Boundaries and Behaviours

Over at 1B* Reignited, I ran across an interesting conversation on socializing, respect and favouritism between students and professors. Combine this with a revival of the perennial how do we let students address us/how do we address students debate linked from Pharyngula and there’s some interesting overlap.

Basically, some people see any attempt to set boundaries between faculty and students as a way to reinforce power and hierarchy. From this point of view, it’s all about power — an us versus them mentality. Making students address their instructor as Prof. X (I couldn’t resist!) or Dr. Y is a heavy-handed reminder that the student is inferior and subordinate. Their prescription is, sometimes, to be egalitarian — to level the playing field so it’s “Charles” and “Jane,” “Emily and “Edward.” If you don’t agree? You’re an oppressor, man! Similarly, in the first instance, some readers react to a professor’s discomfort to being approached by a new grad student, freshly entered into the program, with a slap on the back and a “Hey! What’re we doing tonight?” query with advice to relax and be more open to the new person in your program.

Well, I’m uneasy here. First, I never encourage my first year students to call me by my first name (despite the tongue twisting surname I have). Why? Because I find that the vast majority of my students have no idea of my professional qualifications (nor those of my colleagues). In-depth interviews have shown me that most of them assume I have as much training as their high school teachers, if they think about it at all. The information presented in classes? The sources we discuss and debate? It all comes from the textbook, a special teacher’s edition, doesn’t it? That tells me what to do or say, right?

Insisting on Dr. Ancarett (not Prof. Ancarett — at my institution, that’s a subtle difference since non-doctoral faculty members are referred to as professors) is one of the tools I use to try and educate my freshmen students about academia. In between leading them through considerations about what we mean by humanism and what Renaissance people did with those concepts, I interject the reality and impact of research (how this came up in my doctoral work, in conferences, publications and academic debates) and try to open the door to their consideration of what it means to be a professional historian.

As my students continue, I ease up on that expectation. I tell the senior and graduate students they may call me by my first name, some do and others don’t or they choose to do so only in fairly closed situations (for instance, my GTA addressed me as Dr. Ancarett in front of any undergraduate student but would occasionally use my given name if we were talking privately — but he was clearly uncomfortable with the first name for any faculty member and I encouraged him to work on that since he was clearly proceeding towards a Ph.D. and eventual professional integration). I also continue to educate those who are interested in the profession about what’s involved in the whole moving up through the levels and requirements — what it’s like to submit a paper to a conference, to speak as part of a panel, how they can feel comfortable in the changing environment as they move through the ranks.

Still, there are boundaries that I must maintain in my life. Despite the pleasures associated with it, I do not invite students into my home. With four pets (two of them small exotics that scare the bejesus out of people), we have a handful to contain with visitors around, not to mention our two children. Unlike my parents’ house, I can’t banish the kids to upstairs and expect them to enjoy any semblance of peace while a grownups’ party rages below, however quietly. Our house is tiny, old and not suited for hospitality. Plus, quite frankly, by the end of most working days, which can be complex juggling affairs with our different schedules, my family’s ready for some quiet time. I cheerfully socialize on university property and, I believe, I’m the only member in my department to meet graduate class in the pub (it’s actually a very good atmosphere to extend out those theory-heavy discussions). I just don’t do it at home.

Does all of that make me a bad professor, a formal ass who’s out to impose her power on anyone else? If you asked some former colleagues, they might agree. But for me and for most of my students, it works.

13 Responses to “Boundaries and Behaviours”

  1. Jeannette Says:

    I’ve been following this conversation with interest through 1B*’s post and through Professing Mama’s post (linked to at 1B*).

    As someone who has been a grad student for awhile (i guess that’s the best why to explain my entangled story), I’ve wondered how to deal with my fluctuating identity. Sometimes I’m the teacher; sometimes I’m the student. As a T.A., it’s a little more clear, because I’m not the professor responsible for the class. But as a T.A. and grad student at one institution for three days a week and an adjunct professor at another institution for two days a week, I began to feel sort like in No Man’s Land. I wasn’t even sure what my students at Adjuncting Institution should call me. Mrs. Me just sounded so not me. But that’s another story and in the past.

    But here’s my real question. I don’t have a PhD yet, but I’ve been getting into my field. My discipline is pretty small. I’ve given a few papers. So say I’m chatting with some professors from other institutions after one of my papers, and they start saying, “hey, that was great. let’s go have lunch.” What do I call them? Dr. Soandso? First Name Soandso? They are all pretty chummy with me and have made the first moves. My first impulse is to call them by their first names, since we are in a professional context in which I have acted as a colleague. In fact, I never gave it a second thought until I started reading these posts! I’m normally pretty guarded with my approach to social situations, letting others set the pace, make the first moves. But at the same time, I feel like if I’m starting to perform as a professional colleague, sometimes I should start acting like one, too. THoughts?

  2. ancarett Says:

    Jeannette, welcome to the conversation (and I just saw the discussion over at Professing Mama’s!).

    Regarding your real question, I’d say that you’re justified in dealing with these people as colleagues. Furthermore, it really sounds as if they’re open to a first name address. So I would expect that would be the right tack to take, here — in fact, that would probably put them at ease as much as you!

    For me, and many others, the issues of formality are tied up with a need for respect that’s not so much personal as it is for the academic knowledge and structure. These are things that are fairly foreign to new undergraduates but when we’re talking about seniors or graduate students, the dynamic changes. Most of the latter group understand the field and dynamic pretty well. In that case, I think the level of formality drops, particularly between people who work closely together and respect each other professionally — you no longer need to use the Dr., Mr. and Ms. terminology in order to reinforce the expectations. To the contrary, it can be a great inhibitor.

