Monday, 15 May 2017

I beg the honour, sir…

Titles are weird. Some tell you that your interlocutor's ancestors were the most determined terrorists and plunderers of the day (Queen, King, Duke etc.). Others represent the judicious investment of large amounts of cash in political party coffers (Baron, Sir, Lady), or the neediness of a ruling class that just wants to hang out with the cool kids (thanks, Harold Wilson, for those MBEs given to the Beatles). President, I should say, is now a floating signifier. It once denoted gravitas and authority whatever you thought of the holder's policies: now it represents a nation's collective boredom and the lengths it will go to have a giggle.

Others are earned – despite the neoliberal attack on the professions embodied by Mr Gove's hostility to experts, I like being introduced to Dr. X at the hospital. It doesn't tell me whether she got 100% in her medical exams or a bare pass, but it does tell me that she worked very hard for many years and was considered competent in one of the most rigorous qualification process on the planet.

Yet more titles are unearned and unwanted: ask a female academic what title is bestowed on them by students (and shockingly, online forms) and the answer is frequently Miss or Mrs, despite the answer being 'Dr.'. (Google 'Professor' and click Images, and prepare to be depressed) Men get Mistered too (especially non-Caucasian ones), but not nearly so much – it's as though you can be a woman or a fully-qualified academic, but not both. Dr in this context is a formal recognition on the part of the student and others that the person guiding them is a bona fide expert.

I say this because I just read this very interesting piece in the New York Times about the way students can, do and should address academics, and it made me think about the complex cultures around such things.

Over the past decade or two, college students have become far more casual in their interactions with faculty members. My colleagues around the country grumble about students’ sloppy emails and blithe informality.
Mark Tomforde, a math professor at the University of Houston who has been teaching for almost two decades, added etiquette guidelines to his website. “When students started calling me by my first name, I felt that was too far, and I’ve got to say something,” he told me. “There were also the emails written like text messages. Worse than the text abbreviations was the level of informality, with no address or signoff.”

I deploy my title - and those of others – sparingly. The 'Professors' who were given the title without ever having published anything or taught a class never hear the word from my lips, because I still believe that the term should denote intellectual and pedagogical distinction, nor do I use feudal titles on the rare occasions that I bump into Lords and Dames in the chipper. I have friends who either never wanted careers in HE or for one reason or another couldn't achieve one whom I do address as Dr sometimes, because I think someone should publicly recognise their hard work and contribution to knowledge sometimes. For the same reason, I like to use the title when talking to newly-minted PhDs: it's all very well to be casual about it if you found the process a doddle, or it was decades ago, but being a PhD is special. The title change moves the individual's social position away from sexual and marital identity to the intellectual plane: it represents something valuable you did, rather than your accident of birth or social status. Not many people get that kind of freedom, and they deserve to be recognised for it. (None of this applies to me though: in a flash of pure ego I changed my debit card to read Dr, and have always regretted that moment of pomposity. Though it might help my credit rating, as there are two world-class academics with the exact same forenames and surnames, which has led to a couple of very interesting conference invitations).

So I can understand the need to apply the title for feminist purposes, and I agree that a title which recognises a contribution to knowledge should be celebrated, but I do think there are contexts in which the deployment of titles in general are barriers to inclusion. The author of the NYT piece sees it as part of a culture of informality which is to be abhorred: first names lead to text-message style communications, lead to bombing the campus chapel (seriously, read the piece). I recognise this: a lot of emails don't have any salutation or sign-off, and some are unexpected or indicative of cultural origins: I was both amused and rather gratified to read 'Yo blud'; 'bruv' is not unknown, and one module evaluation simply read 'nice arse', which was both inappropriate and inaccurate. Most emails start with 'hi Firstname', which is fine with me, and in person most students use my first name. There's a cultural aspect to this: often more middle-class students use an honorific, even if it's not the right one, and 'sir/miss' is common amongst those coming straight from school, but on the whole our working-class and mature students often address us in ways which imply social equality, and I like that. I particularly hate the sir/miss thing and work hard to eradicate it because to me it represents an authoritarian structure of pedagogy that has no place in a university. It's true, too, that Americans are generally more formal inside and outside the classroom - you'll hear 'sir' or 'ma'am' everywhere you go, and former titles are widely used - you're a President or a General for life. As an aside: I hate the compulsory obsequiousness of retail staff. They're paid the least their employers can get away with, and it's certainly not enough to justify forcing them to pretend they're our butlers or, even worse, our friends. I admire the honesty of the surly, disengaged till operator who refuses to disguise the exploitative nature of the exchange with emotional labour.

