How should students address professors?

by Harry on December 12, 2010

Well, prompted by the various criticisms of my practice described in this post on 75 Tips for Getting a Better Education I asked my current crop of freshman students what they think. Some answers below the fold (these do not make things easier). Entirely coincidentally I read this amazing paper about reducing the gender achievement gap in science courses, and it made me wonder whether the this issue (addressing professors) has more significance than I have thought.

* Throughout all of my schooling prior to college I’ve had to address teachers using Ms., Mrs., Mr. Although it was a bit weird at first, I now have no problem calling a professor by his or her first name if that is their preference. I will call a professor whatever they would like me to call them, I would just like that preference to be clearly stated when a class begins so there is no confusion.
*In my lifetime I’ve had to interact with a lot of people. Teachers were always Ms. Mr. or Mrs. unless I was really close with the teacher. I had one teacher Senior year that I had come to know very well and my best friend and I came up with nicknames for each other and the teacher. All three of us called each other by those nicknames and even signed our papers by those names. If it was any other teacher it might have been inappropriate, but this teacher went right along with it and became a very close friend. In Taekwondo, however, everyone was referred to as Ma’am or Sir, it didn’t matter if they were younger or older it was a sign of respect in the school. When we were outside of class (we frequently had parties with our Taekwondo friends) we called each other by our first names. In my opinion, what you call a person is dependent on the situation you are in, the relationship you have with that person, and how comfortable you are with each other. So if you prefer I call you Harry, I will call you Harry just as you call me —–. But possibly in a different setting, maybe among other Professors, I would call you Professor.
* Growing up, I was always taught to call adults Mr., Ms. and Mrs. (in this case, Professor). Unless he or she is one of my best friend’s parents who I’ve known for years and they’ve made it very clear that I can call them by their first name, I will always call them Mr., Ms., or Mrs. When it comes to professors, I will always call them Professor. I think it shows respect, and it makes me feel more professional. It doesn’t really matter to me how professors address themselves, and I will always recognize that some professors feel close enough to their students to sign their e-mails with their first name, but I’ll always call them by Professor.
* I don’t think I’d feel comfortable referring to my professor with their first name unless I knew them very well. In high school I called all my teachers Mr./Mrs. except for one who I knew for about three years and called him by his last name only my senior year. I’m the same way with friends parents usually I say Mrs./Mr. or just don’t use any name at all. I’ve found that the situation where you would have to use a persons name doesn’t actually come up that often. Usually I only run into it when writing emails or referring to the person when they’re not present. Basically I’ll use the professional name unless I’m comfortable enough not to, and I know the person I’m referring to doesn’t have a problem with it. But even when I used a shortened name its generally not the first, but the last, or a different form. For some reason using the first name just sounds weird to me.
* In high school, it the most informal I got with addressing my teachers was to drop the Mr. or Mrs. and just refer to them with their last name. I think that whatever the professor calls themselves is their choice with whatever they feel comfortable, but I think that I will always feel the need to address them as Professor. Even if they are more informal, I would just fear that I would make them feel as though I am being disrespectful toward them.

And this from a senior who attends the class (and knows me well):
* I know that I, personally, am very turned off when I walk into a classroom and the professor tells me that we must address him/her as Professor so-and-so. Yes, they have earned a certain amount of respect through their schooling, experience, and assumed knowledge, however it sets a conceited and pompous aura around that person from day one that will be very hard to overcome. My fiance goes to a small private school in which 95% of the teachers would cringe if you DIDN’T call them by their first names. I heard one of them say once that “Learning is an on-going process. Just because I have a few letters before or after my name doesn’t mean I know everything. Any student who walks through my classroom doors has something to offer and we should all treat each other as if we’re on an even playing field, experiencing the process of learning together.” I quoted this statement, because as soon as I heard it, I wrote it down, admiring how well-constructed I felt these thoughts were.
Any professor that I’ve gotten to know on anything more than a “hello” basis, I’ve called them by their first names and they have returned the favor. Most of them I either knew they were okay with this, they asked me to use their first name, or I politely asked near the start of our correspondences. I’m not trying to sound overly disrespectful, and yes, if a professor asks me to call them professor, I will. However, it is most definitely not my preference. I think in high school, it is a bit different. Teachers have to be careful about being accused of playing favorites, and therefore, allowing some students to call them by a first name would cross this line. I was very close to some of my high school teachers, and now refer to them by their first name, but I need understand that it would be inappropriate to do so while I was still in high school. College, however, is different. Professors makes relationships with students all the time, and at a school this large, “being fair” is an impossibility. Once the idea of being fair is thrown out, I don’t see anything inappropriate, whatsoever, in calling a professor by his/her first name unless they have explicitly asked otherwise.



Sebastian (2) 12.12.10 at 6:03 pm

my problem is not with the last name, but with the asymmetry.
In Germany, where I did my undergrad, all profs are by last name – but so are all students
I.e. students would refer to the professor as Frau Professor Meier and the professor would refer to them as Herr Schmidt. Fine with me.
In grad school in the US, it’s first names either way (at least for the most part) – I prefer this over German formality, but either is fine.

