Do You Make Them Call You ‘Professor’?

Why I began to rethink my views on classroom decorum

Mark Shaver

November 02, 2016

O ver dinner following a scholarly lecture, my colleagues and I began debating a familiar question: Do you make your students call you "Professor"? Opinions and practices seemed roughly correlated to the age, gender, and cultural background of the professor.

The youngish professors at the table, not surprisingly, felt comfortable being on a first-name basis with students, who tended to treat these faculty members informally anyway. An older professor said most students assumed they should call him "Professor," although he never articulates a preference. Also not surprisingly, women at the table said students were less respectful to them than to their male colleagues. I recalled my own discomfort as a student when a professor told us to use his first name, and how I then avoided addressing him at all.

But as a professor, I’d always assumed that erasing markers of hierarchy — including the title "Professor" — was crucial to fostering a feminist, queer-friendly, and democratic learning environment. Good pedagogy, I believed, involved downplaying my authority and, thus, encouraging students to express their views and ask questions. Recognizing the tremendous power of speech to shape relationships and ignite unconscious bias, I started using gender-neutral pronouns and telling students to call me "Carrie."

I still use gender-neutral pronouns in the classroom, but my perspective on how students should address a professor changed as I worked on a book called Learning to Kneel about the ancient Japanese Noh theater’s influence on modernist art. I took lessons in Noh chant and dance for my research and, at the beginning of each lesson, performed the customary bow on my knees while saying the formulaic phrase to my teacher, "Yoroshiku onegaishimasu" — essentially, "Thank you for your guidance in this lesson and beyond."

I teach best when I demand a standard of decorum in the classroom and in all communications. No, I don't require my students to drop on the floor in a bow when they enter the classroom -- though it's tempting.
I spent much of the lesson kneeling in the uncomfortable position of seiza, and when I finally got to stand up and dance, my feet were usually numb. I always addressed my teacher as "Sensei" — literally "Master."

I expected to hate the gestures of deference and submission in my lessons on Noh dance, especially given its long history of excluding women. To my surprise, I found comfort in following the conventions — and comfort was in short supply what with all of that kneeling.

Traditional practices like bowing and using honorifics helped me to negotiate the cultural differences and language barriers, and to occupy my role as a student. The rituals of the lesson gave me — a Westerner, woman, researcher, and outsider in many ways — access to an art form that many consider sacred. I learned that Noh emphasizes lessons, not shows, and a lifetime of training rather than performing. Actors are considered at their peak only after training for decades, and many perform professionally until late in life, even after their students must be onstage to help them stand up from seiza.

I couldn’t help contrasting the Western assumption that a dancer is old at 30 to the Eastern respect for an aging Noh performer — and contrasting students’ attitudes here in the United States about their professors to my sensei’s obvious reverence for his teacher, with whom he continues to take lessons even as he advances in his own career.

One explanation — supported by both performance theory and the James-Lange theory of emotions — would be that performing honorific gestures like kneeling and bowing produces feelings of honor for the teacher. Addressing the teacher as "Sensei" leads students to appreciate the teacher’s mastery.

More sinister implications should also be acknowledged — such as how performance can produce blind submission to dangerous personalities. History is rife with examples, and while living and studying in Japan, I felt some discomfort with the widespread emphasis on conformity.

Yet, as with most encounters with cultural difference, I learned a lot about myself.

My lessons challenged my assumption that an egalitarian classroom was an ideal to be achieved by diminishing my expertise and authority and cultivating an informal relationship with students, including using first names. Why did I think a casual atmosphere was honest and authentic? Power relations shape every pedagogical situation, and it might be more honest, even comforting, to acknowledge them.

Learning is often frightening, particularly when it’s life-changing, cross-cultural learning. My fears of being a bad student and offending a teacher who had graciously accepted such an outsider were eased by knowing the accepted mode of address.

Likewise, some of our students might avoid asking questions or visiting office hours because they feel uncomfortable using first names or don’t know what to call us. That was my own experience as an undergraduate.

Social media aggravates this problem, thanks to the prevalence of texting, tweeting, and emailing (although that last one is now apparently outdated). Many students don’t know how to write a professional email — one that includes a greeting, a clearly articulated request, and a closing, while avoiding PLZ MIRL ASAP (Please Meet In Real Life As Soon As Possible) — to a professor. They will have to learn how to do that eventually when interacting with an employer, so we should teach them those skills now.

I have come to the conclusion that I teach best when I demand a standard of decorum in the classroom and in all communications. No, I don’t require my students to drop on the floor in a bow when they enter the classroom — though it’s tempting.

But I do clarify upfront how I want to be addressed: Professor Preston, please. Noh lessons taught me to be more comfortable claiming my expertise and authority. By refusing to do so, I was obscuring the very real operations of power in the classroom, including the ritual of grades.

My attitude of informality was no more genuine than the rituals of deference I performed for my sensei — both are shaped by cultural conventions. I even realized that my informal, first-name performance with my students was not so much a committed feminist pedagogy as a gendered fear of claiming authority and being disliked (note the common claim that Hillary Clinton "shouts" and has a "likeability" problem.)

I won’t suggest a fixed rule that all professors should ask every student to address them as "Professor," in the way that "Sensei" was universal in the Japanese pedagogies I encountered. We all have different teaching styles and different preferences on our interactions with students.

As for me, I learned a more confident way of teaching by becoming a submissive student in Noh lessons.

Carrie J. Preston is an associate professor of English at Boston University, and director of its program in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies.