Thursday, June 01, 2006

Miss Manners or Judith M?

As I have said before, I am a big fan of Miss Manners. But I'm a little disappointed in her column yesterday in that she doesn't open up a larger discussion of the issue of whether professors ought to call students by their first names. Instead, she focuses on the question of how a student should respond to a professor who signs an e-mail with his first name.

Margaret Soltan (Sra. Prof. Dr. Frau Mrs. UD Soltan?) does open up the discussion a bit, along with her commentators, over at University Diaries.

It seems to me that the crucial issue is an imbalance of power that may lead to rudeness. It seems generally accepted that college students call their professors
Doctor or Professor or Mister or Ms. so-and-so, depending on the culture of the institution, while professors call students by their first names.

A couple of years ago, I suggested to my wife that I wanted to start calling my students Mr. and Ms. While she agreed that this might be proper, she advised against it on the grounds that perhaps a theoretical and abstract rudeness was better than a concrete example of weirdness. (That is not to say that all professors who call students Mr. or Ms. so-and-so would be seen as weird, but presumably 30-somethings with a mid-Atlantic accent and casual khakis would be.) I have followed her advice and continued to call students by their first names and have not objected when they call me Professor. But I continue to think about it and am a little troubled by it.

It may be that I think about this because the rather progressive DC private school I attended as a child has a prevailing custom that teachers (from elementary school on) are called by their first names. However, any teacher that wished to be called by their last name could be. In the entire history of the school (since 1945), so far as I know, only two teachers have been called Mrs. X and only one was called Mr. X. One was my kindergarten teacher, the beloved Jessie Klein, who went by "Mrs. K" which she told us stood for both "Klein" and "kindergarten." When her husband retired from his airline job and came to teach with her, he naturally became "Mr. K." The third teacher who used her last name was a legendary fifth-grade teacher who retired before my time. Interestingly, she had a daughter who attended the school and who later became a noted etiquette columnist for the Washington Post.

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