classrooms · first-name managerialism · reflection

"Best wishes, AM"

I go by a lot of different names: I’m mommy and mama and maman and sometimes ‘mapu’ to my daughter; to some of my friends from high school I’m Aim or Cuppy; to my biological dad I was Hopey (while my sister called me Hopeless or Hopey-dopey); my dad and (rarely) my mom call me Hopers; I have a whole set of friends who know me only as Mimi (a different childhood nickname from my elementary years); my university friends from my days at York (and a lot of digital humanists, for historical reasons) call me aimeefreak; my parents sometimes distinguish me (sarcastically) from my sister with the appellation “The Good One”; at my daughter’s school and on parent council I’m Madame Morrison; to some francophones I’m Aimée (pr. “emmm-AY); my husband calls me shmoopah or my love or (exasperatedly) A-i-m-e-e-e-e-e-e when I’ve forgotten to bring his computer in to the shop. On Twitter I’m digiwonk (people call me this when I meet them).

I have nearly as many names as I have roles–even within individual relationships my name shifts from context to context: from breakfast table to date night, from pet name to introduction, from speaking in English to speaking in French, from feeling friendly to feeling angry.
And so at work I have different names, too.
I prefer my undergraduates to call me Dr. Morrison, or Prof. Morrison. I explain that we are in a professional relationship in a particular context that makes this name appropriate. I also explain to them how doctorates and job titles work, and about who is who and what is what in this setting. For me, it comes down to this: my doctorate is what authorizes me to be at the front of the classroom, to push them so hard with reading and testing and talking, to correct their work. My doctorate and my job title indicate what it is I do with my time: the kinds of research, the depth of teaching, the commitment to service to the department, university, profession, and the public. 
It marks, also, my expertise, and I believe in expertise and its recognition: this is perhaps where I become activist, but for me the idea that everyone’s ‘opinion’ is, because authentically representing its author’s intent, valuable or right. It’s not. I have worked hard to know a lot of about digital media, literature, literary methods, and such: my credentials indicate this hard work, and this achievement. It means my opinions on materials in my field are not just ‘opinions’ but scholarly judgments. That’s important for me, sure, but it’s a teaching goal of mine to have my students learn to value expertise–the effort and time and care it takes to really master something. It’s not easy to be an expert. Being an expert, or becoming one, is valuable.
(I have to add, too, that my classroom persona is generally very, very silly and from-the-hip; the more formal name counterbalances my levity with some gravitas.)
My graduate students largely seem to have this under control: so I leave it to them what to call me. Some opt for Prof. Morrison (I like that) and some opt for Aimée. I’m fine with that too. 
To my direct colleagues, I’m Aimée. From the dean, I sometimes get letters addressed to “Dr. Morrison” with that name crossed out in pen, and “Aimée” written in above by hand–that’s a great compromise between the formality of a letter marking a tenure process milestone, and friendly relationship between colleagues: this salutation has its cake and eats it too. It’s a target I’m forever trying to hit.
To colleagues I don’t know? Well, I mostly interact with them over email: article submissions, queries about conferences, requests for supervision, administrative stuff like grant proposals. Who am I in those intereactions? I’ve spent a truly ridiculous amount of time obsessing over how to sign off my emails. Here’s what I’ve come up with.
Best wishes,
AM [more familiar] / Aimée Morrison [less familiar]
Aimée Morrison
Assistant Professor
Dept. of English Language and Literature
University of Waterloo
Generally, I’m aiming for friendly, but with a context for you to know who I am and where I’m coming from. If I know my correspondent *at all* I’m usually AM in early writings, and very soon thereafter Aimée. That’s when I omit the sig file stuff about my rank and institution.
But when I email students, I’m always “Best wishes, AM”: it seems like such a great way to be both human and a little removed; friendly, but with critical distance. Again, the balance.
I’m not too fussed about being ‘inconsistent’ in what kinds of name options I offer to the different people in my life: so long as there is a reason for a preference, I’m happy to hew to everyone’s desired practice. My identity is mutable and context-sensitive; my relationships with others are marked by differing degrees of formality, closeness, power imbalance. I try to find a way for people to address me–and me them–that meets all of our needs for clarity and ease and comfort. It seems reasonable to me that, with respect to what we ask our student to call us, we might easily develop very different practices from one another, that are each valuable and appropriate.
You can call me Aimée, btw–just don’t call me late for cocktails.

14 thoughts on “"Best wishes, AM"

  1. Thank you for this post! As an undergraduate, I was never sure how to address my instructors. It would have been helpful if they had taken the time to explain the distinctions in titles (Dr, Professor).

