EducationPop Quiz

Pop Quiz: What did you call me?

Batman and Robin meme: Excuse me Mr... / Doctor!Those of you in the education biz have probably seen this recent essay by Katrina Gulliver on the “epidemic” of informality in today’s college classrooms, and probably also this rather clueless response to it by Will Miller. For those of you unfamiliar with the exchange, Gulliver’s point, broadly speaking, is that her undergraduates are unduly familiar with her both in person and via email, and that this familiarity–beyond being presumptuous or disrespectful–can also serve to undermine the authority of female faculty members. Miller, apparently not one to be told that his unearned privilege as a white man in a position of authority might just be affording him more leeway to be lax about classroom etiquette and professional decorum than he is aware of, insists that he would rather earn his students’ respect by being a cool dude than expect it to be afforded to him on the basis of his position. Yeah.

Some of you may remember DrShell touching on this subject a year ago, when she had her own encounter with a student who seemed genuinely unable to address her–an unknown faculty member–in a professionally appropriate manner. And while Gulliver is certainly right that gender and institutional power structures form an important part of the student-teacher dynamic and the social conventions that surround it, Rebecca Schuman has very aptly pointed out in a recent Slate article that such incidents can also be a symptom of broader confusion on students’ part when it comes to navigating these conventions. After all, they can be incredibly inconsistent and confusing: forms of address vary not only from school to school, but also from department to department, and sometimes even within departments according to rank or personal preference.

At my undergraduate institution, for example, the situation varied considerably: the Music Department used first names; the Italian Department used “Professor”; the Classics Department used the Virginia/Chicago Mr/Ms-for-all paradigm. This last practice had the unusual effect that students who knew each other primarily from Classics courses tended to address and refer to one another in this style, even outside of class. Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure some of us taking those classes together didn’t even know each others’ first names.

Now, I am just about the same age as Gulliver, give or take a few years, but she writes that in her undergraduate days she would never have dreamt of addressing her professors by their first names. Of course, Gulliver was educated in Australia and the UK and I in the US and Canada, so there are almost certainly cultural differences to account for here, but I have a hard time believing that such informalities are entirely new to Australian academic culture. More likely, Gulliver is coming to the terrible realization (as we all do) that not all undergrads behave like you did when you were an undergrad, and in fact many of your peers were probablyCollege freshman meme: Emails Prof / "Dear Miss" doing the same things back then that you are so surprised to see now.

Naturally it’s also possible that things really have changed that quickly in Australia, possibly because the relative informality of internet culture has normalized such communications in the eyes of the students to such an extent that they see no trouble behaving that way in person. By this I don’t mean that they’re “lol/jk”-ing it up, but rather have adopted certain conventions of digital communication as broader conventions of human interaction. To this end, I think it’s telling that one of Gulliver’s first complaints is that her students are using “Hi” as an email salutation, rather than (presumably) “Dear Professor Gulliver.” In this there is absolutely a generational divide: most of us who grew up with email see nothing odd about using “hi” as a salutation (or even eliding salutations and closings entirely since they are in the headers anyway), while very often people who did not grow up with email think of it as writing a letter, with all the attendant formalities. And once “Hi Katrina” is normal in all but the most formal written conversations, it’s pretty easy to see it making the jump to the classroom.

Ironically, I think that one of the most important (if undiscussed) factors contributing to this perceived shift in professional formality in English-speaking universities has to do with the language itself. Simply put, formal modes of address are not built into English in the same way they are built into other languages. In fact, outside of addressing correspondence, calling someone by name, or using certain greetings or interjections, there is almost no difference between “polite” and “familiar” English usage.* Gulliver herself brings up her experience in Germany for comparison, where she was “Frau Gulliver” (not “Frau Doktor Gulliver”?), but perhaps more importantly, she was “Sie.”

Image of Michael Dorn as Lt Whorf wearing a white tuxedo and smoking a cigar.