What I’m not fine with is treating adult (College) students like a bunch of high school kids, who call their profs “Prof X” but are referred to as “Claudia” and “Jimmy” in return. To me it’s part of a tendency in (some?) US Colleges to treat students like little kids which is self-fulfilling and unfortunate.


zhava 12.12.10 at 6:23 pm

There are no obvious rules and protocol isn’t what it used to be. “Prof so-and-so” may be required by X and “Larry” by Y. Some I’m-cool-with-first-name academics though appear to go there because they think its cool and/or expected, and some fairly obviously suffer when treated in too light or cavalier fashion by students.

Profs who do best with first name familiarity are the ones who really know their shit and enjoy wide esteem. Calling Fred “Fred” or Deb “Deb” then gives student the warm fuzzies because they are flattered by the perception of equality in the presence of greatness. If a Prof is weak and poorly regarded, the freedom to call him “Fred” will usually result in ironical inflections or other overly familiar plays on his name that sort of confirms what everyone suspects. So if a Prof believes that his/her first name may further objectify him/her along less than flattering lines, it may be best to demand “Professor” and put up with any negatives that come with that. Titles may in some cases be a refuge for the incompetent, but they do have their uses.


tomslee 12.12.10 at 6:28 pm

Another perspective from Female Science Professor (“Just call me F”):


Jacob Christensen 12.12.10 at 6:32 pm

I’ll throw in a Scandinavian (mostly Danish) perspective for good measure:

I began primary school in 1971 and back then our teachers didn’t have any first names, so they were addressed as “Klein”, “Sandberg” etc. (We may have used Mrs. etc originally, but that soon disappeared). During the 1970s, new teachers would be called by their first name. I had the same class teacher (does this term make any sense outside of Denmark?) for all nine years and when we were in the 9th grade she told us that the pupils in her new 1st grade class all called her by her first name (“Irene”, a very unusual first name in Denmark, in case anybody wonders). Needless to say, teachers called us by first names all the way.

Some of my class-mates from primary school class still meet once a year. The venue? Klein’s place.

In the Gymnasium it was mostly first names (reflecting that the change in modes had been completed), unless a teacher or a student had a very common first name and more unusual middle or last name. This followed standard procedure in Denmark in general – and the same went for my time as an undergraduate student (1983-1989). We never used titles in or outside of classes.

Students, in Denmark or Sweden, have all called me by my first name (and vice versa) – and in any event, I have a very common Danish last name.

But just in case, you might want to note that the standard way of starting an e-mail in Sweden is simply “Hej”. A Danish student would start a mail by calling you “Dear (Kære) Harry”. This does not imply any desire for extra-curricular contacts but is the usual mode of address in letters, e-mails etc, if the recipient is not an organisation or corporation.

(Needless to say, calling a teacher or a student a f&%#€#g a€%#*”e is not socially acceptable).

Curiously, in Sweden the generic (female) pre- and primary school teacher is always referred to as “Fröken” (Miss). This raises the question if a man can be a Miss.


Zeno 12.12.10 at 7:14 pm

Most of my students call me “Mr. Z” or “Dr. Z”, depending on whether or not they know I have a doctorate. (I don’t make a point of sticking “Ph.D.” after my name or announcing it.) Since I teach at a community college, most faculty members have master’s degrees and “Mr.” and “Ms.” or “Mrs.” are the most common forms of address for students to use with their instructors. Since so many of the students are teenagers, it seems unduly informal to have them use our first names, but I’m a little old school that way. I call my students by their first names, but I also always ask (on an information sheet that they hand in) what they prefer. A few do indicate a preference to be addressed by their last name, but not many.


Bloix 12.12.10 at 7:16 pm

When I was in college (three decades ago) I disliked the rare professor who would say, “Call me John.” It pretended to invite a relationship that didn’t exist (“What are you doing for lunch, John?” – right.) If anything it announced an intention to abdicate the responsibility that was associated with the professor’s power over us. I tried to stick with “Professor X,” although some male teachers liked “Mr. X.” I don’t recall any women professors who cared for “Ms. X” and no one in my experience insisted on “Dr.”

In law school, all professors were Professor X and all students were Mr. or Ms. And when I started practising law, senior lawyers and clients were generally Mr. or Ms. until you got to know them fairly well. Then they would invite you to use their first names.

But usage changes, and nowadays first names are ubiquitous in face-to-face business interactions, even among strangers. In most contexts, I find that use of “Mr.” or “Ms.” in a business meeting or phone call would be perceived as being rude.


John Quiggin 12.12.10 at 7:24 pm

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.

While I’m at it, I’m even more annoyed by direct or indirect reference to me as “Mr Quiggin”, for example in blog comments. The associated comment is almost always rude and hostile. Almost anything else, from “John” to “Quiggin” (in indirect reference only) to “Professor Quiggin” is OK by me.

On the final point, there was a time when students just used “Prof” as a generic title similar to “Froken”. That worked well in its time. These days, the great majority either use my first name, or avoid using a name at all.


Jonathan Dursi 12.12.10 at 7:25 pm

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.

