Monday, June 22, 2015

Cindy from St. Louis With an Ongoing and Vexing Early Thirsty On What We're Called.

This summer I am teaching an online class. It is full of students from other colleges and universities that are home for the summer. I sent everyone a welcoming e-mail on the first day of class, explaining the class procedures and components. I signed the e-mail, with what students call me in the classroom, Mrs. (or Ms.) Mylastname. 

This summer, however, I have received three different e-mail from students, with the salutations “Hi Cindy,” or “Cindy.” This strikes me as odd, as an in-the-classroom student would never call me that. Maybe I am too sensitive about my status as their professor, but I am offended at their familiarity.

Q: Should I say anything about this to them? How should I respond? Is this a common practice at other schools? Should I just deal with it and ignore it?


  1. Keep your dealings with your students professional. They should know that there is a hierarchy and protocol which should be observed and enforced. Not only is it courteous to do so, they will likely encounter that when they work for a living.

    However, one's superiors might not look upon that with favour. After I got my Ph. D., I got into trouble with certain administrators because insisting that I be addressed as "Dr. Vertical" or "Sir" didn't create a "safe learning environment" and, in fact, *intimidated* them. (This years was before the need for "trigger" warnings.) Apparently, they would be afraid to ask me questions and, therefore, wouldn't learn anything. (Yeah, right.) At the same time, though, I address them as "Mr." or "Sir", "Ms." or "Madame", whichever was applicable.

    I received no complaints about this in my evaluations nor on the site which will not be named. I guess I must have intimidated them all into silence. (Uh-huh.)

  2. I prefer "professor" or something along those lines because using first names can create a kind of false intimacy. Many students seem to prefer a little more professional distance.

    And then there's the issue that for whatever reason, some of us don't fit students' notions of what a "professor" looks like.

    One example: a first-year student who came to see me in my office for academic advising, and afterwards wrote to me, "Hi Frankie, I had a question about..."

    I wrote him back, answered his question, and (gently, I think) let him know that addressing professors as "Professor" was the usual practice at our campus.

    Now remember, this student had come to see me in my professor's office, in a hallway of other professors' offices, and had come through my office door, next to which was my nameplate which reads "Professor Frances Bow." This student and I had discussed several classes that he might take, including one or two that I myself was scheduled to teach.

    His response to my email?
    "Sorry, I didn't know you were a professor. I thought you were a counselor."

  3. Although I give my students the option of calling me by my first name, I'm thinking of dropping it, since most of them seem to prefer using some form of my last name, and I'm finding that I prefer that, too.

    Now if I could just figure out how to get them to call me "Dr." or "Professor" instead of "Mrs.," which has never been a title I could claim, or wanted to claim. I'd be perfectly happy with "Ms." (which is what I use in my private life, and have always intended to continue using, whatever my marital status), but students can't seem to wrap their minds around that one. And, although I have great respect for nursery-school teachers, and the hard and vital work they do, and think they should be paid accordingly, I am emphatically *not* "Miss Cassandra" (that has only happened once or twice -- but yikes!).

    To actually answer the question -- although I have preferences, I've never corrected a student (even the one who kept emailing me as "Miss/Mrs. Lastname"). Some members of this generation are very sensitive to being corrected, even in small ways, and I'm not really particularly sensitive about what I'm called (as long as it's reasonably polite, or, if impolite, at least colorful/inventive), so I tend to ignore the issue and answer the question. Maybe I'm just a coward.

  4. Ditto Frankie Bow:

    I prefer "professor" or something along those lines because using first names can create a kind of false intimacy. Many students seem to prefer a little more professional distance.

    I used to let students call me by my first name, but I found that some degree of separation is a good thing. If you are consistent, students will quickly learn what your preferences are. I asked that students call me "Professor Academaniac" or "Professor". I explained to one student who would snap his fingers and call "Hey come here", that I would not respond unless properly addressed. Advisees who don't know me, often write in their emails, "Hey firstname". I assume this comes from texting and friending everyone. I politely ask that they address me as "Professor", and I've had no problems - from students or the powers that be.

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  6. QWV has a good suggestion. Instead of making a big deal about ehat they call you just because you said so, tell them that this is good practice for the professional world.

  7. Me three. I don't take it personally and don't care so much what they call me, but I do care that they care about addressing others properly, especially those others who care how they are addressed. To ignore such a gaffe is to set them up for a future smacking at the hands of the less forgiving.

    When I get a "hey firstname" email, I allow myself to snark in my head, then I respond in my most professional manner, addressing the student as e.g. Student Diagnostician Camembert and signing as Dr. Hep. In other words, I model the behavior I want them to exhibit. To their credit, they usually get the hint.

    Their first contact with me is often well before I have them in the classroom, and as Frankie experienced, despite my mentioning that I will be teaching them later, some of them haven't caught on that I'm already degreed.

  8. I feel like I care about this more than I should, and I never know how to approach it with students. Laid-back hippie type that I am, I would be fine with being called "Fretful" if calling professors by their first names were the culture at my institution, but it's not, and it seems a bit wrong that my older, male colleagues get "Dr. Lastname" automatically and I don't. But being called by my first name doesn't get under my skin nearly as much as some of the alternatives do -- I'll take it in a heartbeat over "Mrs. Porpentine" (which has never been accurate), "Miss Porpentine" (technically accurate, but archaic and sexist), or "Miss Fretful (I AM NOT YOUR KINDERGARTEN TEACHER!)

    Complicating all of this is the fact that I've somehow acquired a deep-seated conviction that it's rude to give oneself a title, so I kind of hate correcting students, even by the passive method of signing e-mails "Dr. Porpentine." (I will, however, circle the "Mrs." and write "I didn't know I was married! Who's the lucky guy?")

    Complicating all of this still further is the fact that I'm a mid-Atlantic fish out of her natural waters in the Deep South, and I know that my dislike of "Miss Fretful" is at least partly irrational and prejudiced, because I have the same gut-level reaction to a lot of the local dialect markers, and I try to keep it tamped down. (Also, in some cases I think students call me "Miss Fretful" or "Dr. Fretful" because they genuinely don't know how to pronounce my last name, which is not overly long and is pronounced exactly as it's spelled, but this part of the country is about the only part that didn't see massive immigration from people of my particular ethnic group.) So I keep second-guessing myself and wondering if I'm really, deep down, angry at my students for not being from somewhere else, somewhere more cosmopolitan and less traditional about gender roles.

    End result, I let it go most of the time.

  9. I used to fret about asking to be called Dr. Frenna. But one time, my third semester teaching as a PhD, a student says, "Heck, yeah, use Dr. You worked hard and earned it!" Since then I have owned being Dr. Frenna. That said I do not outright correct students that address me in another way, but Mizzzzzzzzzz Frenna drives me bonkers. It grates on my brain. Like OPH, I will subtly correct them in emails by signing, Dr. Frenna.

    I am also fine with "Doc" "Professor," etc.

  10. I'm in the "keep it professional" camp and also the "hierarchy exists so why not acknowledge it?" platoon. I did work hard for the degrees and think part of my role is to model "Accomplished Woman to be Treated as Your Superior" for my female and male students alike.

    As for the OP's quandary, I would send an email to the whole class reminding them of a few class policies and include courtesy to each other and to you. Then lie: "Someone told me yesterday that they weren't sure how to address me. My students call me 'Professor' or 'Dr.' Galore. Thanks for asking!"