The Social Dimension of the Professor-Student Relationship


In a comment on a previous post, Natalie writes:

I would really like to see a post/some discussion about how different people manage the socialising-with-students thing. Thinking of my own lecturers, mentors, etc, they mostly fell into one of two extreme groups—either no socialising at all, or ill-thought out (and sometimes inappropriate) socialising—and so I don’t feel like I have a model of what to do with my own students. Of course different situations/people/dynamics call for different strategies, but I’d really like to see a variety of different ones for some inspiration. And it might also be a useful way to start a conversation with people who don’t currently give much thought to how/whether they should socialise with students.

Thoughts from students and professors welcome.

PhDComics What To Call Your Professor

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jj1
jj1
5 years ago

Recently graduated with my B.A. — I cherish the time I spent having coffee regularly with one of my profs. And I think any prof who insists you call them “Professor” or “Dr.” is incredibly stuck up. Report

Will Behun
Will Behun
5 years ago

Asking to be called by your proper title is not “stuck up”. It is formal, and a degree of formality is appropriate in professional situations. If you’re not comfortable with people calling you by your title and would prefer that they call you by your first name, that’s great, and kudos to you for reaching out to your students. Personally I’m not comfortable with students or anyone else with whom I’m not friends calling me by my first name. I’m generally not comfortable referring to students by their first names either; we’re not friends, I don’t know them or anything about them at the start of the semester. Why would I presume to be on a first name basis? It just seems rude. Once I get to know them that might change, if they allow it.

My friends and colleagues call me “Will” or “William”. My kids call me “Dad”. My students call me “Dr Behun”.

I’m sure that jj1, given the wealth of experience that he has having studied at university for a whole four years, will think that I’m “incredibly stuck up.” I’m okay with that. I think anyone (student, telemarketer, barista, etc) who demands the right to call me by my first name whether I like it or not is a presumptuous ass.Report

JT
JT
Reply to  Will Behun
5 years ago

My immediate thought after this: thank goodness the social norms are a-changin’!Report

John Robert
John Robert
Reply to  Will Behun
5 years ago

Surely the presumption is on your behalf that having a certain professional status endows you with the right to a special title, given that in everyday life convention is to call people by the name given to them at birth? What is it but a horribly ossified form of inequality? In any case, it’s impersonal and can’t be pedagogically helpful, ‘Will’.Report

jj1
jj1
Reply to  John Robert
5 years ago

Do you really order coffee under “Dr. Behun”? Report

Will Behun
Will Behun
Reply to  jj1
5 years ago

No, jj1, though you’ve missed the point. If the Barista insists on calling me “Bill”, as some have done, that’s rude, isn’t it?Report

Kenny
Kenny
Reply to  Will Behun
5 years ago

I believe there are certain cultures in which that’s considered rude, but not any of the parts of North America I’ve lived in over the past few decades.Report

Will Behun
Will Behun
Reply to  John Robert
5 years ago

I struggle with the idea that on meeting a stranger, one would presume to be on a first name basis. That isn’t the “everyday life convention” I’ve encountered, but perhaps I travel in different circles, “Johnny-Bobby”.Report

metamorphic
metamorphic
5 years ago

I learned so much great philosophy from my professors in the context of drinking way too much and socializing in ways that I now recognize as totally inappropriate. But it was so much fun! I learned so much! I can’t recommend this to current and future students because it goes off the rails too easily, even though it didn’t for me!

It is a strange tension to manage, feeling grateful for those amazing moments while also knowing that in general, that should not happen. It is one of the ways in which a minority who are jerks when they drink can spoil something for everyone. Report

Grad Student
Grad Student
5 years ago

This is somewhat foreign to me. In both my undergrad and now my grad program, I’ve only had one professor who requested not to be called by their first name. If anything the bigger problem has been acting too formally around professors who expect more casual interactions. Maybe my experience has been anomalous, but I always assumed that this level of formality was the exception rather than the rule. Report

grad student
grad student
5 years ago

“I think anyone (student, telemarketer, barista, etc) who demands the right to call me by my first name whether I like it or not is a presumptuous ass.”

Honestly? This scares me. So we should address people, and expect to be addressed by people, differently depending on their position of power, and on whether they are lucky enough to belong to our ingroup (which is, of course, also a position of power)? Are we not all equals on this planet?
I can see no reason of applying a linguistic distinction along the lines of superiority/inferiority or ingroup/outgroup other than some corresponding metaphysical/ethical belief. Do critically thinking and philosophically informed people have such beliefs? If so, on what grounds? Or do they just act like that for other reasons? What reasons? (Unreflected habit is not a reason).Report

Junior Female Prof
Junior Female Prof
Reply to  grad student
5 years ago

Seriously? No one can think of any good reasons for wanting to be called by your title by your students? Here are several:
1. All of the times that I’ve been mistaken for a student – and I work in a place without a grad program.
2. All of the times that I’ve been told by students how “funny” it is that I have a PhD, or who ask whether I have an MA.
3. All of the times that male students who have never challenged my white male colleagues have rudely and publicly challenged or dismissed me in the middle of a class.
Asking to be called by your title is a good way to remind your students that you know what you’re talking about and that you deserve to be in the position that you’re in, despite the picture that they have in their head of what a philosophy professor should look like. Ace for you if you’re a white dude whose students take you seriously as the default position. But that’s not the default position for people like me.Report

Another Junior Female Prof
Another Junior Female Prof
Reply to  Junior Female Prof
5 years ago

Add to the list:
4. All of the times that a student has called me “Miss” or (shudder) “Mrs.”

If you’re a white dude who teaches, one of the best things you could do to support your colleagues who are not white or not men would be to avoid a “titles are for the pompous! First names, all the way!” attitude.Report

grad student
grad student
Reply to  Junior Female Prof
5 years ago

Thanks a lot for that! I think you are absolutely right. These are strong reasons. I know feel partly convinced and partly worried since there also is a need to address the fact that many teachers do treat students badly, sometimes with the effect of making them leave academia, and it seems that enforcing an aura of power around those professors, who are often male and white, is a very bad idea.

