Don't Call Me Thomas

January 16, 2006

"Hello, Thomas, did you find everything you wanted?"

Silence, five seconds.


I don't blame the cashier of course. It's not her fault if some marketing director dictates that calling customers by their first name is somehow good for business. She, too, seemed slightly embarrassed at having to use a stranger's name in this artificial fashion. Her employer must have paid a couple million dollars to a clutch of corporate consultants who constructed a data-driven vision of the average shopper's longing for the warmth and authenticity of the lost mom-and-pop grocery store.

I guess I'm an anti-egalitarian prig to bristle at being called "Thomas" by anyone besides my mother. Well, whatever. It's not like I'll stop shopping there. But I still wonder how even the most obtuse executive can fail to visualize the impropriety of a 17-year-old girl saying to a distinguished elderly lady, "Hello, Miriam, did you find everything you wanted?"

It would be wrong to chastise her, but how should I respond? It's one thing to make employees pretend to love their minimum-wage jobs, but it seems categorically different to demand feigned bonhomie from customers. More and more, life in the United States is taking on the Orwellian qualities of Disneyworld, where you must pretend to be happy or risk being harassed by fascists in bunny costumes.

That was the world of entry-level corporate culture from which I hoped to escape by going to graduate school. I tried the business path but like Holden Caulfield armed with B.A. in English (and familiarity with Sinclair Lewis), I couldn't quite participate in the earnest phoniness of corporate sales meetings. All around us were framed posters of people who were newly happy -- leaping into the air with joy -- because they had bought our products. There was no "reality," we were told; sales were manifested by the will to believe. If you didn't have faith in the product, then the customer wouldn't have faith in you. You were really selling yourself. Sales figures confirmed the sanctification of true believers. It was Puritanism via William James via L. Ron Hubbard.

Meanwhile, I daydreamed about professors who didn't have to wear suits and tassel loafers. They didn't have to glad hand prospects. They didn't have to play golf and memorize sports statistics. They didn't have to pretend to believe in things that were manifestly untrue. They could perform their jobs without psychotic smiles pasted on their faces. They could have authentic relationships, and they were regarded with sincere respect by admiring students.

Or so I liked to believe.

Flash forward 15 years, and I find myself a professor of English at a small, liberal-arts college. I can work in semi-casual clothes. I don't play golf or care much about football. And I get to teach subjects using the closest approximation of complex truth I can muster. But there are still moments of awkwardness, and, like my experience buying groceries, those moments often involve forms of address.

I'm walking across campus with a female faculty member, and a student greets us as we pass, "Hello, Valerie. Hello, Professor Benton."

I immediately wondered whether the student had made an offensive distinction in perceived status based on gender? But my colleague didn't seem to take it as such. Did that young woman know my colleague in a social context? Or does my colleague simply encourage some students to call her by her first name? I don't actually tell students what to call me. But am I a stuffed shirt and a stick-in-the-mud because I think it's best for students to address professors formally -- at least until after graduation?

How would it be if a judge began his proceedings with, "Sit down, folks, and call me Bob"? What if he asked the prosecutor to call him "Bob" but made the defense address him formally?

How can I give a C to someone who is close enough to me to use my first name?

Does teacher-student informality reflect the efflorescence of liberal egalitarianism, which I like to think I support? Or, is it yet another symptom of the corporatization of academic culture, which I like to think I oppose?

The adjunct's informality with students has the air of resignation; it's subordination to student-customers rather than a reflection of an egalitarian spirit: "Hi, I'm Thomas, and I'll be serving you Nietzsche this evening. And, remember, in this class, everyone is a winner!" [big smile].

These days about two-thirds of humanities teachers -- part-time, transient, cowed -- do not have the institutional backing to command much respect from their students, even if they have prestigious doctorates and long lists of refereed publications. Their job is not to be authorities so much as it is to get high scores on performance evaluations completed by large number of students. And, since the majority of students take their classes with the minimum-wage cashiers of the academic world, it must seem strange to be expected to refer to one or two privileged faculty members as "Professor." It's like calling someone "your royal highness."

