On Being Called Out My Name

new prof

When I was working on my Ph.D., I swore that I would not be one of those people who tripped every time someone didn’t greet them with the proper title…

As a first generation college student I was not aware, during my undergraduate years, that most of my professors had a Ph.D. (or even what a Ph.D. was, or what that meant) so it was off-putting when I would be chastised for not saying Dr. ____.  At the time, when I referred to a professor as Ms. or Mr. instead of Dr., it was not because I was trying to be disrespectful, it was quite the opposite.  Being a “country blackgirl” my Mama always taught me to greet my elders, especially strangers, as Ms., or Mr. ______ (which is something I still do to this day), so the last thing I intended was to offend my professors.  I simply and literally didn’t “know any better.”

However (comma), I have found myself lately feeling some kind of way when I am spoken to, by students, without proper title.  I think this has as much to do with a change in times (evidently students are far less trying to be politically or socially correct with professors these days), as any intentional conspiracy, but I can’t help but take issue.  The fact is that even when I didn’t understand that my professors were doctors, I never forgot that they were my professors.  In other words, even when I mis-used Ms., and/or Mr., instead of Dr., it never EVER occurred to me to refer to my professor/teacher by their first name (especially since the uneasy feeling I get in the pit of my stomach when I am called by my first name in those contexts is no different than the visceral reaction I have felt when being called a “bitch”).

So, maybe that is why I have been tripping lately, astonished at the amount of times I have heard my first name escape the lips of students when they are referring to and/or engaging me.  At first I felt ridiculous, I mean it’s not like I was being called “out my name,” but the more I thought about it and talked about it with colleagues the more I wondered if I wasn’t, in fact, being called out of my name by being called my first name.

This is textbook intersectionality.  Given my age, race, gender/sex and location I find myself in a conundrum when it happens, wondering if, for example, this assumed informality is based on me being not much older than my students, or because I am one of the “cool” professors.  Or is it because I am a (black) woman who is not much older than my students and “cool as hell”?  I can’t dissect the reasoning and I can’t help but think about how black women have historically been seen as not worthy of particular social etiquette or respect simply because they were black (for example, back in the day while white women were referred to as m’am, black women were called by their first names by white children, even if they were elders—it was a social allowance to reinforce, perpetually, that black women were given no more respect or regard than a child).  I think about these things, and wonder if/when I am called “Robin” instead of “Dr. B(oylorn),” if it is a slight, a mistake, or simply a cultural/social miscue.

But then, I realize that other faculty (not of color, or my age, or my sex) are automatically given the courtesy of title acknowledgment.  I remember sitting in a professional meeting with staff members and professors across campus late last year, seated next to another faculty woman of color (we were the only two people of color in the room), and throughout the meeting hearing staff members refer to the white male professor in the room as Dr. ____ while calling me and my colleague by our first names.  Don’t get me wrong, in professional contexts, with other professionals, I don’t expect to be called doctor, but it seems to mean something when I am called by my name while the (white) man in the room, whose credentials are no higher than mine, is.  There was a distinction being made and it made me feel like my Ph.D. (and me) was being read as illegitimate or irrelevant.

Don’t get me wrong…I don’t go around passing out my business cards with the Ph.D., underlined, nor do I make a point in my everyday life, outside of the academy/university, to let people know I have a Ph.D.  No one in my family calls me Dr., my friends don’t call me Dr., I don’t get pissed when my mail refers to me as Ms. (and sometimes Mrs.) Boylorn instead of Dr., or correct perfect strangers when they greet me as Ms. in public.  In fact, outside of work, I don’t even think about having a Ph.D.  However, when I am “on the job,” “in the classroom,” “reading emails (from students),” or interacting inside the ivory tower (with students) I am Dr. Boylorn because it’s my job to be Dr. Boylorn.

After some reflection and discussion I realize that being called Dr. ____ is a sign of respect and acknowledgment.  To call me anything else is to reduce me to the status of a peer, to erase the power dynamic that exists between me and the student, to assume (particularly when it happens without permission) that because I am a (30-something, black) woman, I don’t require formal distinctions or courtesies.

There are politics in naming, and as a black woman with a Ph.D. (which is no small feat) who juggles racial microaggressions and various forms of slight and disrespect every single day of my life, I don’t want to wonder what is meant when informality is assumed.  In professional contexts it is important that boundaries and distinctions of relationship are clear.  Because I don’t meet the stereotypical standards of a professor (or a Ph.D.) it can be problematic and uncomfortable when I am not acknowledged in the same way that other professors are.

I realize that there are exceptions to this rule.  For example, as a Ph.D. student I was encouraged (and given permission) to interact and engage my professors by their first names (however, depending on my relationship/s with them, I sometimes still reverted to formal exchanges) because I was being trained/prepared to be their colleague; some academic  and departmental cultures may be intentionally informal between students (mostly graduate, but sometimes undergraduate students) and professors who may interact on a first name basis (but this is generally consistent across the board with ALL faculty and is made clear from the beginning); and/or former students with whom professors maintain a relationship may transition away from the formality when a personal relationship replaces the professional one; but generally, especially within the context of academia, it is probably best to be formal.