I agree that using one kind of hierarchy (teacher-student) can be a valid way to counterbalance another (sexism, racism). But doing so does not entail that one would use this hierarchy were it not for the inequalities one wants to address? I.e., the aim is still equality?

Is there not a risk that if students are supposed to treat teachers like superiors and are shamed for failing to do so in front of other students, and/or punished (by, for example, being ignored or not getting good letters they otherwise deserve), then some kinds of inequalities are reinforced, even though this device of addressing by title (which is part of something broader) is effective against the problem of sexist/racist student behaviour?

Is there some way of making sure non-male non-white (also perhaps young or young-looking) teachers/academics are fully respected, while not reinforcing an aura of power around those (especially male) teachers/academics no student dares to question when they act inappropriately? Who ignore, mistreat, single out or even bully students, often on sexist/racist/ableist grounds, or who disrespect or act unprofessionally towards students but get away with it?

And, might there also not be academic losses in students being afraid of their teachers, for both teachers and students?

Another worry: If some male/white students are dominating and disruptive (which I believe is the case in most places), are there ways to address this other than enforcing an aura of authority around the teacher? In particular, it seems that these students will continue to dominate and be disruptive in and outside the classroom, but just not towards teachers? Report

grad student
grad student
Reply to  grad student
5 years ago

Short version: is having an aura of power around all teachers necessary and/or sufficient for addressing sexist/racist behaviour from students against non-male/non-white teachers?Report

jichikawa
Reply to  grad student
5 years ago

Student sexism and racism are particularly vivid illustrations of the need for teachers to have social power, but for at least some teaching—larger lectures, for instance, I think it’s necessary for teaching simpliciter. If my introductory logic students think of me as a social equal, the course won’t work. (Something like a grad seminar is another story.)Report

grad student
grad student
Reply to  jichikawa
5 years ago

I understand the need but think that is the wrong strategy. It is easy to underestimate the mechanisms behind why students are disruptive in class. It is an expression of rebelliousness against what they perceive as authority. The task of the philosophy professor is to make clear that they are NOT an authority in that sense, not there to “get them”, push them down or teach them their place in society.

Instead, philosophy professors should convey that they _are_ their social equals, who happen to have something very important to teach them, and that students better shut up and listen if they want to learn this. And encourage anyone who thinks out loud in a disruptive way to instead ask well thought-out questions during Q&A.

The professor can also add that if students learn these skills well, this will enable them to identify and rebel against authorities they actually have reason to rebel against. Which there are. Report

jichikawa
Reply to  grad student
5 years ago

I think that especially in philosophy, the ‘everybody is equal’ myth is dangerous. There is such a thing as philosophical expertise, and professors are credentialed for it. Students should certainly be encouraged to think for themselves and not to take their instructors’ pronouncements as dogma; but they shouldn’t delude themselves into thinking that their own initial reactions are on an epistemic par with the thoughts of their professors. We live in a field where half the students in some demographic categories are self-styled experts, and this is not a good thing. There’s also just a matter of classroom authority. Instructors need to be able to manage their classrooms, and asking for a level of formality is one of the things that can help.

My first several years as a professor, I asked my undergrads to address me as ‘Dr.’ or ‘Professor’, largely for these reasons. Now I’m a little older, and tenured, and I wear suits and tweed a lot, so I get more of the deference I need more automatically. So I’ve started inviting students to call me ‘Jonathan’. But I wouldn’t do so if I looked younger, or wanted to wear t-shirts, or were a woman.Report

grad student
grad student
Reply to  jichikawa
5 years ago

There can be epistemic inequality without social inequality. And the point of the teaching situation is to address and reduce the epistemic inequality.

Everybody is intrinsically socially equal – that is not a myth. Everyone is not epistemically equal, which is a problem to address, which is why we have large-scale teaching and public outreach and why we try to minimise paywall publishing.Report

Azar Niaz
Azar Niaz
Reply to  jichikawa
5 years ago

I wonder what these demographics are…Report

Will Behun
Will Behun
Reply to  grad student
5 years ago

Dear gradstudent:

If I demand to be referred to by my title and do not extend the same courtesy to my students, I think your criticism would be fair. But that’s not the case, and you seem to have overlooked that. It’s about referring to people how they want to be referred to. If your name is John, and I insist on calling you “Jack” or “Johnny”, that’s fantastically rude, isn’t it? I don’t see this as any different. If you are comfortable with students referring to you by your first name, as I said, that’s great. If you prefer something else, shouldn’t we respect that?Report

grad student
grad student
Reply to  Will Behun
5 years ago

If you are serious, then we can agree I think. Let me ask you about these three cases:
1. Assume a student is a DJ, and prefers the name DJ Flash. Would you call that student DJ Flash on her request?
2. A less obvious case: a student already has a Ph.D. in another discipline. Do you call that student Dr. + last name (including in the teaching situation)?
3. A more serious, and I think not uncommon real life case: a student identifies as queer, and wants to be called, not by their given name “Robert”, but instead “Katy”. Let us also assume the person is not identifying as transgender, has not asked to have the name changed in ID etc, and dresses and looks male. Report

Will Behun
Will Behun
Reply to  grad student
5 years ago

I’ve dealt, actually, with two of these situations, or at least analogous ones. The first I have to answer hypothetically.

1) if it were really important to the student, I would have no problem using that title. It would be a little weird for me, but I think I’d be used to it after about a week.
2) I had a colleague from psychology take my ethics class. Yes, I referred to her as Dr —–.
3) I’ve had students request that I use their first names and have been happy to do so. In one instance, she was in the middle of a messy divorce, and being called by her soon to be ex-husband’s name was upsetting to her. I’ve also used a variety of forms of address when students have requested it for reasons that they haven’t shared with me. What’s important to me is that they are called by a name that respects their dignity. Your example makes sense here, I think.

