Monday, October 17, 2011

Faculty and first names

This past summer was a busy one for me. I was on a lot of committees, working on a few grants, and trying to revamp courses with a new text. I was rushing across campus from one meeting to another and hear, "Dr. Lora, wait!" and "Dr. Lora, can I ask you a question?" Another faculty member laughed and said, "Oh Dr. Mason, I didn't realize when students asked for Dr. Lora's classes they meant you! I assumed they had a wrong name or were misinformed." In fact, MOST of my students tend to address me with my title and first name. This was not something I initially encouraged, as I had read articles about younger-appearing faculty (and females) and issues of authority, I wanted that hard-earned "Dr." to be articulated. When I joined the rank of faculty member, the closest faculty member to my age at the time was 18 years older than I.

But after several weeks here in the South, I started to feel like the name thing was a losing battle. Many of my colleagues immediately dropped the hyphen in my last name and most of my students began calling me "Ms. Lora" the first day of my first semester. I encouraged them to be more formal and, somehow, we ended up with a hybrid of "Dr. Lora." I don't believe this was a sign of disrespect, but it got me thinking about the forms of faculty address, perceptions of authority, perceptions of approachability, and the relationship between students and faculty. This was especially true after an older male began in our College and was, to my knowledge, never addressed by his first name. Then a male younger than myself arrived and, again, was not addressed by his first name. As we shared offices in tiny FEMA buildings post-Katrina, I feel confident in saying that the students did not address either by a first name (with or without a title before a first name).
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Was the use of a title determined by age, sex, or other characteristics (such as teaching style and perceived approachability)? Rubin (1981) found that "female professors, especially those in the 26–33 age group, were addressed by first names more often than their male colleagues." Despite introducing myself as "Dr. Helvie-Mason," students immediately went for the first name.

After a few semesters, I laughingly tell my students, "I don't care what you call me as long as it has a Dr. in front of it and you could say it to your mother or minister." I let go of trying to change the way I was addressed as it seemed to be a waste of energy when there was no damage to the class environment...indeed, I often wondered if it helped. In the end, I let the students decide and answer to "Dr. Lora" or "Dr. Helvie" or "Dr. Mason" or the rarely used, but entirely correct "Dr. Helvie-Mason."

I do get disgruntled about the last name, on occasion, as I have been told by colleagues and staff (somewhat regularly that "You can't be "half married" so why would you split your name?" or "Oh, you're one of those women" with a look that I cannot possibly understand), but since my transition from the Midwest to the South, I have been known by the majority of my students as "Dr. Lora" and I have been honored with classrooms full of engaged, dedicated students. However, I am uncomfortable when a student addresses me by solely my first name--it is too personal, too informal and so I redirect the students whenever that happens.

Looking into this naming pattern has been interesting. There are a few points of research out there that might inform our understanding of the students' and professors' views of titles and their uses in academia.

Exploring graduate students and professor titles, McDowell and Westman (2005) wrote, "Students rated faculty members addressed by first name as warmer and more approachable and as valuing and respecting the students more than faculty addressed by formal title. Being on a first name basis made a difference for the emotional tone, but it did not make a difference in the professional aspects of the relationship, such as respect for the faculty member, perceived objectivity in faculty's grading, or student motivation to achieve." Interesting!

So, perhaps we return to Shakespeare and ponder, "What's in a name..."  as we continue to explore the implications of faculty address.


Kuh, G. O. (1995). The other curriculum: Out-of-class experiences associated with student learning and personal development. Journal of Higher Education, 66, 123-155.

McDowell, J. E., & Westman, A. S. (2005). Exploring the use of first name to address faculty members in graduate programs. College Student Journal, 39(2).

Rubin, R. B. (1981). Ideal traits and terms of address for male and female college professors. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41(5), 966-974. 

Takiff, H. A., Sanchez, D. T., & Stewart, T. L. (2001). What’s in a name? The status implications of students’ terms of address for male and female professors. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 25, 134-144.

Related Communication & Higher Education entries: Gen X women at work in the academy

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1 comment:

  1. Okay, you're working overtime when you have a bibliography on your post! But very interesting to think about.