In elementary school, my best friend’s dad was a professor. My parents told me that I had to address him as “Dr. Straus.” I was confused as to why I had to call him “Dr.” and couldn’t just address him as Bill or Mr. Straus. I thought I sounded oddly precocious calling him “Dr.”
Ten years later, I understand the importance of adhering to the unspoken protocol of titles. Calling one by “Dr.” or “Professor” reaffirms their authority in their respective field and shows respect on the part of the student.
I remember being taught how to address my professors at freshman orientation. Much to my surprise, we were reminded that emailing your professor with a greeting such as “Yo prof” is deemed unacceptable.
Why students would think of addressing their professors in a way that’s overly casual unless their professors have given them the green light to do so is beyond me. What an academic professional is called in a formal setting is a matter of their personal preference, but involves how we view what formality is and how social protocol manifests in academia.
Some professors, including research professor emeritus at the College of Education Roger Soder, lets students decide how to address them. Soder believes that what students choose to call their professors reflects their own values and character and that the title does not command respect on its own. He wants his students to feel comfortable addressing him in a way that is appropriate to them.
“The choice is a matter of culture, after all,” Soder said. “For example, some students come from a culture wherein a younger person would never address an older person by a given first name. I don't know what the rules are for a given person.”
Most often though, it seems that professors enjoy maintaining a formal relationship. The titles are not intended to make themselves appear aloof, but rather serve as a way to assert their authority in the hierarchy of academia. Their title is a showing of their pride, something that represents scholarly work and is a trophy of their hard work.
For every professor, the situation is different. I think that some professors may see it as a matter of professionalism while other professors view titles as things that do not necessarily enhance the collegiate discussions in their classrooms.
One exception that professors sometimes make is for graduate students who work under them. Assistant professor Louisa Iarocci also makes exceptions for smaller classes and prefers that students address her by her first name during smaller seminar settings, as opposed to larger classes where the same may not be appropriate.
“I’m not hung up on titles and when it is a seminar class and we are trying to engage everyone and we are all talking together as one, I prefer that sort of informality,” Iarocci said.
As a student, I find that calling professors by their first names may be a way that other students are trying to network by creating friendly relationships, in which case the formality of addressing a professor by their title impedes the process. The assumption that one is networking with their professor by calling them by their first name is a bit absurd. It’s a different story if the professor allows it, but there’s a hint of arrogance in the idea that one has opened the door to connections through a one-sided friendly gesture.
Networking shouldn’t be equated with overstepping the bounds. Networking is about creating valuable connections. I sometimes find it intimidating to approach my professors or take the plunge of meeting them one-on-one or during office hours. I feel thrown into the prestigious setting of academia, and I can only do my best to adhere to the unspoken rules while walking the fine balance of appearing genuine and not stiff. I am not here to make friends but to utilize the merits of networking.
Students should address their professors in a formal way. Students like myself come to universities to learn, and professors provide that service. Using a formal title when addressing professors reinforces this educational relationship.
Reach writer Priya Sarma at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @ Priyayasarma
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