Report

JT
JT
Reply to  Will Behun
5 years ago

Dr. Behun, it looks to me like you’re shifting the goalposts on grad student somewhat. I don’t agree with the line they’ve taken, but I think we were both taken aback by your strong condemnation of those who simply abide by a different set of social norms, even in contexts where those may be the appropriate or operating ones. It’s one thing to say that we should, within reason, refer to others in the way they prefer. But it’s another to say that anyone who does not respect this norm is a ‘presumptuous ass’, even when the context prescribes otherwise (e.g., in a coffee shop) or when they are required to do so by their employers (e.g., telemarketers, baristas). I take that to be what grad student found objectionable in your comment (notice how they quote the specific sentence in question), and I agree–social norms are contextual and I see no reason why norms on referring are any different from other social norms in this regard.Report

grad student
grad student
Reply to  JT
5 years ago

On point. But further: if someone wants to be called “Professor/Dr” in the University, and ALSO wants to be called so by those who make their coffee, and, if it applies, janitors, babysitters, taxi-drivers, waiters, etc… in other words, thinks of themselves as a Master, with a title, surrounded by servants, with no title, then students would do everyone a favour in reminding them that actually, 18th century ideas about natural classes are harmful, and we are in fact all equals, like it or not.

The upsetting part is that this attitude of entitlement (sic) is NOT uncommon is certain cities, and what is worse, it is on the rise again after having been pushed back by previous generations. Report

JT
JT
Reply to  grad student
5 years ago

This is one point on which we diverge. I don’t take Dr. Behun to have anything like the attitude you describe in mind. Rather, it seems to me that he was merely insisting on a formal social norm for referring that used to apply more widely than it does now. The other is your insistence that our equality as moral agents means that there is “no reason of applying a linguistic distinction along the lines of superiority/inferiority or ingroup/outgroup other than some corresponding metaphysical/ethical belief.” One such ground is epistemic expertise. And it’s not the case, as you suggest, that there are no good ethical grounds for doing so either–there are morally justified forms of authority that can supply such (perhaps merely social rather than moral) reasons in certain contexts, as in the case of teachers in the classroom and judges in the courtroom. Anyway, insisting on a certain degree of formality in line with one’s social status isn’t at all incompatible with rejecting ’18th century ideas about natural classes’ and recognising that ‘we are equals on this planet’. This may involve, as Dr. Behun wishes, merely that we all refer to each other as Dr./Esq. (in the American sense)/Hon./Mr./Ms./etc. [Lastname] in the absence of a certain degree of intimacy between us insofar as none of these, like aristocratic titles, imply any difference in moral standing.Report

grad student
grad student
Reply to  JT
5 years ago

Doing what you propose would strengthen ingroup-outgroup boundaries, which is harmful to those in the outgroup. Since those in the outgroup is worse off already, such a move would increase inequality.

Inversely, taking away formality in line with social status – everywhere where the relation is asymmetric – weakens the ingroup-outgroup boundary, which is good for the outgroup, and good for equality.

Academics already form ingroups without the help of title formalities and since academics belong to the elite of society, this is damaging for those in the outgroup – those with no title, who are marked out as inferior. In this context, it is damaging especially for everyone who never got the opportunity to do a Ph.D. (which is not necessarily because they weren’t good enough). And it is damaging to philosophy because it strengthens the divide between academic philosophy and the rest of the world. Report

JT
JT
Reply to  JT
5 years ago

I’m not sure what you mean. What kind of group boundaries do you have in mind? What kind of inequality? How does the former contribute to the latter? It can’t be that any title whatsoever will necessarily entrench group boundaries, and nor can it be that any such boundary will increase inequality, however that is spelled out. It seems unlikely that using the title ‘sophomore’ meaningfully creates a group boundary. And if I consistently invite only close friends to social events but not the rest of my social network, I create a kind of in-group of intimates that excludes those I’m less fond of but without exacerbating socioeconomic inequality. Also, are all academics really part of the elite? I think few would count the increasingly large numbers of PhDs stuck in the adjunct trap as socioeconomically better off than the majority of society. More generally, I’m worried that the kind of egalitarianism you’re promoting is too flatfooted insofar as it seems to be committed to a kind of eliminitivism about titles and the eradication of all freely formed exclusive associations–neither of which are, to my mind, necessary (or sufficient, for that matter) for the realisation of justice.Report

Will Behun
Will Behun
Reply to  JT
5 years ago

Dear JT:

I think maybe you’ve misread here. The presumption lies in replacing your judgment about how I should be referred to with your own. Don’t I have any say in the matter? If you ask me what I want to be called but then insist on calling me something else, isn’t that presumption?Report

grad student
grad student
Reply to  Will Behun
5 years ago

JT: You write: “And if I consistently invite only close friends to social events but not the rest of my social network, I create a kind of in-group of intimates that excludes those I’m less fond of but without exacerbating socioeconomic inequality. ”

I can clearly see how that can lead to inequality, based on for example gender, race, class, ability or first language. In an academic setting, I would say that this is exactly how harmful in-groups like old boys’ networks and informal gentlemen clubs do form. And this social exclusion becomes academic exclusion if the event has any kind of academic aspect to it, which includes coming up with ideas for joint projects, or sharing stories and info about jobs, about trends in publishing, slander, etc, or just intellectual discussions.

If we want to change the situation in academic philosophy where many people are informally excluded based on gender, ethnicity, social background, class, etc, it requires conscious effort to address exclusionary informal practices. Nobody is going to prevent anybody from having the friends they want, but it does not cost much to refuse to form in-groups and to make an effort to be inclusive. Report

grad student
grad student
Reply to  Will Behun
5 years ago

On how titles enforces inequality:
Imagine that you don’t have a title and become friends with someone in academia, who takes you to a loosely formal event. Everyone else has a title, you have none. You are Mr/Ms/Mrs, they are “Dr”. Would that make you feel like an equal among equals? Would you want to come back to such an event, or rather go where you do feel like an equal among equals?