In terms of professional etiquette I believe that students should always be formal with their professors (those they work with and those they don’t know, both in person and in digital communications) unless and/or until they are given permission not to be.  Being informal without permission can be interpreted as disrespectful, presumptuous and unprofessional (when coming from a student), especially for faculty who are sometimes so easily dismissed as an authority figure.

So yeah, I never thought that I would be “one of those people” who tripped about someone not referring to me as Dr. ________, but I figure that until they start handing out Ph.D.’s (for free) in the grocery line, it is not unreasonable or unfeminist to expect/require/demand that in the professional contexts in which it matters that my first name be replaced with my professional one.  I think one of my t-shirts (a gift from one of my students when I received my Ph.D.) says it best, “That’s Ms. Dr. Boylorn to you.”

49 thoughts on “On Being Called Out My Name

  1. Interesting post. I am a PhD and always preferred that my students call me Prof or, in the south, Dr. I think there could be a class thing now. When my kid went to a private school, she was told to call all teachers by first name. When she went to public school, she was told to address teachers as Mr./Ms. The intersection of class with race and sex is particularly potent…

    1. Jo Ellen,
      I had not thought about the class implications here (which I definitely should have). Coming from a working-class background and interacting with students with different class circumstances, is definitely a factor, especially if informality (as is the case with your child’s experience in private vs. public school) is linked to particular assumptions about class, that adds to the nuance of this issue. That gives me some more things to think about. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Good post, there is a lot to consider. I am getting my MA right now, and I call my profs by their first names. That may be because I’m in England, which is somewhat ironic because they’re known for being more formal than USians. When you add in the fact that other people with the same credentials as you, except are white and male get called “Doctor” while you don’t, that changes the game completely. Also, you say that you’re not that much older than your students. I wonder if that makes a difference, or if it should make a difference.

    1. I think age definitely makes a difference…as well as my teaching style (I think). My classes are informal in that they are relatively discussion-based and I encourage (and demonstrate) vulnerability and transparency in discussions, so I also realize that some of that sense of familiarity bleeds into one-on-one interactions.

  3. In my PhD program, we refer to all faculty by their first name. From the Chair to anyone else. I must admit, it BLEW MY MIND when I got there. I am black. I am female-bodied. I am southern. And Patricia would ‘knock me into the middle of next week’ if she heard me refer to an adult (granted I’m 33) by their first name. It took me a long time to get comfortable calling my professors by their first name. The mission was to establish a more egalitarian space and a space where there wasn’t such a sharp hierarchy. But IMO, I need a hierarchy! I need to feel like my professor is my professor and not my equal. Perhaps that need is ingrained in me, perhaps it’s just who I am and would be sans conditioning.

  4. There are a whole host of class issues caught up in this.

    I note that the first-generation-college-students with Ph.D.s are much more strict about this than the professors from heavily academic backgrounds. Humanities professors are more strict about title than science professors. Prestigious universities tend to have professors and grad students interacting more informally than graduate programs at less prestigious universities. When research staff and faculty refers to another senior figure by title, it’s a sign of either an archaic practice that will disappear after that senior figure retires or some kind of enforced hierarchy that reminds me of something from corporate America.

    Regardless, at the end of the day, don’t put up with crap from undergrads. Ever.

  5. When I was an undergrad I would have never dreamed of calling a Professor by their first name, no matter what their ethnicity was. And I was especially respectful with Black professors because I was so awed. I think that if you feel strongly enough about it, you should start correcting people- especially students. Me personally, I never called a professor ‘Doctor’ unless (s)he was an actual doctor, so-depending on your field- I wouldn’t worry much if they dont call you that. But you should establish the social boundaries of your relationships with people (title being one of them) and stick to it.

  6. Thank you for this well written piece. As a black woman with a couple of master’s degrees who has been in and around academia for years, I’ve seen and experienced this in action. At issue is definitely race and age but also white privelege. I’ve also seen a variation of this dynamic at work with a colleague of mine, a Boriqua, who is one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. She has a heavy Spanish accent, yet folks treat her like she just swam here yesterday. That woman is fluent in two languages and has two master’s degrees! Even with your informal teaching style, academia is still seriously hierarchical–being at the top of that food chain means you need to get your props Dr. B. It’s a sad thing that you have to remind people of that fact. White male privelege is still in full effect.

  7. I’m always so careful about this! There are a few professors who have made it explicit in my undergrad career that they want to be called by their first name; one of them is a woman, and the other four are men. Some of my professors make it clear that we – the students – can call them Professor _______ (if they haven’t a Ph.D.), by their first name, Dr. ______________; in one instance, my Women’s Studies professor said we could caller her “O” since she said most English-speaking people mispronounced her names. In the cases where my professors are women (and especially women of color) I am very deliberate in calling them Dr. __________ or Professor __________, unless they have asked us not to. It makes me so uncomfortable and sometimes angry when other classmates – and my boyfriend is the worst – call the professor by their first names. Even when they have asked us to, though, I feel (as several other commenters do) that I need the hierarchy! It makes me feel a bit more secure, for some reason. Anyway, just my two cents. I really enjoyed your article. Thanks for writing it!

