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his colleagues, to stop allowing students to use our first names because it established a precedent of disrespect that superseded our authority as instructors.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?
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?