academy · classrooms · new year new plan · teaching

The Doctor is In

Over here on the East Coast we started back to school on the fifth of January, so this week most of my class preparation have involved “Hi my name is Dr. Wunker, welcome to class X.” I give a little spiel about the themes and foci of the given class, talk about aims and objectives, give them a sense of what my teaching style is like, and go over the syllabus in detail. You know, the usual.

Oh yes, and this year I’ve started giving a tiny lecture on email etiquette.

I tell them that email etiquette is as much for me as it is for them. We cover what is appropriate for an email (in my opinion these are: questions that require very brief answers that can’t be found on the syllabus or course website, notifications of illness and other emergencies, requests to set up meetings, other small course-related inquiries) “If it takes me more than five minutes to write you a reply,” I tell them, “we should be having this conversation in person.” Which, I should add, I am very happy to facilitate.

My impulse to nip potential email etiquette issues in the bud comes from both a genuine desire to teach my students that it is now a formal mode of communication and should thus be treated as such (“Yes,” I tell them, “your reader may judge you a wee bit if you skip any salutation and write ‘hey wuz up what did i miss 2day?’”)

This impulse also comes from one my resolutions for the year. Much like Heather, I’m aiming to (continue to) work at making my time away from work just that. Time away from work. No email checking for me after 8pm in general, for example. And I wager that you, dear readers, can commensurate with me when I say I get So. Much. Email.

Anyhow. I expected these Email: Do’s & Don’ts lectures to get a bit of eye-rolling. I tried to strike that balance between humorous and cuttingly frank. I made jokes and gesticulated for emphasis. Everything was going well until I got to the bit about proper salutations.

“Email,” I intoned, “is formal correspondence. Don’t skip the salutation!” I wiggled my eyebrows admonishingly. “Your emails to me should begin with Dr. Wunker, or, if you’re feeling fond, Hello Dr. Wunker or the like.” I told them they should include proper salutations in all formal and semi-formal emails. And then we moved on to talking about the syllabus.

I wondered how this new facet of my hey-nice-to-meet-you lecture would go over, and all seemed just fine. To be frank, I felt pleased with myself. New and proactive measures had been taken on day one! I didn’t expect to hear a group of students talking about me as I walked out of the classroom. The gist of what I heard was this, “Yeah, she seems cool, but I couldn’t believe what a big deal she made over us calling her Dr. I mean, what’s the big deal?”

Let me be quick to say that I feel fervently that what one chooses to be called in the classroom is one of many deeply personal choices that those of us who teach have to make for ourselves. It is an individual decision, absolutely. I chose to go by Dr. because
1) I am one! And even if I never land a tenure-track job, by golly I’m proud of the hard work it took me to earn this title.
2) Having students call me Dr. reminds me I am one. It is a positive reinforcement that, as a new teacher, I wanted.
3) I’m relatively short. I’m a woman. For about five minutes when I started teaching several years ago I kind of could have passed as one of the majority of the undergraduate population (if it was dim lighting…)
Which is to say the choice to go by this title is mine. I have many friends and colleagues who go by their first names: great! To each her own.

But I’m struck by the fact that I have to admit it isn’t the first time I’ve heard (or had written on teaching evaluations, which are otherwise predominantly pretty positive) comments about what I choose to be called in the classroom. They aren’t numerous, these comments, but they do come semi-regularly. So I find myself wondering: what’s wrong with being called Dr.? Or more to the point, what is it about my request to be called Dr. that puts some students on the defensive? Is it my gender? The fact that as soon as I ask to be called Dr. I nullify any cool/easygoing points that might have been awarded me because I have visible tattoos and a nose ring? In short, in the university system, what’s in a name?

I have some ideas, certainly, as do others, but I’d love to talk it out in the comments section. So let me hear from you when you have a moment, readers: have you had issues around your choice of title?

14 thoughts on “The Doctor is In

  1. I enjoy this blog immensely, but somehow I always find myself commenting on Erin's posts. I suspect this has to do with the fact that we're close in age and stage and thus I hear a loud ringing of “that's SO true!” often when I read her posts, so thank you, Erin, for voicing so many experiences that I, too, share.

    As for this one, I also give the email etiquette lecture at the start of each class and I also tell students they can call me Dr. Ledohowski or Lindy. Either one is fine by me. But should they choose the more formal one, then that's Dr. Ledohowski. I would add to your list (which I wholeheartedly support), one more point: our universities are profoundly hierarchical (in troubling, frustrating, and exploiting ways), and it doesn't hurt for students to learn that there is a difference between a PhD Candidate instructor (Ms Ledohowski, when that was me), a lecturer/sessional/junior professor who has completed her doctorate (Dr Ledohowski at the moment), and full professors (Professor Ledohowski, who I most likely will never become).