    I'm a PhD student (read: not-yet-Dr.), and I've always struggled with the problem of how to introduce myself to my students, when I teach. I am not Miss, refuse to go by Mrs (even though I am married), and Ms. has always felt uncomfortably stiff. I usually end up inviting my students to call me by my first name–an unfortunate compromise that invites excessive informality, unfortunately.

    Some colleagues have told me that they've sidestepped the issue altogether by simply NOT introducing themselves to their students, and by signing emails with their initials. But, as someone who has always struggled with the awkward and embarrassing issues of formality and appropriate address, I've always seen this solution as unnecessarily unkind (particularly when these same colleagues later complain that their students address them by their first names, or–worse–as Mrs).

    I suppose that, for those of us who are not (yet) Drs, the solution is to get comfy with Ms. But for me, that's like trying to get comfy in one of those really uncomfortable, wooden office chairs.


  2. What a great post! (It also goes well with Erin's post last year on the tricky subject of how to end emails.) My PhD supervisor used to sign her emails with her initials too, and it was a big deal to me when, sometime after the coursework stage, our relationship evolved to the point where she'd sign with her first name. I appreciate that. Now, with my own students, I sometimes use my initials, but I've received confused replies that refer to me by my first name, or as “Mrs. Simpson,” and one time as “VS.” So, if I think they need the hint, I'll use “Dr. Simpson,” and in subsequent correspondence or with upper-level students I'll use “VS.” It's good to know that others have put the same kind of thought into such supposedly minor details!


  3. Thanks to all three of you (Aimée, Heather, and Erin, if I may) for writing such terrific posts on such an important issue!

    I've struggled with this myself, especially being a short, young-looking woman. When I first started teaching my own classes (as a graduate student), my advisor strongly suggested that I have the students address me using my last name so as to establish and maintain authority in the classroom (though, given that I didn't yet have a PhD, that meant they had to call me “Ms.”, which I found a bit weird). To be honest, this didn't really work. I am a very informal and social person, so for me this felt inauthentic. Rather than establish authority, it tended to establish distance between me and my students. This was especially disappointing as I had always loved the fact that students were never intimidated my me as a TA, and would be willing to admit that they didn't understand something and ask for help in my class, while telling me that they didn't feel comfortable doing so in other classes (thus, being informal helped to facilitate their learning).

    The next course I taught, I decided to go by my first name. I have to admit that I did feel that the students respected my authority a bit less… at first. Then, once they got to know me and saw that I knew what I was talking about (which only took a couple of class sessions), they seemed to have full faith in my ability to impart knowledge to them AND they felt very comfortable asking what they thought were “dumb questions” in class (which they weren't) and asking for help (again, telling me that they weren't so comfortable doing so in other classes). Since I teach philosophy — with typically discussion-based classes — it's very, very important to me that students have this level of comfort in asking questions and trying out new ideas.

    During a two-year stint in Germany, I did the same, asking students to address me by my first name (but telling them the appropriate formal salutation in case they were more comfortable with that). While some students chose to use “Dr.”, other students used my first name. I didn't feel that they had any less confidence in me. In fact, I again experienced only positive outcomes — students would actually come to my office hours (not common where I taught) and would be very grateful for my help, telling me that other professors didn't seem so open or that they were too scared to speak with them….


  4. … Now that I have a tenure-track job, I have continued this practice of using my first name. However, I do exactly what Aimée does, explaining to them at the outset what the different titles mean, how tenure works, etc. The response, I find, has been astounding: students feel comfortable around me (which seems to lead to more open sharing in the classroom, which is great), but they also know what it took for me to get where I got.

    Also – and this is crucial – by being a bit less formal with them, I find that students see me as being MORE than a professor, but as a whole person. They are aware that I have other work besides teaching (which they learn from my lecture on the tenure process), but they also know that I'm American, that I only moved here a year and a half ago, that all my family is back in the States, that I like to use breaks to travel and see friends, etc. Most usefully, this translates to a respect that the students have for me as someone who has a life, who does not sit around all weekend, answering student emails, and who needs a break during Reading Week as much as they do. So, they are very grateful for the time that I give them (especially for my extra office hours), they are not demanding at all when it comes to my email replies, and they are very understanding about the time it takes to prepare a class and provide feedback. That's the kind of respect and understanding that makes my job so much easier.


