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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Last Time I Called a Student by a Last Name . . .

was in the fall 2001 semester, my first one teaching.  I was reluctant to use last names to call on students to begin with--it seemed needlessly formal and my own teachers hadn't done it--but a lot of people had advised me that it made sense to do as a new teacher, particularly because it's easier to ramp down the formality if you decide you're being too formal than to one day suddenly start being more stodgy ("today, class, I will become more stodgy; got that, Mr. Johnson?").  But one weekend day about half-way through the semester I was out walking around in the world when a student drove up in a car near me with some friends and called out, "Hi Professor Wexler."  I didn't know what to say back.  The only way I had ever referred to her was as "Ms. So-and-So."  Luckily, my "Doofus Prevention System" kicked in (it rarely works, but in this case it did) and I realized that I would sound like a total doofus if I said "Hi Ms. So-and-So" out there in the world with other people around who don't refer to each other as Mr. or Ms. So-and-So, and so I instead just said "Hi."  It would have been much easier to just say "Hi Liz."

I started using first names the next semester and haven't gone back.  It's much more natural, and I've never sensed any student resistance.  It might help that I don't really care what the students call me: "Jay," "Wex," "Jaywex," "the Wexmeister" (if they're not into the whole brevity thing), whatever.  The only thing I ask is that they don't call me "Jayferd Weakslobber," which is what Dawn R. used to call me in fourth grade, from time to time.

Posted by Jay Wexler on December 10, 2008 at 08:20 AM | Permalink


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I nominate Jay for permanent blogging duty on prawfs. I've really enjoyed every one of your posts - thanks!

I'm also glad to see my own view on names and teaching put so well. My first year as a teacher (in a VAP position) I'd casually asked some folks whether anyone used first names. I was told by several that they thought it was a really bad idea, especially for a first-time teacher. I realized after asking the question that people just assumed I was asking about using the *students'* first names. Really, though, I was curious whether any profs had students call them by *their* first names. Given the response to the question people thought I was asking, there was no need to pursue my real question, which was clearly more transgressive. (I also think there are some deeper issues luking here, from the rather obvious professional school / graduate school dichotomy, to the even more difficult issue of how and whether we should help shape professional norms - and what the content of those norms should be.)

I wound up calling, and still do call, students by their first names - which was the nearly universal practice at my own law school and which feels genuine to me. But I've never told my students what they should call me. They all use my last name - or sometimes just "Professor," which my family finds funny. I haven't encouraged students to use my first name, mostly, well entirely, because of the obvious cost it would impose on those of my colleagues who, probably for good reasons, prefer that students use their last names.

Posted by: Christian Turner | Dec 10, 2008 9:38:57 AM

When I was an undergrad I had a single professor who called everyone "Mr" or "Ms" so-and-so. He explained that since we _had to_ call him "Dr." or "Professor" it was only showing respect for him to use a formal address with us as well. It made sense and I rather liked it. (There were quite a few people I only knew as "Ms. So-and-So" or the like because of this, something we all found a bit funny.) When I was teaching my own classes at Penn (either as a TA or an instructor) I had the undergrads call me by my first name, though, and insisted on it, since I was neither a "Doctor" nor a "professor" and "instructor" sounds dumb and "Mr. Lister" sounds both too sing-songy and like they are looking for my father. In turn I called them all by their first names. As for the law school situation I don't know what's best- in grad school the non-obnoxious professors usually go by their first name with the grad students but that's usually a smaller and more intimate setting.

Posted by: Matt | Dec 10, 2008 9:39:20 AM

Personally, as a student I preferred the last name style. I have always made it a point (now that I'm 36 and staff) to call professors Sir or Mam, and I mean it. I'm in technology and at odds with my brothers and sisters in my industry as I would like a bit more civility, decorum and class brought back into the work place.

I think it raises everyone up. I'm still not a big believer in suits and ties, but I think one can show proper respect in clean jeans. We had a professor not to long ago that would throw students out of his class for wearing baseball caps and flip-flops.

While I never said it openly, I wished more professors were like him.