    Now to get to your main point: I find that there is the notion that “Dr.” is pretentious, somehow unearned, and, therefore, those who insist on its usage are “snooty.” (sidenote: I find a similar reaction to “um, it's Ms not Mrs” or “um, it's Ms not Miss.” In that case, the “Ms” in question is a damned feminist, not a snooty Dr. But the sentiment is the same.) In the particular case of “Dr.”, especially for those of us who aren't medical doctors, the public at large (including our students) do not know what goes into making us one (aside from just more school), and thus they don't respect us. If they did, maybe there'd be more money for universities to hire more tenure-track faculty. But let's be frank, your students' response to the “Dr.” issue is just a snapshot of society-at-large's impression of us. Maybe, just maybe, throughout the course of this semester you'll inspire those students and they will see that “Dr.” really does mean something!


  2. Hi Erin!

    I love that you do email etiquette with students–it *is* a formal genre of communication, and actually, it's one they're increasingly unfamiliar with, having moved on to IM and to Facebook. The problem used to be that email was the informal means of peer communication, and they brought that ethos to writing to their professors. The problem now is that they have never activated their university accounts, and only have a gmail account they use to register for stuff online, and never use it. Anyhow, I have the same email content and salutation policy as you — but I add one more thing. I tell them the timeframe for response: I will read it in one day, and answer in two. Business days. Otherwise they send me time critical stuff (“Can I have an extension on the midterm? That starts in 30 minutes”) and write me back repeatedly and urgently (“I sent you an email 20 minutes ago? Did you respond yet?”)

    I know the email part was a side point, but I couldn't help myself from responding.

    I think Lindy is right: how students respond to our requests that they acknowledge our credentials is the world at large … writ small. I have some ideas about this that maybe I'll write about on Friday!


  3. Lindy, Aimee: Thanks to you both for your added suggestions about the email lecture. I wholeheartedly agree with the timing/response caveat (especially in relation to requests for extensions for materials that are due in, oh, five minutes for example).

    Both the central topic (title) and the subtopic (email) are, as you both suggest, intended as edification in the root sense of building knowledge and awareness. While I don't harp on these matters (or maybe I do?) I agree, Lindy: students deserve and even need to know (or at least have a sense of) how the university works.

    Thanks for your engagement!


  4. As I near the end of my own PhD, I find myself reflecting more and more on what I would like my students (hoping I one day have some) to call me. Independently of the fact that I'll be a young female professor, I don't think I would like being called by my first name by undergraduates. Because of my own undergraduate experience, though, I probably wouldn't ask to be called 'Dr. Weatherling'.

    Before I explain, let me start by saying that I absolutely think you have the right to decide how you want to be addressed, and to have that decision respected. But thinking back to my own undergraduate days, I and my friends were taken aback by any professor who requested to be called 'Dr. Lastname', regardless of gender. I never called any professor by their first name — anyone standing at the front of a room and lecturing was 'Professor Lastname', automatically (that is also how most of them introduced themselves at the start of term). I never personally had a professor ask to be addressed as 'Dr.', but this was the kind of thing that would be mentioned of professors in other departments or faculties as a way to illustrate their self-importance or insecurity (gender probably played a role in which one).

    I say this not to suggest that you shouldn't ask to be called 'Dr.', but to share another perspective on what your students might be reacting to (not title vs. non-title, but marked title vs. unmarked title). Of course, you would know best if your students actually are reacting to the fact that you prefer not to be called by your given name.


  5. Hi Weathering! You make a really interesting point, and one that I think will definitely inform my next “Hi my name is, and welcome to” speech. My intent–even more so in many ways than directing students to a 'title'–is to save them the trouble of having to ask me what to call me. My undergrad experience (very different, as you suggest, from my graduate experience) was of calling my professors Dr. So&So.

    But I really take your point: Professor is an equally viable title. I suspect you're bang on about the weight that Professor vs. Dr. carries.

    I do find myself wondering why, though. I mean, taking myself as an example again, I have my doctorate, but I'm not yet a full-fledged member of the professoriate. I wonder why one might be conveyed as snooty while the other isn't so risky?

    Thanks so much for your thoughts!


  6. As you know, Erin, I'm a big fan of the “Dr.” Respect must be earned rather than demanded, to be sure, but in some ways asking for the respect of the title goes some way toward deserving if not actually earning it.

    Having been born and raised in a theatre department, it was a big switch for me to tell my students to address me as Dr. or Professor Pullen (rather than Kirsten). But I immediately noticed that it made a difference. My students seemed to feel separated from me, seemed to understand that we were not equals, seemed to grasp the subtleties in the difference between our roles. (Let me say, parenthetically, that I recognize that not all readers of this blog would agree that students and teachers aren't equals; that they should be separate, etc. But I do — as Erin writes, it's a matter of personal choice. I believe that the academy is hierarchical, and that it's best to acknowledge those hierarchies.)