  8. I am surprised that with all these deep thinkers and feminists posting on this board, there is no questioning about the basic assumptions in the first post, namely that the formality to wish in your relationship to these “students” is just. By having your “students” give you a title that separates you from them and places you in a position of authority above them (not based on the students experience with you, but based on a title you carry), you are training them to accept command and control, not to think for themselves. I would hope that some reading of Paulo Frier might shed some more light onto this. I think Andrea Malone says it well when they say “I feel (as several other commenters) that I need the hierarchy. It makes me feel a bit more secure, for some reason.” That reason is you, Prof. Boylorn. As a feminist I would think your interested would be dismantling systems of oppression, not supporting them

    1. First, I would say that for many people of color, the title is a sign of respect and acknowledgement. When I taught in a program with MA students in African and African American studies, they ALWAYS said Dr., even though I preferred Professor, because it was a sign of respect and was a mark of how they one day wanted to be addressed after accomplishing their goals. Culture should make a difference here. I would also note that I was very close to many of my faculty when I was an undergrad, I still speak to them 20 years later (by their first names), and calling them Professor was not an impediment to our intellectual intimacy. I also think that I am training students to think about professionalism, as well as to become critical thinkers, and the formality reminds them that there is a boundary—we GRADE them. We are not friends in our initial pedagogical encounters, although we may be one day. And the reason she feels more secure with the title IS NOT just her. Disrespect of women and people of color is rampant on many college campuses. There are constant cues that they should not be there. She is not imagining that, and it is incredibly hard on young people who may be experiencing this if you tell them that it is all in their own heads. I hope you don’t do that to your students.

      1. My intention is not to tell anyone anything about their experience, and don’t believe I did. I am asking to take a step back and talk about the fundamentally oppressive nature of higher education AS WELL, not INSTEAD OF the discussion on the intersection of race and gender discrimination within higher education.

        As a radical organizer coming to this blog, racisms and sexism in Academia was not something new to me, not something surprising or illuminating. What did catch me was the seeming lack of critical inquiry into what the result of the titles and hierarchy are in the “students” when they leave the class. One guess at an outcome would be that students would be more aware and work against differences in authority based on gender and race, but not learn at all to question the justness of that authority ever.

        One good indication that you may be challenging structures of oppression is when you start getting fired or talked to for your actions. But no Dean or Chair is going to make a fuss at all if you work towards earning the same unjust authority that they have. Or do other professors find this untrue?

      2. Jose’ given your lackluster response to Rebecca’s thoughtful replies to your arguments, it’s clear that you want to have a different kind of conversation than the one called for by the post in question.

        If you think you’re going to find a straight up anti-academic screed here, it’s not going to happen. But you will not be allowed to dominate this comments section with unhelpful comments that are by and large dismissive of the power dynamics named and affirmed here by many women and women of color in particular (myself included.)

        Your inability, as a man (I presume from the name), to really listen and “hear” what we as women of color who do this work on the day to day are saying, is summarily unfeminist.


      3. Crunktastic,

        I would like to know, honestly, what you found lackluster about my reply, and what kind of response was called for by the original post. I am not an academic and I don’t communicate nor agree ahead of time to follow those norms, nor does your page on comments ask for that. I am trying my best to be respectful and also see if anyone is interested in talking about structures of power without having that be dismissive of the incredible work the OP and other are doing to challenge oppression.

    2. Calling someone by his or her title is no “system of oppression,” but rather an assumption of respect. Students and professors are NOT equal–that’s why there are rules about sexual harassment, fraternization, grading rubrics etc. to protect students from being exploited by their professors. All those ideas about “hierarchy is oppressive” in the classroom were NOT invented by Black female professors, let me tell you.:-) You try going into the classroom giving away your power to students when they already don’t see you as an intellectual authority–because you are a Black woman in this racist/sexist society–and they will run you out of that classroom.:-) There is a power differential, and thus, the need for rules. If a student and a professor were equal, then the student wouldn’t need to be in the classroom in the first place. I think that what people assume is that, if we have the patina of equality in the classroom that therefore there is not a power differential. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I’ve read Paolo Friere and others–but I’ve learned that informality in the classroom breeds problems, the same way that “being friends” with your mama does. Someone has to be in control and the effectiveness of “decentering power” is a myth. It simply leads to disorganization, and when things go wrong, guess who gets blamed by the administrators? The professor, because that is the person who is supposed to be in “command and and in control,” not the students; the students get to go on their merry way and never worry about it again, while the exercise in “decentering power” goes into a professor’s professional file. It is very possible to have formality in the classroom–as in “you are the student and I am the teacher”– and still encourage free thinking, free expression and mutual respect–and kindness. But at some point, a student must accept the apprenticeship of learning, and that he or she has something to learn that is not already known. That’s just that.

  9. For those in this thread who seem to be struggling with understanding the challenges that Black women and other women of color face in the classroom, I’d encourage everyone to get a copy of the new anthology called Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia.

    I’d also urge against the facile recourse to the feminist pedagogical notion of deconstructing hierarchies of power. I believe in deconstructing hierarchy as part of my feminist pedagogy, but since Black women are not assumed to have qualifications or professorial authority in the first place, then the context for dismantling power in Black feminists classrooms looks really different than it does if the professor is white.

    1. I am interested in exploring the complexities of this issue, and thank you for your comment. Can you share more about what dismantling power in a classroom where the “Professor” is a Black feminist, and how that relates to the critique of the banking method of education that Freier offers in “Pedagogy of the Opporessed”, or help me to understand how race and sex affect for you your ability to enter into non-hierarchical relationships.

      Why are you giving status and stature to the professional authority, or professionalism in general, if they are primarily tools of oppression?

      I look forward to reading the anthology.

    2. Totally agree. Also, the fact is that by enrolling in a school, a person willingly takes on the role of student, i.e. the position of someone who wants to learn and be mentored by others. If you believe you have equal knowledge and authority to the teachers at a school, why would you spend your time and money to attend school? I am not saying this facetiously. Some folks really don’t need to be in school. I just wish individuals would think through their self-positioning before pulling out Paolo Freire etc. A US student attending a US university is not the same as a colonized indigeneous person!

      1. I’m not sure that most student’s willingly take on the role of student, just like I don’t believe sweat shop workers willingly take the job at $2 a day. I can unpack that if needed.

        And plenty of US students attending US university are colonized indigenous people. I would say we ALL ARE. I can tell you when my people were indigenous and who colonized them. We were all once indigenous.

  10. Jose, your question, “Why are you giving status and stature to the professional authority, or professionalism in general, if they are primarily tools of oppression?” is based on the false assumption that everyone within that class are (1) equal and (2) oppression doesn’t take place among members of that class. Dr Boylorn already gave gives one concrete example of that when she describes how even among peers, the women of color were the only ones that were not referred to by their titles. And that is a mild example of the racism and sexism that Black women in the academy experience on a daily basis. You’ll find more in the anthology should you genuinely be interested in the answer to your own question i.e. it’s not rhetorical.

  11. I think this is a very interesting post, and one that I have mixed feelings about. I’ll state first that I am an undergrad, so for the people that have mentioned you shouldn’t “take any crap for undergrads.ever.” it’s frankly off-putting. It reads as very patronizing and really closes off conversation by creating an “us” vs. “them” dynamic.

    Truthfully, I think this is an issue with many layers but one way to look at it would be as a matter of ” asking the question, and respecting the answer”. The question being “How would you like to be addressed”, and then ensuring that your students respect the answer. I personally have professors with PhD’s who prefer going by their first name and so I respect that, there are others who want Dr. (Last Name). and it’s really up to your discretion.

    As for the class and race components you make an excellent point and I feel that even though I’m not a huge fan of playing with power, there are times when you have to let people know. It’s Dr._______, especially if you’re not being addressed with the title you worked for and your colleagues are. I will say that being in a Women’s Studies program we’re more liberal in this regard, and being from the west coast, that formality doesn’t resonate as heavily, so location is also something to consider. From my perspective the professors who prefer their first name it’s only after a certain point, for example when I started taking classes with them earlier in my undergrad career it was Dr.____, and then as I progressed through the program, put in my work it became ( insert first name here) and it wasn’t out of disrespect, and I never for a moment forgot that they were my professor, but rather it was out of solidarity.

  12. I am not trying to make any assumptions about the nature of the class, and I believe it is important to recognize the oppression and inequality in any situation, especially as it relates to perceived race and perceived gender, and I found Dr. Boylorn’s article helpful in pointing those out in the Academy, as I imagine from the comments on Amazon, the anthology analyzes in more detail.I also believe that racism has strong structural elements to it, and this discussion seems overly focused on the personal actions and beliefs of the students. I would believe that a number of the students don’t wish to be in a “Teacher-student” relationship with anyone, regardless of their perceived race or perceived gender.

    But the jump I am struggling with (genuinely, not rhetorically) is how these truths about gender, class, race and oppression as they relate to the Academy make it okay to ask (or demand) of your “students” that they verbally acknowledge your authority and higher status, reinforcing patterns of oppression and leaving the “students” better equipped to bow before authority, not challenge it.

  13. I can’t help but notice how many of the responses are focused on whether the tradition of referring to a prof by title vs name. The most poignant thing to me was the contrast between the authors experience and those of her (white, male, older) peers. It bothers me to no end that, whatever the expectations of the tradition, people with equal credentials are not being treated as equals by either faculty or students.

