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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Mister . . . . . Hahhhrrrt

(Hat tip to John Houseman.)

Jay's post on using first or last names as a professor has provoked interesting follow-up discussion in the comments and on Concurring Opinions.  There, in a comment onpost by Nate Oman, Marty Lederman writes that in the "adult enterprise" on which students will embark after law school, they will usually use first names, not last names, except in court.  So why bother using last names?

Well, if, like me, you are often flummoxed when it comes to remembering first or last names, the question will be irrelevant, because in class you will simply gesticulate at a student with your cane, and if you encounter students outside of class you'll say, "Hey, . . . . you!"  But I don't think that Marty has the purpose of using last names quite right.  Those who take the last name approach -- as I do -- don't do it as a dress rehearsal for being a professional; certainly Marty is right that as often as not people use first names in practice, although whether that is always a good thing is another question.  Rather, we do it because it is part of the process of professionalization.  It's not that it teaches students what to do when they're in practice; it's that it solemnizes the learning environment.  It reminds the students that they are not just undergrads spending an extra three years on campus; instead, they are gentlemen and ladies engaged in an enterprise of learning a profession, one that has serious stakes and should be engaged in with some gravity and appreciation of the occasion.  

The point is thus not to ape how professionals act, but to remind students that they are being acculturated into the professional world.  It's the equivalent of handing med students a stethoscope or making them wear white coats rather than, say, a clown suit (horrible shades of Patch Adams!).  I think there are ways to do this that aren't stuffy.  My students are Mr. So-and-So and Ms. Such-and-Such (or, as I said earlier, "you"), but I'm happy to talk about Gossip Girl with them.  Still, the mutual respect involved in formalizing our names -- Professor Horwitz and Mr. Wankle -- is also a mutual reminder that we are engaged in the common enterprise of being and becoming the members of an ancient profession.  This approach isn't for everyone; it's not for Jay.  That's fine with me.  But I think there is still room for my approach, that it needn't be especially pompous, that it can be a sign of mutual respect rather than a way of being hierarchical, and that it has very little to do with whether lawyers in pracitce call each other by their first names.         

Posted by Paul Horwitz on December 10, 2008 at 04:02 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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I was surprised that some suggested a casual environment in the classroom. As a lowly staff member, I've heard many accounts of jobs threatened over the accidental interruption of an ongoing class. How is that level of god-hood reconcilable with being on a first name basis?

As a student, I'd find it overly presumptuous of a professor (and a little emotionally needy) to "pal around" with me by using my first name. I mean, seriously, if you need to make friends with your students because you're lonely, get out more often.

Posted by: David | Dec 10, 2008 4:56:28 PM

I agree with you, Paul. I think, too, that there are power dynamics involved here that ought to be acknowledged explicitly, and that using last names makes those dynamics clear. We do hold significant discretionary authority over our students in terms of grades (even if administered anonymously), disciplinary punishment, references, etc. Too causal an atmosphere, I think, suggests that such things are less serious than in fact they can be. The minute people graduate, first names are required, I tell my students; also, to address Marty Lederman's concern, I feel ok with going on a first name basis with research assistants with whom I have regular interactions, because then it's not professor-student so much as employer-employee in an industry where first names are freely used. But in the classroom, I prefer trying to create an atmosphere of mutual respect and recognition of the context in which we find ourselves.

Posted by: Mark Fenster | Dec 10, 2008 5:50:05 PM

I have always used last names in large classes and first names in seminars. At first, my thought was the court analogy, and perhaps the professional socialization argument. All along, I think I was also resisting the faux-intimacy long prevalent in our society. The person most likely to call me by my first name is someone who's trying to sell me a car or an insurance policy. (As you now infer, I must have few friends!) When asked, I explain to students that I can show respect for them by calling them by their last name (and I'm now so old they don't even try to first-name me) and still have affection for them. Many law profs call their students by first name and are called "Professor Familiar" in return; I don't like that disequilibrium.

Posted by: Bill Bridge | Dec 10, 2008 8:44:30 PM

It depends somewhat on what you understand to have been the point of the last-name tradition back in the Kingsfield Days. If the point was to inculcate the professional environment (roughly replicating a courtroom, where everyone goes by title and last name), last names make sense. One of my colleagues continues to use last names on the idea of everyone being on the same level of intimacy.

