75 Tips for Getting a Better College Education.

by Harry on November 28, 2010

I’m sure we’ve had some discussion like this before, bemoaning the bad manners of undergraduates, but I can’t find it. Anyway, the other night I got one of those emails from unknown students which just starts “Hey” and continues with some request (usually to be admitted to one of my oversubscribed classes). My immediate reaction is to ignore (that was my wife’s advice) but this time I just decided to do something different. I wrote back explaining the over-subscription situation, and finished with this “By the way, you might want to address people you haven’t met more formally in future: I don’t find it irritating but many will” (which is a lie, I do find it irritating, but there’s no need to tell her that). My original version had more verbiage in it, but my 14 year old (whose missives to teachers are like business letters) told me to take it out on the grounds that “she’ll never do it again, but she’ll be scared to meet you”.

I was prompted to do this by Andrew Roberts’ book The Thinking Student’s Guide to College: 75 Tips for Getting a Better Education (see tip 53). The central idea of the book is that students need a map of how to get the most out of college, and that lots of them arrive not understanding key things. Why not just make it explicit for her?

In fact I don’t currently have a copy of the book, because each copy I get goes to the next high school senior who walks through the door (which an alarming number of them seem to be doing these days). As suggested by this, 75 Tips would be a great Christmas present for the college-bound high school seniors and college freshmen of your acquaintance.

Roberts divides the book into 9 sections — an explanation of how universities work; tips for choosing a college (upshot – don’t make such a meal of it, you’ll like wherever you go pretty much); tips on choosing classes (including the sensible tip not to take more than a couple of classes with any professor — because most of us have at most 2 classes worth of learning to impart) and on choosing a major; tips on being successful (including the excellent advice, too often neglected, to study with other people); on interacting with professors (don’t address then in your first email with a “hey”, go to their office hours (I always tell students this, and they say they have had experiences of being distinctly not wanted, and relax when I point out that if he really wants to get rid of you you can leave and he won’t remember you), also, get to know at least one professor reasonably well, which, I should say, is brilliant advice but not entirely easy to follow at a place like mine); what to do with your extra-curricular time; whether and when to go to graduate school; and a final section explaining how professors behave and what incentives they are responding to (they want to research not teach, and teach graduate students not undergraduates — a friend who recently graduated from an Ivy-ish institution told me that in his address to them on the first day of freshman year the Provost just told them that they should know that Professors would have no interest in them).

The tips are each easily digestible — if you can’t read the book you should maybe postpone going to college. My guess is that it will be read by parents more than students, but especially parents whose experience of college is 5 years or less (or none) would do well to read it to guide their offspring. But even those of us who know the college world well will only give at most half these tips to their kids, partly because some won’t occur to us, and partly because others (“don’t address a professor with “hey” in your first email to them) seem blindingly obvious. Apparently not.

I should probably disclose that the author sent me the manuscript completely out of the blue a couple of years ago (I’ve never met him) and I almost instantly gave him a good number of comments on it. There’s one thing that I regret: the phrases “rape” or “sexual assault” don’t appear in the index, and if I were giving comments now I would press him hard to discuss sexual violence on campus. But I was much less aware of the issue then than I thankfully am now.

By the way, the student in question did reply, almost immediately. She said “Dear Professor Brighouse, thanks for the tip, I will utilise it in future. Hopefully I’ll be able to learn more from you in your class” which showed a willingness to learn and a slight cheekiness that I rather appreciated. Maybe I should give her the book. I have been very close to only a few undergraduates in my career, though I try harder these days (and my increasingly elderly demeanor seems to induce trust). I forwarded the exchange (stripped of the name etc) to a current undergraduate who is one of the handful whom I’ve known, and has known me, best (very well indeed), knowing she’d laugh, because after 4 years and numerous detailed email and personal conversations she simply can’t address, or even refer to, me as anything other than Professor Brighouse.

Oh, and the book is, I presume, the first to have several references to and quotes from Crooked Timber — as well as reference to what CT authors have said on other sites.

Crossposted with slight variation at In Socrates Wake



Gene O'Grady 11.28.10 at 9:27 pm

I have been a sixty-something community college for a while now and am constantly amused that I call teachers (one of them actually older than I am) and my fellow students Mr., Ms., Mrs. or whatever the individual prefers while almost everyone else in the place makes a fetish of the alleged intimacy of first names.

