Friday, October 19, 2007

Naming Names

This morning I participated in an informal meeting with other professors and some graduate students in my department. The purpose of the meeting was to give advice to one of the graduate students, who was puzzled about some data and wanted to discuss possible interpretations. There were 4 Female Science Professors and 1 Male Science Professor at the meeting. The discussion was interesting, but after a while I realized that the student was calling us FSPs by our first names and the MSP (with whom she works much more closely than any of us FSPs) as "Dr. X". This MSP is quite happy to be addressed by his first name by students, but for some reason this student, who has been in the graduate program here for several years, wasn't comfortable calling him by his first name.

It is a classic phenomenon, and I have several FSP colleagues who complain about it because they feel that it means that students don't respect them as much as they do the MSPs. That may well be, but informality in form of address doesn't necessarily mean lack of respect. In the situation this morning, the student was interested in comments and advice from all of us, and has sought me out in the past for additional discussions about research topics. I do not feel disrespected and certainly don't want to be called Dr. FSP by students in my department. What I do want is for this student (and others) to get over their awe of tall MSPs with gray hair and beards.

25 comments:

dropout said...

When I was an undergrad one of the things I noticed right away is a lot of FSPs preferred to be called by their fist names rather than Dr. FSP. They would say that the first day of class. A lot of students didn't feel right calling profs by their first names so they would still address them as Dr. FSP.

I had quite a few MSP that made it well known that they didn't like students addressing by their first names. Even when I was talking to a MSP about my advisor and referred to her by her first name, he referred to her as Dr. FSP and I could tell he didn't like me referring to her by her first name. But she was my mentor and I always called her by her first name. Calling her Dr. FSP felt kinda strange to me.

Authority does strange things to both profs and students.

Susan B. Anthony said...

I have just started in a department where the tradition is for grad students to call professors "Dr. So-and-So". This feels very uncomfortable to me, as I see grad students as colleagues and want them to see me the same way. I am the only FSP, but there are a few other young MSP's who agree with me. So we all just do what we feel comfortable with, but the result is that when I'm talking with a student and wish to refer to another professor, I always have to stop and remember whether that person is a first-namer or a Dr. It's even more confusing when we're all in the same room.

I guess I should be thankful at least that the professors here all seem comfortable with using first names with one another. At a university in the South where I interviewed, the professors all called each other "Dr." even in casual conversation. I understand this comes from a tradition of respect (and perhaps it's better in some ways than having different rules for different situations). But it made it hard for me to feel comfortable during the visit.

Anonymous said...

This is funny; I was just thinking about exactly this issue when I read your post. I'm a FSP co-teaching a class with a MSP exactly my age (<40). All students refer to him as Dr.xxx, and most call me by my first name. I don't like it, but maybe you are right and it's not such a big deal. I think it's not an issue of respect but fear. Students assume that I'm more approachable than he is, even if it might not be the case.
Thanks for your blog; I cannot tell you how many times I see myself reflected in your stories.

Anonymous said...

I'm a female grad student in a science department. Unless the professors say they prefer to be called by their first name, I address all the professors as Dr. including my adviser with whom I've been working for a long time. Last summer, I had the opportunity to work with two female professors who I addressed initially as Dr. But within a couple of weeks, I started addressing them by their first name as it was apparent that they prefer that. They are great professors. I don't respect them any less than I respect other male professors in the department.

What I do want is for this student (and others) to get over their awe of tall MSPs with gray hair and beards.
To me it seems that female professors are more down-to-earth and (some) male professors are haughty.

Ms.PhD said...

Yeah, it's funny. I always feel like our tradition of taking paternal family names makes it even more irrelevant to call women by their traditional formal titles. As one of my friends likes to say, "Don't call me Dr.SoandSo, that's my Dad."

And I still have some friend who took their husband's names, not because they believe in wives being property or have children or any of those reasons, but just because they liked the husband's name better than their father's. If you have to take a man's name, the thinking goes, you might as well choose based on aesthetics if you want to.

I know one professor here who is embarrassed that a couple of people in his lab got in the habit of calling him Dr. instead of by his first name. Everyone got so used to hearing it that all the new students starting doing it, too.

You never know where these things come from, but it's surprisingly hard to break the habit once it's there.

On the other hand, it's not that hard to start a new habit if people are conscientious about it.

Nan said...

Back when the ink on the Ph.D. was still wet, I fell into the "call me Nan" camp. Over time, I realized that was a mistake. It may vary from school to school and setting to setting, but as a woman most of the time I'd rather have students call me "Dr." or "Professor" than address me more informally.

That said, every department's culture is different. What feels right in one is totally wrong in another.

musafiremes said...

...but it's surprisingly hard to break the habit once it's there.

Yea, it's rather hard for me to break the habit of calling my professors "Prof --" or "Dr --" since I come from a country where this is a form of respect for teachers, both male and female.

However, it did feel weird during discussions using 1st names for some and "Dr --" for some others (happened some time back during discussions with an assistant professor in my department, whom I'm used to address as "Dr --", and his close collaborators working in a national laboratory, whom I was introduced to by their 1st names, and it did seem that the interactive atmosphere there is more informal).

Mr. B. said...

Hmm...

From an old-timer.

I feel uncomfortable addressing students as Mr. Jones or Mrs. Smith or whatever. But if I address them as "Sam" or "Jane" then it seems strange for them to refer to me as anything other than "Bill."

In the long run, I think that it is best to deal with students as colleagues and to use the familiar form of address. Many very famous scientists go by their first names.

Ciao,

Bonzo

Anonymous said...

This happened to me a lot when I first started teaching. I teach at a service academy, so titles and respect are a BIG thing. I noticed that a lot of the students would refer to me and my other female colleague by our first names. All of the male profs were Prof. So-n-so, even the ones that were my age, height, etc. My male colleagues even noticed the phenomenon. It's gotten better now that I'm in my late 30s.

What I love about this blog is all these, "hey, that's happened to me!" moments.

Anonymous said...

Maybe this student didn't feel comfortable with Dr. X as a person. I tend to call MSPs (and FSPs) Dr. X (even if it's fine to and other students call them by their first name) if I feel uncomfortable with them - e.g. if they obviously have little respect for students, or appear to think students are a waste of time, or they seem to be amused by making students feel uncomfortable. If they're not friendly, and I'm only talking to them because of the official capacity that they hold, I'd rather refer to them in that capacity.

It just feels strange to me to call SPs by their first name, if they obviously do not consider you 'equal'. Personally, if I'm calling a SP that I know by their first name, I probably like and respect them more than if I call them Dr. X.

EcoGeoFemme said...

My undergraduate department department had a mixture of first-namers and dr-namers. But there was a new one my last year who all the studens thought didn't have a Ph.D. (this fact was ambiguous). So we decided it was better to call her by her first name than Ms. Last Name. I found out through another FSP that she was offended. Here we were trying to find the most respectful route and yet we still managed to seem disrespectful.

cbr said...

I wish I could break myself of this habit, but for me, it's a combination age and gender thing. I call all women profs by their first names, regardless of age. I tend to call younger male profs by their first names, but I cannot bring (FORCE) myself to call older male profs by their first names. (The one exception being a relative.) Even my advisor, whom I have known for six years, is still Dr. "So and so"...

I know that I do this, and I really don't like it.

Anonymous said...

There's nothing wrong with keeping some distance by calling someone "Dr X". We all have our own personal physical space, so why not personal emotional space as well?

Amy said...

This is a hot-button topic for me. I agree that using a first name for some and a title for others doesn't necessarily signal a difference in respect. But sometimes it definitely does. Students at my school (undergrads only in my department) call me by my first name much more frequently than they do my male colleagues, and when they don't do that, they often call me "Miss X" or even "Mrs. X" (I'm not married). In conversation, I've discovered that many students assume I do not have a PhD and that I must be a grad student. I wouldn't mind this so much if it didn't translate into other problems: I receive far more grade complaints than my colleagues do, though my grading is about average (maybe a bit easy) compared to theirs, I very frequently have students coming to my office and trying to wheedle me into giving them extra credit or a grade bump at the end of the semester, and I'm frequently challenged in class in a rather aggressive way. Over the years, several female professors have come and gone quickly in my department, once they realized how bad the student climate here is.

Anonymous said...

As a grad student, I was generally uncomfortable calling profs by their first name because I also come from a place where that is not done (also a language that has both formal and informal "you"s for example). Whether I felt comfortable using someone's first name when talking *to* them seemed more of a matter of familiarity. One thing I did notice, though, is that when talking *about* professors, I was more likely to use women's first name and men's last name to refer to them. Part of it was just imitation, I think. My (male) advisor would talk about a lot of his male colleagues by their last names (this was not a "setting an example" thing, where he referred to them as "Dr. X", he just used their last names to talk about them, informally). My department also had an all-male faculty except for one adjunct prof. during most of my time there, so when talking about women faculty, it was women from other departments, so maybe that was a factor too.

For what it's worth, most of my students call me by my first name, but occasionally some will call me "Dr. LastName" or "Prof. Last Name". I think male students are more likley to call me with titles than female students are. However, the couple of occasions in which I was called "Mrs" were also by male students.

scarlettscion said...

