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Friday, August 10, 2007

Academic Etiquette, Part I

I remember how strange it was, when I met them for the first time in an interview room, to call my now-colleagues by their first names. Because it felt right to me (and because I had always begun calling friends' mothers "Mrs. So-and-so"  before they said, "Oh, honey, call me Carol"), I called Mark "Professor Movsesian," and gave him the opportunity to correct me in front of the others.

The purpose of this post is to ask whether Mark's correction applied (i)  only to him (definitely not, as he certainly meant for me to address his colleagues in the interview room by their first names, as well), (ii) only to my colleagues at Hofstra (again, not quite right, as it would have been odd, when meeting Danny for the first time, to have addressed him as "Professor Markel"), or (iii) to those listed in (i) and (ii), as well as other non-tenured, or youngish, faculty members at other institutions, unless either (a) a tenured, senior faculty member corrects you, a la Mrs. So-and-so,  or (b) you address any faculty member, including those listed in (i) and (ii), in any sort of public setting.

Okay, now that we've got some rules to tear into, let me offer some anecdotes that explain the origin of my question. First, last fall, I attended many of the NYU Law & Philosophy Colloquium readings. I remember (and perhaps Ethan may remember, too) that Professors Dworkin, Nagel, and Waldron ("Ronny," "Tom," and "Jeremy," according to each other, and many of the speakers at the Colloquium) referred to Jurgen Habermas as "Professor Habermas" (after he referred to his hosts as Professors Dworkin, Nagel, and Waldron). To be sure, there were students in the audience at Professor Habermas's talk; but there were students at each of the Colloquium's talks, and at most of them, the speakers were called by their first names, as were the Colloquium's organizers. Second, one of my senior and very accomplished colleagues forwarded to me an email that s/he sent to a casebook's author with a question about the casebook; in the email, s/he referred to the author as "Professor X." (Incidentally, and as could be expected, Professor X responded to her/his email and signed the email with her/his first name.) 

So now we' ve got rules and cases. What do they all mean? When Professor Habermas did not call Professor Dworkin "Ronny," was it out of respect, or instead some sort of irony (similar to, for example, when (male) partners at my old firm used to call their (male) clients, "Darling" or "Babe;" or when my (Latvian) father and his (Russian, Latvian, or Ukrainian) friends call each other, "Professor")?   When my colleague emailed the author and referred to her/him as "Professor," did s/he do that for a different reason than the professors in the NYU anecdote? Lastly, what is this young academic to do? (Final note: I am not sure whether "Academic Etiquette" will have a Part II to accompany this Part I; I chose the title because I think that the subject of academic etiquette has many parts, even if I won't be able to address them in future blog posts.)

Posted by Liz Glazer on August 10, 2007 at 10:24 AM | Permalink


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I've been studying in Germany and can definitely confirm that professors are not on a first-name basis with each other (and students absolutely cannot address professors by their first names; the overall system is very hierarchical, divisions between different levels--full professor, assistant professor, unemployed PhD, grad student--are carefully maintained, and academic titles are essentially considered to be part of a person's name). Unless professors are close friends, they also will not use the familiar form ("du") with each other. On the other hand, the other speakers at the conference actually were being rude in addressing him as "Professor Habermas," since technically it should be "Professor Doktor Habermas."

In the US, I've only attended schools on the east coast, so I guess there are regional differences. I've never been at a place where either "Mr X" or "Dr Y" was normally used. It's always been "Professor X." In graduate school, of course, we do usually use first names, though this is very awkward with some of the more senior faculty, as well as those I don't know well.

I remember years ago a WSJ article reporting on a study that showed that the amount of time someone spent working on a PhD was inversely proportional to how insistent they were on being called by their proper title.

Posted by: Roman | Aug 16, 2007 3:52:18 AM

As a grad student I've seen conventions vary from school to school and department to department. In the philosophy department at my current school, grad students and professors both address professors by their first names; in the English department we use the title "Professor." In other schools I've visited the English faculty are all called by their first names. I've always assumed that, like formal pronouns in other languages, I'd eventually develop an instinct for when to use first names, and that it's best to err on the side of formality.

Posted by: J. Carr | Aug 15, 2007 12:23:23 PM

This is fascinating. I think there are some regional differences too, as well as differences between oral and written address. For example, I went to college and graduate school in the Midwest, and there we called all our professors "Mr. X" or "Ms. Y." Now I work at an institution in the South, and my colleagues and I are all called "Dr. Z." I've never heard anyone anywhere say "Professor W."

On the other hand, there was a time when, as a very junior academic, I regularly wrote to other scholars whom I did not know to ask for abstracts of their articles to include in a bibliographic bulletin I helped edit. What in the world was I supposed to call these people? My thesis advisor suggested the all-purpose title "Professor," which would not offend the senior colleagues and would flatter the junior ones.

I also wonder how others address senior administrators who hold the PhD., such as the president of my instituion. Dr. X? Billy Bob? I can think of other possibilities. %^)

Posted by: Glenda Carl | Aug 15, 2007 10:48:38 AM

As an example of what *not* to do ....