On the hints, about not taking more than one class with a particular professor, at any rate as an undergraduate classics major it didn’t seem very relevant, and I can’t think of a class I regret taking with our Latinist the late Peter Marshall (a distinguished editor of obscure texts). This may have as much to do with the application of methods to a restricted body of texts as to the size of the department. On the other hand, nearly three percent of our graduating class were classics majors, so I can’t try that argument.


rosmar 11.28.10 at 9:43 pm

Interesting post.

Some of those pieces of advice seem at cross-purposes with each other. For example, getting to know a professor reasonably well and not taking more than two courses with any one professor. I teach at a small liberal arts college, and have had students take as many as five courses with me. Those are the students I know best, of course.

Also, I really, really don’t prefer research to teaching, though of course I do research. And I like teaching undergraduates.

Your student sounds like she may be fun to have in class after all. I hope so.


Kieran Healy 11.28.10 at 10:35 pm

There I am in my aspect as Tip 20. Hm.


ckc (not kc) 11.28.10 at 11:11 pm

…I don’t mind if my students call me “Hey”, because I’m by nature an anti-authoritarian, but they soon learn that they’d better have backup to their challenges. (The ones who call me “Hey” are as likely to win as the deferential, in my experience).


David 11.28.10 at 11:13 pm

It is to be hoped that she will learn what “hopefully” means.


David 11.28.10 at 11:14 pm

(I assume this is a different Andrew Roberts, by the way? I was waiting for the shoe of snark to drop.)


Vance Maverick 11.28.10 at 11:18 pm

There’s one thing that I regret: the phrases “rape” or “sexual assault” appear in the index

Hopefully you mean “don’t appear”.


sharon 11.28.10 at 11:58 pm

I don’t get emails from students much now that I’m in more of a research/support role. But I still recall with bemusement from about five years ago the first-year who started his first email to me with ‘Hey diddles’.


Harry 11.29.10 at 12:01 am

Thanks Vance, fixed.


y81 11.29.10 at 12:24 am

Alas, even after seven years of higher education, the first year (law firm) associates seem to think it appropriate to begin emails “Hey Y81.” Which is one reason they are not allowed to send emails, or anything else, to clients until I have reviewed it.


Helen 11.29.10 at 12:48 am

Gene O’ Grady
“I have been a sixty-something community college for a while now”

You really should see someone about that.


John Protevi 11.29.10 at 1:14 am

For a while I got a number of emails from undergrads in which the salutation was simply “Protevi,” as in “Protevi, when is the deadline for the term paper?” As I was not in the habit of referring to myself in the third person (“Protevi says it’s due the date the syllabus says it’s due”) I wasn’t so much put off by this as mystified by it.


Red 11.29.10 at 1:27 am

“Like so many aging college people, Pnin had long ceased to notice the existence of students on the campus.” (Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin, 1957).

Actually, I rather like teaching undergraduates. In small doses.


Maurice Meilleur 11.29.10 at 1:39 am

About four years ago I received an email from a student who clearly would have benefitted from a look at Roberts’s book. The email had the subject line ‘PAPER THAT IS DUE THURS!!!’ and the message body read as follows: ‘What is the website for this class so that I can see what the exact requirements for the paper is. Thankyou very much’. My response was a terse ‘The website is on your syllabus.’ The student’s rejoinder: ‘I can’t find my syllabus is there anyway that you can give it 2 me?’

I’m pretty sure that Harry’s daughter would have agreed that the student would have been scared to meet me after reading my reply to the second message. It started, ‘You’re not TMing your buddy from the gym because you forgot your ID; you’re emailing your professor for help with a class’, and just sort of went downhill from there.


Maurice Meilleur 11.29.10 at 1:40 am

Sorry about the vagaries of code: the broken image symbol appears in place of three exclamation marks in a row in the original email subject line.


spyder 11.29.10 at 1:56 am

There is something a bit sad about the fact that there needs to be a book like this.


derrida derider 11.29.10 at 3:22 am

Protevi@12, I’d guess the sender didn’t know your title – that is, whether they should call you Mr, Dr or Professor. In fact I also think that’s what generated the “Hi” in the original post.