I'm not comfortable calling professors of either gender by their first name; it clouds the nature of the relationship for me. I have actually noticed about an equal number of male vs female professors asking me to call them by their first name, though.

C.V. said...

I just stumbled in here, but thought I'd leave a comment anyway. I'm an Air Traffic Controller at Cleveland Center. Everyone there, male and female alike, regardless of rank, goes by either their first name, or their last name.

We tend to save "Mr." for when we're being insubordinate.

Anonymous said...

I tend to call my professors by their full names, as in, "I showed my draft to Jane Smith and she told me to cut Figure 3."

It's the slightest increment of respect beyond the first name - which is good, because I work for these folks, and even the youngest in my department easily has a decade of experience on me - but it's not so formal that it's weird after a few years.

This works well in general...but of course, there are names that just won't cooperate. One professor I work with is "Dr. Jane" to me - same principle, many fewer syllables.

emeraldwednesday said...

Funny how we all seem to have thought a great deal about this! (me included!) In my case, I remember asking grad students during my interviews (to get into grad school) whether they called the profs by their first names. One school was decisively crossed off my list when the response was "the male students tend to, but not the female students". Ummm... :-S
I ended up choosing a department full of young profs who all go by their first names.
As for my own title, I tend not to use it except in the most formal of situations. Since I'm no longer in academe, I find that if I'm referred to as "Dr" often enough, someone asks me to take a look at the rash on their rear...

Kim said...

I had a very similar experience to amy during my first job. I was denied tenure there. I think the respect deficit played a big role. (It was a private undergrad institution where student teaching evaluations were extremely important in personnel decisions... and where the catalog listed all faculty as "Mr." and "Ms.")

In my undergrad and grad departments, all the faculty (male and female) went by first names, so I expected that it was the norm in my discipline. But I've since learned that it varies from school to school.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

(I've told this story before, but I can't remember if it was on this blog or another, so forgive me if I repeat myself.)

In my department, because of a space crunch, we are all doubled up in offices. Generally the admins pair up one TT prof (which I am) with one lecturer, as the lecturers are generally here for less time.

For two years, I was paired with a very nice male lecturer who had a Ph.D. and a fine record of his own. We were often in the office at the same time, but we got along well, so no problem there.

One day, a student that had us both for classes came to discuss an assignment with my officemate. I greeted him when he came in, then bent to my own work while he talked with my officemate. When he got up to leave, he took his leave of my officemate: "Thanks, professor X!" And immediately thereafter, of me: "See you in class, FirstName!"

Gah.

mystified in the Midwest said...

What a coincidence to find this here! After having completed my undergrad and graduate degrees at 2 separate institutions in Texas, I'm now a faculty member in the Midwest.

To this day, I would never dream of calling any of my former profs by their first name. But, I've found that many students here (undergrads) seem to have no problem calling professors by their first name, even if that professor hasn't expressed a desire to be called by their first name.

Needless to say, it's been driving me crazy, because I find it extremely disrespectful. What a difference 1500 miles makes!

Kelly said...

Many FSPs do not have gray hair and don't look at old and salty (reading a book by it's cover). I think it may be a respect your elders thing where the grad student felt comfortable addressing the same sex by first name, and not the old guy. It's common, and by no means sexual. In fact, it happened in the opposite form at my Univ. (it's all mine :). A male student addressed all males by first name and addressed the older/grayer FSP at Dr. X. Dr. X was offended. Funny. I like that many students are awed by the M or FSP. It show's respect even if we are uncomfortable with being refered to as Dr. Respect is good.

kr

EuropeanFemaleScienceProfessor said...

I'm trying to train my freshers to use Dr. Double-Name with the remark that Miss Double-Name won't cut it, as my father was just Mr. Double. Mrs. Double-Name won't work, either, as my husband is Dr. Name. So the only thing to call me would be Dr. or Prof. Dr. Double-Name.

As they get older and work more intensively with me, I will permit first names. I hear they call me DoNa when they think I'm not around.

But in the lab yesterday I had a student resort to *no* mode of address, just a sort of "hey you" clearing of the throat before he began to ask a question. I asked him why he was not addressing my by name. He said it was because he couldn't remember what the proper way to address me was.....

Anastasia said...

if I'm in a group of ppl I don't know all that well and I'm referring to a professor I know pretty well, I almost always say Dr. So and So. male or female. For instance, in a group of profs I know only slightly, I will refer to my advisor as Dr. Advisor, whether she's present or not. Even if I work more closely with her. There's something that feels presumptuous about referring to or calling her by her first name in front of her colleagues. like I think I'm just one of the gang. I know it wouldn't necessarily come off that way. Just saying I've noticed myself do that when gender wasn't at all the issue.