Today a graduate student in the English department asked me if I am a "real professor". It's not the first time I've been asked that, of course, though the episodes in which my realness is questioned have become more rare with time.
I wasn't offended, but only because the student seemed like a nice (albeit clueless) person. I suppose he was wondering if I am an adjunct/instructor or a tenured faculty member, but his choice of words had a rather high probability of offending no matter what the answer. A "real" professor could be offended that her realness was in question, and an "unreal" professor could be offended by the use of the term "real".
There must be better ways to ask this question, though perhaps none that involve a one word adjective modifying the word "professor".
I know nothing of the culture of English departments, but it would surprise me if this question were considered polite (as worded). Perhaps there is a more poetic, inoffensive, and/or mellifluous way to request this information from someone? I welcome suggestions from experts in phraseology, diplomacy, and dactylic hexameter, among others.
Example (from a scientist): What species of professor are you?
12 hours ago