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Monday, May 30, 2011

Titles: (Mr.) Professor X, Ms. Y

I and many other women professors I've talked to have had students refer to us as "Ms." or "Miss Y" literally in the same sentence that they refer to a male colleagues as "Professor X." It may seem trivial but it is annoying, and it creates a real quandary.  If you say something to the student, you run the risk of seeming unduly sensitive or prickly about prerogative. If you don't say anything, you run the risk of allowing the student to be eaten alive when he says something similar to a female judge.  So what's the right way to handle it?  When I first started teaching, I didn't say anything. Later, I decided to point out to the student that, while I'm sure he meant no offense, he should never make the mistake again lest he encounter a professor or  judge less tolerant than I. As I've become more senior (oh, painful phrase!), I have this experience less and less, but I am assured by female colleagues that it continues apace, which makes me wonder if a more systematic response might be warranted. I must say that as a 3L law student I bridled when a male law professor corrected me when I referred to my friends as "girls," but I had cause  to appreciate his wisdom when, just a few months later, I worked for a federal judge who treated his male clerks quite differently than his female clerks. I've never referred to any woman over age 18 as a girl again.

On a related note, a colleague brought to my attention that his students disproportionately referred to male parties on his exam  by last names and female parties by first names. What, if anything, is to be done?

Posted by Lyrissa Lidsky on May 30, 2011 at 06:29 PM in Lyrissa Lidsky, Teaching Law | Permalink


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oddly enough my female students are more likely to call me Dr. while the male students say Prof. I have no idea why.

One thing that always bothers me in student writing (but even more common in legal briefs) is where a male is called by just his last name (no Mr.) but if it is a female, the writer includes Miss or Mrs. (e.g., Smith did not appear at his the hearing, but Mrs. Jones did.)

Posted by: Jessica Owley | May 31, 2011 7:49:51 PM

A related query: What is the proper protocol for addressing one of a married pair of professors when in the present company of both (as in Rick and Nicole Garnett)?

Posted by: PB | May 31, 2011 2:38:30 PM

db: Given that "Hillary" was the name under which the candidate presented herself and that it avoided confusion, even momentary, with another famous Clinton, I don't think it's particularly noteworthy that more people didn't comment on the discrepancy between "Obama" and "Hillary."

Posted by: Jim | May 31, 2011 12:23:28 PM

I seem to recall that the last presidential election featured a race for the Democratic nomination between two candidates who were referred to commonly as "Hillary" (a female candiate's first name) and "Obama" (a male candidate's last name). I further seem to recall that no one thought that was unusual or worthy of comment. Why start complaining now?

Posted by: db | May 31, 2011 12:11:48 PM

I think that Jen is exactly right. The same students who tend to use "ma'am" to women are the same students that use "sir" for men -- both forms of address probably strike Northern ears as odd or overly formal. But they are normal, and often expected, in the South and many parts of the Midwest. (Anon71 is correct, too. Much of the use of "girls" arises from trying to find the femal equivalent of "guys." Perhaps "women" would be better, but no harm is intended. Indeed, I rarely hear "men" even used.)

On a similar note, I once heard a state-court judge in Texas complain in a speech that she hated being called "ma'am" on the bench. She didn't think that lawyers referred to male judges as "sir." While I think that "Your Honor" is better practice for all judges, I've heard numerous lawyers refer to male judges as "sir," especially in the South. She seemed to be looking for a slight where none was intended or even existed. That's not to say that bad-apple lawyers or double standards don't exist, but we should be careful that we are addressing actual disparate gender treatment.

Posted by: Harry | May 31, 2011 10:57:04 AM

A more senior female colleague once gave me the advice to "look for the harm." If the person meant no harm, then let it go. I know that will not sit right with a lot of readers, but it has been the right choice for me in a good number of situations. For example, one recent student who obviously is very kind but has not been in many formal situations refers to me as "Ma'am." He is meaning it as a sign of respect and is always polite. In this part of the country (Kentucky), many (not all) of the older male attorneys I meet hold onto to some gentlemanly customs that strike me (a New Yorker and unabashed feminist) as odd, but there is no harm intended. Other times, harm and disrespect are intended, regardless of geography. FWIW, that's where I try to draw the line these days.

Posted by: Jen | May 31, 2011 9:47:34 AM

The problem with "girls" and "women" is that we don't have a good female equivalent of "guys." We used to have "gals" but no one uses that anymore. So in a situation where one would normally say "guys" for men, you can call the females "girls" or "women." I don't see any reason to be offended by either choice.

Posted by: Anon71 | May 31, 2011 8:19:39 AM

Even the office staff in my department call me Miss [instead of Dr] but refer to my male colleagues as Dr.