At the end of the day, as an instructor you are in a position of authority over the students, and it doesn’t help anyone to pretend otherwise. You will be assigning them grades, possibly poor ones; there will be letters of reference to write, or politely decline to write. Asserting boundaries between the undergraduate students in your class and yourself is a good and useful thing. Obviously you can be a prig about it, too, which isn’t at all helpful, but a respectful distance can be good; especially for students right out of secondary school, who know things change when they get to Uni, but don’t yet quite know to what extent or how.

There are important differences when dealing with graduate students – or even senior undergrads working with you on a senior thesis/project. When you are working together on a shared project, you become colleagues. (And no, learning 1st year subject material is not a shared project in the same way; teaching should be educational for the teacher, too, but you’re hopefully learning different stuff from what they’re hopefully learning). There’s still a significant difference in authority in the relationship, but by the time they are in that stage of their studies, they have a lot more understanding of how the system works, and the boundaries have hopefully already been established.


Chris Bertram 12.12.10 at 8:03 pm

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.

(Generally, I think of US academic culture as being more formal in style anyway. Humanities profs in the US tend all to dress in a particular style, there is more tie-wearing etc.)


mdc 12.12.10 at 8:17 pm

You might be interested to know about the practice at the small liberal arts college where I teach. In class, students refer to faculty as “Mr.” or “Ms.” (or sometimes “Mrs.”) No professional titles are used; an MD faculty member, for example, would still be “Ms. So-and-so.” The one exception I can recall was for a member of a religious order.

Students are referred to, by their teachers and by each other, by “Mr.” or “Ms.” I know my students extremely well as students, but I don’t usually know their first names.

Of all the strange things we do here, this one is almost universally approved of, even cherished, by our students. They associate it with mutual intellectual respect and collegiality.


Jacob T. Levy 12.12.10 at 8:39 pm

I’m curious how views here correlate with views of titles in other settings. I firmly believe in “Professor”– and I also always refer to medical professionals in professional settings (including my dentist and my dogs’ vet) as “Doctor.”


Scott Pauls 12.12.10 at 8:41 pm

In the US, there are also potentially regional differences in customary address of adults by children which may also bleed over. As a kid, I lived in CA, IA and CT. I recall a vivid contrast after moving from Iowa to Connecticut. In Iowa, at least in Iowa City and in my parents’ social circle, calling adults by their first names was expected. But, in Connecticut this was decidedly not the case.

I find that I bristle when students call me by my first name but I attribute that to my essential northeastern upbringing. In addition, I find this much more common from students from the midwest or west coast. In the end, it tends to work itself out as students acclimate to the accepted culture in my institution. In my experience, it is rare that a student consciously chooses a mode of address to force an unwarranted intimacy.


Anderson 12.12.10 at 8:44 pm

I prefer the Sebastian(2) method — address the students as Mr. Jones, Ms. Gonzales, etc. During my brief period teaching, that’s what I did, and I didn’t really care what they called me, though I would explain to anyone using “Dr.” that I didn’t have a doctorate.


Dan 12.12.10 at 9:06 pm

“I, personally, am very turned off when I walk into a classroom and the professor tells me that we must address him/her as Professor so-and-so”

This, I suspect, is a big part of the problem — requesting formality is more socially awkward than requesting informality.

Suppose 50% of the faculty prefer to be addressed by their first name, and mostly say so. The other 50% prefer to be Dr/Prof X, but mostly don’t say so because it sounds so stuffy.

Effect for the students? They hear many lecturers asking to be addressed informally, very few asking to be addressed informally, and so understandably assume first names are the norm.

Admittedly it’s somewhat mitigated by other ways to indicate a preference — how you sign your emails, address your colleagues, or answer the phone — but I can imagine many students missing those cues.

Personally I find anything other than first names awkward, and my heckles rise at people expecting respect because of any position they hold — but if it’s how somebody wants to be addressed, so be it.


Pat 12.12.10 at 9:11 pm

I’m generally for less rather than more formality, but I had to roll my eyes at the “inspirational quote” from the fiance’s small liberal arts college professor. I’m sure that any student who walks through his classroom doors has something to offer, but probably not on the subject of igneous petrology. (Or whatever the course is.)


aa 12.12.10 at 9:11 pm

If anyone outside my circle of friends calls me by my first name, I assume they
want to sell me insurance. As the French say – “We didn’t raise pigs together.”


Daragh McDowell 12.12.10 at 9:24 pm

I tend to go with Prof X unless asked otherwise, and still address my supervisor that way. Most aren’t bothered either way, but there’s a small percentage that are and prefer the formality so why make a fuss. Besides, it helps keep a healthy degree of professional distance. Having said that I tried to keep to a first name basis with my own students, a lot of whom started out addressing me as Mr.


Roger Albin 12.12.10 at 9:53 pm

mdc – are you teaching at Oberlin College? This was the practice when I attended Oberlin and I found it a nice compromise between the excessive formality of using the Prof. title and the often uncomfortable informality of first names.


