First Word Problems

My last post was on correspondence closers—those expressions of fidelity and endearment on which the seamless fabric of academia depends. In that post I paused to admire the French use of elaborated closers.

At the front end of academic correspondence, however, nobody baroques it up like the Germans. Sehr geehrter Herr Professor Doktor Schmidt is a mouthful, but it’s standard issue in the world of male German academics. We couldn’t easily translate that gesture into English. The honorable Professor Schmidt, who also holds a Ph.D., would just be snark. Even Professor Schmidt, Ph.D., might be fatally misread as sarcasm.

But let’s not feel superior to Teutonic stiffness. We’re not so good at negotiating the naming business here in the Anglophone academic world. The terms in which academics address one another, or choose to be addressed, are what I call a first word problem. For the academic and that academic’s contacts, first word problems are a traffic jam of protocol issues, institutional practice, personal preference, and common sense. They’re also about power and what we might refer to as questions of professional intimacy. Which is a problem given that academics are uncomfortable with all forms of power, and many have perplexing relationships to intimacy (I name no names).

We struggle, for example, with when and where to use our academic ranks and titles. What should our students call us? In person? On e-mail? Sure, we’ve worked hard for our job titles and those letters trailing after our names, but we don’t always want to use them. Except, of course, when we do.

Some academics play down their eminence by naturalizing first-naming as their preferred practice. “Hi Kevin. I’m Alice,” says the much honored distinguished professor as she tries to put a new graduate student at ease. Alice is a good person and a famous one, here making an effort to chip away at the wall between herself and a new advisee.

But not everyone has Alice’s skills. “Please. Albert, is it?  Call me Sophia. (Pause.)  By the way, it’s not my real name.” A glint of shark teeth in the late afternoon sunlight. Poor Albert.

Then there are those disciplines like studio art where the master isn’t a Ph.D. but a talented creative whose self-naming deliberately steps outside the ring. “It’s Thor. Just Thor.” Don’t even think of calling him Professor Thor. And there are at least some adjunct faculty members, even those with Ph.D.’s, who prefer not to be called “professor” by their students. The gesture is an effort to underscore their status as contingent labor. Naming is a political act most clearly understood by those with the least power.

At the other end of the formality scale is the academic who is only ever called by a formal title. These folks don’t play down their tiles—they play them up. In some situations this is a straightforward demonstration of respect for the earned degree. Over the years I concluded that in academic circles, the less common the doctorate within a cohort, the more likely the title will be used. In my high school, there were two Ph.D.’s, the principal and my German teacher. She was always Dr Simon. Knowing that she even had a first name was treated as a secret (whispered: “It’s Evelyn!“).

But at the university level there’s a kind of reverse snobbery about such things. People who use their ranks in the civilian world—and there are some—sound as if they’ve stepped out of a David Lodge novel. In grad school, the faculty in my (English) department were generally first-name folks. Excepting the health center, the only place on campus I was likely to hear the word doctor would be across campus, over in the Schools of Education or Music. What the English faculty played down, the Ed School faculty played up. Formality is worn more comfortably on some academic shoulders than on others. And as always, there is a politics to these choices.

Why are we often so awkward at negotiating the personal and the professional? Maybe it’s the credentializing and hoop-jumping to which academe is addicted. Or maybe it’s just us. Today’s moral: We of the academic tribe are not simple people, not even at the level of names, no matter what we say or how hard we try. Inevitably, there will be the academic— tone-deaf, oblivious, and probably of enviable happiness—who lives a life entirely in the academy’s linguistic regalia. “Doctor Associate Professor Fink, so nice to welcome you back to the Olive Garden!”

You may commence cringing now.

Return to Top