What’s in a Name? How we address our Professors

I am enrolled in Language and Culture with Prof. Donna Perry in the Anthropology Department here at Gettysburg College. This week our class focuses on the ethnography of communication. During class on Monday, December 1, we discussed different aspects of speech acts that ethnographies of communication examine.

While discussing the concept of participants within ethnography of communication, I was struck by an observation my professor made about how different participants in a conversation use honorifics to address each other. Professor Perry noted that here at Gettysburg, unlike the other college she previously taught at in Oregon, students tend to address her simply as, “Professor,” rather than by her name. That gave me pause—and then I realized that I, a student at Gettysburg College, do tend to address my professors simply as, “Professor,” rather than by their first names, or as “Dr. So-and-so,” or as “Professor So-and-so.”

I started thinking about why I address my professors this way. Then my relationship with my advisor came to mind. She and I are on first-name terms—I remember the exact moment that she told me I could refer to her by her first name. It was magical. Here was a woman whose opinion I respected so greatly, whose presence I found so engaging telling me that I could call her by name.

Even though I am allowed to call my advisor by her first name, I would never, ever, address her as such in front of a class of other students. In the classroom there is a certain level of decorum that must be maintained. Addressing a professor by their first name is too lax, but addressing a professor as, “Dr. So-and-so,” feels too formal for my taste.  A happy medium is needed.

I am on a first-name basis with many of my professors, and am very comfortable addressing them by their first names within their offices, but their offices are a very different setting compared to the classroom. I like to think that as a senior I’ve earned my voice and the right to make what I have to say heard, but I also recognize that professors here are much more educated than I am and have much more experience than I do. No matter how strong my professional, working, or personal friendships with my professors may be, I still defer to the power dynamic within classroom settings, and I adjust how I address my professors with respect to that power dynamic in mind.

Of course some faculty here at Gettysburg College do prefer to be addressed more formally, and addressing these professors by their first names is a major faux pas. Unless one has been invited by a professor to refer to them by their first name, it is hard to guess whether it’s okay to address an email to, “John,” or to, “Dr. Doe,” or to, “Mr. Doe.”

Each of these addressed convey different levels of formality or intimacy with the recipient. Even using Dr. can be problematic as, even though most faculty do have the highest degree in their fields, most people in academia seem to not use that title. This is why I like using, “Professor.” Professor is sort of neutral—it’s formal enough to be usable in any circumstance without sounding so formal that it is uncomfortable.

Addressing faculty as “Professor” is especially handy when addressing female faculty, especially since it can be hard to determine if they are married or if they kept their maiden names when they married. Even though English conventions allow the use of “Ms.” to refer to women of unknown marital status, most women I know don’t like being called “Ms.” Using, “Professor,” eliminates the guess work.

Then there are professors that it would just be weird to address them as “Dr. So-and-so.” My Arabic professor is one such individual. In Arab culture addressing someone as “Mr. So-and-so” or “Mrs. So-and-so” actually is perceived as cold and occasionally rather rude. This is why it always sounds strange to me when I hear other faculty call my professor “Dr. Ramadan.” Within the classroom and outside the class, I will always address my Arabic professor as Abdulkareem because it would be very strange to call him anything else.

I wonder if anyone else has ever stopped to consider how and why they are addressing their professors in particular ways. Any thoughts?

3 thoughts on “What’s in a Name? How we address our Professors

  1. This was such a necessary post! I often find myself being overly formal when I address professors because I don’t want to be disrespectful. I wish all professors would start out the semester letting students know how to address them, as Sam would put it as “Insert Title Here So-and-so.”

    It is so interesting to see how these dignitaries differ from country to country. As a student of Latin America and Germany, I find that I constantly have to codeswitch depending on the culture of my professor. I am very formal with my German professors, always calling them Dr., or, if they say so, Prof. My first day of German 101 my professor announced that we should call her by her first name or Dr “So-and-so” as in Germany Dr means one has a PhD and Professor means one has a masters or lesser degree. Germany does like its order.

    On the Latin American side of things, common courtesy directs one to use Profesor. However, once one gets to know the professor, it becomes come to say Profe, a shortened, friendly form of the more formal profesor.

  2. It’s interesting to hear the student perspective on this issue. I have tried to be very explicit about how I want students to address me because I know that playing that guessing game is awkward. Moving to the written medium, however, I’ve found that even when I write things like “send an email to Dr. Betsy Lavolette,” I get emails addressed to “Ms. Lavolette,” “Mrs. Lavolette,” and even just “Lavolette.” Any insight?

    1. Personally, if I’m responding to an email, I will generally address my response using the terms that the first person signed their email with. I do get uncomfortable if I’m responding to a profession email where the person signed off using a nickname rather than their first name, but I generally match their level of formality.

      I’ve noted that some people just seem to have an unconscious gender bias when addressing female professionals. I find it disrespectful.

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