« Student Scholarship | Main | The Continuum from Ethical to Criminal: The Option Backdating Controversy »

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

To Sir, with Love

So what do you call your students?

No, I don't mean what names you call them behind their backs (not that I do that).

I mean in class, what do you call them?  Since starting as a law school professor, I have always referred to  my students in all classes, large and small, by their first names.  And I continue this practice when seeing them around the law school or when visiting with them in my office.

Apparently, at least according to my colleagues at this law school, I am fairly alone in doing so.   Most others not only call on people in class as, "Ms. Smith and Mr. Brown," but converse with them that way in the hallways and their offices.   I am told surnames must be used to instill respect for us in our students and to encourage students not to look on us as their peers.  I have also been told that since students don't call you by your first name, it is not appropriate to address them in that manner.

I have to admit I find both this explanation and the practice all very odd.  Anyone else?  Mr. Lipshaw?  Mr. Vladeck?  Ms. Lobel?

Posted by Workplace Prof on August 16, 2006 at 11:32 AM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference To Sir, with Love:


Having grown up in the South and gone straight to law school from undergrad, I just couldn't have called my professors by their first names during school. So that is how I know them; that was the pattern we set, if you will. One interesting effect of this is that now, after almost 10 years of private practice, when I run into my old professors (somr of whom are barely 5 years older than me), I have the urge to call them "Professor So and So" and get very uncomfortable using any other name.

Is this unusual?

Posted by: J-G | Aug 17, 2006 3:47:38 PM

Hey Paul--hi from down the hall. I was actually thinking of asking you about this. Teaching undergrads I went with first names, but I'm inclined to go with the Mr. & Ms. now. As I see it, calling someone Mr. or Ms. is a sign of respect for the student. First-naming or last-naming doesn't have to be reciprocal--just like respect doesn't have to be--but my instinct is that I'd be actually treating students more like peers, albeit somewhat formal and respectful peers, by last-naming (assuming they're last-naming me). For what it's worth, Charles Black lists "being called by the first name, saying 'Sir,' and all the rest of the whole sorry business" as part of Jim Crow subordination. See also MLK's Letter from Birmingham Jail: "when ... your middle name becomes 'boy' (however old you are) and your last name becomes 'John,' and your wife and mother are never given the respected title 'Mrs.' ... [and lots of other much more important things] then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait."

Posted by: Chris | Aug 17, 2006 10:34:15 AM

Gee guys, I always begin a semester by asking my students to call me Ishmael.

Posted by: H.M. | Aug 17, 2006 2:31:27 AM

Not because I'm afraid my students would challenge me, but only because I like the idea of separating the classroom from the courtyard, I use last names for big classes, but only in class, and first names in my seminar.

As for what they call me, I do the same -- introduce myself and leave it to them. I think it's especially odd sometimes in my case, because I _am_ their age, so, to avoid embarassment, I sometimes say "I'm Professor Vladeck" just to make clear I'm not a student (since, otherwise, they might say things they'll later regret). :-)

Posted by: Steve Vladeck | Aug 16, 2006 8:32:02 PM

While teaching as a grad student (either my own courses or TAing) at Penn I've had a somewhat reversed situation, with several students almost insisting on calling me "professor" or "doctor". I always insist they don't do so, since I'm not, I tell them, a professor and I don't yet have my PhD so I'm not a "doctor". "Mr." sounds funny w/ my last name, so I ask them to call me "Matt". Some just won't do it, though.

Posted by: Matt | Aug 16, 2006 8:27:27 PM

Having taught both in the U.S. (Georgia), where I was always called "Professor Heller," and in New Zealand (Auckland), where I am simply "Kevin" -- all faculty members, including the Dean, are called by their first name -- I greatly prefer the more informal relationship. I don't want students to accept what I teach them simply because I'm their "professor"; I want them to think about what I've said and accept it -- or reject it, which is equally if not more pedagogically valuable -- because it makes sense. Artificial hierarchy gets in the way of that.

P.S. I'd like to think the comment above has nothing to with the fact that, in commonwealth universities, only real professors get to be called "Professor." To be sure, "Lecturer Heller" or "Senior Lecturer Heller" doesn't have the same ring...

Posted by: Kevin Heller | Aug 16, 2006 8:00:01 PM

I use last names in large classes because it seems to be the norm at my school. I use first names outside of class and in seminars. I never tell my students to use any particular form of address for me; most of them go with "Professor," which sounds fine to me (though "Professor Roosevelt" sounds odd). What strikes me as funny about our norms is that students frequently refer to each other as Mr. or Ms. X, even out of class. Some of them have told me that this is because they frequently don't learn each other's first names, at least not during the first year.

Posted by: Kermit Roosevelt | Aug 16, 2006 5:28:41 PM

When I started teaching, I had planned on going by "Scott," not "Professor Moss," but I decided against that because many students feel as Sofia does: " I would never call a professor by his first name in class, even if he asked us to. One of our professors did ask us to use his first name, but the students mainly avoided this by not calling him anything." I remember feeling really uncomfortable in college when one of my favorite profs told all of us to call him "Jeremy" -- I ended up avoiding it, addressing him with "hi" or "um, I have a question," or whatever. I thought about telling students they could take their pick, but law students are so stressed that I didn't want to give them another decision or a worry, "I think he's implying that he prefers 'Scott' but I'm not comfortable with that..."