Posted by: David | Dec 10, 2008 10:31:09 AM

Nice post, Mr. Jaybo-Jayman Wexmeister. I am wondering if you (or anyone else) has begun class by insisting that students call you by first name. Like may our age (mid-30s), I don't tell them what to call me, and they use Professor. I used to find it amusing, but now, after three years, I'm finding it pretty silly: as if I'm entitled to deference just because of my position! I'd rather impress them with what I know and how I interact with them. So I'm thinking of starting contracts next fall by saying, "Call me Ishmael." (Neat first name, isn't it?) Is there any reason why I shouldn't?

Posted by: Professor | Dec 10, 2008 11:55:41 AM

I guarantee, if you introduced yourself as "Prof. Jayferd Weakslobber" you'd be the most popular prof at school. :)

Posted by: Dave! | Dec 10, 2008 1:07:04 PM

Before I started teaching, I planned to have this conversation on the first day of class:

Student: "Professor Lawsky--"
Me: "No, no, not Professor. I prefer...Funkmaster Lawsky."

For some reason I was strongly advised not to take this approach, so the students call me Professor Lawsky, and I reciprocate by using their last names (and Mr. or Ms.).

Posted by: Sarah L. | Dec 10, 2008 1:23:29 PM

I call my students "Mr." and "Ms.", with last names, and generally am called "Prof. O'Shea," and this seems fine.

My reasons are similar to Matt's and David's in the comments above. A bit of formality is nice and appropriate. The typical law school class is, in fact, a somewhat formal gathering. We're not high school chums hanging out around a table at the local bar. We can be friendly and cordial in the classroom while still using moderately formal address. Indeed, I would find it less natural to use first names in the classroom, especially in large classes.

As for outside of class, Jay, why do you think you "would sound like a total doofus if [you] said 'Hi Ms. So-and-So' out there in the world"? I find that kind of thing pretty common among people who know each other medium well, e.g., former co-workers who haven't seen each other in a while. ("Ah, Mr. So-and-So! How's it been? What's up?") It has a winking overtone-- a friendly kind of (semi-) mock formality. This overtone, for me, takes away any fear of stiffness from greeting a current or former student on the street with "Mr." / "Ms. So-and-so."

Is that a regional thing? A mostly male practice (notice I chose a male interlocutor for my co-worker example above) that blinkered profs like me unthinkingly treat as normative for mixed groups? A Myers-Briggs introvert vs. extrovert thing? Or just differences in personal style?

Posted by: Mike O'Shea | Dec 10, 2008 1:46:07 PM

Sarah, if I had your last name -- can a law prof have a better one, really? -- I would insist that, well, even my spouse call me Professor Lawsky! (If I were Bob Lawless, by contrast, I'd definitely go by first name -- or become a crit. Oh, and for a random observation, Georgetown's Ethan Yale is so *totally* at the wrong school!)

Written under the influence of grading...

Posted by: Professor | Dec 10, 2008 4:07:16 PM

I call my students Mr. or Ms. so-and-so in class. On the other hand, I address them by their first name in emails, since that's how they sign their emails. I don't think it is inconsistent; different levels of formality may be appropriate for different fora. I think it works.

I, for one, liked the formality in law school (all of my professors used first name, at least all that I can recall) -- we found it fun to refer to our classmates by their last names.

Posted by: Joe Leahy | Dec 11, 2008 1:55:05 PM

I am a LRW instructor, so not actually a professor. Still, I had to think about this very topic when I began teaching, so I feel competent to comment on it.

Anyway, I'm on a first name basis with my students, and they likewise use my first name. I tried to start out with Prof. Schreiber, but found it cumbersome. To my chagrin, I also found myself involuntarily smirking anytime someone called me "Professor". So I've just stuck with Ariella and it seems fine.