Someone more experienced in life would know there’s less risk of giving offence from over- rather than under- doing the formality in a first written exchange, and so would probably have tried “Dear Sir”, but these are kids we’re talking about.


Bijan Parsia 11.29.10 at 8:52 am

I’m often bemused by the wide variety of address in the email I receive. Now, most of these are from MSc students and most of them are from a non-UK/US system. So, Dear Sir, Dear Parsia, Dear Dr. Bijan, and, just recently Dear Ma’am.

My typical correction is “It should be ‘Bijan’ or ‘Dr. Parsia'”. I’m pretty informal (I, indeed, prefer to be called “Bijan” directly in just about all contexts), but I really dislike the incorrect modes of address.


NomadUK 11.29.10 at 8:55 am

but these are kids we’re talking about

They may be kids , but there’s more to it than that; they’re kids brought up in a culture in which illiteracy, innumeracy, and informality have been actively inculcated by the media and technology (texting on a mobile does not encourage proper sentence formation or punctuation), and in which damned few of them actually read anything that would mitigate that.

I was a kid once, too, and even then it would simply never have occurred to me to start a letter to my schoolteacher, much less my university professor, with ‘Hey’, or to call him by his first name.


Armando 11.29.10 at 11:11 am

I’m slightly mystified at the concept of feeling irritation upon being addressed informally. Maybe because, like ckc, I am an anti-authoritarian and so I am deeply suspicious of the expectation of deference, especially when the power dynamic is so clear.

In fact, I work quite hard to get my students to address me informally – everything in their training seems to encourage them to do otherwise. This is partly because I want any respect I get to derive from my expertise and intelligence rather than title. But also because I suspect that hierarchical structures actually serve as mental barriers to their learning and understanding. I have been told countless times by students that they can’t understand such-and-such concept because they are students but I can because I am a lecturer. This position is harder to maintain, I think, if I am “Hey you” or “Armando” to them.


Harry 11.29.10 at 1:29 pm

Armando — This has nothing to do with expectations of deference. Well, unless it is mutual. I, myself, address anyone I have NEVER MET as formally as possible. It is a way of avoiding mistakes and showing a presumption of respect (sure there are other ways, but this is a convenient one). I am entirely happy when people (including students) actually know me, or when I know them, to address or be addressed informally (the student who always addresses me as “Professor Brighouse”, and who at this point I regard as a friend, as she does me, has chatted to me about it, and she, too, seems to think that at this point it is a little ridiculous, but it is what she is comfortable with).

My first name is Michael. No offense to anyone else bearing the name but I don’t care for it, and anyway have been called Harry since I was born. When someone calls the house asking for Mike they are being rude in two ways — assuming the familiarity of using a first name, and assuming that they can choose how to shorten it.

Neither you, nor your students, should think that the power dynamic is absent. It is there, and there’s no point pretending otherwise. I seriously doubt that what they call you or you call them (as opposed to how you conduct yourself in class, demonstrating in various ways, partly voice, partly affect, partly body language that you have complete confidence they can understand if they try) affects their capacity to learn.


sg 11.29.10 at 1:31 pm

When I went to University as an undergrad (Adelaide uni, 1990) this stuff was part of your basic orientation package, along with a diary and two condoms. I suppose university has lost its way in the intervening years…


dsquared 11.29.10 at 1:34 pm

they’re kids brought up in a culture in which illiteracy, innumeracy, and informality

“illiteracy, innumeracy and informality”? one of these things is not like the others.


Armando 11.29.10 at 2:36 pm


I may have come across as overly critical, as there is much that you say that I agree with. Certainly, the power dynamic is an unavoidable aspect of the student teacher relationship and I would always use a person’s chosen name. Having said that, most English speakers are simply unable to pronounce my name correctly, which doesn’t bother me in the slightest, but does mean that I tend not to have much sympathy with arguments about correct forms of address. Like you, I would also tend to use the most formal mode of address with someone I had never met because this is – regretfully, in my view – the current social norm. But I would never be irritated nor find it rude to be addressed informally – except in an official setting, perhaps, where formality indicates status. And I entirely agree that if my teaching is awful, then no amount of insistent informality is going to impart knowledge of calculus to my students.