That is one example of how the title enforces an ingroup/outgroup-boundary, and puts everyone in their social “natural” place.

Or, imagine an important discussion in your local community. In the room there is an academic, expecting/insisting to be called “Dr” while the bakers, taxi drivers and nannies in the room are called “Mr/Ms/Mrs”.
How is that not a marker of superiority, of power, status and class, suggesting that that person is somehow more important and should have a greater say than the others? Report

JT
JT
Reply to  Will Behun
5 years ago

Dr. Behun, I don’t think I’ve misunderstood you, from what you’re saying here. I agree that in contexts where the salient norm on referring is to defer to the stated preference of the one being referred to (call this the deference norm) it would be presumptive for one to refer to another by their first name in the absence of permission to do so. But there are (at least now) social contexts in which it is not the salient norm, and contexts in which the norm is overridden by the terms of one’s employment. And if this is right, then it would be mistaken to insist that someone who does not respect the deference norm in one of these contexts is thereby a ‘presumptive ass’. In such cases, there would be no presumption because the operative norm doesn’t require others to first gain your permission before referring to you by your first name.

Furthermore, what counts as presumptive depends in part on what the we need explicit permission to do. But any workable form of the deference norm needs to specify an acceptable default way for us to refer to each other in the absence of an explicitly stated preference. There must be some ways of referring for which we do not require explicit permission, ways of referring that could not be considered presumptive. In the past, we conventionally defaulted to formal titles, last names, and the like in most contexts. But there doesn’t seem to be any reason to think that the conventions can’t change, and some reason to think that they in fact have changed. So even in contexts where deference norm is operative, it may well still be the case that informal ways of referring are not presumptive insofar as they are among the default.Report

Kathryn Lindeman
Kathryn Lindeman
5 years ago

I wish that circumstances were such that I didn’t have to think about how to manage students perceptions of me by projecting professionalism and expertise. I wish that when I started my job I hadn’t felt the need to spend a lot of time deciding whether to have my undergrad students call me “Kathryn” or “Professor Lindeman.” Alas. I get to decide how my students address me because, even though we are all equals on this planet, my students and I are not equals in my classroom. I would like that to be as salient to them as it would be if I were a bearded 60 year old white guy.

So calm down with the judgments of being stuck up. If you really see no reason for professors to ask undergrad students to refer to them with language that indicates their expertise and qualifications, then maybe you should listen more to faculty who insist on titles do so. Hint: they’re more likely going to be women and minorities. Report

GradStudentTA
GradStudentTA
5 years ago

I get super conflicted about the name issue. I’m a TA – I teach my own Intro to Philosophy class, but I don’t have a PhD, and am also not even really a “professor” (and feel about as guilty about co-opting that title as ‘Dr.’) I also really don’t want to be called “Ms. X.” So I tell them they can call me by my first name, even though as a woman (and a young-looking one), I’d prefer to have a little distance. Thoughts? I find “Instructor X” to be really cumbersome and awkward, but maybe it’s appropriate? Report

Sarah A.
Sarah A.
Reply to  GradStudentTA
5 years ago

I’m a TA too (and a young-looking woman), and I’ve had this exact conundrum. I’ve settled on asking my students to call me by my first name (and giving a little explanation of where I am in the PhD process in the hopes that they’ll understand that I really do know more than they do and have the authority to teach the class). I have tons of problems with students plowing over any distance I try to maintain. However, the one class I asked my students to call me “Ms.A,” I had roughly the same problems. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that asking them to call me by my last name will help all that much. I do think I’ll ask my undergraduate students (and potentially graduate students, depending on the atmosphere) to address me as “Professor A,” if I ever become a professor, but if I go into another profession, I won’t go by “Dr. A” and I have trouble explaining why that feels natural to me.
Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
5 years ago

Junior women and minority professors are required to Always Be Thinking about how to negotiate power relations with students. Those who don’t usually end up having endless problems with classroom management. It has been a big relief, personally, to relax some of that formality after tenure.

As far as professors socializing with grad students outside of departmental activities goes, my advice is: be very careful, especially if you are a junior faculty member. While the power imbalance can end up being “problematic,” at minimum, for the grad student if the relationship turns sexual or otherwise intimate, I think there is also a big risk to the faculty member. The transition from grad student to assistant professor is often vexed, and having lots of casual interactions with the grad students in your program can make the transition even harder. You don’t want your senior colleagues to see you as another grad student, and you don’t want to have to sanction a buddy.

Faculty should aim for avuncular (or its non-gendered equivalent). And by that I mean a kind and compassionate but slightly distant uncle–not a creepy, over affectionate, drinking buddy, boundary-crossing one. Report

Nobody
Nobody
Reply to  Professor Plum
5 years ago

If I were your student, and I knew you had written this, I would not feel comfortable filing a complaint, with you.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
Reply to  Nobody
5 years ago

If you were my student, and I knew you had written this, I would be deeply troubled (or “uncomfortable”, if you prefer) by your tendency to draw damning conclusions on the basis of an innocuous comment. Report

Nick Munn
Nick Munn
5 years ago

This is to some extent a New Zealand thing, but I expect all students to call me by my first name, even the first year students in big intro classes. There was (sort of) recently a blowup on Reddit sparked largely by a (non-NZ) academic here rudely insisting, via email, that a student refer to him by his title. The whole thing seemed like a failure to appreciate the casual nature of staff/student interaction in NZ universities.Report

Mohan Matthen
Mohan Matthen
Reply to  Nick Munn
5 years ago

Yes, it’s true. I was initially quite taken off balance by this when I taught as a visitor in Auckland. No undergraduate in Canada would address me by my first name, but every student I met in New Zealand did. Fortunately, I was conscious of being in a foreign land, and I didn’t embarrass myself by protesting against a practice that is authentically local.Report