Harry 12.12.10 at 10:28 pm

I have almost never been called Brighouse directly, but I know that more than one of the students I know very well refers to me that way (one recently forwarded an email from her ma saying she couldn’t come to my talk in milwaukee but “I’m sure I’ll meet Brighouse sometime). I like that, but I’ve never come across it among adult Americans, maybe because I spend too little time in the company of men (whereas it was standard among my friends when I was growing up).
I wished a student happy birthday today who wrote back “I never thought that when I came to college a professor would wish me happy birthday” which I thought I bit sad. I am pretty sure I signed the ecard (bbc, so no spam) “Harry”, because even for me HB would be weird in that context.
I’d prefer a protocol of Mr. , Ms (or Mrs where wanted) for both students and professors, but that is a ludicrous thing to expect.


Nick Munn 12.12.10 at 10:29 pm

I feel uncomfortable when students use my last name. Having said that, I was running tutorials as well as lectures last semester, and informality in a tutorial environment is (imho) conducive to productivity. It is also difficult to ask the same students to alter their form of address between tutorials and lectures, so informality seemed better.


LFC 12.12.10 at 11:16 pm

I’d prefer a protocol of Mr. , Ms (or Mrs where wanted) for both students and professors, but that is a ludicrous thing to expect.

Depends on the context and where you are, doesn’t it? It clearly isn’t ludicrous at mdc’s place.

Context, I suspect, counts for a lot. I remember a story that Dani Rodrik told on his blog a long time ago (I wasn’t a regular reader, just happened to see it). When Rodrik was a Harvard undergrad taking a course taught by Harvey Mansfield, his discussion section leader was Bill Kristol, at that time a grad student of Mansfield’s. Kristol couldn’t have been more than four years older (at most) than the students in his section. According to Rodrik, Kristol walked into class on the first day, wrote the words “Mr. Kristol” on the blackboard, and announced: “My name is Mister Kristol.” Things went downhill from there, as he proceeded to give Rodrik a C on a paper. Obviously, it had no adverse effect on Rodrik’s subsequent career, but he did remember it clearly enough to blog about it some 30-odd years later.


LFC 12.12.10 at 11:21 pm

P.s. He then, iirc, proceeded to return the favor at several decades’ remove, giving Kristol a C, so to speak, on something Kristol had just written.


Janice 12.12.10 at 11:54 pm

As with FSP, linked above, what I find most irksome is to be addressed as “Ms.” or “Mrs.” when my male colleagues, with or without a doctorate, are “Dr. So-and-So”. I know that, for many students fresh out of high school, the impulse is to address any older(ish) woman as “Miss Whatsit” but still grates in comparison.

I offer my seniors and grad students the freedom of my first name. At that point in their professional development, I can believe that we’re working as colleagues more than I can with the massive survey enrolments.


Sebastian (2) 12.12.10 at 11:56 pm


P.D. 12.13.10 at 12:32 am

I don’t give undergrads any instructions as to what I prefer to be called. Some students feel uncomfortable addressing professors by their first name; if calling me “Professor” puts them at ease, that’s fine. Others address me less formally, and that’s fine too. The power dynamic in the professor-student relationship is a source of tension anyway, and I don’t want to exacerbate it by insisting that a student address me in a way that makes them uncomfortable.
That said, I think the dynamic can be different for woman professors. I have overheard students systematically address males as “Professor” and females as “Mrs” – in that case, I correct their usage.


mo 12.13.10 at 12:34 am

As a woman who noticed an amazing difference in the way I was perceived by students when I (a) didn’t smile too much (b) wore a jacket and pants and (c) had them call me Prof. Z as a default (but never object if they call me by my first name) I find it hard to transition to insisting on a first name basis. This is what I would prefer. I would prefer a relaxed environment where we all sat around shooting the breeze, I wore peasant skirts and brought my beagle to class. I don’t want to be an authority figure in the institutional sense. I’d rather be their guide, their interlocutor, their wacky hippie professor. I found though, that certain of them want and expect a traditional authority figure and everything goes better when those type of students have that expectation met. After a little while, once I’ve done the faux male/pack leader thing, we can start to relax a little bit–or some of us can.


piglet 12.13.10 at 1:00 am

I second the first commenter. In the German tradition, it is clear that both Professors and students call each other by the last name. There is also typically little social mingling between students and professors. In the US, I find it harder to navigate because there doesn’t seem to be a single convention and professors don’t usually establish one. Students mostly use Dr. X but I have never seen students being called Mr or Ms. Some instructors obviously don’t mind being called by first name but they don’t necessarily say so clearly. Also, professors often address each other by first name in colloquiums etc. There’s a lot of potential for confusion.


extexan 12.13.10 at 1:24 am

Perhaps because I was raised in the South where we’re a bit more formal, I default to Dr X. The only time this feels strained is when the professor is within 4 or 5 years of my age, which happens occasionally since I’m 33. Nevertheless, I really don’t care too much so long as everyone is clear about his or her expectations. The implication of social hierarchy is fairly low down on my list of things to worry about.

