Friday, October 01, 2010

Those Who Shall Remain Named

Although most readers of this blog seem to be on the young side (of me), perhaps there are some faculty readers who can relate to this dilemma that some colleagues and I were discussing recently. And perhaps others have an opinion about the topic.

Some of us have NAMES in front of our professorial titles. Some of these NAMES are related to a permanent endowed chair, some to a temporary (folding) chair, and some to an award. My colleagues and I were discussing how we feel about these NAMES, and when we use these NAMES and when we don't.

Range of feelings about getting a NAME or NAMES in front of your title: happy, proud, apathetic, a bit embarrassed, some of each of those.

When are the NAMES used? Some of my colleagues always use the NAME in front of their title, perhaps because they like their title and/or because they feel they should honor the person or family for whom their professorship or chair is named and/or because they have no interest in spending any time wondering whether there are good times to use it and not-good times to use it; that's just their title and they use it.

Some only whip out the NAME when it seems expedient to do so. And that leads us to the question: When is it expedient to do so?

Some of my colleagues find that the NAME can be very useful when corresponding with administrators at our own university or with other professors we don't know but who might help us with something. The rest of the world might not be impressed by the title of Miffy X. Zongleswack Professor of Science, but people at your own school might be suitably awed. This is a self-serving but convenient example of when we might use the NAME.

The NAME is almost always used when signing a letter of reference. Being a NAMED professor might add a bit of prestige to the letter, even if it is a bit cynical to believe so. Some might be inclined to drop the NAME in ordinary correspondence, in the interests of being more informal and possibly less pretentious, but the NAME is definitely used when it helps someone to do so. This is an altruistic example of name-dropping.

One bizarre exception to this general rule about signing reference letters was in the rare circumstance in which the name in the title was the same as the last name of the student for whom the letter of reference was being composed. This was a complete coincidence -- one that entertained student and professor while working together -- but the professor feared that the coincidence of names might make the letter seem less objective. It is unlikely that the student was harmed by the fact that the (very positive) letter was signed simply by a Professor, sans NAMES.

There seem to be a wider variety of views on whether to use the NAME when corresponding with students. Do students think it is cool that a professor with an additional title is teaching their class, or do they think we might be more scary and unapproachable?

One colleague uses her full title in the first e-mail message to a student or a class, in the hopes that this will result in replies consisting of complete sentences, and then goes into more informal mode after that.

During this recent conversation among colleagues, we wondered: What, if anything, do students think about these extra titles? Do the titles, if they are even noticed, inspire respect, fear, apathy, curiosity, contempt..? All of the above? Or is having a NAMED title just another strange thing about some professors, indistinguishable from all the other strange things about professors?

No, this is not a topic about which professors obsess (too much). It's just one of those random little academic things that come up in conversation from time to time, and I thought I'd muse about it here and see if readers could provide an answer to the question posed above about perceptions of these NAMES. And most of us will not be crushed or even dismayed if no one is impressed with our long titles.


Anonymous said...

My sister is a NAMED professor who has had opportunity to testify before Congress on a couple of occasions. After reading your post, I looked up the public record of one of these events and noticed that she introduced herself simply as "Associate Professor of X at the University of Y." So evidently she doesn't think the U.S. legislature has much interest in NAMES.

I'm curious to hear what others have to say, though.

Anonymous said...

I'm a grad student and have NEVER noticed anyone having a NAME in front of a title. I'm not sure if that is because it is not a common thing in my country/field/university/etc. or because I am oblivious.

a physicist said...

I regard the name as part of my official title. In a context where I might have said "I'm an assistant professor" I would now say "I'm the Whozit Professor". Signing letters is certainly one place where I've always used my title, and for recommendation letters it is especially nice to hope it helps the student.

But otherwise, I have not ever used my title much, I prefer undergraduate students that I teach to address me as "Dr. Aphysicist" so it doesn't come up.

When I was an undergrad, I barely even paid attention to whether my teachers were assistant, associate, or full professors.

Jean Grey said...

