Pop Quiz: What did you call me?
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 probably 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.”
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 language” crowd), 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).