  14. If we are interested in changing the larger institutional forms, which in our culture are racists, gender-biased, ableist, oppressive (we know this already, no?), I feel called work to liberate ourselves and aid in the liberation of others, which to me is the opposite of coercing people into using the forms of oppression, like professional titles. As so many of the comments said, you are reinforcing patterns of hierarchy and making people (maybe more from the South where the institutional forms of racism are still strongest) feel more comfortable when you ask them to call you Dr. I believe that leaves them, after your class, more comfortable giving power over to forms of authority (bosses, professors, cops, politicains) and less able to critically think and analyze their experience with their own tools and their own ways of knowing, learning to trust themselves and the process of being a reasoning actor in this world.

    I don’t mean to dismiss that within these larger institutionalized forms of oppression we can break that oppression down into many smaller, intersecting forms, and that all these forms of oppression are harmful, and that each of us is subject to very different forms of oppression within these institutions, primarily in the USA for perceived race and gender. But the two discussions don’t seem to be mutually exclusive. Is there a way to discuss both, and talk about them as a whole?

    1. Aren’t we reinforcing an oppressive structure if we 1.) refuse to acknowledge someone’s labor and accomplishments 2.) think that addressing someone as they desire to be addressed means that people suddenly lose their power to think? Is a boundary-free classroom, or society an ideal? And isn’t intimacy EARNED? And while we are equal as people in the classroom, and on the earth, do we have equal knowledge of the subject matter in the classroom? If not, isn’t there a hierarchy there that you are just choosing to ignore? I once had a grad student tell me, like you, that following bell hooks and Freire, she didn’t see herself as having any more knowledge than any of the students. To which I said–then what right do you have to teach them? Why are they paying to take a class from you? I will continue to say that there is a value to recognition–the failure to do so in a society that degrades educators more and more cannot be a good thing to me.

      1. Thank you for your comment. However, please don’t compare me to someone else you know based on a few lines of writing. Exploring these questions is not only for certain tips of people.

        Can you look at the value of the educational system objectively when it pays your bills, and to think differently might bring into question your deeply held views and persona?

        I’m looking for your objection to hooks or Friere, how do you answer the two questions at the end of the post?

      2. The professor here is not “asking” her students something, in an equal exchange between consenting individuals. if he asks to be called something, and you would rather not, you risk upsetting that professor and hurting your grades.

        And I don’t know why the “teacher’s” time gets any more value than the “student’s”, whether they had the privileged to spend 8 years thinking and writing, generating debt and increasing GDP, having gone through a strong idealogical selection process that weeds out possible aberrant thought (think PhD, MD, JD, etc, look at drop out rates.) which gave them a “Title”, or whether they were planting a garden and birthing lambs.

  15. I had a professor in law school tell me that you should never address a faculty member by his/her first name unless or until he/she invites you to do so and once you have the same credentials that he/she has. I have never forgotten that lesson, and to this day, I show all faculty the same respect. My students, on the other hand, never think twice about calling me Ms. Carleen or Ms. V. instead of professor. I am the only black faculty member in my department, and I am absolutely certain that my students do not refer to their white professors by their first name. When I comment about this, I’m called a bitch. I even had a student question the four diplomas hanging on my wall–he claimed that he needed to make sure that I didn’t purchase them online somewhere. The worst part is that he was black! As a faculty member at a large research-I institution, I would have expected students to have some professional etiquette where they acknowledge that I have the same educational background and am deserving of the same respect as my colleagues. Unfortunately, that is simply not the case.

  16. When I went back to school, many of my professors wanted me to call them by their first names. As a Southern girl who was Raised Right (despite all attempts to the contrary), I just *couldn’t.* Like, I was pretty sure my grandmother would swoop down from on high and backhand me through the hallowed halls of academia if I even tried. I usually found a happy medium by calling them “Coach” which was just hokey enough to work.

  17. I think you should be addressed by whatever title other faculty are addressed; if “Dr. ___” is what faculty are normally called, then that should be the end of it.

    As a female rabbi, I noticed early on that male rabbis are usually addressed by default as Rabbi Lastname. They may invite “Rabbi Joe” but that’s not where the conversation begins. I often get “Rabbi Ruth” or just “Ruth,” and I choose to insist on “Rabbi Adar.” I worked for six years and spent a fortune getting this credential, just the same as the guys. I do not want to send a message that I agree with the not-so-subtle devaluation of my title.

    For a woman of color in an academic setting, I’d say “so much the moreso.” You moved mountains to earn that PhD, Dr. Boylorn!

  18. I was told both in England and at Harvard (where I was an undergraduate in the late 80s) that the correct form of address was Mr or Ms and NOT Professor or indeed Dr (only for medical folks). I like this because it is the way that all strangers or adults ought to be addressed. I think students are inherently courteous but need to be told the correct forms of address. If I ever land a tenure track job–now that I have a Ph.D.–I will ask my students to address me as Mr. Radhakrishnan in person and in writing but also tell them that as a matter of course they should simply ask adults they deal with how they would like to be addressed. At Princeton, where I completed my doctorate in April 2012, everyone said Professor X, which I find unattractive as I don´t see why a professor should be addressed differently from any other adult.