But….as part of my repertoire of teaching methods (of which you list some) I think that informality is useful. The fact that, as the person with the power in the relationship, I choose to allow, even encourage, familiarity as the default position sends certain egalitarian signals which I genuinely believe help me teach. Many students I see often start off terrified, to the point of paralysis, of asking “stupid questions” (this is maths, by the way). And certainly, one attempts as a teacher to develop a relationship with the students that opens up communication. And consciously opting out of titles seems to me to be a useful technique in this regard.

Maybe I’ve been influenced by early experiences with the Open University (adult, part time University education in the UK for those who don’t know) where it seemed to be an institutional policy (maybe it was?) that everyone was addressed by their first name. And the result was a very different kind of working environment than I have seen elsewhere – though admittedly, adult education is somewhat different anyhow.


rosmar 11.29.10 at 3:55 pm

I teach at a Quaker college, where everyone goes by first names as part of the Quaker tradition. I don’t find it makes much difference at all in terms of the power dynamic. Though I have a good friend who also teaches here, who asks her students to call her “professor” to help them change their association of the word. (Students have told her that they associate the word more with men.)

What I dislike is students who aren’t yet used to the first-name rule who call me “Mrs. Rosales” or “Miss Rosales” on first meeting. I have a feeling (which may be incorrect) that they would call me “Professor” or “Doctor” Rosales if I weren’t a youngish woman. But fortunately I can just tell them that the norm here is to use first names.


Harry 11.29.10 at 4:40 pm


if it makes you feel better I get Mr. B all the time (and I am very clearly a middle-aged white man on the cusp of not really being middle aged any more). And I’m ok with that (I like it much more than Dr. which even now seems utterly misleading to me, since I only ever think of Drs as people in white coats).

Yes, I see all that, and had enough experience with the OU to understand. One difference, though, was that the OU students I knew often had life experiences that were, frankly, richer than those of many of their teachers (that is true, to my regret for them, of a number of my young undergraduates too, but it shouldn’t be). I felt the same teaching graduate students at the Institute of Education, many of whom were older than me, and most of whom had had much more experience of the world beyond academia than I did. And, as I say, I am entirely at ease with people who actually know me calling me Harry (indeed, I was pleased when another student whom I know very well inadvertantly referred to me as Harry in my presence a few weeks ago). When I’m teaching a lecture of 160 students, though, there is very little familiarity. I tend to address students by their first name, because I believe, perhaps wrongly, that they feel more at ease with that than with more formal address. Ok, this rambling response has convinced me I should actually ask my freshman class what they think when I see them tomorrow. I’ll report back.


ajay 11.29.10 at 5:24 pm

I have been a sixty-something community college for a while now

Gene O’Grady is large, he contains multitudes.


Mike Otsuka 11.29.10 at 6:17 pm

Suppose, Harry, that an undergraduate or a high school student whom you’ve never met sends you an email that begins ‘Dear Professor Brighouse’ and signs off along the lines of ‘Best wishes, Jonathan Smith’.

Do you begin your reply ‘Dear Mr. Smith’ on your grounds that ‘I, myself, address anyone I have NEVER MET as formally as possible’?

I reply with ‘Dear Jonathan’, especially if it’s a high school student (with whom I have many correspondences these days, since I’m now in charge of admitting Philosophy undergraduates). It strikes me as too stilted to reply to a high school student or an undergraduate as ‘Mr Smith’. I don’t, however, like the fact that I’m unilaterally de-escalating the formality. In other cases, I reply to someone who sends me an email as formally as he or she has addressed me in the first instance.


Harry 11.29.10 at 6:51 pm

“as formally as possible” is too strong. “As formally as etiquette allows” perhaps. There are two things I look at when thinking about it — how formally did they address me, and how formally did they sign off (I look for that with any new correspondent). I’m afraid with Jonathan Smith I would probably go with Mr. Smith. I sign myself, to students, HB, because I don’t have to think about it, and it is distinct from the usual H or Harry. Above-mentioned two students get HB for the one who prefers formality, and H or Harry for the one who has referred to me as Harry. As I said, if they know me and prefer informality I am fine with that and tend to match their habit in my address, though not in my sign off.