  5. This is a really great post, and an important feminist issue for me. I've also struggled with the names from students for me, especially when I was an affiliate faculty, no rank, no PhD. The PhD has helped, and most of my students address me as “Dr K,” as my last name can cause pronunciation problems for some. I've begun signing it on my student emails, but I do like the Two Initial signature. I have also never really explained the title system, probably because I'm still not quite sure how it all works myself! I was very interested in Katie's comment about teaching in Germany. I've not taught there, but on a family visit this summer, I was introduced as “Frau Doktor” every where we went. Very interesting and informative post and comments!


  6. Last year my department was getting name tags made up for all of us faculty (for some event which now escapes my mind), and we had an entire debate about whether or not we should have “Dr.” or “Prof.” on our name tags. While I would have been happy with just my first and last name (which is, by the way, how I sign my emails to students, but just “L.” to my friends), our department decided on “Dr.” for those of us (Assistant and Associate Profs) not elevated to full professorial status and “Prof” for the faculty members who are full professors in our department.

    I tell this anecdote, because it is not the only time that it has been hit home to me that even though I hold a tenure-track Assistant Professor position, and I am a professor, I am not Professor Ledohowski. So while I answer to that monicker (because students will use it no matter how I introduce myself), I don't introduce myself as such and end up feeling awkward when called it.

    So now I'm left wondering: if the difference between Dr./not-yet-Dr. matters (in terms of accuracy of title), does the difference between prof./not-yet-prof. matter in the same way?


  7. It's confusing, isn't it. The reason why it's confusing is that Dr.and Prof.are used differently in different countries. In Europe and the UK, Professor designates only people who hold Chairs or who are really senior. Here, not so much.

    I am a Professor, but the confusion means that my students called me Professor back when I was not one…it was my job title after all. To keep it simple, I ask my undergraduate students to call me Dr. and tell my graduate students that they can use my first name or Dr. When they aren't my students anymore, I always use my first name.

    Tip: use “Dr.” when buying airline tickets. You are more likely to get upgrades because it is assumed that you are a medical doctor! When someone asks me about this, I tell them that I can only heal their grammar, but that's still a valuable skill…


  8. Lindy, I think you might be thinking of the British system? It is my understanding that in North America, anyone with PhD and tenured-or tenure-track job, is covered by the honorific 'Professor' — We are, after all, Assistant Professors, Associate Professors, and Full Professors. We are all, that is, professors. It is my impression then, that “Doctor” is someone with a PhD but not an tt academic position; “Professor” is everyone who does.

    What is my job? I'm a university professor. My *rank* is Assistant Professor, but I am also 'Professor Morrison' by the fact of the kind of employment, not rank.

    Can any other Canadians or Americans speak to this?


  9. Hi Amy,

    In brief, not exactly. Your job title doesn't actually match the address. So you can be an Assistant Professor, but you are called Dr. until you become a Full Professor or get a Chair. Officially (as in Robert's Rules of Order officially). In Canada this happens a lot more than in the USA, where titles are beginning to collapse into job descriptions. But Canada retains something of the British practice, which is to use Prof. just for Full Professors or people with named chairs.

    I stick with Dr. but answer to Prof. My students and colleagues don't always know that I'm a Full Professor (it must be the Oil of Olay) and really, that's okay almost all of the time.


  10. Who knew? (well, you did, and I didn't.)

    Funny that we're generally so averse to this conversation that no one told me when I was hired what I should be called. I can't recall any discussion or any documentation of the question of titles and honorifics at all. I can tell you the salary floors and thresholds for all the ranks at my university, but not, apparently, what to call them. Yikes!


  11. My experience in both the US and Canada (thus far) has been that anyone with a professorial rank (assistant, associate, or full) is addressed as “Professor”, while post-docs, lecturers, or anyone with their PhD but without a professorial-rank position can only be addressed as “Dr.”. In Germany, this is different, since both assistant and associate ranks don't (or rarely) exist. (There's now some “junior professor” positions starting to crop up.) So, academics go from getting their PhD to working as a research scientist (Wissenschaftliche Mitarberin) — typically with the focus on a second book (a habilitation) — and then to full professor. Depending on how quickly one writes the habilitation and gets a job, one can obtain full professor more quickly than is typical in the North American system, since they don't have to progress through the ranks (though professor positions are also harder to come by).

    I wonder: if Robert's Rules of Order stipulate that assistant and associate professors shouldn't be addressed as “professors”, but almost all academics knowingly do so (I'm not sure that's the case, but it's been my experience), then is it wrong to ask students to address you as such? Any time I've given a talk, for example, I've always been addressed as “Professor” (as a title, not just a job description), by other professors as well, including by full professors. Hmmmmm….


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