Avi Z.
Avi Z.
5 years ago

I’ve had many enjoyable evenings at pubs and restaurants with my former (not current) undergrad students, from whom I have learned much about what they found valuable/not so valuable in my teaching. I would not recommend treating current students to such evenings and I would definitely recommend that even with former students it be done in a group setting (don’t ask an individual former student out on a ‘date’). I think it is very nice to invite groups of current students to chat over coffee in the university cafe, though, or even have a regular table and time where they can stop by for an informal ‘office hour’.
As for titles, I have always liked the semi-formal, but affectionate ‘Dr. Z.’ Students never call me by first name, and even former students can use ‘Dr Z’ with affection as we raise our glasses in reminiscence of their college years and current successes. I happen to be a middle aged white guy wearing tweed and glasses, so I have the privilege of not worrying much about classroom management, but I’ve seen young female faculty use the ‘Dr Z’ strategy as a way to maintain respect while being approachable.Report

Avi Z.
Avi Z.
Reply to  Avi Z.
5 years ago

In case it’s not obvious, by ‘Dr Z’ I meant following ‘Doctor’ with your last initial rather than your full last name.Report

Brandon
Brandon
5 years ago

I did not have much in the way of outside-the-department social interaction with faculty during my BA, but during my MA I did, and currently in my PhD I am, and I have found it invaluable. I think graduate students can benefit immensely from the social dimension of the professor-grad student relationship, so long as it is kept professional and not inappropriate. (What exactly defines ‘professional’ and ‘inappropriate’ is hard to define, though there are obvious paradigm cases of each; i.e., do go for a couple drinks, don’t get blackout drunk together.) I speak with some degree of privilege here, as I am a white male student, so I have fewer things to worry about on the inappropriate side. But I do not think it is in itself impossible for grad students and faculty, especially one’s supervisor(s)/mentor(s), to have positive, non-inappropriate social activity together that can enhance the quality of the relationship and also give time for less formal philosophical discussion and education.

I would not recommend the same for BA students, in general, however.Report

David Braun
David Braun
5 years ago

At the beginning of all my courses, I ask my students to address me with “Professor Braun”. I also tell them that I will address them with “Ms. [last name]” or “Mr. [last name],” unless they have objections to this. The vast majority do not object, but a few have asked me to address them with “Mrs. [last name]”, which I have done. I have had no requests for other titles. I also ask the students to address each other in this way during class. Perhaps I am fooling myself, but I think that doing this introduces a note of seriousness and respect for everyone in my classes.Report

Will Behun
Will Behun
Reply to  David Braun
5 years ago

Thank you, Professor Braun, for saying eloquently what I’ve tried to say in my hamfisted way. Report

Philip Kremer
Philip Kremer
Reply to  David Braun
5 years ago

Here’s a thought along the same lines: if one adult addresses another by the latter’s given name, then the former is implicitly inviting the latter to do the same. So, if you insist on students addressing you by your title and last name, then you should address your students by their title (usually Mr or Ms) and last name as well.Report

jj1
jj1
Reply to  David Braun
5 years ago

To me, that atmosphere sounds stiflingly serious. Report

Mark Lafrenz
Mark Lafrenz
Reply to  David Braun
5 years ago

Dr. Braun, I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting you, even though I received my doctorate at the same school you teach at. I am not very formal and I tell my students that they may address me by my first name.
Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

I am surprised that some people think that insisting that their students call them by a title (without extending the same to students) makes them seem more authoritative rather than weaker, less confident, and more pompous. If a superior were to insist on you calling them by a title, without extending the same consideration to you, wouldn’t it make them look like they lack self-confidence rather than that they know what they are talking about? I think that what is being confused here is actual respect and the ability to make people offer tokens of respect, which are very different. Insisting on the latter tends to undermine the former.If you want students’ respect, lead by example, showing them respect by taking them as your equal. If you want students laughing at you behind your back, insist hard on tokens of hierarchy. Besides, if you want to encourage students to take equality seriously as a goal, the last thing you would want is inequality in tokens of respect. Report

JCM
JCM
5 years ago

I’ve been blessed with how staff/student interaction has gone in my Master’s and Ph.D. (As an undergraduate I had no interaction with my lecturers.) Variously, I’ve been to house parties with them, they’ve invited small classes around for dinner, they’ve opened their houses for grad students to house-sit when they’ve been away, I’ve gotten drunk (well not very drunk) with them, and there’ve never been any problems, nor have I heard of any.

Perhaps the reasons for this are no more generalisable than that both the senior and junior people in question were responsible and decent. But I can try and discern some trends. Perhaps they are all platitudes.

* People have almost always talked philosophy, even if the philosophy has been more entertaining than whatever paper they’re currently working on – it’s been some exciting idea they’re throwing about, some nice anecdote about some historical philosopher, etc. That distance from personal stuff – relationships and sex obviously, but also fears, passions, essay marks, etc., is maybe good to have when there’re power differentials. Though I remember telling a famous philosopher that he was a damn fool if his philosophy of art denigrated Dylan, and he responded by laughing, slapping his thigh, and shaking my hand. (I am and was at the time a grad student.) This, I think, is the most important point. I have been extremely critical of senior colleagues’ views, and have been so in sharp language, and this has been a way of being close to them; and it is perhaps not quite right to speak of philosophy – which can be deeply part of one’s life – as ‘not personal’ or ‘just shop;’ but discussion never went anywhere near sex lives, and I think that that was in every instance wise. (This coming from one who thinks that every rules has an exception.)
* Don’t get too drunk. It can be good for a senior person to be drunk and so invert power relations somewhat, but it’s of course to leave a lot to fortune.
* Faculty have often just talked amongst themselves about admin stuff and not made too much of an effort to include the present grad students, but have let the grad students listen. I’ve always found this good: one learns about that side of being a professional philosopher, and that’s part of being (seen as) equal to them in due course. It’s also a way of including grad students non-patronisingly.
* Respect is shown in more ways and in more subtle ways than using the correct title. Being sensitive to all of this is important. Though of course, outside the classroom, academic titling is less important, and it’s important for students to learn to grow by treating more senior people as relatively equal, and there has to be some allowance made for students trying that, and for getting it wrong.Report

