Sunday, December 12, 2010

Call me Dr X? - an interesting dicussion: should students call me Dr X (esp odd, my surname not being 'X') and I call them by their surname: 'Oi Smith, what is meant by synthetic a priori? eh?'

Or maybe not.

I am kind of used to 'You' and 'Dave' - but the comments via the link really vary: let me quote a couple:

Maybe I’m just cripplingly old-fashioned, but I cringe when I see some of my colleagues insist on having their undergraduate students call them by their first names.


I find anything other than first-name address really awkward, but I think British students tend to gravitate to this as the norm anyway. American visitors on JYA programs tend to be more formal, and even sometimes address me as “sir”, which feels very weird indeed

(our visiting American [BCA] students sometimes do this - I rather like the implication of respect - but they soon learn....]


I’m struck by the number saying they use last name only (if I read it right). In direct address, I find that exceptionally rude, unless the person using it is so close to me that I can take it as jocular. The only situation where I regard it as normal is among school-age boys.

Not sure it ever really feels awkward these days? If I refer to a colleague in a class - I am sure I use their first name. As in: don't ask me, but am sure Roy will know.....


  1. Anonymous11:30 am

    And: how do staff address each other in front of students?

  2. It's first names all round here - I'm a bioethicist working in a law school - though I suspect that the discipline matters. A lot of my students are medical students, and they tend to use the title-surname convention: that seems to be much more what's expected of them and what they're used to. It can take months to break the habit!

    I did have one law undergrad supervisee who insisted on calling me "sir" - that was just weird.

  3. first names all round is the best of all worlds

    firstly, it's egalitarian (adult meeting adult); and,

    secondly, it's mutually respectful (each brings something equal but different to the table)

    Students bring open enquiring minds with an appetite for inspirational information (thus a little more marginal than is customary); and, lecturers provide resources (lectures, books, films with a duty to be somewhat more marginal than is customary) to satisfy the hungry minds of the students.

    First name usage, then, is a kind of analogy for being adults and for being equals.

  4. Hi there

    Having lived in the Middle East where respecting adults is such a big thing, I find it extremely difficult to call my professors today in Liverpool University by their first name. It makes me uncomfortable not knowing what is the most appropriate way...Call me old fashioned but I still say Prof 'name' at all times- unless I am stopped and told otherwise. There is a phrase that says a person older than you a day knows more than you by a year (Sorryits translated but you get the jest)

  5. This whole thing is more complicated for women. Partly because students are more apt to assume you are not really a professor but something else (with less authority), and going straight to first names can encourage this, and partly because there is no good feminine analog for 'sir.' I have a few students who call me 'miss' or 'ma'am' which I am not too keen on but thnk is funny.

    But one thing that I think is that adults don't tell other adults how to address them. You can invite first name-ing, but insisting is silly and disrespectful. You are both party to this rather complex relationship, which is (yes) between adults and equal in that sense, but is emphatically not equal in some important other ways. Each party has some responsibility for choosing how to negotiate that relationship, and for respecting the other's choices. I let students make their own choice; I sign my emails with my first name, and call myself by it when I refer to myself in class, but I don't tell them what to do. I call them by their first names, and I make a real effort to learn how to pronounce them correctly (I have many Asian students who offer an 'easy' diminutive for people who can't handle their real names, and I resist this option.)

    I did once, in an undergraduate seminar, have a prof who called us all by our last names (no honorific) in what seemed to me like an old-school British way (this was in Canada) and it was kind of flattering and exciting. Sometimes I think of trying that, but it would be difficult to remember to do it.

  6. GB is right, I think, about it being more complex. At the school my kids attend, male teachers are 'Sir', and female ones are addressed as 'Madam'.

    Sounds very odd to me - hearing a 15 year old say 'Madam, can I have some more paper'. Also - I don't tell them what to call me - I think that "call me Dave" is a bit cringy - but they learn by example just how little respect to show...

    I am happy to call my students by first name, or last - I just wish I could actually remember some fragment of their names at all...

  7. Surnames are a great invention. I call my students Mister X or Miss X or Mrs X, they call me Professor Y. I would not mind if they called me Mr Y. First names work well only in closer relationships. Besides that using first names suggests a closeness that does not exist. It is worth thinking about why the media push for everybody using first names.
    In German every woman can be called "Frau" (=Mrs), regardless of whether she is married, and every man can be called "Herr" (=Mr), regardloss of whether he has a doctorate or is a professor. That makes things a bit easier because this way one does not alway have to emphasise the not so important fact that the person has a doctorate.

  8. elisa3:38 pm

    In Italy from high school (11 years) to Uni we have to call our professor just "prof" or "professor" using a formal register..
    and usually we use the formal register speaking with elderly people.

  9. I struggle with this one - I don't mind calling people by title-surname convention, so long as they are willing to reciprocate. I would most certainly feel uncomfortable being addressed by my first name by anyone, lecturer of not, if they insisted upon me using their title-surname. That said, if someone PREFERS that form of address, I will happily use it and let them refer to me as they wish: My discomfort lies more in the perceived inequality of the relationship than in the respect denoted by the actual choice of address. It's a bit of an abstract concept, really, and has no meaning other than that bestowed upon it by those using it. I will always take offence at anyone implying another human has lesser value by whatever means.