Interestingly in the South, students seemed to call the professor Doctor X or, occasionally, the young students would slip up and call someone Mr or Miss. Here on the West Coast, I hear Professor X or even John or Mary more than Doctor X.


spyder 12.13.10 at 1:32 am

I suspect that preferences for naming comes down to how one feels about hierarchy; the range flows from “Dude” to Herr Professor X, along a spectrum of hierarchical modeling of formality and manners.


JRoth 12.13.10 at 2:22 am

I think the default (at Carnegie Mellon, 20 years ago) was “Prof. X”, but most profs permitted/encouraged first names, and that seemed appropriate (my sense was that it elevated the students somewhat – the prof was obviously someone of accomplishment, so to be on a first name basis with him/her was a compliment). That said, profs who insisted on being “Prof. X” held a certain gravitas that was also effective (“Dr. X” was unheard of, but I probably only had a half dozen PhDs in 10 semesters – architecture was mostly adjuncts and associate profs).

I guess my take was that, if you had to insist on it, you probably weren’t getting the respect anyway, but that a certain amount of earned distance wasn’t always the worst thing.

Of course, these damn Millennials are so disrespectful of all authority that they probably insist on calling their profs by derogatory nicknames….


Stark 12.13.10 at 2:52 am

I’ve always called college professors “Professor X” and high school teachers “Mr. or Mrs. X” unless told otherwise. In certain circumstances, mostly for joking purposes, it would be alright to call those I know well enough by their first name, but it never seemed like something worth pushing. Some college instructors have insisted I don’t call them ‘Professor’ because they were only part-time instructors leading survey courses or discussion sections, but it never seemed like something worth worrying about otherwise.

My uncle did tell me a story, however, about some chemist he was selling materials to who insisted he be referred to as ‘Dr. X’. He was a researcher at one of the large state universities, not a medical doctor, but I have no idea if he had a PhD or an MD. Has anybody else noticed scholars in the Natural Sciences being this way, or maybe only those with MDs?

For the record, I have always attended public schools at both the high school and college level in the Midwest.


Stark 12.13.10 at 3:08 am

I have spent the better part of my life in midwest public high schools and universities, and have always referred to teachers as “Mr or Mrs. X” or “Professor X” at the college level. The only exception were the occasional college instructors who weren’t full-time faculty and insisted they were bnot “Professor X” material.

There was, however, one elementary school principal who insisted on being called “Dr. X” and a researcher my uncle sold chemicals and lab equipment to who very rudely corrected my uncle that he was “Dr. X” not “Mr. X.” I have no idea if he had an MD or aPhD, but I am certain he was not a practicing medical doctor. Does anybody think it would be the degree (MD vs. PhD) that makes the difference or was it the fact he worked in the natural sciences? I have always been a humanities student, so I wouldn’t really know.

And that story about Kristol confirms my distate for him and his writing, if I had been in class that day I would have walked out immediately.


Stark 12.13.10 at 3:10 am

I am sorry for this triple post, I thought the initial one was deleted when Firefox crashed… My mistake.


Michael H Schneider 12.13.10 at 3:19 am

So, no one here likes to be called “Coach”? Personally, I tend to do what Goffman called “no-naming”. Except outdoors on sunny days. Then I’ll tip my hat and say “ma’am” to any female from the age of about 3 on up (and the occasional young male, because my eyes are none too good). Males of 3 and up get “Sir”, and a tip of the hat. So far, no one has slugged me. I figure that everyone deserves respect until they demonstrate otherwise, even if they’re 50 years younger than me. It does tend to get their attention.


sg 12.13.10 at 3:42 am

I’m teaching (non-Japanese) Asian graduates in a Japanese university, and I’m trying to maintain an Australian style of class, so everyone on first names. But my students find this quite discomforting, and often return to “sensei” or “professor.” When I teach undergrads I ask them to call me by my first name in my first class but they never can, so I call them “mr.” or “ms.” (san – there is no “Mrs.” in Japanese).

Interestingly, though my undergrads can’t relax formality in address, they are used to a kind of informality that to the best of my knowledge is completely unacceptable in Australian unis – they try ot go drinking or to dinner with their professors. I’ve had 18 year old students try to facebook me, and had to turn them down politely. They explain this to me by saying the professor is like their family member, but in Oz it’s unacceptable as far as I know.


weserei 12.13.10 at 4:02 am

sg: Interesting that Facebook-friending is taboo in Australia. At my alma mater (in the US), it was common practice for faculty members to accept friend requests from students–though not to make such requests. (For the record, addressing faculty members by first names was centrally mandated, although quite a large number of students never became comfortable with it.)


hardindr 12.13.10 at 4:13 am

When I was in college, I always called by instructors “Dr. _____,” since they (almost) all had Ph.Ds.


sg 12.13.10 at 4:17 am

i don’t know if it’s taboo in Australia, but as far as I can tell from my experience there, it is not widely done or considered wise. First names are widely used as a connotation of respect, but distance is maintained through social behaviour.