Posted by: Scott Moss | Aug 16, 2006 4:57:39 PM

I start out the semester with last names, as I find them much easier to learn and remember. As the semester progresses, I usually transition into first names (esp. when calling on a raised hand and not cold calling), esp. when last names start to feel overly formalistic.

Posted by: Vic Fleischer | Aug 16, 2006 3:29:03 PM

I follow Jeff's practice: I introduce myself by my full name, but students naturally move to using "Professor" and I do not correct them. Some of it might be an age thing--I am younger than a number of our students (especially from our evening program), so using the title becomes helpful.

One of my senior colleagues gave the same explanation about using last names to maintain parity and equality between student and professor. Or we could explain it as the opposite of parity--the in-class relationship between student and professor is less akin to the Judge/Clerk relationship that Scott mentions and more like the Judge/Litigant relationship (especially in more socratic approaches), in which everyone uses last names.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 16, 2006 2:22:16 PM

Since you asked my view:

1. I take a vote on the students' preference as between first names and "Mr. or Ms. So and So." And it always comes out first names.

2. I introduce myself as Jeff Lipshaw and never say anything about how I am to be addressed. Coming from the corporate world, being addressed as Professor Lipshaw was very odd at first (it's what my non-academy friends call me to make fun of me). So it's completely the student's choice what to call me. In an existential way, choosing to call me "Jeff" as a student, like all choices in life, would reveal something (maybe good, maybe not so good, maybe a statement about the caller rather than the callee). But I think most students are most comfortable with "Professor Lipshaw."

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Aug 16, 2006 1:46:57 PM

For me it's right up there with a the clapping norm and the (abuse of) the Socratic method (i.e. needlessly badgering students) - an anachronistic device used by weaker faculty who fear that their students might challenge them. If you need devices like this to get the respect of your students, then you have bigger problems my friend.

Posted by: nonclapper | Aug 16, 2006 1:24:08 PM

I address students by their first names and have done so for several years, and I make a genuine effort to have my seating chart memorized by the third class period. I teach UCC courses, courses that many students confront with a significant amount of fear. I hope that the first-name basis eases some of that fear.

Posted by: tim zinnecker | Aug 16, 2006 1:19:02 PM

I ponder over this at the beginning of every semester. I call students by their first names, but it's a holdover from private practice. My firm had a rule that everyone, from the most junior legal assistant to the most senior partner, was to go by their first names. And in general, the same was true at all of our clients. It took some getting used to at first, but I found that calling a senior partner "Ed" didn't lessen my respect (or intimidation) in the slightest, and it did make me feel more like a member of the same team. Also, a flat rule eliminated confusion and stress.

Having forced myself away from last names (only exception: calling a non-corporate, non-attorney person for the first time), I can't force myself to go back. And, I think the students would be well served by getting used to being on a first-name basis with people much older and in positions of authority, since that was my experience of the business world. But I don't force my students to call me "Bruce," because practices among professors vary and I understand they may prefer a uniform rule, to avoid awkward mistakes. No one gets insulted if you're too formal.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Aug 16, 2006 12:48:52 PM

In my early years of teaching I asked students to call me by my first name, resulting in (I thought) a pretty comfortable relationship. As I aged, students became increasingly reluctant to use my first name, even upon invitation. I have since given up trying to persuade them. They call me "Professor" and I call them by their first names, which is not awkward at all. Of course, I am the age of their parents (in most cases).

If I am working closely with certain students -- supervising a research project, for example -- I always ask them to call me by my first name. Sometimes it works.

I think the main goal should be the students' comfort. Artificial familiarity helps no one.

Posted by: steve lubet | Aug 16, 2006 12:47:23 PM

I find it stilted and somewhat uncomfortable when people call me by my last name, professors or not. (Granted, I got married just before starting law school, so I'm not quite used to my new last name yet.) From older professors, it can sometimes be charming. But from younger professors, it just seems weird. Like they're trying to create more distance instead of fostering a comfortable classroom environment.

In my first year of law school, actually, all of my professors called the students by their first names.

On the other side of the question, I would never call a professor by his first name in class, even if he asked us to. One of our professors did ask us to use his first name, but the students mainly avoided this by not calling him anything. Outside class, maybe it's okay, especially if the professor and student have a good working relationship, such as advising on a paper or working as an RA. But in general, everyone seems to be most comfortable with Student First-Name and Professor Last-Name.

Posted by: Sofia | Aug 16, 2006 12:17:03 PM

I have to say I find the explanation very troubling. Unlike graduate school, law school professors seem to cultivate an air of seperation between themselves and their students. I think it's a appropriate to treat professors with respect, but is it not the case that the point of graduate education is that we are becoming our professors' peers?

Posted by: Bart Motes | Aug 16, 2006 12:12:08 PM

I use first names too.

(1) Re the argument, "they don't call us by first names, so we shouldn't either": I don't see any inconsistency there; when I clerked, I called my boss "Judge" while she called me "Scott," and neither of us had a problem with that.

(2) Re the argument, "they shouldn't see us as peers": OK, but again, in professional settings, it's the norm for a boss to go by a first name. The fact that I called the managing partner at my old firm "Wayne" didn't change the fact that he was my boss.

In short, I honestly never have understood these two arguments for last names. I don't think it's terribly wrong to go by last names, and as a law student I wasn't offended by professors who did so; I judt don't see any compellign reason for it.

Posted by: Scott Moss | Aug 16, 2006 12:09:23 PM

Post a comment