When I was an undergrad, I had no idea what the NAMES meant, so I would have fallen in this category:

"just another strange thing about some professors, indistinguishable from all the other strange things about professors"

Now, as a postdoc, it is a different story. I met someone recently who once held a named postdoc at a national lab, and after this tidbit came to my attention, I was a bumbling idiot in front of this person.

Anonymous said...

As a student, I never noticed the "NAMES", in particular endowed chairs. It was never very clear what causes many NAMEs to be bestowed, or that they have any significance. (Which is not to say that they don't, just that having never been involved in the selection process or in general told what most of these special titles mean, I tend to discount them).

Anonymous said...

I hadn't thought about the issue of respecting the person for whom the chair is named. That's a really good point, especially if someone gave money to honor that person.

Anonymous said...

Our campus has very few named positions (not that many philanthropists), and the positions don't necessarily go to the best professors, so most of us consider it rather pretentious to use a fancy title (except in very formal circumstances, which are rare here on the left coast).

Most of us don't use titles at all, and go by our first names. When students are uncomfortable using first names, then the generic title "professor" may be used. Having someone introduce themselves as the "someone or other professor of something" would be regarded as very strange. Students here would have no idea what it meant.

Note: based on clues in her writing, I am probably slightly older than FSP, so I am not the target of the question being asked.

Anonymous said...

I was raised a Midwesterner and thus was raised not to stand out or brag. This makes the title a bit problematic. I am proud of it, but also feel funny about using it in many situations. It is NOT on my letterhead or my email signature. It IS on the Dept/lab website as they make that decision and it may help sell to prospective students or postdocs.

I DO put it on my CV, including the NIH version that i use in grants. I also ALWAYs use it in letters of recommendation. In dealing with folks at the University, I usually use the humble approach first and only use any title if I feel like i am being brushed off without reason.

Mark P

Anonymous said...

I have 3 NAME'S and sometimes I use them all to sign my name. I find it to be fun.

AtmosPostdoc said...

For undergrads, I can't imagine these extra titles matter too much. I think the teacher-student relationship is the one they see...when I was a doctoral student and instructing, many of the undergrads called me 'Professor _____', even when I made it clear I was a grad student (and they could call me by my first name). I think signing things formally as an instructor will lend itself to a more formal response though (if anything).

As for me now, I think academics who use a bunch of foo-foo titles are a little superficial. I am now Dr. _____...which means I'm better than I was before I became Dr._____?? Silly.

I totally understand using these titles when talking to administrative types who put lots of stock in them...but I don't really care about them. I'll evaluate work on its own merits, and by now I think I can figure out who's work to pay attention to.

Cranky Math Guy said...

Using the NAME when communicating with students can cut both ways. To quote one of my own student's description of a colleague "... I mean, I don't know if [NAMED Professor of Science] is important of not, but he certainly seems to think so..."

Anonymous said...

From a recent undergrad point of view,

I am in the sciences and never really thought about the various names tied to my faculty members. I don't know why I didn't, but it just seemed to me as another formality of the academic process and not really indicative of the faculty's lab accomplishments.

My friend in the humanities, on the other hand, held faculty members in higher esteem if they had an endowed name in their title. To my friend, it meant that this professor had really accomplished something and had proof of their intelligence.

Unknown said...

As an Undergrad I had a rather excellent, well-liked Professor who was the "Morningstar" Professor. We took great joy in calling him The Morningstar (which means Lucifer).

Other faculty had far less fun titles (Class of '52 Career Development, or something like that) that I was always happy to see a good faculty member have. I never found the titles intimidating, and in written form would have still just addressed them as Prof. So-and-So, rather than NAMED Prof. So-and-So.

Anonymous said...

This is interesting. I am a full professor at a European university and I have never even heard of this. We don't have such a thing and I don't think colleagues in neighbouring countries do either. I have never noticed the use of such a NAME in a letter of reference from American faculty - probably I wouldn't notice, or if I did, might confuse it with the professor's real name. Not the intention I expect. :) Now I have an urge to search through emails from American colleagues to see if any of them use such a NAME.

