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Modes of Address

Academia generally has a very hierarchical culture. But what does that mean in terms of how to address other academics? Only rarely in my academic life has anyone made it clear how the wished to be addressed. ("I'm Professor A." or "Call me B.") Most have never specified, and I've developed the bad habit of avoiding calling them anything at all as a consequence. It's amazing the degree to which can I get away without calling by people by their names, even if I know his or her name quite well. I don't generally use other peoples names frequently under any circumstances, but the situation is extreme when I am unsure how they wish to be addressed in the first place.

Now that I'm a PhD student, professors are going to become colleagues before now. That's part of the training process. But for now, how do I address them? I have one friend who errs on the side of extreme formality, (always "Professor A...") but that usually feels stilted to me. Another complication with it is that not everyone who teaches both undergraduates and graduates finds their primary identify in being a teacher (i.e. they may feel no more comfortable being called "Professor" than I do calling them thus.) First names feel too informal, and while first-name-plus- last-name works fine for introductions, it's no way to refer to someone to their face. It seems excessive to ask everyone I meet how they wish to be addressed - although it would certainly clear up the issue quite directly - especially since then I would be obliged to remember exactly how each and every individual academic I ever meet in the future has requested I address them, especially under formal circumstances.

How have any of you dealt with this?


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 24th, 2003 04:49 pm (UTC)
How have any of you dealt with this?

I never have. I still don't know whether my supervisor would prefer me to address him as `Professor Rourke', or simply `Colin'. Now, of course, it'd be really odd to turn round to him after nearly six years and say ``What do I call you, exactly?'' :)

I suspect he'd be fine with `Colin' - he's a pretty informal sort of person by nature. His usual mode of dress (regardless of weather, in fact) is an open-necked short-sleeved shirt and ragged denim shorts, and he's generally a pretty down-to-earth sort of chap - he and his wife own a small farm.

But I was brought up to address my elders (especially teachers and other people in positions of authority) in formal terms, and it always feels slightly uncomfortable not to do so.

Jun. 25th, 2003 12:13 pm (UTC)
I asked my supervisor today how I should address him and he said ``Call me `Colin', of course - everyone's addressed by first name in this department.''

So that's that question answered, after about six years of wondering. I still don't know whether my definition of the `tensor product' of two `rack modules' is right or not, which is the other question I wanted to talk to him about. One thing at a time, though :)

Jun. 26th, 2003 08:21 am (UTC)
If you can do it, then surely I can too. I'll ask my advisor when he comes back from summer. It seems tactless to do it via email.
Jun. 24th, 2003 04:56 pm (UTC)
I have the exact same problem, actually. Embarassing I don't know how to handle this, especially in an academic setting. My workplace is extremely informal (the CEO responds to "Mike") but when it comes to professors, I'm completely at a loss...
Jun. 24th, 2003 05:20 pm (UTC)
My supervisor asked me to call her by her first name during our first formal meeting together, and said that she preferred all graduate students, whether they studied with her or not, to call her by her first name.

That said, I tend to err on the side of caution with professors who haven't specified a preference either way and call them "Professor *blah*". So far anyone who wanted to be called something else hasn't acted offended, but has merely said "Please, call me *spoo* instead". Mostly the professors I continue to call Professor are older ones who seem to appreciate a degree of formality, or ones with whom I don't have a particularly close relationship.

I rather suspect that there will come a time (say, when I'm doing my Ph.D., or once I'm out of school for good) when the professors I continue to have contact with will think it's weird that I still call them "Professor" and will ask me to stop. When that day comes, I'll be happy to change my mode of address :)
Jun. 24th, 2003 10:01 pm (UTC)
I escaped this problem in Japan by calling everyone sensei. I wish there was an English equivalent to this!

I still have trouble calling professors by their first names. My rule of thumb is to keep quiet and see how other students address them, but I don't always get that chance. Well, you can never wrong with Dr. So-and-so, right? ^-^;
Jun. 25th, 2003 02:35 am (UTC)
I tend to call most of the lecturers and professors in my department by their first name. My supervisor has always been 'Denys' and I feel quite comfortable with this. I think that as a Ph.D. student in Britain, you are given more freedom to call the staff by their first names. When I was an undergrad, though, I rarely called a professor by their first name and never in class. Professors that I don't really know all that well I tend to call 'Professor' or 'Dr.' but that's quite rare. I think the British system is a bit looser for postgrads than it is in North America and I quite like it.
Jun. 25th, 2003 07:53 am (UTC)
That's always been troubling for me, too. General rule here seems to be "dr. so-and-so" rather than "professor" but one prof made it clear he liked to be called by his first name, so everyone calls him Glenn rather than "Dr. whatever"

I don't know. I think erring on the side of "dr. x" is more reasonable than addressing someone by their first name--they'll let you know if they prefer to be called something else.
Jun. 28th, 2003 10:49 pm (UTC)
Bert has said to me to call him Bert; Polly, Pauline, Elspeth, and most other at the Institute have said the same. At conferences and formal occasions I tend to stick with Dr. X until told otherwise. I generally write informal emails that simply begin with no greeting, so no problem there. I do have one that no one has mentioned: I call my supervisor "Brian" but sometimes I call him "Baigrie" which is just his last name. This is left over from a prof I had as an undergrad who called all his students simply by their last names and was fine with us doing the same. I like this; it has an egalitarian quality that appeals to me.
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )