Naming the Ivory Tower

Professor Kitty Last year at faculty conferences, the idea of student respect was brought up by an established professor. He urged us, his colleagues, to stop allowing students to use our first names because it established a precedent of disrespect that superseded our authority as instructors. He said that the use of titles—Dr. So-and-So, Professor LastNameHere, Mr./Ms. Whatever—keeps the proper relationship between professor and student in mind at all times during conversation. There was much rumbling in the room and much discussion, but in the end, nothing was decided and the college continued operating on its established course.

I see where he’s coming from with this. The most pressing concern this professor had was that being on a first-name basis with one’s students can lead to favoritism. If people consistently go to “Larry’s class” rather than “Dr. So-and-So’s,” then is that student taking the course as seriously as it should be taken? Also, if the student can openly walk into “Larry’s” office instead of scheduling an appointment with “Dr. So-and-So,” will the instructor be more willing to let delinquent behavior slide because of the casual atmosphere and relationship between them?

That’s where the situation gets a little muddy. If Student A is willing to call me Beej and Student B always calls me Professor LastNameHere, will I be as fair to Student B as I am with Student A? It’s an ethical dilemma because I must be equally fair to all students, not just those who want to forge a relationship with me. It is considerably easier to let a late assignment slide without penalty for someone I know than it is for a student who purposefully maintains distance from me. It is not, however, ethical to do so.

Which is precisely the instigating professor’s point.

At the beginning of all my classes, I have a tendency to tell my students they can call me whatever they want, as long as it’s not offensive. And even if it is offensive, I’ve probably been called worse at some point in my life. They laugh, and most students generally do call me by my first name, with a few students always showing me respect with “sir” ending every sentence (which is still hard for me to get used to, by the way, and I’m not sure I like it).

I even had one student who latched onto me who called me unfailingly “Mister Teacher” all semester. She was a good student, and I helped her a great deal, I think. Other teachers had been hard on her and unforgiving with her mistakes, but I worked with her one-on-one, and even now when she sees me on campus, she yells at “Mister Teacher.” I wonder had I not been so forthcoming to accept what she called me and to work with her at her own level and at her own pace if she would have even kept coming to class. Had I told her she had to call me Professor LastNameHere, would she have been as receptive to my help, or would she have just closed off because I was too similar to the other teachers she’d had?

Scaling the Ivory Tower When I was readying to finish graduate school, my professors began to ask me to refer to them by their first names. No more Drs. So-and-So for them; they said I was entering the world of academics as a peer rather than a student, and they wanted our communications to show it. I was raised to be as polite as possible, so I have always been the student who never referred to my teachers as anything but Dr./Mr./Ms. or whatever other title was appropriate. To transition to first names after three years of calling them by titles was no easy task. It is becoming easier since many of them are in contact via Facebook, but at first, the transition was strange. I can see why some students have a problem with it, only because it denotes a much more casual relationship. I never felt, however, that they were not acting as my academic authorities. My comps director was still my comps director. My grad conference faculty advisor was still just that, despite our talking more frequently about our personal lives.

And here I am a year later, still thinking about that professor’s proposal, wondering if I’ve been doing it wrong the whole time.

So do you all think it’s better and easier to make our students use our last names? Does it really denote that much more respect? Or does opening up our first names show that we’re willing to present ourselves not as Ivory Tower-dwelling academics, but as people who have already been through what the students are just now experiencing and simply want to impart what we’ve learned about it?

By B.J. Keeton

B.J. KEETON is a writer, teacher, and runner. When he isn't trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he is either writing science fiction, watching an obscene amount of genre television, or looking for new ways to integrate fitness into his geektastic lifestyle. He is also the author of BIRTHRIGHT and co-author of NIMBUS. Both books are available for Amazon Kindle.


  1. I think that there's a very real danger of the "ivory tower" mentality causing irreparable harm to both the teacher and the student. Pride is a terrible thing, rooted in comparisons between people. Maintaining that distance fosters pride. Yes, a professor needs to maintain impartial integrity to foster meritocracy, but that's why they are paid professionals.

    I had one professor who made it a point to note that he is a professor, not a teacher. He professes about what he knows, and whether or not we are taught is up to whether or not we chose to learn. Call it semantics, but it reinforced to me that he was doing his best, and that he was not placing himself on a pedestal as the ultimate arbiter of knowledge by placing the onus of learning on our shoulders as students. I never addressed him by first name, but that's just me; he wasn't opposed to it. He and I did share more than a few joking moments, sometimes during class when nobody else understood a clever bit of wordplay or an allusion. (Like "pontificating about the pope".)