    1. This just isn’t true. England has its own honorific system for academia, but at Harvard, you CERTAINLY are to address a tenured (or tenure-track) teacher as “Professor [X]” (unless invited to do otherwise). Teaching fellows–that is, graduate students assisting in course instruction–are a different matter.

      I feel that, in America, “Dr.” is really properly reserved for medical doctors, but “professor” is certainly your title by right.

      1. Dear Sarah,

        My comment was about Harvard in the mid 80s and not currently in 2013. I assume it is common practice now to address all professors there as Professor X.

        Yours ever,


      2. Manu, I attended a similar type of school in roughly the same time period and had friends who attended Harvard at the same time. Obviously, there have always been professors with individual preferences as to address, but as a general rule it has been “professor” going back I don’t know how long. You can do as you like with respect to your own students but if you fail to address the owner of the blog, as a Ph.D. teaching in the American system, as “Professor” (or “Doctor,” I suppose) you are being disrespectful.

  19. I also have a PhD and teach college. My students often call me by my first name or Mrs. ______. I advise them at the beginning of the semester that in order to be polite to faculty members without having to remember if someone possess a PhD or not, they should simply address all of their faculty as Professor ______ unless they are told otherwise. I recognize that many faculty want their students to call them by their first names, but I do not. When students call me Mrs. _______ instead of Dr. or Professor, I usually explain to them that if they are going to refer to me by a title I would prefer to be called by the title that I earned rather than the one given to me (without my consent) upon my marriage to a husband who doesn’t have the same last name as me. None of my male colleagues have this same problem. Part of the reason that I want to be called Dr. or Professor is to help students move past their gendered upbringings which code teacher as feminine and professor as masculine.

  20. Something my colleagues and I have noted (and lamented) is the tendency our students have to, in the same breath, address their male professor as Dr. or Professor while addressing the female professor co-teaching the course as Ms. or [Firstname].

    I hadn’t thought about class with regard to forms of address, but now that I am, my experience is consistent with what other folks are reporting. First in their family to go to college? Usually use sir and ma’am in addition to titles. On a full scholarship or heavy need-based financial aid? Same.

    As a lowly lab instructor without a graduate degree, I usually just go by my first name with students. This semester, I’ve got two Black students who have recently taken to calling me Miz [Firstname] when we’re working together one-on-one. As someone who grew up using that form of address for women for whom I had affectionate respect, I have been delighted and honored to hear it applied to me.

  21. I work in a department in the South that includes faculty who hold MFAs as their terminal degrees as well as PhDs, and what to call people has bothered me ever since I arrived. When I joined my colleagues, the standard in the department was for all of the MFAs to be called Mr. or Miss + first name. (I gather since that time from reading e-mails about these people that the students do distinguish between Mrs. and Miss – not so sure about Ms. – but that distinction is unclear aurally, at least to this Northerner.) The one PhD was called Dr + first name. I couldn’t stand the thought of being called Miss + first name, so I chose to use Dr. For my first year, that was Dr. + first name but my last name honestly flows much better so it quickly shifted, thus leaving me the most formal member of the department.

    I have long felt uncomfortable with the distinction this seems to create between myself and my colleagues, seemingly giving me more respect than that afforded to others equally worthy of it. That said, I have stuck to the formal title because I find that it reinforces the professional focus that I expect students to take towards my classes. I try to always use Prof. + last name when referring to my MFA colleagues (even though the students do not) to reinforce my respect for their work. Finally, I make a big deal of allowing students who graduate (all undergrads) to call me by my first name from that point forwards, which I feel helps them feel the pride and weight of their own accomplishment.

    I find no resistance to my title within the department, where our students all know each other well. I have, however, found a great deal of resistance to it in my large general education course. Students in that class regularly refer to me as Miss + first name even though I make a point of saying they can use any of Prof/Dr + first name or last name on the first day of class. I do feel it is often a direct attempt to put me in what they feel is my place. This student evaluation I once received makes clear the links between titles and gender and authority: “She dresses much too informally for someone who insists on being called ‘Dr.’ instead of ‘Miss.'” I’m a white woman. I can only imagine how often and how dismissively my colleagues of color deal with this issue. I support you, Dr. B, in asking for the acknowledgment of the qualifications you worked to earn to do your job.

  22. Where is the Crunk? Where is the feminism? Many of these comments seem to be repeating what authority figures have told or beat into you in the past, and the totally understandable rage and hurt about the way unjust authority is distributed in locations of power, But what about that basic power itself? Will black women EVER gain an equal level of power with white or male within unjust institutions? My feeling is no, the institutions and specifically the education of the professional class is explicitly designed to create the hierarchical, oppressive, exploitative system that is destroying people and planet alike,

    I don’t mean to say we dismiss or keep fighting for equality in all it’s varied, intersecting, unique forms, and those who experience this oppression are the ones to speak for themselves. But how does the radical feminist black female teacher who wants to tear down systems of oppression and also wants to be an equal within an oppressive system hold those two truths, if you do believe them true?