Posted by: Ariella | Dec 12, 2008 4:00:48 PM

It is shocking to me that in neither this thread nor on the Concurring Opinions thread has the issue of gender been at all discussed. I am currently working on a short essay about a section in my syllabi that follows the header, "Name-calling." The essay bears the same title. The section reads as follows:

I will address you by your first names. I will do this despite the prevailing practice on the part of law school faculty members to address students by a gendered title, “Mr.” or “Ms.,” followed by a student’s surname. I feel strongly that each individual should be able to choose a gendered title, rather than feel compelled to respond to a gendered title chosen by someone else. Because I call on individuals during class without prior notice, I will not have the opportunity to determine in advance whether an individual prefers to be addressed by a particular gendered title. If you would like for me to address you by a name other than the first name by which you are identified in Hofstra’s online portal system, please just let me know and I will happily address you by your preferred name. To be sure, because the title, “Professor,” is gender-neutral, I ask that you please abide by law school conventions in addressing me as “Professor Glazer” even though I address you by your first names.

I wonder if anyone has given thought to the gendered aspect of name-calling in the law school classroom. Having witnessed (as a law student) professors call on women as "Mr." so-and-so, this was a policy I resolved to implement as a law teacher.


Posted by: Liz Glazer | Dec 12, 2008 6:49:46 PM

Liz, I also noticed that many of the commenters (including me) who preferred last names were male; it's tough to say more than that, since most of the commenters,pro and con, were men, but I certainly noticed it. Glad you brought it up.

That said, I'm curious about and, to be frank, quite critical of the approach you suggest. This wouldn't be the first time some pesky person wrote about someone emphasizing feminism at the expense of various "intersectionalities" -- typically race, but more importantly in my view, because more often ignored, class. Still, I hope you'll forgive me; I don't mean this as an accusation, but as a very sincere critique of your approach.

On the one hand, in the interest of avoiding "gendered titles," and in the interest of what you describe as the importance of personal choice, you call everyone by their first name. You say you can't go with "Mr." or "Ms." because people won't have had the chance to tell you what they prefer. Yet you allow people who want to be called on by a different first name to tell you so, even though this too would have to happen after the fact. Thus, exactly the same logic applies in the "Mr. or Ms." scenario as in the "listed first name or different first name" scenario, and yet you take two different approaches to these questions. It would seem more consistent with your valuing autonomy for you to give students the option of telling you how they would like to be addressed -- by a particular first name, by their last name, by a particular honorific -- and expanding their range of choices. Yet you don't; everyone must be addressed by their first name, whether they like it or not. As far as I can figure out from the overall logic of your comment, the reason for this must ultimately be because you value eliminating gendered titles altogether more than you value individual autonomy, including women's autonomy. But I may be wrong about that last conclusion and certainly welcome your clarification.

On the other hand, you yourself insist on being addressed as "Professor Glazer," apparently because the title itself is gender-neutral. That's true, I suppose, but why insist on an honorific at all? First names may be associated with particular genders, but that's true of your own students' names, and that's the only choice they get. In any event, although your name may be imposed on you by your parents (but you can change it), it's not imposed on you by the world at large in quite the gendered way that "Mr. or "Ms." are. So why not just ask your students to call you Liz?

With all due respect, it seems to me that the upshot of your policy is that, in the interests of feminist theory, your students are all treated informally by the use of first names, while you retain a position of authority with a title and last name. That seems to me to suggest at least a potential intersection with questions of race, where the authoritative (white) figure at the front of the classroom is cloaked in adult respect and an official title, while adult law students of color are stripped of the "Mr." or "Ms." and given only their first name, with all the historical overtones that suggests.

And it also suggests an intersection with class issues. It is all very well for those of us who have been hanging out at elite schools all our lives (and I don't know that this applies to you, I should add), and who can easily assume our authority in a world in which people of our class and educational background are treated with respect, to complain about hierarchies and disdain titles for first names. We are all, after all, already part of the club. But someone who is the first member of her family to go to college, or who is attending law school while also working a job and taking care of a family, might want, deserve, and even need some of the trappings of authority and seriousness, like being called on with an honorific, that we may take for granted.