Harry 11.29.10 at 6:54 pm

PS — just to add, whereas I feel a twinge of irritation with “hey’ from anyone I don’t know, some colleagues really hate it from students, and I think we should just tell them that directly (which is the main point of Roberts’ book — letting them know how (in this case) to avoid annoying people unnecessarily).


Ryan Miller 11.29.10 at 7:21 pm


[We’ve never met, but you list yourself as “Harry” here, so…]

The practice of professors signing emails with initials was extremely common at my alma mater when I was an undergraduate (Boston College, beginning of this century) but I actually found it extremely unhelpful, precisely because it gives no indication of your sense of the relationship and how you would like to be addressed. I would begin any correspondence with “Dear. Prof. X,” but in time as you note familiarity is warranted. If he signs his correspondence with “Prof. X.” then that sets the standard. If having had three courses with him and met with him for office hours and advice he signs “Pat” then I know that’s become appropriate. It seems easier for the professor to make those judgments in this case for all the reasons given above.

So that’s what I do now, and sign “Ryan” to correspondence with students I feel like I know personally, but of course since I have a “Ryan” as one of my students they now address me as “RMiller” which is a bit awkward and may show that no attempt at systematization will work out well, but there you go.


bartkid 11.29.10 at 7:21 pm

>Actually, I rather like teaching undergraduates. In small doses.

Small doses of teaching, or small does of undergraduates?


Mike Otsuka 11.29.10 at 7:35 pm

“as formally as possible” or “as formally as etiquette allows” might be difficult to pull off where I live and Harry comes from:

Dear Lord Grey of Fallodon,

I’m writing to confirm that I’ve now filled in the 16 boxes and uploaded the ‘AHRC Confirmation of Best Practice Transferable Skill Set Training’ form that you require.

Your humble tutor,


Dingbat 11.29.10 at 8:16 pm

Dear Harry (if I may),

Your sign-off of HB is, I feel obliged to inform you, frustratingly inscrutable to your correspondents. Your long-known student who still addresses you as “Professor Brighouse” does so because there’s never been a signal to do otherwise and she has better manners than to presume to. Since there’s a clear power dynamic here, it is incumbent upon you to sign off “Harry” or open with, “Dear Dingbat (and please, call me Harry)”–or not, given the pleasures of mild overformality with friends.

Of course, your withholding signals about how to address you is not nearly as nervewracking to the student as the professorial black-box sign-off, “As ever.” Each time that lands in my in-box I think, “my god, I still haven’t managed to impress him.”

As ever,


y81 11.29.10 at 8:32 pm

@31: “If he signs his correspondence with “Prof. X.” then that sets the standard.”

Anyone who employs a title in referring to himself is a cretin.

@25: I find it very tedious, self-important woman who demand titles and claim that their pomposity is some sort of revolutionary praxis.


Harry 11.29.10 at 9:37 pm

That’s not a problem I’ve ever had or anticipate having Mike, and, sure, it complicates things.

Thanks Ryan. Well, I’m now tempted to do a survey of my group of freshmen, just to find out what they think (anonymous). Maybe I should make them read this first.


Andrew Roberts 11.29.10 at 10:20 pm

I’m the Andrew Roberts who wrote this book (not to be confused with the infamous British historian of the same name who I think is referenced in #6). I wanted first off to thank Harry for the kind and generous post in addition to the kind and generous advice.

I also wanted to quickly address a couple of comments from CT’s great group of commentators. Rosmar (#2) is right that there are some pieces of advice that to an extent contradict each other. In my defense, I think there is more than one way to get a great education and so inevitably some of the tips will be at cross-purposes. I am also starting to have some reservations on the advice not to take too many classes with one professor. I picked this one up in grad school and it may not apply as well to undergrad life.

On the debated issue of formality/informality, I didn’t have a personal point of view – I’m fine with informality if I get a feeling of respect and interest from students. My point was that there are plenty of professors who care quite deeply about forms and it makes little sense to make them angry when you can avoid it.

I’d be glad to answer more questions about the book if anyone is interested. I had originally set up a blog to make this possible, but I’ve been remiss on posting there (see http://www.thinkingstudentsguide.blogspot.com/). Feel free to email me or post a comment here and I’ll try to get back to you. Thanks again.


