respectful-sounding option to me personally. "Miss" sounds a little condescending when applied to anyone above a certain age, and harks back to unfortunate ideas about the negativity of spinsterdom (as, for that matter, does the very word "spinsterdom"). "Ms." is just not that pleasant-sounding a term (and it's association with anti-feminist jokes mean that I'm always a little worried that it sounds like I'm taking the mickey).

There used to be a tradition (I don't know if it's still current anywhere) that all female school-teachers were "Miss", regardless of marital status. And as a final aside, I used to joke to my brother-in-law, a male nurse, about being a "Sister", until it was pointed out to me that "Sister" was in fact the correct title for any nurse regardless of sex.

having gone to a small private high school and small private collage, the only honorifics I've ever used are -sensei for my Japanese professor, Frau for my German teacher, and Mr. for my dad's boss.
I do often however refer to many of the professors and such by last name instead of first.

It's even stranger in Austria - if you're the wife of Herr Doktor So-and-so, you get to be called "Frau Doktor" even if you don't have a doctorate. If you do, I think it stacks up, ie "Frau Doktor Doktor".

I'm an undergrad at a good uni in Australia and the academics of all levels have a tendancy to get grouchy at us if we don't use their first names - I'm yet to figure out if that's a product of Australian culture or the particular university, but it makes for a very comfortable atmosphere. We recognise that they're significantly more educated than we are, and that we're there to learn from them, and they recognise that we're human beings, if young, and let us pick their brains.

"I think it stacks up, ie "Frau Doktor Doktor"."

totally schweet. Now suppose a female professor just happened to have not one but two doctorates to her name (can't think of anyone like that around here offhand) and happened to be married to an academic. Would one reach "Frau Doktor Doktor Doktor Professor"-ness?

And how would honorary doctorates be handled?

In the Scandinavian country where I now work everyone, in every walk of life is addressed as firstname lastname. Titles are almost never used even by kids addressing their teachers in school. People insisting on titles are regarded as a bit up themselves. It took a little while to get used to coming from the UK.

I give my students crap if they address me by any title (except His Majesty, ruler of the universe, of course). I'm just Steve. Having to lean on the fact that you survived grad school for respect in the classroom frankly strikes me as cheesy.

Maybe it's the liberal arts kool-aid kicking in, but creating a comfortable environment seems pedagogically advantageous and when the mode of address begins the student-teacher relationship with an explicit statement of "you are my inferior, linguistically bow unto me" it seems not to foster the sort of interactions that would be most conducive to growing and stretching one's mind.

I require my students refer to me as Dr. or Prof. I am surprised at how many students immediately drop right into the informal first name approach. In part, I do this because I tend to be have a fairly laidback style to teaching and this helps maintain a level of professionalism, similarly I always dress well for class and do not show wearing jeans and a T-shirt.

When I introduce visit professors or am corresponding with them I also use their title. Professionalism is important and I think its better to be a little too formal than a little too informal.

Two points: In Germany/Austria, in my day (perhaps no longer?) always Herr/Frau Prof. Dr. Jemand. If s/he has 2 (or more) doctorates (even if honorary), then Prof. Dr. Dr. Jemand.

And, yes, the wife of a professor or other important senior civil servant (such as a Geheimrat) does obtain the honorific as well.


I attended one undergraduate institution, but in two VERY different parts of the uni. For the first year, I was in med school, and we addressed staff as Dr X or Mr X depending on whether they were medics or surgeons.

When I realised that med school was a BAD IDEA, I joined the physics department (my true home) where all academic staff were addressed by first name, all the way up to the professor (of whom there is usually only one in each department, Professor being a very high rank in the UK).
Part of the reason behind that was,I suspect that we were a small class, about 10 or 15 in the year and we would socialise with our lecturers on a frequent basis after seminars. It is hard to be formal with the guy you saw doing karaoke the night before.

By Donalbain (not verified) on 21 Nov 2007 #permalink

At my undergrad institution we called many professors by their first names, especially in my small, upper-level science seminars. Those who didn't ask to be called by a first name were often simply referred to as "Professor." I found that many students in large lecture classes did not even know their professor's last names!