    My favorite professor asked to be addressed by his first name. He found the formality to be deleterious to what he wanted to do with his program. He saw his job as a professor as that of a mentor, rather than a perpetual superior. He openly admitted that his training was that of another era (his is an architectural degree, but he runs the computer animation program), and that he *wanted* us to surpass his abilities. He spoke of generalities and industry practices, and told us to push the technology and our own abilities.

    It's hard not to love a guy like that, who knows that he has something to offer, but who wants us to go beyond what he can teach us. To me, that's the point of education, and to see a tenured professor embrace it so wholly has had a substantial impact on how I see the profession. It's part of why I'd love to work as a professor, actually.

    And yes, I'll answer to almost anything in that role, because I would just be one guide of many, a guy who can answer a handful of questions, a guy who wants to see my students be far more than I ever could be. It's not unlike how I see my role as a parent. I want my children to outgrow me, to reach heights that I've not been able to. The fleeting pride that comes from maintaining superiority doesn't hold a candle to the joy in a job well done. Serving is far more satisfying than being served.

  2. I know all kinds of professors, some insist of the first name, some are very formal.

    I personally favor the split personality approach. One was "Dr. X" at university, but when met outside or in a bar where he used to be, he offered us to use his first name.

    I am opposed to the first name approach. Not because of the good intention of the professor, but because of silly students. Give someone a finger, and they believe you are their best buddy and either treat you not respectful or demand too much from you.

    German is even more difficult in regards of respect, as we have "Sie" and "Du" instead of just "You". The first one is more formal and respectful, while "You" is something you have to "offer" to someone before it is not an inappropriate affront and intrusion into privacy.

    I also think one can have a warm-hearted and good communication with someone without having to use the first name.

    BTW, most german universities except those of the Bundeswehr (Army) and some private institutes leave it up to the professor to decide how he communicates with his students.

  3. @Tesh: I can only hope to be that kind of professor eventually. I feel very much like that I am not some arbiter of knowledge, but merely some guy who wants to help some students out. I'd love for them to surpass me, do better scholarship than I do, and really hit the ground running.

    I won't lie that it's hard to get 100% into that role since I am so new to the role. I'm still used to being a student, so the competitive/qualitative nature of grades determining my importance and status is still there. It still cracks me up to see faculty run around confused during conferences. We're the ones who are supposed to know what's going on, right?!

    @Longasc: That's actually one of the reasons German is my language of choice for foreign language studies. I love the formal/informal use of words as well as the utterly perfect way one can say absolutely anything in German just by stringing the language together. I love the English language; I think it's beautiful and nuanced, but I wish I were more fluent in German because I think that ideas can be more easily and eloquently expressed in German.

  4. I think it comes down to what is most comfortable with you. I've never liked the blanket decrees across all cases.

    When I was in college I had a professor, Dr. Harris, who was a mentor to me. I took a lot of classes from him and he helped me achieve success. I always called him Dr. Harris. I still do even though I'm a graduate and we have a friendship. I, perhaps like you, was thwapted if I did not refer to someone by title. I say "Yes sir and ma'am" even to peers. This, of course, makes them uneasy. It is just my show of respect.

    That said, I don't in any way feel uncomfortable when they call me Adam or, as sad as this might sound, Ferrel. I would not "correct" them, so to speak. Tone means more than the word to me.

    If you're comfortable with students calling you your first name I say you stick to it. As long as you're conscious of the dangers of favoritism you will do your best to avoid the behavior.

    @Tesh I had a professor who told us not to call him Dr because "He didn't have a PhP and it upset the overly sensitive doctors who did!" He was awesome!

  5. Heh, guess that means storytime!

    Jennifer had always called me "sexypants" as a kind of silly inside joke. Well, some of my students added me on Facebook, and I don't keep anything up there they shouldn't see, so I accepted. Well, they saw where she called me "sexypants" and took it to the next level, and when they were among friends, I had been given the nickname "Professor Sexypants" around campus.

    It eventually got back to me, and I laughed about it with the girl who came up with the name. I didn't care. If I had, I would have never accepted their friend request in the first place.

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