JCM
JCM
Reply to  JCM
5 years ago

Another point which is perhaps relevant is that the majority of the events I attended that had mixes of people of different seniority were organised by people of middling seniority. So, for instance, a senior grad student would host a house party to which some sharp undergrads and some junior staff were invited; and occasionally the net would be cast a bit further. This prevented people from feeling too senior/junior for their presence to be appropriate. Another way things have been done is that undergraduates – the Philosophy Society, for instance – would organise an event (e.g., a pub quiz) to which it was expected faculty would attend. This was a good way of putting some power in the hands of undergrads, inverting how things normally are and also, of course, being a valuable learning experience for the undergrads. These relatively abstract things can affect the ease with which people interact. That said, one time a lecturer of mind invited a handful of graduate students to his flat – the power of academic seniority compounded with the power of being the host – but it was totally fine. We all got a bit drunk, too, so who knows what bullets we dodged there.Report

Mr. Student
Mr. Student
5 years ago

I’m a fifth-year graduate student and most professors in my program, it seems, anyways, prefer to be called ‘Prof.’ or ‘Professor X.’ I’m on a first name basis only with my adviser and second reader, and one professor I TA’d for. All others, especially the senior professors, either sign off their e-mails as ‘Prof. X’ or with that wonderfully ambiguous–and intentionally distant–double initial ‘XX’.

Above all, I favour clarity over anything formal or casual. If you want me to call you ‘Dr./Prof./Professor’ then say so directly. If you want me to call you by your first name, say so. Not saying that you want me to call you by your formal title, all the while never signing off or referring to yourself by your first name, suggests not only that you prefer the formal title, but also that you feel no need to clarify this, as if it’s not at all in question. But it is in question, as many programs–like where I did my MA–seem to take it as a default, with some exceptions, that graduate students, b/c they’re seem as prospective colleagues, are on a first name basis with most professors. This is a nice, even warm gesture, and I appreciated it. It made me feel included.

I’ll echo the sentiment that if you prefer ‘Dr./Prof./Professor X,’ then it might be nice to call me ‘Mr. X’ instead of my first name. I’ll respect your desire for formality, but it’s a two-way street. Don’t take it for granted that I’m to be called by my first name while you’re to be called by your professional title. It’s pretentious and unnecessarily status-conscious.

That all being said, it strikes me that the tacit insistence of most professors in my program on being referred to by their professional title comes across poorly. Not only does it suggest that they don’t see us as prospective colleagues, but also that they’ve little interest in establishing a relationship with us that’s any different than the ones they have with their undergraduate students, which I guess really amounts to the same thing.

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Henri Perron
Henri Perron
5 years ago

I really don’t see anything *inherently* wrong with professors and students (even undergrads) having drinks together. As long as everyone is mature and doesn’t do anything seedy or immoral (which, of course, is both possible and reprehensible regardless of the presence of booze), I don’t see any problems. I think the benefit of realizing that your professors are human is underrated.

Have a couple beers and talk philosophy. Shit, talk about life. Professors are often more than just professors to their students; they’re mentors, teachers. Being a teacher isn’t just lecturing students on metaphysics, it’s also potentially talking with them about pertinent things going on and offering insight, advice, and potentially a degree of guidance.

I think that the dogma of professionalism needs to be assuaged in favor of being more human. That does not mean to be immoral in any way.Report

TrUnofAp
TrUnofAp
5 years ago

Is it just me or is this a very American problem?
When I did my undergrad on the continent I never even considered (after a while) calling my professors by anything other than their first names.
When I moved to England for postgrad I expected things to be much more formal but in fact I found it to be more informal. There seems to be no expectation of professional title usage.
An American colleague indicated to me that this was strange to him as he would always expect to have to use the term “professor”.

Does anyone aside from Nick Munn share the conception of this being a localised issue?Report

Suzy Killmister
Suzy Killmister
Reply to  TrUnofAp
5 years ago

I definitely share the conception of this being a very localised issue (the issue of titles, that is – I think navigating power imbalances in philosophical relationships is a pretty global problem). I taught in Australia and New Zealand before moving to the States, and still feel deeply uncomfortable about being called anything other than Suzy. (It probably doesn’t help that ‘Professor Killmister’ makes me sound more like a Bond villain than a philosopher!). Perhaps I’ve just been unusually fortunate, but I’ve never found this informality in the classroom to lead to any kind of disrespect in or out of the classroom. Report

Enzo Rossi
5 years ago

I’m puzzled by the idea that we should foster equality by returning to hierarchic Victorian ideas about due respect for rank. Then again, this sort of anti-egalitarian trade-off typical of the zero-sum game of liberal identity politics.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
Reply to  Enzo Rossi
5 years ago

I don’t see anyone claiming that being addressed by one’s title fosters equality. Women and minorities are obviously the full moral equals of white men, and using honorifics does not *create* this equality but is, under some circumstances, a symbolic expression of it.

When we are part of a practice where honorifics are bestowed on some, then we shouldn’t withhold them from others on the basis of race or gender. To do so, is, at minimum, a failure of respect, and in some cases it may constitute disrespect.

Individuals can opt out of this part of our practice and insist that students call them by their first name, refusing the honorific. But obviously refusing an honorific that would otherwise be given is an assumption of power and is very different from accepting that the honorific won’t be given to you in the first place because of your race or gender. Admittedly, attempting to gain this respect by insisting on it isn’t a complete solution, since presumably people want the honorific to be freely given, but it solves some of the problems and avoids overt signs of disrespect.

