When I was a kid, I was raised to address adults by a title. We didn’t have academics, doctors, or lawyers in the family. Most of the adults I knew were teachers or parents. Father –, Sister –, [Catholic school] Aunt –, Uncle –, Mr., Mrs. or Ms.
When I went to college, every teacher and faculty member was referred to by title and last name; except for those who wanted to be called by their first name. Freshmen quickly learned names of all the faculty just by living in the same building for 20 hours every day. Dean, Professor, Dr., Mrs., Ms. – first name familiarity was only by invitation. And it took me a while to get comfortable with it. Grad school, same thing. Even into my doctoral studies.
When I went home for a visit, I would seek out my first band teacher, Mr. Hoffman. He kindly never asked me to call him Gerry. Typing his first name now is awkward, even though he died a while ago. My mom’s best friend is Mrs. K. Their names will forever be what I called them as a child. Because I respect them.
When I married, I traditionally took my husband’s name. I ask my kids’ friends to call me “Mrs. White.” The only time I prefer my “Dr/Professor” title is when I’m working in an academic setting; especially on campus and for undergraduate students.
I would often see eyebrows raised when students referred to me in conversation outside of class, in front of other faculty as “professor” or “Dr. White.” I’ve actually had faculty members tell me that I shouldn’t refer to my doctorate title unless I was a tenure track professor. Like I was a “failure” for choosing the administrative career path. When faculty insist on not respecting my title, I have a few of my own pet titles for them. “Most Holy High Horse,” “Professor Poopyhead,” and “Doctor Duckface,” in my head, of course.
It would be great if I could get students to come to class dressed in business casual and not active wear. But most college campus cultures are so much more relaxed in dress code than decades ago. When the environment looks more relaxed, it’s easy to be confused about how we address each other. When a student addresses me by the familiar first name when I haven’t invited him/her to do so, I let them know verbally. In email, I’m asking them to practice formal writing style with me. I do it with respect to my expectations of decorum between professor and student.
When class is over, and I see them socially, I’ll invite them to call me “Silagh.” But not if I’m with my kids.
I feel it’s a duty as a scholar and a citizen to be clear with students about my preferences and why. When having conversations with other adults in front of students, I’ll call them by their professional or formal title. When children or students aren’t present, and we are familiar, first names are fine. Protocol matters in the world. It’s a sign of respect. See?
The honor of the title is due for the degrees earned. I’m not a bitch about it. But I do take responsibility to tell people my expectations.
When I have this conversation with my kids, they call me: DoctorProfessorMrs.Mom. Because there’s no one more humbling than your own children.