Again, I go with last names and Mr. or Ms. I don't insist that everyone do so, I don't talk about it in my syllabus, I just don't give it that much thought. But it really does seem to me that if we're going to take these questions seriously, then the solution you propose in many respects perpetuates hierarchy more than it undermines it. It may seem to strike a small blow for women -- although ultimately I think it doesn't, because women in your scenario are equally stripped of choice -- but it also perpetuates other hierarchies in ways that sound largely in race and class, however unintentioned this may be.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Dec 13, 2008 11:16:06 AM


Thanks for your thoughts. A few quick comments. First, I don't see why my approach is particularly feminist, or that it favors women over men in any way. I suppose it's less likely that a man would be mistaken for a woman than it would be for a woman to be mistaken for a man (at least in law school classrooms), but I always thought that my policy allowed men and women, equally, the same freedom to choose their title.

Second, I take seriously your point about the difference between the title I ask my students to call me and the lack of titles I use to call on them. To be completely frank, when I adopted this policy as a 27 year old professor, I worried that my students would not take me seriously at all. That was the main reason I included the line about their calling me "professor" in the name-calling section of the syllabus. But as I've aged (a little), and have continued to include this section in my syllabi, I've continued to include that line (even though I am less concered now with my students taking me, or not taking me, seriously) because it highlights the fact that some titles are gendered, and that some are not. If, for example, a clever class asked me to adopt a gender-neutral title with which to address them, and to use that gender-neutral title and their last names to address them, I would very likely do that.

Lastly, I want to address your comment that my approach emphasizes sex/gender over race and class. With respect to your point about class, I think and hope that what I've said in the paragraph immediately preceding this one addresses your comment. With respect to your point about race, I feel compelled to note that it was thinking about race that prompted me to adopt this policy at all. After a woman in my section in law school (when I was a student) was repeatedly called "Mr. XXX," I began thinking about how superfluous gendered titles were. She was constantly embarrassed (and likely constantly apprehensive that the next time she'd be called on she'd be publicly humiliated again) for something I thought was unnecessary -- addressing her gender when it had nothing to do with whatever she was being asked. Much as it would be unnecessary (and downright offensive) to adopt a title that differentiated individuals on the basis of their race (about which they might be proud, much as individuals might be proud of their gender identity), I think it is unnecessary to adopt titles that differentiate individuals on the basis of their gender.

Thanks for engaging in this conversation.


Posted by: Liz Glazer | Dec 13, 2008 1:34:51 PM

Liz, thank you for a very gracious response. I disagree with you, but respectfully. I worried greatly about my comment. I suppose, continuing in the theme of the comment, that it gives me both a renewed respect and a renewed concern for critical theory, whose scholarship regularly slings accusations at other writers. It must take a thick skin to respond to such criticisms with grace, and it ought to take a good degree of humility and caution before making them.

In any event, a few further responses. I didn't focus much on the question of mistaken identity, and I acknowledge your point on that. In describing yours as a feminist approach, I didn't mean by that that I think it favors women over men; I wouldn't equate the one with the other. I did think its focus on gender was feminist, but perhaps a more neutral description would be that it was gender-oriented. On the question of freedom to choose one's title, this is a point I wasn't sure about. I read your comment as suggesting that students' only choice is what first name they wish to be called by; I would say that full freedom of choice would include the option to be called by an honorific, and that some students might actually prefer this.

I know, and I'm glad, that you take seriously my point about the seeming imbalance between what you call your students and what they call you. This is ultimately the point that I think "intersects" with questions of race or class -- which is emphatically not the same thing as questioning your motives, but is about how students might experience your approach through the lens of race or class. I take the point that the approach might have started in a measure of desire to establish yourself despite your youth when you started teaching; now that you feel somewhat different about this, you might or might not choose to revisit the issue of what your students call you. More to the point, if you're writing an essay about all this, you might consider reflecting on all of this.

Finally, it's interesting that your response to the point on race had to do with mistaken gender. I confess I wasn't thinking much about that. My thought was rather different. First, as I wrote, it had to do with the lamentable tradition, especially in the American South, in which white people were referred to with honorifics and black people, no matter their age or accomplishments, by their first name. Second, it had to do with my view that for some people, including although not limited to people of color (indeed, at this point I think it has as much to do with class as with race), those honorifics may mean something, especially in the context of achieving and pursuing a professional education, and that the first name route might therefore sacrifice something.