While I did insist on undergrads addressing me by my title when I was starting out, I’m now fine with students calling me by my first name. That’s likely because I now enjoy sufficient, conventional, signs of respect that I don’t feel the need for the honorific. It must be nice to have so much privilege that one never feels the need for signs of respect, but many of us don’t live in that world. Report

Enzo Rossi
Reply to  Professor Plum
5 years ago

The practice of using honorifics in academia is moribund (at least in Northern Europe), and that’s a good thing in my book. Eliminating honorifics eliminates the opportunity of disrespecting people by omitting their honorific. Levelling down is underrated.

(For what it’s worth, I’m a white dude but when I started teaching my own classes I was often mistaken for a student, perhaps also because of my foreign accent. Still, I always asked students to call me by my first name. Growing up in a military context inoculated me against hierarchy.)Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
Reply to  Enzo Rossi
5 years ago

Yes, as multiple people have pointed out in the UK there isn’t this practice, and it would be strange to insist on being addressed by one’s title under these circumstances (arguably social hierarchies are more entrenched in the UK than in the US, so perhaps this should be understood as a kind of noblesse oblige of a group of people very secure in their higher social status).

But what I said is that *if* there is this practice, then it is a failure of respect to refuse the honorific to some based on gender or race. At many institutions in the US, there is this practice. Maybe we should work to rid ourselves of the practice, but we shouldn’t take cheap shots at people who rightly feel disrespected when the honorific is denied to them because of their gender or race.
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Enzo Rossi
Reply to  Professor Plum
5 years ago

If there is this practice there is reason to try and abolish it. Report

Mr. T
Mr. T
5 years ago

If you go by your first name, good for you. It may indeed show how egalitarian and down-to-earth you are. But you should also recognize that it as a matter of privilege as well. Your students probably already recognize that your position is special, so you don’t need a title to communicate why it is so. The power differential between you and your students is clear in everyone’s mind, and by going by your first name you can pretend that you are immune to such social differences while at the same time you continue to benefit from them.

I teach at a university that serves a lot of first-generation students. The students already have a hard time grasping what a professor is and does, how it compares to what high school teachers are and do, and what a university and a university education is for. Going by my first name would just confuse things further. So I choose to go by “professor,” in the vague hope that this will communicate a little bit to my students of what is different about things at this place we call a university (I’m not really offended if they call me something else, and my being offended wouldn’t really serve any purpose anyway). If you have the luxury of teaching at a place where the social distinctions are entrenched enough that their corresponding titles need not by named, then lucky for you.
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H.G.
H.G.
5 years ago

One issue I’ve not seen raised is how gender affects the degree and type of social interactions faculty have with students. When I was a graduate student, there were frequently departmental wide events that involved faculty socializing with all the grad students, but there were also several faculty members who interacted more frequently and intimately with one or two grad students, particularly ones they were advising or working closely with. So far, I see no problem with that. But because most of the faculty were male (and the one female faculty member was often not on campus), faculty seemed to have some uncertainty about inviting women students out for drinks in the same way that they would invite male students. I’ve done just fine, but I have suspected that the male students were benefited by more personal, one-on-one socializing with faculty members. And I don’t even blame the male professors for not inviting me out for one-on-one drinks because, society being the way it is, the invitation could easily be misinterpreted. But how do you handle this potential inequality? Deprive men of the benefits of one-on-one interactions with faculty, since society is such that one-on-one interactions between female students and faculty are more vexed? This doesn’t seem right to me. Perhaps it’s just an unfortunate situation, but I’m curious if anyone has any thoughts on the matter.Report

Dien Ho
Dien Ho
5 years ago

Once during a graduate seminar, a particularly shy student kept referring to the (well-known) professor as Dr. So-and-So. The professor corrected him a number times: “Please, call me [first name].” This shy student continued to have a tough time calling the professor by his first name. After the 3rd occasion (during the same meeting), the professor turned around and said, “Why don’t you just call me a f*@kin’ a$$hole!”
I felt awful for the student. I too did not want to refer to him by his first name because I had no desire to be his friend or be among his cohort of groupies. Perhaps it was my cultural background of seeing teachers as honored professionals. For the same reasons, I don’t call my doctors by their first names, I don’t want to associate the social elements of friendship or even acquaintanceship (Am I liked? Should I offer to help him with his cat?) with an otherwise professional relationship.Report

Catherine Kemp
Catherine Kemp
5 years ago

Here’s a nearly one-size-fits-all suggestion: whatever your monniker, whatever you do, be the decent, do-no-harm, compassionate, cosmopolitan ADULT in every room you share with students, no matter how old they are, or how old you aren’t.

This means being so good at what you do that you can do great philosophy and manage social presentation and expectations at the same time. (Note that this also means not being so drunk that your judgment is off for the social part of this–and if it is, be aware that the philosophy part’s not as awesome as you or your fellow inebriants think it is.).

Yes you can think about philosophy and social dynamics at the same time–think of all the opportunity you’ve had, by this point in your career, to practice this (ahem). It means paying attention to the knotty problem under discussion *and* to the fact that you, or one of your colleagues, needs to say something now and then to keep the social sense of inclusion going for the handful of students toward the edges of the group, whose hanging back can have many causes, some obvious, some not, it doesn’t matter–having a good discussion in philosophy means, for mentors, being more responsible for fostering the micro-community of the social group. It means you really must stop thinking about yourself as a student who has come out ahead, who has earned pontification rights in bars and restaurants and house parties, and see yourself instead as a younger version of those more senior members of the profession who, you’ve noticed, make a push to keep the group together and avoid concentrating an ever-smaller circle of devotées. These are the genrous people, who may be slightly unsatisfying because they don’t mini-promote and micro-hierarchicalize and feed the needy little narcissisms of students, but whose social equanimity and outreach make them, and the people around them, better philosophers.

So be the young Professor So-and-so, or Dr. Initial, or Firstname–it’s up to you!–whose eminence, or native social skills, liberates him or her from needing to build up and tear down people, rather than arguments. Be the 27 year old grown up in a roomfull of 25 year olds–and be sure you’re even better at it when you’re 40 and well past pretending that your identification with students makes these difficult social grooming questions.

