In any given week, I typically write several emails to other academics I do not know or do not know well. As I decide what greeting to use, I am reminded of the politics of names and the subtle—or sometimes not so subtle—power dynamics at play in everyday conversations, often in even the smallest conversational choices.
For example, when writing to a colleague I’ve never met, do I have the right to assume we’re on a first name basis, despite the fact we don’t know each other? Or do I go with the more formal “Dear Professor X,” even though I’m actually 99.9% sure that we would use first names if we were introduced in person? What if that colleague is also a dean or a provost? Does that tip the scale toward the more formal greeting that includes their title?
Personally, I tend to default to the formal use of titles with colleagues I don’t know, and I always sign my emails with my first name, to indicate that they should feel comfortable addressing me as Anne. If I use first names, I sometimes add the very useful parenthetical “if I may,” as in “Dear Lionel (if I may).”
Just as faculty members sometimes don’t know what to call each other, students often don’t know what to call us. They get a good number of mixed signals and sometimes no signal at all.
Last term, on the first day of my undergraduate course on how conversations work, the students and I mapped out their social worlds in terms of what they call people: first name, nickname, Mr./Mrs./Ms., Dr., another title (e.g., Coach), a familial name (e.g., Mom, Aunt Kathy), full name, or other (e.g., “nothing because I have no idea what to call them”). We talked about the power dynamics at play in a doctor’s office when the doctor says something like, “Hello Anne, I’m Dr. Patel,” or when someone who doesn’t know us well enough assumes the intimacy of calling us by a nickname.
These undergraduate students’ college instructors showed up in multiple areas of the map: first name, Professor, Mr./Mrs./Ms., Dr., and nothing. I polled the students informally about how often faculty members tell them what they want to be called, and the results suggested it happens only about half the time. And when students do not know what to call us, they can default in an email to “Hi” or to no greeting at all. Or they may, with the best of intentions, default to a formal title like “Ms.” or “Mrs.” with female faculty, not knowing that this is a dispreferred option for a good number of the faculty.
A very nice thing that we as professors can do for students is tell them what to call us—which means that we need to get clear on that ourselves. When teaching undergraduates, I begin each term by saying:
You are welcome to call me Anne or Professor Curzan, whichever feels more comfortable to you. I know not every student is comfortable calling professors by first names, which is completely fine; but if you are, you are welcome to call me Anne. I do ask that you call me something, rather than trying “Hey you” or just waiting for me to make eye contact.
I didn’t say this the first few years I was on the faculty. Then, it seemed more appropriate to me that undergraduate students call me Professor Curzan, so I introduced myself that way (without my first name) in class, put “Professor A. Curzan” on the syllabus, and signed emails with “Professor Curzan” or “ALC.” I never talked explicitly with students about the issue of names; instead I sent what I hoped were fairly clear signals about how to address me.*
But when I first taught an undergraduate course on language and gender, I realized that my pedagogy on this point was not aligning with my principles. The students and I spent the entire term talking about how each of us positions ourselves and gets positioned by others—in more and less empowering ways—through specific language choices. I did not like the asymmetry of students feeling they were expected to call me Professor Curzan while I was empowered to call them by their first names. And were I to meet any of them in a nonclassroom context, I would introduce myself as Anne. Hence the new first-day script.
If we polled faculty members across the academy, I feel confident we would get a range of answers about what terms of address they prefer—and how much they care about what students call them. There is no universal agreement among faculty on this issue, and I don’t think there needs to be. But we do need to realize that this lack of agreement can be disconcerting for students. As a courtesy, especially if it is something you feel strongly about, consider letting students know what to call you.
*With graduate students I have always said, “Please feel free to call me Anne.”
Author Bio: Anne Curzan is a professor of English at the University of Michigan, where she also holds appointments in linguistics and the School of Education.