    So, in summary, my experience is to have a high level of formality at the freshman and sophomore level, easing up at the senior levels and graduate levels. By the time students are at the doctoral level, they’re effectively part of the professional dialogue in every way (especially people such as you who act as professors part of the time) and should feel comfortable and confident addressing their peers as just that.

  3. Another Damned Medievalist Says:

    It is a power relationship. That doesn’t make it abusive. Not recognizing it can be bad for everybody. I very much like your approach. At old CC, I gave my students a choice — they could call me Dr, or by my first name, but not Miss, Ms, or Mrs. I wanted them to understand that there was a very real difference. But I was also telling them what was acceptable and really, it was my choice, because I stand at the front of the room, I set the standards for their assessment, and I give them the grades. And you know? I’ve never had a student complain about power and hierarchy when it comes to going over a faculty member’s head when it comes to protesting a grade.

  4. Anastasia Says:

    The critique that this is all about power and hierarchy stands. You want your students to be aware of your professional qualifications and of your status in relation to them. That seems fairly clear from comments here. The question is whether you believe that serves a worthwhile purpose and your answer is clearly yes. Great! Then go do it and no, I don’t think that makes you an ass. It just doesn’t mean it isn’t about power.

    The question of whether to have them in your home is an interesting one because there’s an implicit familiarity to being in someone’s home and seeing/experiencing their domestic space. It’s an interesting one to think about.

  5. ancarett Says:

    It’s fair to say that power’s involved. I guess what I was objecting to was the critique that I insist on this to increase my power and feed my ego. And I don’t think that’s fair.

    The power here in acknowledging and understanding professional credentials eventually accrues to both the professor and the student. As long as students have little to no awareness of the professional qualifications of their educators, they don’t really value their own education. If they think all it takes to teach at the university level is a bachelor’s degree and following someone else’s dictation, they will find it hard to aspire for more.

    So I believe that, in the end, it empowers the students by showing them that they’re getting a lot more than regurgitated facts — that they’re learning with the guidance of an expert who can teach them how to develop their own expertise.

  6. Nus Says:

    Always Dr or Sir until the graduation ball

    It’s a habit I imposed on myself when I started teaching as a very youthful creature, and have kept while I’m crusty and old (and still younger than a whole bunch of my students).

    And it’s not so much dominance over the student that I seek. I need to fit myself into the students’ minds alongside the other influences in their lives. I never shout at them, but I’m still tremendously important to them so they’d better write me a good essay.

    If they’re nice, they can call me “Dr Nus”.

  7. ancarett Says:

    Dr. Nus? I like that.

    Sadly, there’s no apt abbreviation for my surname, as you well know, Dr. Nus. I content myself with the knowledge that, if I wanted to really torment them, I’d be teaching with a hyphenated surname!

  8. Baruch Grazer Says:

    I’m an ABD adjunct, and will this year (for the first time) be going by “Mr.” instead of as “Firstname” to my junior students. In return, I plan to call them by Mr./Ms. also.

    I’ve been first-name-guy in the past, and in some ways I think this has done a disservice to some students. Some would get comfortable with me, then fail to take seriously my rigorous expectations for written work, or my warnings about their performance: boom, they’ve got a bad grade and feel betrayed by Friendly Firstname-guy.

    I think students really need a teacher who is comfortable with the very real power that they have.

  9. Barbara Says:

    I use Dr until they are a grad student or colleague. At two places I taught before this it was not an option as the department mandated Dr. _ be used.

    However, because of my last name, one former colleague in a different field, but who I did work with introduced me to her students as Dr. Barb and that has stuck with many of them.

    The same former colleague makes her students wait until after graduation to call her by her first name, but I found few of them do.

  10. Chaser Says:

    I am Dr. or Professor except to doctoral students, and I do invite doctoral students for dinner. But that’s pretty much it.

  11. Theodora Says:

    I have my young undergraduate students call me Dr. B. They don’t have to say Dr. Byzantium although some do. Dr. B seems a good compromise between total formality and informality.

    For me, this is not so much about me as it is the other women on campus; students here will tend to call a female “Mrs” while calling males “Dr” and this is clearly not good for morale even though the students intend no disrespect at all.

    I don’t invite students to my home either, until they are former students and I’m free to be friends if I like. Well, we did have a party one time at which the author of their book, who was a dear friend of my husband’s, was present…but that was a bit different since it was for the author to talk to them personally.

  12. klk Says:

    My department operates on a first name basis, which is fine, with all its good and bad points. Interestingly, my doctoral advisor, who I worked with at another institution where he was called Dr. [lastname], also taught in my current department, where he was called [nickname]. He has since died, and although we never worked in the same place at the same time, so I never called him [nickname] in life, he has become that to me in retrospect. A slant-time colleague.

  13. mjones Says:

    Interesting discussion. I think the issue of power is key here. The point, though, is that the disparity is not going to go away even if we do invite students to use our first names, or to our homes. It just goes underground. I can think of all sorts of examples of misuse and abuse of power in student/teacher relationships, disguised by some sort of veneer of egalitarianism or friendship. Faculty who have trouble with boundaries are not as uncommon as one would like, and students lack defenses against them in a way that they don’t against some misanthropic old curmudgeon who insists on all the proprieties. At least with the latter they know where they stand and won’t be lulled by a false sense of friendship.