    1. Jose, you seem to be determined to force Dr Boylorn and the rest of the commenters to join a conversation that only you want to have. This is an oppressive act in itself.

      You don’t seem to be interested in Dr Boylorn and others’ experiences of their interpretations of those experiences, only how you think they ought to react. Finally, you go on to ask a question – “Will black women EVER gain an equal level of power with white or male within unjust institutions? My feeling is no” – and answer it yourself in a way that completely erases the efforts of women of colour to deal with the discrimination they face.

      It seems to me that you are guilty of precisely the behaviour you are suggesting must end. You are ignoring Dr Boylorn’s words; telling her what her goals should be and how she should try to achieve them; and dismissing her and others’ efforts to understand and improve their day-to-day experience. Implicitly, you are therefore dismissing all of the effort that Dr Boylorn expended to reach the position she has, against the odds. Telling her that she’s not doing it – ‘it’ being YOUR stated goals – right unless she’s getting disciplined or fired, and that her stand against discrimination is a hopeless cause anyway, amounts to treating Dr Boylorn as of lesser importance than you and your opinions. I’m sure that’s not what you intended, but that is the effect of your words.

      1. I think José makes a valid point. It can be true that racist and sexist assumptions devalue WOC academics’ place in the academy and that the insistence on being addressed according to credentials reinforces potentially troubling hierarchies. The question is, how can we advance a critique that acknowledges and challenges both of these things? I don’t think the original post attempts to do that at all, and this seems like a legitimate and thoughtful response.

      2. Well, Dr Borlorn has the privileged of this Blog and space to share what they wish, and I was trying to bring in, from a less privileged place, a different, to me more complex, question. Not sure that through strong, emotional language, which seemed to be specifically asked for on this blog, that I was forcing anyone to do anything. I was asking for dialog on a Crunk blog, trying to engage. Thank you to those that did.

        I also appreciate the feedback about how my actions made you feel, and will take some time to digest what you wrote. I would hope other’s are comfortable sharing their feelings here as well, as I am asking for feedback.

  23. I totally relate to your post. As clergy, I have run into exactly the same thing. Men, especially but not exclusively, refer to my male colleagues as “Pastor [Smith]” but women clergy most often are referred to as “Pastor [Becky]” or just by first name. You are correct. There is a subtle but insidious diminution attached to the way people choose to address men and women differently who hold the same title. It’s a little verbal pat on the head to a girl who’s playing pretend and a recognition and show of respect to the boys.

  24. Although I am still working on completing undergraduate school, I am going to be honest and say that I have found myself turning my nose up to professors who make a big deal about being addressed with their “Dr.” title. However, after reading this I understand why the may have behaved that way. I have noticed that in many cases, students are more likely to address a woman out of her name, or with the improper title before they would address a male professor in such manner. Gender is one thing, but when you add race in the picture, as you have mentioned, a lot of things change. Part of it goes back to how even though all women were seen as less than men, white women were still addressed in a more proper manner. White women were called ladies while black women were addressed as females, woman, etc. I agree with the idea of addressing someone by their title is absolutely a sign of respect and acknowledgment. I also think the idea of already dealing with a variety of negative racial and class assumptions on a daily basis, only leads on to think that when they are addresses in an informal way, that it is because of race or class and not simply because the personal is comfortable addressing you in such a way. In a society where black women have already been and still are belittled, ridiculed, and scrutinized about every move and decision they make, I think that it is only fair to keep it professional so that nothing can be misinterpreted or taken in a negative way. The problem of addressing black women is longstanding and until we are seen as equal (God knows if that will ever happen) this problem is always be present. In a case like this, I believe you can never be too sure.

  25. This post has left me with a lot to think about; thank you for creating a space for a vibrant and engaging discussion. I think the most troubling thing is how your colleagues are fomenting hierarchy by applying a different set of naming practices to faculty members — all of whom teach the same sorts of courses and publish in the same forums, at the same rates, with the same competitive grants supporting their work — based on race, gender, and age. How our students respond to us is one thing; they are young, they may be speaking from positions of genuinely not knowing what they’re supposed to say, and their speech may reflect their own anxieties about being in college more than anything else. In any event, they came to school to learn, so we can say something helpful here about the power of names, and we can encourage them to take some of the threads of class discussion and apply them to their own analysis of the organization of the world through language. But your colleagues ought to know better; in fact, I suspect that they do, and thus it is the more disturbing part of the story.