Class is one of the primary factors for me. My institution's undergraduates are 98% working-class; its academic staff are, shall we say, not 98% working class. Nor, racially, do we resemble our intake. We neither look nor sound like them. I therefore think there's a careful line to tread when it comes to formal modes of address in such a context. I want the potential academics amongst them to see a doctorate as something they can achieve; I want all the students to respect the acquisition of knowledge as valuable, but I also feel that the use of titles in an institution like ours raises barriers, and would also remind people that I have colleagues who are better academics than me without having PhDs, and bad teachers and researchers who do hold doctorates). My students aren't my friends: I don't have them round to my house or weep on their shoulders when I'm miserable, but I do generally like them, and want to communicate a sense that they're intellectual colleagues, that I've a head start on them in terms of time and experience, but that we're engaged in a common project of intellectual inquiry in which I can learn from them. Titles can sometimes be a bit like the locked doors that pervade some universities.

I'm not sure there's an answer to the questions raised by this NYT piece. I do think intellectual achievement should be recognised, and there are gender, power, racial and class issues to be addressed, but in general I'm happy to be spoken to informally because I try to be a democrat in all areas of my life. That said, I do draw a line sometimes. A casual email that treats me as a customer service operator will often result in stiff response, and I do remind students that the outside world has different expectations: I once counselled a student that her job application results were probably not aided by an email address containing the words 'sexy bitch', even though my own inclinations are to smash corporate hierarchies and value judgements rather than prepare students to bow before them.

Molly Worthen's view is that despite the problematic racial, class and sexual histories of titular deployment, the careful use of titles is part of a valuable social structure of respect for genuine achievement, though I notice that the NYT house style has stripped both her and her interviewees of their academic titles as a matter of course.
Angela Jackson-Brown, a professor of English at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., told me that “most of my students will acknowledge that I’m the first and only black teacher they’ve ever had.” Insisting on her formal title is important, she said: “I feel the extra burden of having to go in from Day 1 and establish that I belong here.”

When Professor Jackson-Brown began teaching in the 1990s, most students respected her authority. But in recent years, that deference has waned (she blames the informality of social media). “I go out of my way now to not give them access to my first name,” she said. “On every syllabus, it states clearly: ‘Please address me as Professor Jackson-Brown.’ ”
I get that, and I understand that it's culturally contingent: my French and German friends have the option (and social minefield) of tu/vous or du/sie, and the progressive moments of the 60s and 70s saw a re-evaluation of their uses. There's a slippage I detect in this article: whenever I hear the words 'respect my authority' I think of Cartman from South Park and worry that it's not intellectual achievement underlying the respect being requested.

I wonder if we should consider how academics address students. If you watch old films (not necessarily historically accurate of course), students are addressed as Mr. or Miss: the formality might be interpreted as either the respect due to adults, or as a signifier of a necessary social distance. I use my students' first names, but I don't think I've ever asked permission to be so familiar: is it an unconsciously oppressive act, or would Mr/Ms sound so weirdly out of time that it would be automatically read as sarcasm or disapprobation? (Nor do I explicitly indicate that I'd prefer them to use my forename - I'd rather go with what people feel comfortable with unless it's the loaded Sir/Miss thing. Few things are more embarrassing than this:

I guess that for me, in the unlikely event of all things being equal, respect is gradually earned rather than enforced through honorifics, but I'm speaking from a position of gender, class and racial privilege. I can wear my PhD lightly (even though I only just scraped through) because I look more like the imaginary Prof than lots of other people (I combat this by being glimpsed in my cycling gear now and then: once the dry heaving stops the comedic value makes it hard to kow-tow again). At the same time, I don't think that students who speak to me casually are communicating a lack of academic respect or a suspicion of experts (the dreaded 'credentialism'): I think it often denotes trust, and that's a valuable thing.
The real point is to stand up for the values that have made our universities the guardians of civilization.
In the end, I don't think that a friendly deployment of my forename, or an overly familiar email, erodes the pillars of civilisation. It might make us bristle, or consider the underlying social and cultural paradigm, but there are rather more pressing threats to civilisation and civility to deal with, such as the global dominance of a man who thinks it's fun to 'grab' women 'by the pussy'.

1 comment:

Alan said...

Interesting piece, Dr Vole!

When I was an undergraduate (Birmingham 1966-9, English), the custom was definitely to acknowledge the student's adult and "potential equal" status by mutual use of surname and title. I was Mr H, those teaching me were (e.g.) Professor Hoggart, Dr Lodge, Professor Shepherd and (quite commonly in those days before a doctorate was de rigueur) Mr Shippey, Mrs Rees, Miss Rigby.... The very daring young academic who was Michael and called me Alan was a great exception.

Fast forward to MA in sociology of labour (Warwick, 1991) and it was Peter (Fairbrother), Tony (Elger). Move on to the Dark Place (Ph.D. 1998), and my supervisor was Paul (Willis), my external examiner Huw (Beynon). A Polish lecturer (now a distinguished professor at the same institution) remarked that in his home country the older, more formal system remained, with use of title and surname.

Glad to see that the Dark Place is still recruiting working class students, but on reading your blog I sometimes wonder if recent VCs want to continue doing so.