Salient 11.29.10 at 10:31 pm

Hey, I know that book. Great book. Recommendation seconded.

I remember years of mild anxiety over the fact that nearly every professor of mine would sign messages to me with their initials — I could never figure out whether it was an invitation to start addressing them in replies by their initials (?!), or to switch to a more informal signature myself, or what. So, I always wished for a note signed in exactly the way y81 just disparaged as cretinous. [Especially if sent out to the entire class.] I’d stick with the “Dear Professor X” standard, which in retrospect was always followed by a sentence or two of weird deferential verbiage.

The only folks I had express genuine displeasure to me were teaching assistants who were not professors, yet. Never did solve the puzzle of how to address them; “Instructor X” sounds vaguely snotty, and “Mr. X / Ms. X” sounds like high school all over again.

…signs off along the lines of ‘Best wishes, Jonathan Smith’.

I would always sign an email with my full name, under the assumption that they might have 2-3 students each semester with a given first name. If someone had responded to that with a Mr. or Ms. I think I’d have taken it as an attempt to put me in my place, since at adolescent age that level of formality from an [older] adult signals chiding. I’d probably worry/wonder for a bit if I had been unintentionally impertinent or presumptuous.


Red 11.30.10 at 12:17 am

I did my undergraduate and graduate work in Belgium and France, but now teach at a (“well-known”) college/university somewhere between New York and Montreal. Dealing with American undergraduates thus involves overcoming a dual gap, generational and cultural. I find them simultaneously delightful and exasperating, which is why I wrote earlier @13 that I love teaching them “in small doses”, meaning (in response to bartkid @32) for about one term at the time. In my student days back in Belgium—and in my experience this goes as well for France, Italy or Germany–we thought of professors as members of a barely human species, distant, inscrutable, and obviously mad. Direct contact was to be avoided at all times. In fact, the first and only time we had any sort of conversation with them would be at the end of the academic year, during the dreaded 15-minute oral exam, in which we were supposed to regurgitate what the professor had declared ex cathedra, in his office, with the prof staring out of the window with a look of unspeakable boredom in his eyes. (Some would argue that their main pedagogical skill lay in their graphic displaying for us the pathos of existentialism). Needless to say, we never wrote to them, but if we had, we would have addressed them only with something like “Magistre erudissime professor doctore magnifico etc.”

Now, some of my undergraduates have become close friends. Amazing.


B'Hommad 11.30.10 at 4:23 am

Hey, d00d,

Don’t know if this helps, but I have been told by all sorts of e-mail etiquette experts that the way to start an e-mail is “Hi, Bruce”. I get e-mails started this way all the time, from everyone from my new administrative assistant in Paris to the Wells-Fargo buttboy in charge of foreclosing on my Sacramento bungalow.

I can’t bring myself to write “Hi Bruce”, yet I realize that starting “Dear Bruce” the way we did back in the days of paper and envelopes just won’t cut it. So I write “Yo, Bruce” and follow it with the message. I still sign with some old-school salutation, sincerely, or very truly yours, or most often, yrs, hoping they won’t bother to figure it out and bitch about it but will just slide on by and try to figure out what I am trying to tell or ask them.

So would you rather have this kid start her e-mail “Hi, professor Harry”…?

I think she may be a smart sensitive kid rejecting the ugliness of the prescribed e-mail salutation and trying out “Hey” as a possible alternative. Or maybe she’s just some kid with no manners, who knows?

The only thing sure about all this is that when she writes the definitive 2040 edition of “75 Tips for Getting a Better College Education” what you think won’t matter much.




Jake 11.30.10 at 5:14 pm

The central idea of the book is that students need a map of how to get the most out of college, and that lots of them arrive not understanding key things. Why not just make it explicit for her?

I also wanted to explicitly state some of the things professors know, which is how I wrote “How Universities Work, or: What I Wish I’d Known Freshman Year: A Guide to American University Life for the Uninitiated” and “How to get your Professors’ Attention, Along With Coaching and Mentoring.” I’m a grad student at the University of Arizona and teach two sections of English Comp every semester, and the repeated questions and situations led me to writing those two essays. I send them to my students after they turn in their first paper and have had about a month to get used to the college experience.