Keir 12.13.10 at 4:45 am

Observation: at American universities, isn’t everyone a prof? Whereas at my place, many of the staff are lecturers not profs, so a norm of calling everyone prof x wouldn’t work.


afinetheorem 12.13.10 at 5:43 am

I’ve been in universities all over the US, and I certainly refer to professors (even lecturers) as Professor, and that’s it. Even if they request less formality, *I* prefer the formality: they are there to teach, not to be my friend. Even as a grad student, the only times I would use a first name is with, say, a coauthor, or the rare professor who ambles onto the basketball court with us. As to what to call undergrad students: even in that context, I prefer to use “sir” and “ma’am”. But, hey, I call homeless men “sir” when they ask me for a quarter, so I’m aware I’m probably old-fashioned.

As for facebook…I’ve never heard of anywhere in the US where it would acceptable to accept a friendship request from your student. That strikes me as near the border of unacceptable informalism, particularly during an active term.


dsquared 12.13.10 at 7:59 am

I think the message from this is that a) all educational professionals should be required to take holy orders (not such an onerous requirement as it used to be; you can do it on the internet these days for a tenner), and then b) we can just call them “Reverend”.


sg 12.13.10 at 11:00 am

afinetheorem, one of the students who tried to facebook me had studied in Canada for a year, and said it was normal there. But she may have been thinking of high school teachers, but I wonder if there was a rule that high school teachers should be on their students facebook to prevent bullying…?


fluke 12.13.10 at 11:28 am

In my experience, the habits in germany are little more complicated then sebastian (2) suggested: in direct verbal interaction students and professors/lecturers/etc mostly refer to each other as Mr. X or Mrs. X (Herr Schmidt, Frau Meier) which is basically the way in which you refer to every adult person unless you agreed to call each other by first names. In addition to this, some students also use the titles (Herr Doktor Schmidt, Frau Professor Meier) but this rather old fashioned and by no means necessary (insisting on being called professor or doktor is a safe way to ridicule yourself). Things are different in writing: Here it would be pretty impolite not use the title(s) (Frau Professor Doktor Meier).


cormoc 12.13.10 at 12:30 pm

I agree with Jonathan, that an over-familiarity with students can lead to complications such as if you give them a bad grade or write a bad reference. Students can (and do in my experience) get the wrong idea when the working relationship is overly familiar and I don’t think its fair to dissolve formal boundaries only to resurrect them when you have to actually do the job that you are there to do, such as grade papers, write references etc.

Ultimately, what is over-familiar will depend on the context and you can’t devise hard and fast rules about it. For more junior faculty (such as myself), I think more formality works better as students almost automatically see you as one of their peers and so can have a tendency to not take you as seriously as other faculty which can make doing your job more difficult. For more senior, well-established faculty that presumption is unlikely to arise and so less familiarity is not so problematic.


Harry 12.13.10 at 12:31 pm

Maybe dsquared’s right. I certainly missed my calling as a vicar. Increasing amounts of my life are vicarly (which I like).

Me (suggesting future occupations to student): Have you thought of becoming a pastor
Student (evangelical Christian who knows me very well): You should have been a pastor, you’d be really good at it.
Me: But I lack one crucial qualification.
Student: Oh, I’m sure lots of pastors don’t believe in God. And if you became one, who knows what would happen?


BenSix 12.13.10 at 12:53 pm



Daragh McDowell 12.13.10 at 1:11 pm

I like dsquared’s suggestion if only because the potential for ego-gratification through title-inflation is significant. Since everyone’s splitting from the Anglican communion these days it doesn’t strike me as too much bother to declare myself Arch-Bishop of my own splinter-faction and start insisting on being referred to as ‘Lordship.’ Having said that my own experience of Oxford college clergy has been that they’re invariably a) trendy vicars of the ‘Call me Dave’ variety or b) more interested in sleeping with students (male ones anyway) than providing pastoral care, so a first names systems inevitably results anyway.


ajay 12.13.10 at 2:02 pm

I’m teaching (non-Japanese) Asian graduates in a Japanese university, and I’m trying to maintain an Australian style of class, so everyone on first names. But my students find this quite discomforting, and often return to “sensei” or “professor.”

This is, no question, the way to go. Brighouse-sensei should give it a try one year and see how it works out.


sg 12.13.10 at 2:06 pm

it’s just “sensei” though, ajay, not “name+sensei.” Sometimes as a consequence they forget my name, which is a tad sad.


rosmar 12.13.10 at 2:37 pm

I am on Facebook, and started there as a way to keep in touch with alumni. I have a rule that I will accept the friendship of anyone I know who asks me. So many of my students are my Facebook friends. This means, of course, that I am not going to post anything on Facebook that I don’t want my students to know. I also avoid (to the degree possible) looking at photos students post, since too many are of drunken parties.

This has been my policy for a few years, and I haven’t noticed even a hint of a problem.

(My college, as I’ve noted elsewhere, is small and Quaker and everyone from the President down goes by first name, so there isn’t a lot of formality, anyway.)


ajay 12.13.10 at 2:50 pm

46: they’d address him as just “sensei” but refer to him as “Brighouse-sensei”, though – it’s an honorific suffix, just like “-san” or “-sama”, isn’t it?
I’d be quite happy if my students addressed me as “sensei”, personally.