I appreciate the conversation too.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Dec 13, 2008 10:12:31 PM


I agree with you that this conversation is less characteristically angry than some others I have had on this topic and others similar to it. Thanks for that. I have a question (and I really mean it as a question): if your concern is that my policy may have the effect of classing the classroom in a lamentable way, why would a classroom where one authoritative figure at the front of the room is called "Professor" and the others in the room "Mr." and "Ms." not call attention to a difference in class? I gather a response might be that a policy of using honorifics to address students, as opposed to first names, respects them more. However, if class is truly a concern, then it seems to me there should be no difference (as some commenters above have suggested) between what professors call students and what students call professors. By calling students one thing and a teacher something else, isn't the difference between us reinforced?


Posted by: Liz Glazer | Dec 14, 2008 1:08:54 PM

Liz, thanks for the response. In answer to your question, I can see the logic of calling both professors and students by the same (first) names. My view is that using last names in both cases, albeit with the difference in honorific, if done in the right spirit, does not emphasize differences between students and professors -- although there are some differences between them, and not arbitrary ones -- so much as it reminds both professor and students that they are engaged in a common enterprise clothed with dignity and a (certain amount of) professionalism and dispassion. As Jay's post suggests, not everyone takes this view; and experience suggests that some professors can use this format and have it come out feeling like they are specifically emphasizing their de-haut-en-bas relationship with their students. But I haven't had that experience.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Dec 15, 2008 10:01:25 AM

Hi Liz

Your concerns regarding gendered titles raise points which deserve wider discussion. I think it's great that you're bolstering awareness by raising this issue with your class. However, is encouraging the use of titles, be they gendered or non-gendered, the most efficient solution to the issue at hand?

My understanding is that your concern are two-fold. First, individuals should not have a gender imposed on them. Using gendered titles, without personal knowledge as to which title the individual identifies with, will inevitably lead to mistakes. Second, non-gendered titles are out there; they ought to be used.

But, it begs the question: Why play the pronoun game in the first place? In general, if we wish to avoid the use of an incorrect gender title we're faced with a few choices. There is the "royal they." Already on thin gramattical ice, the term is not a workable option inside the classroom. Then, there are gender-neutral titles. Outside the realm of professor-student the titles seem to me to be hard to come by. What's the gender-neutural title for a high-school teacher? Will the day ever come when attornies are introduced as "Counselor So-and-So" (or, should we tell law school graduates that they're doctors though they don't hold a doctorate)? The use of non-gendered titles is certainly workable. But its a tedious chore.

Quite rationally, you use students' first names to avoid gender confusion. Droping the honorific is an easy, workable solution to your particular problem. And to the problem of gendered-title confusion in the ordinary course of events. Take a look at the e-mails you recieve from solicitors and friends; take note of how people introduce themselves (for example, physicians introducing themselves with their first and last names). It's catchy stuff. And, effective.

Acting in a position of authority, and insisting on the use of an honorarium, gendered or non-gendered, seems to me a step back from a simple and effective solution to a complex problem. Tell your students to call you by your first name. Like it or not, a wholesale shedding of titles appears to be gaining traction. A workable solution is on the horizon; we should take hold of it.

Posted by: BZR | Feb 3, 2009 5:54:58 PM

The thing that I hate most about law school is being called "Mr. So-So." I'm a male in my mid-30's and it truly bothers me. I'm not really sure why it bothers me as much as it does, but I think that it may have something to do with the dislike of law professors/administrators in general and the way most treat students (at least at the school that I attend). I would never call a professor by his/her first name. In my view they will always be professor, even after I graduate. In the student/professor relationship, addressing the professor as "professor" shows a sign of respect for both him/her and the academic structure. Calling a student "Mr." is just plain pompous. I have already told a couple of people to stop calling me "Mr." If they want to refer to me as "Mr." in the classroom, then there isn't much that I can do because they address everyone else in the same way, but out of the classroom I expect to be called by my first name. If a professor can't respect my request out of the classroom, then I typically ignore them (Ipods are great).

Posted by: Rob Smith | May 3, 2009 10:48:37 AM

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