“How To Get Your Professors’ Attention” may apply less where you are, but I think the method for signaling that you’re worth a time investment is universal.


Harry 11.30.10 at 5:35 pm

you are underestimating my student considerably. She has had ample signals, and she knows that perfectly well (we’ve discussed all this, I’ve agreed with her that at this point formal address seems very odd, but its what she is comfortable with).

But, as a result of the thread I have asked my current students what they think. For some, indeed, the HB is frustratingly unclear, whereas for others any informality would be very uncomfortable indeed. Interestingly, two in the latter group say that they addressed all their high school teachers as Mr, Ms, etc, except one who they got to know well enough to call by their last name only in their senior year. Here’s one thing that inhibits me a bit — I don’t want them to think I am being over-familiar with them; the power differential can make that very difficult for them, and I am more worried about that discomfort (that I presume afflicts the less confident student more) than with the other discomfort (which I presume afflicts the more confident student more). (Presumes, here, means something like “assumes with no real evidence at all”).


Harry 11.30.10 at 5:38 pm

Also, I’ve noticed that when a student I have never met simply doesn’t bother addressing me, and just launches in, I don’t even notice it (i.e., it doesn’t seem at all rude — no idea why). Do others have the same reaction?


LizardBreath 11.30.10 at 6:03 pm

I have the same reaction it from the other end — if I’m unsure of how to politely address someone, dodging the issue completely by not using any name or other form of address feels safe, and doesn’t ever get a negative reaction.


Mike Otsuka 12.01.10 at 8:05 am

A friend of mine got to know the political theorist Judith Shklar fairly well when he was an undergraduate at Harvard in the 80s. But he would always address her as “Professor Shklar”, either in person or in writing. It finally reached the point, during his senior year, when the professor, known to her friends as “Dita”, told my friend: “Oh, please, you don’t have to call me ‘Professor Shklar’ anymore. From now on, you can call me ‘Mrs. Shklar’.”


Ponder Stibbons 12.01.10 at 12:20 pm

On whether signing off as “Professor X” is cretinous: is this a common practice at all? I don’t recall ever having corresponded with a professor who signed off that way, but all my higher education has been in the American system. It seems that correspondence in Europe is more formal.


MG 12.01.10 at 2:45 pm

Not a fan of the “Dr/Professor/Mr/Mrs/Ms” lastname in college (or even in grade school, actually). Too old-timey!

In business, people will call the CEO of a company “Paul”, regardless of whether they’ve met the person before or where they are in the heirarchy. The only people I ever say not do that were the graduates of women’s colleges, who had to be told to call the principals of the company by his or her first name. Now, maybe this enforces a false sense of “we’re all equals” but I’d rather that then the situation where the 60-year-old receptionist is “Anne” and the 30-year-old professor is “Dr Selfimportant”.

I love nicknames. It’s a combination of a midwestern US upbringing combined with playing sports. If you’re asking someone to pass the ball, you don’t have time to say “Jerimiah”, it’s “Jerry or Jer”. Too many syllables and you lose the shot.


Zamfir 12.01.10 at 3:21 pm

It’s a combination of a midwestern US upbringing combined with playing sports.
Ah, now I understand why people outside the Midwest who don’t play sports don’t use nicknames.


Harry 12.01.10 at 3:35 pm

My daughter adopted her own nickname about 7 years ago. She has maintained it (now a high school freshman), and only we, and one of her teachers, ever calls her by her real name. I get a lot of comment when people whose kids know her meet me. “Are you Mud’s dad?” I wonder how long it will last.


Rick 12.01.10 at 7:13 pm

[A]nd a final section explaining how professors behave and what incentives they are responding to (they want to research not teach, and teach graduate students not undergraduates

While I agree with the vast majority of this post, it’s worth pointing out that, at least in the US, most tenure-stream faculty members work at institutions where undergraduate teaching is paramount and may not ever have the opportunity to train grad students.

The world is very different for those of us who labor in the trenches.


engels 12.01.10 at 8:15 pm


y81 12.01.10 at 10:04 pm

The discussion of titles reminds me of an Upper West Side joke. A woman is introduced to a “Dr. Jones” at cocktail party. She fixes her eyes on him and asks, “Now, are you a real doctor, or an M.D.?”

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