    When I came to Texas A&M, I walked into a department plagued with unserious students majoring in theatre because they thought it would be an easy A, and gen ed students were outraged that I expected them to do work in “an art class.” I walked into a department where few faculty and fewer students considered themselves “professional.” I walked into a department where the lines between students and professors were blurred to everyone's detriment. And I told them to call me Dr. Pullen. Some of them balked. Some of them asked to call me Dr. P (a suggestion I rejected). Some of them dripped with sarcasm as they addressed me by title.

    Three years (and several new faculty members) later, I'm in a different department. It isn't only because I asked them to call me (and all their other professors) by their title, but it made a difference in department culture. Students understand their faculty as leaders in the field, as professionals, as mentors, as teachers rather than friends who help them put on a play.

    And, though this isn't exactly related, I have found it interesting that graduate and former students who have been invited to call me Kirsten fall into two distinct groups. Those that are most smart, engaged, professional (in other words, higher up in some sort of academic hierarchy) are less likely to drop the Dr. Pullen than those who are not.


  7. Having taught recently in the UK, I found that students expected and reacted differently to markers of status. In the UK, it was expected that I would assert my status in the classroom. Requesting that students address me by first name made them highly uncomfortable and, I suspect, shook their faith in my credentials (at least until they realized I was a crazy colonial). In Canada, I think there's an expectation of a kind of democratic equality that is supposed to level credentials and status. It's absurd, since we do have power and authority in the classroom, but I think Canadians generally are uncomfortable when we assert status over other adults. It comes off as slightly rude.

    That said, I'm clear with my students (who come from a public school culture of 'miss' and 'sir') that the only acceptable alternative to using my first name is to call me Dr. I explain that I am not “Mrs”, since I didn't take my husband's name, nor “Miss”, since I am married, and that I worked very hard, published a dissertation, and spent more time in school then they've been alive to earn those letters. I think that if they know why Dr is important to you, they probably won't question it.


  8. A bit off-topic, but do you ladies ask PhD-less colleagues/staff members at the university to call you doctor, or are you ok with first names if it's not a student?


  9. Ah, geetabix, that question made me jump! I don't ask anyone to call me “Dr.” or “Professor” except students … and when I'm giving public talks, I like to be introduced as “Professor Morrison” or “Doctor Morrison” rather than “Aimée”, too. But I don't make anyone in those contexts *call* me that, just introduce me that way.


  10. Hi geetabix: No, like A the only folks I ask to call me Dr./Professor are my students–and that shifts over time (often with upper-level students). For example, last year I had the excellent good fortune of supervising an honours project. By the end of the project the student (the brilliant P.S., hello! If you're out there) and I were on a first name basis.

    My aim in asking students to call me Dr. is, in retrospect, closely aligned to my own mentorship (which I blogged about back in September or October). I want to set respectful boundaries for everyone. For me this comes in my choice of address.

    But *only* with students. To everyone else in the university system I am very much Erin (& happy to be so!)


  11. Hi kpullen (Dr. Pullen! With no sarcasm intended at all, given Dr. Pullen was and is one of my most formative mentors): I learned the usefulness of titles from your model as well as the model of some others in my degree granting institution, and I have found–in my own experience–that in my classroom it really does seem to give students and me a division that is both useful and necessary.

    But again, as you say and as I feel, the choice to ask to be called one way or another is a personal choice.


  12. I agree with Erin on the “Dr. Wunker” title. It makes perfect sense as a newly minted PhD close in age to them to establish that sense of authority, both for your benefit and theirs, and it's especially important for women professors. In your case, you worked hard to earn that “Dr.” and you do have more knowledge than a TA just starting out. (I think you could also use “Prof” in your circumstances since your LTA designates you as an Assistant Professor, but that's up to your comfort level about your own status.)

    I'm about to go into my first class of the semester and give the same speech. As of last semester, I had to add an additional bit to it, not just for my benefit but for all the women in the department, in response to an email another female professor sent our listserv. Here in the deep South, they tend to call all the female profs “Ma'am” or “Mrs.”, which they think is respectful, even though they call the male profs “Prof” or Dr.” by default. Students need to be told that it's not respectful to address male profs by their title but not female profs. And they also need to be told quite explicitly the difference between graduate teaching assistants, instructors, tenure-track faculty, and tenured faculty. They are completely clueless in this regard, and it does impact how seriously they take filling out course evals at the end of the semester. I've started explaining the difference between GTAs, instructors, TT, and tenured to them before we do course evals, and I can confirm that it is honestly not on their radar. It's one thing to say that we are in favour of democracy and egalitarianism in theory, but we still work in institutions that are hierarchical, so we have a responsibility to inform them about how the hierarchy they are a part of is structured–as well as how not to be sexist within that hierarchy.


  13. Hey Pantagruelle! Thanks so much for you comments: I appreciate your choice to explain to students what titles mean and indicate–it is certainly something I didn't know about at all as an undergraduate! I'm responding to some of your other points in the comments for Heather's post from yesterday.


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