By default, I use "Professor" upon first introduction. The idea is that, thereafter, I will discern (either by express direction or other cues) whether first name usage is welcome/appropriate. The achilles heel of my default rule is that I am wholly unable (upon meeting people a second or third time) to recall what my discernment about appropriate appellation has revealed.

This leaves me in a real pickle. If I use "Professor" again after having been invited to use a first name it seems obstinate and distancing; if I use a first name without (express or implied) invitation, it appears that I have unliterally decided to de-formalize the relationship. In light of this dilemma, I often find myself (upon meeting someone for the second or third time) desperately seeking to avoid greetings; "low-talking" the greeting if pushed into a corner where I have to employ it; or taking a wild guess about "Prof" v. first-name, blushing, and spending the rest of the conversation convinced that I've offended. So my default rule, while providing comfort for first meetings, is no good in the long run.

Posted by: ktq | Aug 13, 2007 8:46:37 AM

These questions are hard because there are only two choices -- the formal title that signifies a large status gap and the informal first name that signifies roughly equal footing. It's always awkward when there's a gap but exactly how large it is becomes fuzzy. With that said, I think the trick is to get a feel for whatever others do in that specific context and then do the same.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Aug 12, 2007 9:54:52 PM

This is really interesting stuff, Liz. I find that I am more formal when dealing with professors I don't know personally. So for instance if I have to send an email to a professor I've never met, I will usually call her/him professor. I'm sure age plays a role. Since I'm younger than most of the professors I know, I usually just start out with "professor" out of respect. I don't mind being corrected; it's better than feeling like I've overstepped a boundary. And I'm especially weird about Deans. It's still hard for me to call my dean by his first name. I once accidentally called him "coach."

Posted by: Zak Kramer | Aug 11, 2007 12:56:19 AM

I'd agree with Bruce that the use of "professor" with Habermas wasn't out of respect _as such_ but out of Germanness. Now, because of Habermas's Germanness this is required because of respect, but respect only requires this because he's German. (Among grad students in philosophy it's very normal to call the professors by their first names and it's taken as a bit of a sign of being a jerk to insist on "Dr. so and so" with the grad students, at least in my experience.)

Posted by: Matt | Aug 10, 2007 6:32:38 PM

I should add that "Counselor" is almost always a title of respect from business people to business lawyers, and it's usually "Hello, Counselor" as you start a meeting. As I was making my transition, I started to get a lot of "Hello, Professor," and often I wasn't sure if I wasn't getting the perlocutionary effect intended in "the distinguished[?] JUNIOR senator from Montana."

Also, titles like Senator or Governor or Secretary never come off unless you become personal friends. But it seems to me that "Professor" is more like "Mr." "Mrs." "Dr." "Ms." than those.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Aug 10, 2007 5:43:40 PM

Bruce's question is a good one. I can speak from personal experience in the business world that German businessMEN (I am afraid to say I never ran into many business women) will refer to one another as Herr Lutz or Herr Schmidt even after having known each other for twenty or thirty years.

I am significantly older than many Prawfs commentators and come at this from a slightly different perspective. To me, the title "Professor" would be used at the same level of formality, informality, or respect as "Mr." or "Mrs." or "Ms." would be outside of academia. So I cannot imagine many informal situations, which would include interviews, in which I would NOT use a first name immediately after introduction.

But even at the ripe old age of fifty-three, there are some people who so command the respect of a title, whether "Mr." "Ms." "Mrs." or "Professor", that I will use the title until I have an indication otherwise, and there is probably some correlation between age and the achievement that warrants such respect. When I met Stewart Macauley for the first time, he was "Professor" to me until we had traded a couple e-mails. Lawrence Friedman was MY professor in the mid-70s, and he's still "Professor Friedman" not "Lawrence" to me.

Now, interestingly, when I was practicing law (and I can imagine the same thing in a faculty meeting) whether in a deposition or in a negotiation, where you are already on a first name basis, switching back to a formal "Mr." or "Mrs." or "Ms." is usually a sign of displeasure or sarcasm. One is deliberately turning to a formal mode of speech with the intention that it have, as the philosophers say, a perlocutionary effect. Think of all the different ways one senator might say "the distinguished junior senator from Montana" or an MP saying "the right Honorable member from Stoke-on-Trent".

Finally, having said all that, when I was a young associate, but very close with my mid-50s mentors, calling them "Mr. Cutler" or "Mr. Young" was out of the question, but calling them "Bob" or "Don" was very uncomfortable. So for a long time, I didn't call them anything, and invented others ways to get their attention. That fades away after a while.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Aug 10, 2007 5:35:34 PM

You ask interesting questions, Professor Glazer. Keep blogging - I'm enjoying your posts very much.

Posted by: anon | Aug 10, 2007 3:43:07 PM

One possibility is that it's because Habermas is German. I've heard -- anecdotally and entirely unconfirmed -- that some German professors call each other "Herr Professor So-and-so" even in social gatherings. In any event the cultural norm might be different.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Aug 10, 2007 11:18:49 AM

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