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.