However I am from a country that doesn't use titles at all, only (real) names, so even "Professor" sounds pretentious.

Unknown said...

I'm a 2nd year grad student.

As an undergrad, I had no idea what a named professorship was nor did I care. When someone said they were the "Dur Durka Dur Professor of Arab Studies" I had no idea what that meant, nor did I care.

As far as I know now, the only difference between a named professor and an unnamed professor is an extra $6,000 a year on their paycheck. I've known for a while that its intended to be an honor, but I have no idea what the magnitude of the honor is. Most professors I interact with are in my department, and so we're on a first name basis anyway.

Anonymous said...

A couple of years ago I was elected a Fellow of My Field's Learned Society. I added it to my CV and tossed the ribbon thingy in my dresser drawer.

Reading promotion letters for a colleague today I noticed several recommenders had signed

Jeremiah Smith
Professor of My Field
Fellow of My Field's Learned Society

It had just never even occurred to me to do that!

TLH said...

In the press coverage for our recent paper in Prestigious Journal, the Distinguished Named Professors got all the quotes and the junior lead scientist did not.

So clearly the press cares.

I think it is just silly.

Recent Postdoc said...

I have a named post-doc and I like talking about it. The name giver of the post-doc was a member of my field and then made big money on Wall Street. That's a nice story and fun to tell :-)

Anonymous said...

As an undergrad and grad student, I was mostly oblivious to named professorships, though I did have an otherwise good understanding of the promo path for faculty. Then after I completed my PhD, I watched my former advisor blackmail the department into a named chair, by bringing home offer letters from very slightly more prestigious departments. (Though not so much in his own field). So I am a bit cynical about seeing NAMED professorships now.

Now working at a National Lab, we do have internally elected Fellows, but not NAMED chairs per se for the scientific staff. There are a handful of named postdoctoral fellowships, and it's probably not obvious to the outsider which ones are more and less prestigious than others. One set of fellowships is bestowed not so much for the recipient's absolute merit but to encourage work in specific areas that are considered critical skills for the Laboratory. To put it more precisely, it is merit-based but not extremely competitive. But who would know that?

I have seen a named postdoc (of the truly meritorious type) take his use of the title to an absurd extreme, putting it at his signature line on his cover letters, and at the top of his resume, and under an employment history entry, and again under awards. Four times in one application package. Really, we got it already!

Unbalanced Reaction said...

I don't care if my students know what a NAME is or not. I just know this: I want one! Not likely to get one at my current institution, but a young'un can dream, can't she?

Eilat said...

A very funny, relevant, anecdote from a colleague of mine:

Alex said...

My sister is a NAMED professor who has had opportunity to testify before Congress on a couple of occasions. After reading your post, I looked up the public record of one of these events and noticed that she introduced herself simply as "Associate Professor of X at the University of Y." So evidently she doesn't think the U.S. legislature has much interest in NAMES.

Or maybe she thinks the So-and-So Foundation is happy to have its name on academic chairs but would prefer to not have its name attached to testimony on political controversies?

A. Non Mouse said...

I find it awkward to be a NAMED professor but still at associate rank (I'm also dept chair.) I pull out the NAME when I think it'll add weight to what I'm saying--specifically on letters of recommendation and in "important" communication.

And no, I don't get an extra $6K on my paycheck...same amount, just out of a different pocket :)

Anonymous said...

There were NAMED professors at my undergrad, I recall. I think after initial confusion I understood the significance. Most professors used the NAME as you do--when it served a purpose. One of two of them used the NAME all the time: casual emails, nameplates on doors, memos, you name it. In my undergrad perspective, I thought that made them look like insecure, pretentious jackasses. Actually, I still think that.

Anonymous said...

If I got a class email from a professor that included the NAME in such a way that I could tell it was included specifically for that mailing, and not just as a tacked-on signature, I would find that pretty weird. Usually my professors sign with things like "Prof. Soandso" or "Dr. Person." I work in a NAMED professor's lab and even though I've been there for over a year but I can't remember what the NAME is off the top of my head.