Now that I'm working in research, we maintain the same sort of informality. I address PIs I don't know as "Dr. So-and-so," but typically they introduce themselves by their first names. And I find it hard to resist addressing unknown profs by first names when I write to them inquiring about my graduate applications! (I've held off and used "Dr. So-and-so" for this as well.)

Most faculty here are addressed by "Dr." + last name or "Professor" + last name by the undergrads. I taught a bunch of 15-year-olds once, who got in the habit of calling me "Dr." + first name, and it stuck, so that's how I address my email to my students. Grad students in our department are to call faculty by their first names, and I have a devil of a time breaking my foreign TAs of the more formal address. My blog name is a joke on the Herr Doktor Professor appellation in Europe, but more personally descriptive.

By Hairy Doctor P… (not verified) on 22 Nov 2007 #permalink

At the University, amongst colleagues, I'm William. To my students, particularly in the classroom, I'm Dr. Doing coroner's work, I'm Doctor, no matter how I introduce myself to the cops and whatnot. In court, ALWAYS doctor.

Of course, I'm a physician--but the odontologists get this too.

By William the Coroner (not verified) on 22 Nov 2007 #permalink

Yes, in Germany it stacks:

* Prof. Dipl.-Math. (didn't get the doctorate but made professor at a UAS)
* Prof. Dr. (normal case)
* Prof. Dr. Dr. (double dipper)
* Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. (an honorable and a real one)
* Slap a "Frau" on front if the holder is a woman, the old Austrian tradition is dying out, and would only be "Frau Professor" or "Frau Pastor" or "Frau Doktor" or "Frau Oberamtsrat", never the whole stack.

In the former Eastern Germany they will call you with the entire stack of honorifics everywhere, doctor's offices, auto shop, whatever.

I insist my students call me Dr. Wise-Woman. I am not Mrs. Wise-Woman, I am Mrs. Woman. I am not Miss Wise-Woman, and I used to be called Miss Wise. Ms. would be acceptable, but is unknown in Germany.

The reason I insist is that the guys get called Dr. or Prof. and the women just get called Frau.

By WiseWoman (not verified) on 23 Nov 2007 #permalink

In India, high-school teachers, college professors, lab technicians, etc., are all referred to as "Sir" or "Ma'am" irrespective of their level of education/title. Too subservient? It's the norm. Also, elders in the family were never referred to by just the first name. Rather they are called "FirstName aunty/uncle." Also applies to parents' friends and friends' parents.

Moving to the US, it took me a while getting used to calling professors "Prof. LastName" or harder "FirstName."

This is a joke, right? No student here in Australia would ever use anything other than the person's first names, no matter how eminent the academic concerned. I'm amazed to find out that it's different in the US, especially places like California that are known for informality.

Since I'm the one who started the latest kerfluffle, I might as well weigh in. In my UG at a prestigious American university, everyone was Dr. lastname, except the really ancient and honorable profs who were Prof. lastname. In grad school, faculty were firstname or first + lastname.

The class that I am teaching right now is mostly freshmen meeting a general education requirement. Many are straight out of high school and may not realize that Dr. is the traditional form of address for university faculty in the U.S.. As new students, they are testing what they can get away with in college (you should see some of their assignments), so I didn't want them to feel like they should push the limits of respect with me (a young-looking, female professor). Thus, I asked that they call me Dr. Woman. Not Mrs. Woman, because my marital status really isn't the relevant item.

I also insist that graduate students call me firstname, but as a previous commenter said, the foreign grad students are having difficulty with that.

My next question for contemplation: How should I ask a class of mixed upper-level undergraduates and graduates to address me?

No student here in Australia would ever use anything other than the person's first names

Nonsense. It took three years for most of my class (UQ) to start using first names, and then only with the teachers with whom they had the most contact.

I agree with Steve and the liberal arts kool-aid. I called almost all my profs by their first name only (except for 2 or 3 chem profs, interestingly). It worked well, in that I often felt quite comfortable just chatting with my profs.

My students now (I'm a TA) address me by my first name, for the most part. A few write "Ms. Leah [last name]" when sending me emails. I'm sometimes unsure if I'm being a bit too informal, especially since I'm only 5-6 years older (at most) than most of my students. But it seems to be working alright for me, so I'm happy to keep with it for now.