But the last name tradition also could be seen as a way to keep students on edge and uneasy through that formality. In that sense, I use first names to make the learning environment slightly less formal and thus a bit more relaxed. I am not trying to create familiarity in the sense of buddy-budd, something I have tried to avoid (I was 32 when I began teaching and I still dress like a student outside the classroom). But I am trying to put everyone more at ease and my thought, at least, was that first names do that.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Dec 11, 2008 8:08:47 AM

There is no right answer to this, and one size does not fit all. Moreover, there are age, gender, and race factors that enter into making the right decision. I'm a 54 year old white male who always wears a dress shirt and tie while he teaches, and everybody knows that I was the GC of a big corporation, and a partner in a big law firm. I don't think my authority over the classroom is a big issue. But I like a very relaxed atmosphere in the classroom, and I use a lot of humor, schtick, moderately antic behavior while at the same time asking that students do a lot of deep thinking. I just don't see Mr. and Ms. as appropriate for that, and it's the students, I think, who are most comfortable calling me Professor (just as I took a long time to start calling the older partners in my firm by their first names when I was a newbie).

But if I were younger, or a woman, or a minority, and I thought it would benefit the learning process in the classroom by adding an element of formality to the relationship, I wouldn't hesitate a minute to do something like Mr. and Ms.

I know or have seen most of the posters and commenters here, so my sense is that the bias is toward the experience of the white male professor. I'm curious about the reactions of women, minorities, and the baby-faced or squeaky -voiced. (That, by the way, is part of my schtick. Whenever my voice cracks - once or twice a semester - I immediately make a reference to my bar mitzvah and start chanting a b'rocha in falsetto.)

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Dec 11, 2008 10:48:33 AM

For what it's worth, I should add that I once counseled a hugely competent lawyer that worked for us that she shouldn't answer her phone "Great Lakes Chemical, this is Suzie." (name changed to protect the innocent). I just didn't think it lent the correct tone if the caller was a combative lawyer who was adverse to us. But I was equal opportunity: we once had a young but alpha male style business unit CEO who answered "hello, this is Chuck" and I gave him the same advice.

If you really like formality, you need to go to work in an old-style German corporation. Long dark hallways with closed doors and inner sancta. Men who have known each other for thirty years still addressing each as Herr Gruber and Herr Lutz.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Dec 11, 2008 10:59:15 AM

Interesting, Paul. I suspect how a prof deals with this question reflects his/her more general outlook on life, formality, formalism. Here is a test: do you make your young kids call your own friends "Mr. Roberts," or "John"? I not only encourage my kids to call everyone they meet, regardless of age, by first name, but I also find myself involuntarily cringing when I hear a little kid addressing a parent's friend by last name. At an emotional level, I think calling anyone Mr. or Ms. is vaguely ridiculous. That said, I of course respect every parents feelings in this regard. If you want to make your kids use last names, more power to you. But I bet if you are that kind of person, then you also feel more comfortable using last names in class.

I think, for me, pedagogically, it comes down to creating a serious environment in class that is intense solely because of the intellectual engagement but is nonetheless highly informal, jokey, easygoing -- where students can let their guards down and engage one another and me. The old lefty in me also things hierarchies should not be reified, and that every playing field should be leveled. That's why both the students and I go by first name. Any authority I have has to be earned. Moreover, power differentials exist in the world even in the absence of formal signifiers like use of last name. It's good for students to get used to that and internalize it -- knowing, for example, that the dude you call Joe and joke with can also shut down your argument in class as absurd and will be assigning you a grade.

Posted by: David! | Dec 11, 2008 4:12:51 PM

True professionalism in law is created by what you do in law rather than what you wear, look like, or use first names instead of last names. If my professor were dressed nicely and used last names, as one of my professors does, but oversimplifies every concept and distills any fascinating nuances of the matter into a picture of black and white, he may look nice and be nice, but is not a legal professional.

On the other hand, a professor who shows up in jeans and a blazer, or who uses first names instead of last names, or who otherwise doesn't submit to the false idol of appearance professionalism, but who guides the class in fascinatingly nuanced discussion of pertinent issues, constantly challenges each individual student, and keeps the students engaged on a one-on-one level even though it's a 90-person class is the true legal professional. I have professors who are both of these examples, and I have infinitely more respect for the latter, and nearly none for the former.

(I know this itself is not a nuanced picture, but it's a hyperbole to make the point.)

Posted by: Greg House | Dec 11, 2008 8:35:25 PM

Just a quick question for those who use Mr. or Ms: a number of my classmates have other titles, such as Dr. or Rabbi. Do any of you ask whether your students have other titles by which they may want to be referred instead of being "downgraded" to Mr. or Ms.?

Posted by: Judah | Dec 16, 2008 11:55:21 PM

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