I bet you didn’t know the son of Mogh he was a linguist in 1930s Shanghai, did you? Before you email, yes I know the plot of this episode so shut up.

Generally speaking I’m not a big fan of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (or at least not as commonly abused by the “prison-house of languagecrowd), but it is certainly true that certain kinds of grammatical structures, such as those that encode social relationships, have the property of foregrounding ancillary information that is not directly related to the straightforward meaning of a given utterance. This also means that, in order to form a grammatically correct sentence, a speaker must either include this ancillary information or somehow account for its absence (either because they do not know it or because they do not wish to divulge it). English encodes relatively little of this kind of ancillary information, with the exception of gender and singular/plural distinctions. Anyone who has played the “pronoun game,” though, can attest to just how difficult it can be to create grammatical, natural-sounding sentences without acknowledging gender.

The same is true in languages that encode information about social relationships. In languages that distinguish between formal and informal second-person pronouns (French, German, Italian, etc), it is essentially impossible to carry on even the most basic conversation without choosing a pronoun and thereby acknowledging the kind of social relationship that exists between interlocutors. I mentioned previously that the Italian department at my undergraduate institution was the only one (in which I took courses, anyway), that used “Professor X” (ha!) as a form of address. I am certain a large part of this was the necessity of remaining consistent between the two languages: in Italian it would have been entirely inappropriate for students to address the professors as “tu” rather than “Lei,” and this formality carried over into English through the use of professors’ titles and surnames. In Italy, students use the formal “Lei” with all their teachers from at least the time they are in middle school, and it is generally only at the university level that some professors decide to reciprocate this courtesy by addressing their students as such.**

Japanese encodes even more social information into the grammar, to the extent that it not only includes finer gradations in politeness and honourific speech than languages like Italian, but also illustrates the speaker’s social relationships with people referred to in a given utterance in addition to those being addressed. At its most complex, even native speakers can sometimes have trouble grasping all the nuances of the system.

Just for fun, here is a typical classroom request in English, Italian, and Japanese. I will include inappropriate forms in Italian and Japanese in order to illustrate the choices the speaker must make in these languages that are absent from English.


“Could you (please) write that down on the board?” (Correct)

“Potresti scriverlo sulla lavagna?” (Inappropriate – informal (tu) conjugation)

“Lo potrebbe scrivere sulla lavagna?” (Correct – formal (Lei) conjugation)

“それを黒板に書ける? / Sore wo kokuban ni kureru?” (Inappropriate – casual form)

“それを黒板に書いて下さい / Sore wo kokuban ni kaite kudasai.” (A little too direct – Polite imperative)

“それを黒板に書いてくれませんか? / Sore wo kokuban ni kaite kuremasenka?” (Better – Polite request)

“それを黒板に書いていただきませんか? / Sore wo kokuban ni kaite itadakimasenka?” (Best – Polite deferential request)


So, after all this, what do I have my students call me? Honestly I still don’t have a preferred form of address. It feels a little stodgy when they call me Professor (or worse, sir), but especially in large classes where we don’t have much personal interaction, having them call me Dan seems a bit overly familiar. I think I just prefer when they start with “Hi.”


What do your students call you? Do you think things are getting too informal these days? Do you sometimes wish English had kept “thou” and reserved “you” for strangers?


*I mean this in the sense that there are no universal or obligatory differences related to relative social standing. There are obviously different levels of politeness in both vocabulary and in making requests, but these tend to be situational rather than necessarily hierarchical: I can just as easily make a very polite request of my significant other as I can with President Obama, and in neither case would it be seen as inappropriate.

**In my experience, it tended to be the more obnoxious, self-absorbed, and condescending profs who elected to use “tu” with their undergraduates, with about a 70-30 ratio of “Lei” to “tu.” There is a similar air of condescension around the use of the informal with foreigners, to “help them understand.”


The Pop Quiz is a question posed to you, the Scholars of Doubt. Look for it to appear Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons (ET).