    On the other hand, I had a very different kind of mentor relationship with female faculty than I did with male faculty as a graduate student. As a result, I called my female mentors by their first names (only after their prompting), while I never, ever called my male advisors anything other than “Dr. ____,” even though my research more closely aligned with theirs and I had spent more time working with them. I don’t want to make excuses for your students, or to guess what they may be thinking. But speaking only from the perspective of my own experience, it seems like they might be responding to the less rigid, more open classroom dynamic that you have created — much like I responded to deeper connections with my women mentors than with my male readers. Your students feel comfortable sharing their ideas and responses to meaningful, difficult problems, the sorts of charged texts and contexts that usually make people uncomfortable. Not to sound overly Polyannish about it, but congratulations on creating the kind of space that allows for that level of discussion. In my experience, that is where some of the best learning occurs. That it creates unintended consequences, like a students’ unwitting participation in a too-long tradition of marginalizing the accomplishments of black women and faculty of color within and without the academy is something we still need to address as practitioners of feminist pedagogies.

    But your colleagues? No. That is just infuriating.

  26. I thoroughly appreciated this article. I was hired as an Assistant Professor when I was still a PhD candidate. I was by far the youngest faculty member and the only African American in the entire department. Out of respect, my colleagues referred to me as Dr. S, however, I didn’t want to ask my students to refer to me as Dr. S because in all fairness, I had not yet completed my Ph.D. at the time. As a result, I requested students refer to me as Prof. S. While I never referred to myself by my first name in front of my students, a student (who had previously self-identified as a racist) decided he would address me by my first name in class. I advised him that my students were welcome to refer to me as Prof. S. After that, he simply made a point of never addressing me by my name AT ALL….in e-mails or in person. I will NEVER forget his response on my teacher evaluation at the end of the course:

    “The instructor is a PhD candidate and insisted on being addressed as “professor,” which was hokey (noticeably contrived).”

    Rude to say the least. I’ve had a hard time putting into words my disgust with the response, but reading “On Being Called Out My Name” clearly put words to many of the feelings and thoughts I had since been processing. Thank you.

  27. There is no contradiction between being committed to changing dynamics of oppression and domination as a feminist, an anti-racist, and an anti-classist, and demanding respect in terms legible to the currently operating systems of oppression. As a woman of color and an academic, demanding to be called Dr. or Professor is an act that challenges existing systems of oppression that deny legitimacy to women of color. It demands that students challenge their perhaps unconscious views that women of color cannot/should not hold power and should be treated casually rather than professionally. It demands that students recognize that their talk of “but we’re close, it’s about intimacy and personal relationships, not about being disrespectful” may actually just be an excuse for their subconscious feelings that it’s okay to be casual with women and especially women of color and deny them them respect and authority. Demanding all of this does not mean that women of color are enforcing rigid hierarchies in their classrooms and are not capable of guiding students and learning with them through liberatory modes of pedagogy a la bell hooks and Paolo Freire.

    Letting go completely of the trappings of hierarchy, including explicit modes of respect such as formal titles, is possible only when there is absolutely no question that the social structure provides sufficient respect for all involved. This is why it is so easy for men, especially white men, to drop formal signs of respect and still hold the respect of their students. For men and white men, respect is granted by default, as the norm, and withheld only if the men prove themselves unworthy. For women and women of color and also for men of color, it’s a completely different matter. They are given disrespect by default, even if they have proven themselves worthy of respect. For these despised and disrespected people, demanding respect is in itself an act that questions and challenges oppression and domination.

    For many of my students who are male and who are white, empowering them often involves getting them to understand their default positions of gendered and raced power, which to them often feels disempowering at first. As someone else wrote earlier, we are not talking here about teaching and learning with oppressed colonized peoples, but with relatively privileged U.S. college students. It’s a whole different dynamic.

    By the way, I always insist — gently — that my undergraduates call me Professor. No one has complained. When they call me Ms, Miss, or Mrs., I assume it’s a holdover from high school and tell them that college is different. I know that often that is not the reason, and that they don’t do this to their male or white professors, but that particular lesson about race, gender, and forms of address is usually better learned in a different setting. There is always a time in class when it comes up, and everyone can learn the lesson together in a non-accusatory setting.

    1. Thank you so much for this response. The distinction between teaching in the US university vs. other oppressed peoples is something I am digesting, Thank you again

  28. People called you by your first name?! Now I haven’t gone to college very long but my mother has been teaching me how to respect those in higher positions than myself for years. (notice how I say “those in a higher position” not just a white or/and male teachers which happens ll the time at my school.) Also, yes I am a Ms. Anderson now, but I hope to be a Dr. Anderson someday and when that day comes I feel like I’ll deserve nothing less than to be addressed by my professional title.

  29. Awesome article! I’ve enjoyed reading ALL your blogs!!! Real food for thought! I will be getting my PhD (God willing) by next year and I feel you on the respect that is due to this choice that we make for higher education. In the Caribbean, we always address our lecturers by the correct title, and this is a mark of respect deeply rooted in our culture. To this day I still address my former Profs by their appropriate titles, even though I am no longer their student. As a first gen university grad also, I am deeply aware of how much this journey into the great abyss that is knowledge means (especially to my Ma), and when I’m done, I don’t want people to ever think it is ‘ok’ to minimalize my achievements by not addressing me by my title, especially students and colleagues (when in formal academic settings). You’re so right – until they start handing out these bad boys for free at the local supermarket, people better recognize!!!

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