Are we surrendering our titles in the spirit of equality? Or are we doing this because authority is steadily diminishing, and we can at least prolong our decline by making virtues of our necessities? "I'm not a contemptible, underpaid teacher of a dying discipline. You see, I believe in student-centered education. I can make them buy my product with a shoeshine and a smile."

I suppose, on some level, my reaction against being called by my first name has origins in my working-class background. I can remember, as a young child, hearing a salesman describe my father as "that guy" instead of as "the gentleman," which he had just applied to another man. How did he make that distinction? Who was I if I was "that guy's" son?

Can upper-middle-class students see right through me? Do my mannerisms give me away? Do they instinctively think I should be laying pipe instead of teaching literature? "Thomas, would you please bring the car around?" My feelings are similar to those of minority faculty members, who also tend to maintain formality in their relations with students. The use of "Professor" has helped me to maintain a professional identity that is distinct from my inner self who sometimes feels like an imposter.

I remember I put "Ph.D." on the heading of my CV within an hour after I submitted my dissertation for binding. To this day, my framed degrees hang on the wall of my office, though perhaps a few of my colleagues regard that as a dclass affectation, as I increasingly do myself.

And I guess I am still a little sensitive to slights, such as when a student submits a paper with just "Benton" in the heading without being preceded by "Dr." or "Prof." It's not a big deal, and I don't lower their grade for it. But little, inadvertent discourtesies -- even when they are intended as signs of friendliness -- can play on my lingering insecurities.

For the most part, I find that comfortable professional relationships are more likely to exist between people of drastically different ranks when there is no ambiguity about relative status and when the senior person makes no distinction among subordinates. I know from experience that relationships between teachers and students can easily founder on confusion over modes of address.

That was the case with me and my adviser during the first two years of graduate school. I called him "professor" with enthusiasm; he was the smartest man I had ever met. After my qualifying exams, he asked me to call him by his first name. And, paradoxically, that seemed to mark a decline in the cordiality of our relationship. Using his first name assumed a familiarity that his relative experience and ability -- to say nothing of his almost absolute power over my career -- could not allow without a feeling of dishonesty akin to my experience in the megastore.

The reality of my institutional subordination ran against the grain of his benevolent desire to signify my progress toward collegial stature. And my desire to be friends with an eminent personage conflicted with the fact that he was, ultimately, my boss.

I suppose, like my adviser, as I get older and more confident, I find it decreasingly necessary to insist on the formalities my younger self wanted -- and still, to some degree, wants -- from his students. When students who are now half my age call me "professor," it no longer has the little spin of irony -- perhaps imagined -- that it had when I was a twenty-something adjunct faculty member. I think some of my students are starting to have trouble thinking of me as "Thomas," just as I had -- and have -- trouble addressing my old adviser by his first name.

Ultimately, I am not opposed to informality as a matter of principle in every context. I want to say that courtesy in language is comparable to appropriateness in attire: Clothing should not distract from the person, and titles should not draw attention away from the content of a conversation. Forms of address should just seem natural; they should develop organically like a well-ordered society.

But reassuring nostrums such as those -- direct from Edmund Burke via Dress for Success -- do not make our choices as faculty members and students less complicated in reality. Our identities are moving targets, and we live in a time of transition in which we often find ourselves playing the academic name game according to different rules. Our common desire for honest relationships -- for the mom-and-pop era of higher education (if it ever existed) -- makes us want to feel comfortable, authentic, and not phony, even when our contradictory institutional contexts and our complicated personal histories make that impossible, or at least fleeting and fraught with confusion.

But, if you want to be safe, just don't call me "Thomas" unless I ask you to, or you are my mother.

Thomas H. Benton is the pseudonym of an assistant professor of English at a Midwestern liberal-arts college. He writes about academic culture and the tenure track and welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at