Hello, my name is Prof–, no Doc–, no, ugh.

I have the pleasure of teaching a course at UC San Diego called “The College Classroom.” It’s a course for graduate students and postdocs about teaching and learning in higher education. Sometimes it’s theoretical, like when we talk about constructivism or mindset, sometimes it’s practical, like when we talk about various evidence-based instructional strategies, and sometimes it’s extremely practical, like what to do and say on the first day of class of the course you’re teaching.

(Image by Peter Newbury)
(Illustration by Peter Newbury)

On that first day of class, when you’ve finally created sufficient materials, found the classroom, figured out how to connect the &%@# adapter to your laptop to display your slides, and at last, flip on the microphone — yeah, at that moment, you’re not at your best. You’re nervous and exhausted and excited and… And that’s not the moment when you want to be making important decisions that will impact the rest of the course.

So, I prompt my students to think NOW about those decisions, especially:

I prompt students to think NOW about what they want their students to call them.
I prompt students to think NOW about what they want their students to call them.

I use clickers to gather their choices, not because there’s a right answer but because it encourages everyone to think and commit (for now) and click, and the spread in the votes demonstrates there’s no one correct answer. The discussion following the vote is rich.

So many possibilities

Here’s as many of my students rationales as I can remember. I’ll use pretend instructors Michael (Mike) Jones and Elizabeth (Beth) Smith as examples.

  • My students are graduate students and postdocs, recall. Almost all of them were uncomfortable with Professor. We all know that “professor” is a title you earn at university through tenure-track and tenure positions. “Professor” means a lot and no one wants to misrepresent their status and level of achievement. I totally agree. But students are likely to call you Professor because that’s who teaches at university, right? When a student raises his hand and asks, “Professor Smith, could you explain how you got that again?” he’s not expecting this

    Oh, sure. But first, let me say I’m not actually a “professor” because I’m still working on my thesis. Once I defend and find an tenure-track position — fingers crossed, have you seen how competitive the market is — then I’ll use professor. But back to your question…

    This is why you should decide now what you want your students to call you, and let them know.

  • Same goes for “Dr. Jones,” say the graduate students in  my class. That’s a title that’s earned through hard work that they have not yet completed. No one wants to falsify their credentials.
  • Many of female graduate students feel they’re stuck with “Elizabeth” (or “Beth” if only your grandmother calls you “Elizabeth”) because they’re uncomfortable with “Miss Smith.” They often feel they must work extra hard to establish their credentials and gain the respect of their students, and “Miss” seems like it works against that.
  • I recently heard of 2 situations where the women in my class are okay with “Miss”:
    • One woman says she’s been teaching in high school and there, she uses “Miss Beth” with her students.
    • Another woman in my class, a person-of-color, says in her community, “Miss Beth” is a sign of respect and an accepted way for a student to address a teacher.
  • Many deliberate chose to use their casual, first names like Mike or Beth because they want to create a more collegial feel in the classroom, trying to remove the barrier between students and instructor.
  • When I was teaching, I also told them what I didn’t want to be called because Vancouver already had a Dr. Peter and he deserves every morsel of recognition and respect he earned through his outreach.
  • I think everyone in my classes saw, like so many other aspects of working in higher eduction, it’s easier for the male instructors to make this decision.

And that’s really the point of this whole exercise in my class – to make a decision. Now. When you’ve got time and you’re thinking straight.

Do you teach? What do your students call you? Why did you pick that name?

4 Replies to “Hello, my name is Prof–, no Doc–, no, ugh.”

  1. I didn’t teach much in grad school, though I’m pretty sure I went by Andy with my students. Now I go by SuperFly (old softball nickname) and many have asked whether that leads to an atmosphere that’s too informal. I never really thought so in the past (I have the privileges of being male, white, tall, and loud) but it’s been pointed out to me that it’s probably more important to think about whether I support my colleagues’ decisions to be more formal, especially my colleagues with less privileges. So this year I’ve tried very hard to call all my colleagues “Professor last-name” when talking with students, even if I’m pretty sure they are ok with their students calling them by something else. It was pointed out to me that this isn’t likely to bother the students or my colleagues, and if it helps my colleagues make whatever formality choice they’d like, then it seems like a good idea.

  2. In our small group learning classes, there is a policy that we use Dr. LastName. It takes a lot of the guess work out for us. I like it because it reminds me to refer to my colleagues as Dr. LastName too. Plus, it allows me to be a bit more casual in interactions because the formal roles are set.

    1. Is everyone in your learning group a PhD or MD? If so, this is a great policy. It eliminates any awkward moments for students and also fosters a collaborative classroom instead of expert-novice.

      It’s when instructors do *not* hold the academic/medical title “Dr.” when things get difficult.

      Thx for sharing you policy, Dr. Genegeek 😉

  3. Hi Peter,

    I lost track of this blog and now I’m so glad I stumbled across it again!! I have all sorts of trouble with how to handle my salutation. Many of my colleagues strongly prefer Dr. lastname so as Andy described above, I am careful to only refer to them in that way when speaking with students. For consistency I also go by Dr. Adams with my undergraduates. However, it seems that a small selection of my undergrads refuse to use Dr. Adams. In casual conversation about the course, I often overhear most students use Wendy but they are careful to address me by Dr. Adams. Interestingly, I have the opposite problem with my grad students. I have chosen to go by Wendy with my grad classes and advisees and students who are alum. However, they all steadfastly refuse to refer to me as Wendy. I sign all my emails and course announcements Wendy and they insist on Dr. Adams.

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