And if you’re a member of a smaller (or microscopic) demographic group in philosophy, remember that you can keep insisting, calmly and locally and with dignity, that the people around you, students and colleagues, treat you properly–it may take them a while to hear you, but keep at it–they’ll catch up at some point.Report

Cari
Cari
5 years ago

Others have raised this, but I think the issues of creating boundaries (through titles, ways of presentation, socialization practices, etc.) are particularly salient for those of us who don’t fit cultural picture of what a philosopher looks like. In my case, I’m fairly young and a woman, and I have had students tell me I “look like a student here”–and although this was certainly not meant to be derogatory, it is also not the image I am trying to present. (And since I dress up for class–never a suit, but never jeans, either–I don’t think it’s down to my clothes choices). It is my goal to create an inclusive atmosphere in class (which means I tell my students a bit about me and tell them explicitly that I want to get to know them), but I am not their buddy; I see the possibility of this going badly all too easily. Surely I am not the only one who has been hit on or had students come to office hours and mostly chat awkwardly about their personal life (this was when I was a TA, and so I resolved when I began teaching my own classes to intentionally create boundaries). There are other ways I could create boundaries–I have a friendly, outgoing personality and I smile a lot, so I could try to change my persona for teaching (I know people who do this, although usually the change is the other way: intentionally doing things to seem more approachable). In the end, it doesn’t seem too burdensome for my students to use my title, but I feel like it does give some distance, and I don’t think the distance is bad. I called most of my profs by their titles as an undergrad, although I call those I am still in contact with by their first names now (and this was at a small liberal arts college, where I knew my professors well–I saw it as a sign of respect, not as a sign that I lacked some kind of essential equality to them).Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
5 years ago

I’m with Nick Munn and Suzy Kilminister on this (perhaps it is no coincidence that Nick is a former student of mine!) . It is common in New Zealand and Australia for undergraduates (and not just graduate students) to address the lecturers and professors by their first names and I have never had a problem with it, though perhaps it is important that I not a woman, young-looking or otherwise. (It has just occurred to me that, I am a bit more inclined to *refer* to my female colleagues than my male colleagues by their titles when I am talking to undergraduates, perhaps because, without really thinking about it, I want students to recognize their intellectual authority and expertise, something that is perhaps a bit less likely with a woman than a man.) But I would like to protest against the absurd suggestion that teachers who routinely allow their students to address them by their first names do so because they are so secure of their place in a hierarchical society that they can afford a certain faux informality.

Here’s Professor Plum:
‘Arguably social hierarchies are more entrenched in the UK than in the US, so perhaps [UK habits of informality] should be understood as a kind of noblesse oblige of a group of people very secure in their higher social status’.

And here’s Mr T:
‘If you go by your first name,…should also recognize that it as a matter of privilege as well. Your students probably already recognize that your position is special, so you don’t need a title to communicate why it is so. The power differential between you and your students is clear in everyone’s mind, and by going by your first name you can pretend that you are immune to such social differences while at the same time you continue to benefit from them.’

The first claim is a sheer mistake and the second claim likewise, at least if it is intended as a critique of European or Australasian informality. Rest assured, Madam and Sir, that if you want an academic culture characterized by hierarchy and deference, it is NOT the UK, Europe generally or Australasia – it is the USA. How do I know this, never having been there? Because my graduate students who have visited to the US , have come back SHOCKED by the atmosphere of formality and subservience that prevails in many departments, and in particular the way that graduate students were actually nervous of meeting some of their professors in the corridor. (I should add that virtually all the American academics that I have known are modest and unassuming and not given to standing on ceremony, but then all the Americans I have known have been either dyed-in-the wool ex-pats or people accustomed to spending long periods abroad.) Please understand that the abject contortions caricatured at the outset of this thread are utterly alien to my experience as an undergraduate at Cambridge, as a graduate student at la Trobe in Australia and as a teacher at Massey and Otago, for the last thirty years. When I was a doing my PhD at La Trobe in eighties, it would never have occurred to me to get into such ridiculous tizz about addressing the lecturers or professors by their first names. They were all routinely ‘John’ or ‘Robert’ ‘Janna or ‘Brian’ to me (an astonishingly large proportion of the staff at La Trobe were in fact called either ‘John’ or Robert’). It may be that in a highly deferential culture, an ostentatious preference for being on first-name terms betokens a covert enjoyment of privilege, but strange as it may seem there are many cultures a lot less deferential than that of North America.

Now, if you are a denizen of a hierarchical society, NOT getting treated with the deference due to your status is tantamount to an insult, so there is an issue here for women and non-white instructors and professors who don’t get the respect that they would otherwise be entitled to. Hence I do not condemn them for insisting on a certain formality. But may I suggest an analogy from a recent episode of Downton Abbey? Tom, a former chauffeur who has married into a great house is attending a house party at another mansion. He is now, as the son-in-law of an earl, a little grudgingly, accepted as part of the ‘Upstairs’ world. But the butler, finding out that he is former servant, ostentatiously refuses to pour him a coffee or to fill his wine-glass. This is, of course, a calculated insult, and it is done in defense of a hierarchical society since the butler disapproves of social mobility. It was wrong of the butler not to pour Tom his coffee. This does not mean that there isn’t something amiss with a society in which some people are privileged to have their coffee poured by others, whilst those others have to stand around catering to their everyday requirements. In a society with servants it is of course better if ex-servants are not insulted and belittled once they have made it out of the servant-class But a servantless society is on the whole to be preferred.
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MC
MC
3 years ago

We should be encouraging relations of substantive equality. Since philosophy is gender biased and racially biased (and biased in other ways), it’s fair & rational for members of marginalized groups to use formal titles to shield themselves against the biases they will inevitably face, whereas privileged individuals don’t need any extra privileges.
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question.Report