Posted by: Stephanie | May 31, 2011 4:56:33 AM

I see this phenomenon all the time and have a question for Prof Lidsky (and any other female professors): if I, as a male professor, correct the student, do I further undermine your authority and credibility (the man has to stick up for me) or am I doing the honorable thing?

Posted by: Phil | May 31, 2011 3:37:04 AM

"I must say that as a 3L law student I bridled when a male law professor corrected me when I referred to my friends as "girls," but I had cause to appreciate his wisdom when, just a few months later, I worked for a federal judge who treated his male clerks quite differently than his female clerks. I've never referred to any woman over age 18 as a girl again."

My wife teaches undergraduates. She frequently has them over to the house. We also have a 19 yeat-old nanny for our 13 month-old twin sons. You should hear the hell my (5 year-old) daughter gets when she calls any of these 19-22 year-olds "girls." Me, too, for that matter, at least when I slip. Either I or my wife or some combination thereof start ranting about how if they are old enough to vote or go to war, they are no longer "girls." They are women, and deserve the respect of being called -- and treated! -- as such.

Posted by: Joe | May 31, 2011 12:40:53 AM

So one thing this post confirms for me is my practice of referring to all of my colleagues as "Professor So-and-so" in conversations where students are present, even though I refer to everyone by first name otherwise, and even though it's a lot of syllables.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | May 31, 2011 12:03:25 AM

I and many other women professors I've talked to have had students refer to us as "Ms." or "Miss Y" literally in the same sentence that they refer to a male colleagues as "Professor X."

I am a male professor, and I have sometimes had precisely the same thing happen to me; I have also had both male and female students refer to me only by my last name only (no "Mr.," even) while referring to "Professor X," for both male and female professors. I don't doubt that it happens more often to female professors, but do bear in mind the possibility that some students regarding the listener as being more familiar or feel the need to behave more respectfully toward the absent colleague. Or that they are just clumsy and inconsistent with protocol in general.

Posted by: Ani | May 30, 2011 11:07:25 PM

I've used androgynous names in exams before, especially with the tort of battery and unwanted kisses or touching. It is interesting to see the assumptions students make when genders aren't specified. Ruth, I don't specifically remember a woman student calling me "Ms." Lidsky, but I can't be sure. It wouldn't surprise me, though. By the way, sometimes students who went to undergrad at the University of Virginia do this, but it is because (by custom) all of their undergrad profs were referred to as Mr. or Ms.

Posted by: Lyrissa | May 30, 2011 10:44:30 PM

Story relayed to me: Around 1995 or 96, the Sixth Circuit convened its first all-female panel (Judges Bachelder, Moore, and Daughtrey). A male attorney began his oral argument with "Good Morning, Ladies."

I teach Evidence off two sets of case files. Several minor witnesses have androgynous names (Reeve Winsor, Raleigh Porter, Leigh Marlow). It is always interesting to see which students assume which characters are male or female.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | May 30, 2011 10:04:27 PM

There is absolutely no danger that they will upset a judge as they apparently irk you. Judges are always addressed as "your honor" or, simply "judge," regardless of their gender, and even the dumbest lawyer would never refer to a female judge as "Ms. So-and-so" regardless of the lawyer's out-of-court habits. All that said, do I think your students should address you as "professor"? Of course.

Posted by: Doug Richmond | May 30, 2011 9:06:59 PM

Through uni, I called all professors by their first name, male or female. I always found familiarity with the lecturer(s) showed respect for their teaching ability, whereas deference to their knowledge showed respect for their qualification. It may be an Australian thing - most canadian students stuck to 'professor', even when the lecturers asked them not to.

However, Title is contextual - when in a moot or court, I'd always refer to their title, and colleagues by surname (well more often 'learned friend').

Posted by: Alienangel | May 30, 2011 8:30:09 PM

On exams, use only last names or androgynous names, and simply don't indicate sex unless it's material. That, of course, does nothing (direct, at least) to alter the students' set of mind.

In novels, notice the same practice: men are referred to by last names and women by first. Even now.

Posted by: Simon Fodden | May 30, 2011 7:17:33 PM

I ask my students to call me Madam or Your Exellency. They take it well. But it's a bit different here in Australia. Thank you for the post!

Posted by: Melissa Castan | May 30, 2011 7:02:17 PM

Could this be a regional thing? I've never heard a law student address a professor of either gender as anything other than "Professor" except where the prof had repeatedly urged students to use her first name.

What students call professors when the professors aren't around, of course, is another matter...

Posted by: Patrick | May 30, 2011 6:56:41 PM

I'm curious - are the students who refer to you as Ms. rather than professor all males, or do women do it too? I think some younger women (I, too am feeling old!) don't see themselves as feminists in the original sense, so perhaps they don't understand that professors are professors are professors. I do think you should point it out to everyone. You worked hard to have that title.

Posted by: Ruth Gorme | May 30, 2011 6:49:05 PM

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