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Dan has a PhD in historical musicology and has taught music history and theory at a major Canadian university. He mainly studies music from the Italian Renaissance when he's not busy performing stand-up comedy or playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. He occasionally tweets as @incontrariomotu and blogs about geeky stuff at The Otaku Skeptic. He is also the glorious editor-in-chief of School of Doubt.


  1. March 18, 2014 at 12:28 pm —

    I’ve struggled with this one recently because I’m not a doctor in an institution full of medical professionals. The standard where I am located is to use the Southern approach of Ms. Firstname for the non-doctors. (Hell, out in the world here, Ms. Firstname is often what you call anyone above the age of 30 who isn’t family.) Being referred to as Ms. Librarienne is jarring to my more Northern ears, and just plain Librarienne seems to me to be too informal, particularly since some of my students already have issues taking their non-clinical coursework seriously. At the same time, retraining my students to use Ms. Lastname bucks against everything they’ve every been taught about etiquette, and I worry that, compared to Ms. Librarienne, students might perceive Ms. Lastname as putting on airs (Imposter Syndrome, anyone?). Sigh, no easy answers.

  2. March 19, 2014 at 3:06 pm —

    I’ve gone back and forth on this one. I certainly didn’t find the response to be clueless or tone-deaf. Just…maybe from a different perspective.

    This issue cuts many ways. I try to get my students to call me by my first name. The whole “dr” thing feels kind of silly to me, and as the leader I feel that I’d rather lead through actions than title. That said, I get the whole “white male” thing, and I wonder whether the first-name-thing isn’t more to get students comfortable with challenging me and talking freely without raising their hands (13 years of socialization can be hard to overcome). Most of them aren’t comfortable with it, and I don’t start correcting them until we develop a bit of a rapport.

    The other side is what you are subtly communicating about yourself. Again, there are no sure-fire winners. For instance the above poster worries about coming off as uppity. Me? I worry about coming off as “hey I’m Johnnie cool guy, call me dude”. Which isn’t my intent.

    As well, you can really come off as a bit…low in self esteem if you are too insistent. Like I know professors who expect grad students to call them “Doctor”. C’mon man.

    Plus there is the socialization thing again. Firstyears will call everyone Mr/Mrs/Ms/Miss simply because that’s how its done in high school. Juniors will call anything that moves (including masters level adjuncts) “Doctor”.

    So in the end, I don’t think there is any one simple answer.

  3. March 25, 2014 at 1:09 am —

    I’m a teacher of ESL students, which adds another layer to the issue. I labour to get my students not to call me “teacher”. I’ve grown slightly inured to it but I will forever and always think it’s rude. (It doesn’t help that while I myself was educated in my second language, as a French immersion student, my elementary and high school teachers were Monsieur or Madame or Mademoiselle Lastname, madame or m’sieur for short – “professeur” is only suitable for professors, and it would be a hideous breach of manners to call a teacher “enseignante”.) Other ESL teachers shrug it off and say they don’t mind, or that we have to respect the conventions of the student’s culture, and it’s true that some of them feel uncomfortable using your name when your title is supposed to be a mark of respect. However, I ultimately go for first names – as I said, no one is ever going to convince me that just “teacher” isn’t rude (I have a name goddammit); Teacher First/Lastname just isn’t said by anyone ever; my last name is difficult for most of my students to pronounce; I was quite charmed by the group of young Chinese students who’d been taught to call their English teachers “miss” and “sir”, but it’s pretty outdated; and Ms. Firstname just reeks of kindergarten, when my students are all nominally adults and I’m not yet even thirty. So – first name only it is.

    • March 25, 2014 at 4:33 am —

      Respecting the conventions of the students’ culture makes no sense as an argument. A key part of language instruction is teaching students to be fluent in the cultural conventions of the speakers of the target language!

      • March 25, 2014 at 10:38 pm —

        That was my thought too. I mean, in Korean there is no word for “please”, but you can damn well bet I make all my Korean students learn to say “may I please borrow a pen”…

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