My Response to Miss Manners on Professors and First Names

This morning I happened to see a Washington Post headline by advice columnist Miss Manners that caught my attention:

Dear Miss Manners: I dislike addressing professors by their first names

Inevitably, at the start of every semester, a professor will introduce themselves and ask the class to call them by their first name. I was raised to believe that elders, especially teachers, deserve respect, and that addressing them by their first name is very rude.

As a result, I am uncomfortable doing this, and I tend to just address them as “Um.” Should I just put my discomfort aside and use first names, or should I stick to calling them Mr./Ms., regardless of what they asked to be called?

Response by Miss Manners

What these professors intend to convey puzzles Miss Manners. That you are all equals? Hardly. Equals cannot flunk one another. And although professors should be open to informed challenges from students, they are presumably more knowledgeable about the subject. (Otherwise, the students are wasting their tuition.)

Perhaps it is to assert that they are young and, to use the old-fashioned expression, “with it.” Can they be sure that the students are not snickering at that claim? Anyway, voluntarily forgoing respect is not a youthful attribute.

But your question is how to deal with it. Try just saying “professor,” but without the surname, so it is descriptive rather than a title. Or if you really want to make the point, you could use “sir” or “madam.”

My Response

Dear Miss Manners:

Since your column conveys that you wish to be addressed formally, that is how I will address you.

When meeting students on our first day of class, I always instruct them to address other faculty by the more formal title “Professor” unless specifically told otherwise.

As one of those professors who welcomes students to call me by my first name, I disagree with your advice. Perhaps you overlook that in our classrooms of many cultures, there are multiple ways to show respect for one another, and it begins with listening to other people and how they prefer to be named.

Why do I prefer for students to call me by my first name? The answer is a mix of personal tradition and treating young people as the adults that we expect them to become. Looking back at my own undergraduate education, many faculty who genuinely listened and taught me how to think more clearly also invited me to address them by their first names. Not all did this, of course, but remembering those who did and how it made me feel as an adult, I wish to respect and continue that tradition.

Furthermore, if I was trying to be with it, as you say, I probably would not have assigned a 20+ page syllabus with weekly quizzes and demanding standards for academic assignments. But that’s what learning looks like in my classroom: a combination of high expectations, authentic learning, and addressing each other on a first-name basis.

If we can respect why people prefer to be addressed with they/them pronouns, it’s not too hard to understand why some prefer to be called by their first name. Time to get with it, Miss Manners, and no one is asking you to change your name.

  • Jack Dougherty