Jacob Christensen 12.13.10 at 3:22 pm

@Spyder: That’ll be Hr. Professor Doktor X to you, danke schön.

The Germans take this very seriously indeed!


sg 12.13.10 at 3:31 pm

yes, good point ajay, they would (unless they’ve forgotten his name because they only ever address him directly). Japanese are quite good about this too – they refer to a customer as “honourable exalted customer” even when talking to a friend about their job in a cafe, and will refer to the sensei in the same way even when he or she is not there.

Sometimes being called “sensei” cheers me up. The first time someone called me “sama” at a restaurant I was also very cheered. The honorifics in Japanese are very cool!


Nickp 12.13.10 at 3:34 pm

In my undergrad classes, professors were always Dr. Surname. We never, as far as I can remember, addressed them as Prof. Surname. Is the choice of Dr. vs. Prof. a science/humanities cultural difference or something specific to particular universities?


mpowell 12.13.10 at 4:25 pm

I always referred to professors as Professor X or just Professor. They earned the title after all, and that was the role in which they were interacting with me. If I’m asking for a more detailed explanation on a project or why I got this test problem wrong, I need a Professor, not my friend Joe. I also think that for me, personally, there was never anything intimidating about talking to Professor X- that’s what you do as a student and it only becomes awkward if they start to act like an asshole about it (which does happen). I can imagine that for some students this is a problem. I’m tempted to say well, they should just be taught to be more comfortable with hierarchy and authority, but I realize it’s not that simple.


LFC 12.13.10 at 4:31 pm

a researcher my uncle sold chemicals and lab equipment to who very rudely corrected my uncle that he was “Dr. X” not “Mr. X.” I have no idea if he had an MD or a PhD, but I am certain he was not a practicing medical doctor. Does anybody think it would be the degree (MD vs. PhD) that makes the difference or was it the fact he worked in the natural sciences?

My guess is that what was probably going on is that this person had a doctoral degree of some kind (PhD, MD, or both) and he was (a) somewhat self-important, (b) in a bad mood that day, (c) insecure, (d) wanting to be doing something else at that moment than buying chemicals and lab equipment, or (e) all of the above, and he took it out on your uncle by rudely correcting him. There are, I’m sure, politer ways to do this — e.g., the person could have said to your uncle “Incidentally, I do have a PhD, so please call me Dr X” — but this guy was clearly something of a jerk or just not in the mood to be polite.

The lab/natural science context may have some relevance, inasmuch as it’s somewhat harder to imagine a historian, say, insisting on being called “Dr” or caring that much about it. In the realm of academic talking heads on American television, social scientists and economists are usually addressed, it seems to me, either without any title, or as Mr, Ms, or Professor. There are however two exceptions: Doctor Kissinger and Doctor Brzezinski.


Philip 12.13.10 at 7:40 pm

I concur with Chris. When speaking I would just avoid types of address, which I used to do at school where I always tried to void answering questions ‘yes, sir’, ‘no, miss’ etc. I think as an undergraduate I only emailed professors who should have known me so I used Hello first-name. Partly this was because I wasn’t sure if there was any etiquette around using ‘Dr’ or ‘Professor’, some members of faculty were professors and others lecturers, and with some younger staff I wasn’t sure if they were finishing a Ph.D. or starting a post-doc.

For my MA I had to email a couple of professors I didn’t know to interview them for my dissertation and I used Prof X until I met them. It helped that they had the title ‘professor’ on the faculty webpage and I had started reading blogs like this one where referring to people as professor x seems the norm.

I also agree with John, the only time I addressed people directly by their surname was with other boys at school, and then it was usually adapted to a nickname of some kind.


Gene O'Grady 12.13.10 at 10:54 pm

When I was an undergraduate my department chairman was one of the few professors of that age to admit to having children, so that they occasionally interacted with the department majors. Somehow he created an interesting situation in which his daughters called the undergraduates Mr. (all male college, although my department had a high percentage of female students from cooperating colleges) but referred to his professorial colleagues as Anne and John.

For what it’s worth I much prefer Catholic priests who are called Father Smith or Father Lopez — it’s the “just call Joe priests” that I tended to make sure kept clear of my minor children.


Skip Intro 12.14.10 at 1:50 am

I introduce myself on the first day of classes as Dr. *** and tell students they’re free to use “Dr. X”, since people often mangle my last name.

One thing I’ve noticed in my current position in the American South, where about half of our students are African-American and generally from the poorer parts of our state, is that a lot of those students refer to me just by my last name. While I prefer a friendly last name to a surly “sir”, I still don’t like it one bit.

For what it’s worth, I would happily call my students Mr. or Mrs. so-and-so if it didn’t seem so affected.


David 12.14.10 at 1:40 pm

I find “guv’nor” works well. (For Kristol or other grad students, “Sarge”.)


Harry 12.14.10 at 1:42 pm

I think (I’m not sure) that I have rosmar’s facebook policy, while never looking at student pages till after they graduate (and never really looking at any pages at all). Hardly any current students have ever asked prior to graduation, and one who did almost immediately dropped me (then a freshman, now one of the few I have ever known extremely well). I taught a course at a nearby private university and several in that course asked me, and I rather like looking at their pages once a year or so. I don’t really see the harm, even in a large university like mine. I would not ask one to be a facebook friend, though I just possibly might do at graduation (but it would be rare — I’ll probably ask said former freshman).


J. Fisher 12.14.10 at 9:29 pm

So I’m just getting to this post now, two days late and 61 comments in, but oh well. Context matters quite a bit for me. I’m actually on the young side, and when I moonlight at a local CC, I actually introduce myself as “Dr. Fisher.” This is the only context in which I make this demand because, when I’ve tried to be a bit looser on the formalities, it hasn’t worked well there. Some of my students there are quite a bit older than me, and I have in the past had to fight off some of that “I’ve been around the block in the real world, proffie” vibe from my students. Granted, I wasn’t as strong a teacher in the past, and I do think that I now have a better presence in the classroom–one that demands a certain amount of attention. Still, I’ve always felt it best to establish some boundaries right at the beginning.

In one of my other sort-of instructional jobs (at a four-year university), I’m on a first name basis with my students. In the other, I just introduce myself as “Professor Joe Fisher,” and everything’s fine. On the whole, I’m pretty laid back in the classroom, but I design very rigorous courses, so work gets done no matter what my students call me to my face, or behind my back. Nevertheless, I don’t see any problem with any professors asking to be called “Dr.” or “Professor.” I’ve known plenty of “Professors” who are strong, nurturing teachers; I’ve known plenty of “Hey Just Call Me By My First Name”s who are incredibly arrogant and ineffective in the classroom.


Norwegian Guy 12.14.10 at 11:18 pm

I started school in Norway one and a half decades after Jacob Christensen, but I will second most of his comment no. 4. One difference is that female teachers where addressed Mrs. X or Ms. X, while male teachers went by their last names as in Denmark. The title Mr. were never used. Another difference was that those teachers that had started their careers before the 70s (perhaps graduating before and after 1968 being the dividing line?) were usually still addressed by their last names until they retired, while the younger teachers went by their first names. Some of the older teachers where still addressed by their last names when I went to high school in the 90s, though they must all have retired by now. The Swedish use of “Frøken” is found in Norway as well, though it’s old-fashioned and colloquial – I have never heard it used by teachers themselves.

In the higher education system, I probably didn’t ever speak to perhaps half of my lecturers – I wasn’t frequently going to class and I wasn’t among those who often bothered asking questions when I was there. I was on a first name basis with the tutors for my theses. For those lecturers that I did speak to, I don’t think I addressed them in any particular way. Just raised my hand and asked the question. If I talked to a professor after class, or visited his or her office, I would speak to them as with someone you visit at an office; saying “Hi”, sometimes perhaps introduce myself (since professors probably don’t know the names of most of the students following their courses), and then go on and present my errand. Most of the time there is no need to use someone’s name when you are talking with them, you will rather use the second person pronoun called “you”. Using their name is like speaking to them in the third person, and is only really needed when you call someone out to get their attention, and even then a simple “Hey” will often do.

I also agree with John, the only time I addressed people directly by their surname was with other boys at school, and then it was usually adapted to a nickname of some kind.

One place where surname only was the usual way of address was when I was doing my national service in the Norwegian military. Even among fellow enlisted soldiers we mostly used just our surnames. In many cases I hardly knew their first name.


maidhc 12.15.10 at 11:32 am

My students usually call me “Dr. X” or “Prof. X” and I call them by their surnames, unless it’s a very small class. It’s a little formal, but I think that the classroom can handle a little formality. After all it is a format that has endured for 1000 years at least.

My wife doesn’t have a PhD, so she typically goes by “Prof. X”, although some students award her a doctorate.

On the other hand, I have a friend who teaches music, and it’s all first names and touchy-feely, and it’s okay to say “shit” and “fuck” in your lecture, which I would never do.


Charles Xavier 12.15.10 at 12:14 pm

My students have been calling me Professor X for some time now and I’m quite happy with it.


Ralph Wedgwood 12.16.10 at 12:01 pm

I encourage all my students to call me “Ralph” (pronounced so that it rhymes with “safe”, “waif”, or “chafe”). It’s part of my campaign to get the pronunciation of my first name widely known.

I have a couple of Japanese students who cannot bring themselves to call me “Ralph”, though. So I will answer to “Professor Wedgwood” if necessary. (But it’s a tedious chore having to remind people constantly that the correct spelling of “Wedgwood” like that of “Sidgwick” has just 8 letters, the second “w” coming immediately after the “g”….)


Berel Dov Lerner 12.16.10 at 12:08 pm

I teach in Israel and it seems the most common form of address I hear from my students is “Dr. Berel.” I think they really do intend to express respect by using the combination of professional title and first name (it’s not some kind of sarcastic pop-culture reference to “Dr. Phil”). This practice may parallel the etiquette of Orthodox Jews in Israel, who will regularly refer to highly venerated rabbis by their first names (e.g., the emeritus Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Ovadya Yosef is regularly referred to by his followers as “HaRav Ovadya”).

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