Talk about self-conscious: I walked into day 1 of a class with our blog conversation still ringing in my ears. I was curious to see whether it would change my practice, but it didn’t. I told my students, as I do every year, “Address me using whatever makes you comfortable. I will answer to Dr Zwicker, Professor Zwicker, Heather, or even the time-honored . What doesn’t work so well is Mrs Zwacky.” (It’s funnier if you say it out loud.)
I am not a casual person, but I am very casual about this. I think it’s partly because I have always found institutions, and the academy more than most, mysterious places navigable only by a deep local knowledge that I never seem to possess. It’s like I’m stuck on Level One of the big university video game, desperately trying to find the golden key that will unlock all the mysteries. For instance, I am not actually very clear on the distinction between Dr and Professor as modes of address, in spite of scrutinizing Lindy’s and Weathering’s comments (aha! clues!), which I’m pretty sure is not how I’ve heard this explained to me before. I do not understand the British academic system At All, and I’m hopeless with titles in Germany. True story: I have only recently figured out the Assistant (nonacademic) and Associate (academic) distinction in named administrative positions. And what did I learn the week after cracking that code?: sometimes Assistant Deans/Provosts/etc can be doctorate-toting academics too. So how are you supposed to know, especially in the context of first-name managerialism?
By first-name managerialism I mean administration with a friendly face, the new-world roll-up-your-shirtsleeves we’re-all-in-this-togetherness that makes you feel like you could text yr prez (“Dude! What up with the cuts?”), which is good, but at the same time produces baffling advice like “Oh, you should ask Lois.” Um, Lois who? Where does she work? Who is she when she’s on email? Yeah, that’s right, I’m so dumb I don’t know who the hell you mean.
That’s one way first-name-ism works, whether consciously or not (and I suspect mostly not): it establishes and enforces power relations. That’s not to say it doesn’t also work in other ways. In Monday’s comments SC refers to the first-name ethos as a democratic impulse, which I agree is one of the things I find among teachers – sorry, instructors: a genuine commitment to leveling the playing field in the name of acquiring knowledge together. I love that.
And it’s in fact in keeping with that democratic commitment that I have to say I am not comfortable expecting students to call me either Firstname or Dr/Professor Lastname exclusively. I am sensitive to the issues about authority and I take the points about being proud of your doctorate. But students come to the academy from all over, and in my experience they are mostly doing their best to navigate a mystifying institution where the rules always seem to be in flux. More to the point, I have an allergic reaction to asking students to do what we do not (see “expository essay” vs “critical theory”). Using first names is no shortcut to equality. Likewise, asking students to use academic honorifics when my bosses don’t makes me feel uneasily like we are playing at Seventeenth-Century Academy. I can’t help thinking we’d be better off texting the prez about the budget.