20th 2009
A Guide to Modern Manners, by Mistress Historiann

Posted under: Gender, GLBTQ, jobs, students, women's history

Recently, Nancy Gibbs claimed in Time that true liberation is not caring what people call you, Miss, Ms., or Mrs.:

Whether my children’s friends call me Ms. Gibbs or Mrs. May or any combination of the two, I view it as a sign of respect and don’t worry about the particulars. My husband never remotely suggested that he was bothered by my not taking his name; in fact, he’s accustomed to occasionally answering to Mr. Gibbs. My late father, a fine writer, thrilled to see that name in the pages of this magazine. All these identities are me: Ms. when I’m out slaying dragons, Mrs. when I’m in the company of those I love most, Miss when I want to stay home under the covers and daydream. Feminists a generation ago fought for the title and dreamed of Freedom and Choice and Opportunity; maybe the surest sign that they’ve won is not which title we pick, but that we can have them all at once.


Historiann knows best!

(Don’t you just love those lectures about how feminists in the dreary, ideologically rigid Soviet-era of feminism got it so very wrong?  Me neither.)  Salon’s Judy Berman begs to differ too, noting the position of heteronormative married and maternal privilege from which Gibbs writes that “As a (potentially permanently) unmarried woman,” she doesn’t have access to “Mrs.,” and may never.  “And even if I were, the title’s connotations — that I was someone’s counterpart, that I had taken my husband’s name — would get to me.  The problems with ‘Miss’ are the same as its advantages: Just as it conveys youth and freedom, it also suggests inexperience. On a very basic level, it feels diminutive.”  She concludes:  “As long as we still have ‘Mrs.’ and ‘Miss,’ then ‘Ms.’ will never be the same as ‘Mr.’”

The early Americanist in me wants to remind everyone that these are just abbreviations for “Master” and “Mistress,” and that “Mrs.” was a term applied to women on the basis of family status, not marital status.  (My students always find it freaky to see a baby or a young child referred to as “Mrs.” in primary sources, as they occasionally were in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.)  Wouldn’t that put a fun spin on social relations if everyone starting addressing everyone else as “Master” or “Mistress?”  Would-be language purists who think they’re standing up for a timeless tradition should keep this in mind–”Mrs.” and “Miss” are thoroughly modern innovations.

I’ve never heard a male colleague of mine complain about what his students call him, but this is a matter of constant frustration for many of my women colleagues, especially those who are unmarried and/or non-heterosexualists, who understandably really hate being called “Mrs.”  Because I am a married heterosexualist who’s just happy to be addressed by a student by something other than “Hey, dude,” it doesn’t bother me as much to be called “Mrs.” or “Miss Historiann.”  (Come to think of it, I have only very rarely been addressed as “Ms. Historiann.”)  I invite graduate students to call me “Historiann,” but I prefer to keep undergraduates at arms-length with my surname only, and never even put my first name on the syllabi, just “Prof. Historiann.”  (I also answer to Dr. Historiann, although I prefer “Professor.”)  I was more sensitive about this issue when I was younger, so this is an age thing as well as a marital status/sexuality issue and a gender issue.  Now I’m closer to my students’ parents’ ages than to their ages! 

In my experience, a kind correction is all it takes–Baa Ram U. students tend to be pretty polite and deferential in e-mails and office hours.  And after all, part of our job is to teach them how to “do” college; many of our first-year students have probably never met anyone with a Ph.D., and their most recent experience of education–high school–was probably a place where teachers were called “Mrs.,” “Miss,” “Ms.,” or “Mr.”  I take it as a sign of respect if students use an honorific and a surname, even if they don’t get it right the first time. 

I can only remember one time when a student refused to call me by my preferred name and title.  Ironically, it was in a voluntary campus discussion about gender dynamics in the classroom.  Some of the women faculty who were there–actually, as I recall it was only women faculty who attended–were talking about the name and titles issue, and a very self-confident Sophomore man spoke up and informed all of us that he preferred to call us by our first names, because he was a Theater major, and in his department all of the faculty ask undergraduates to call them by their first names.  Therefore, he explained, it’s just so much more comfortable and conducive to learning if he calls all professors by their first names, no matter what their preference is.  Now, isn’t that just so special?  Fortunately, that guy never took a class with me. 

What do your students call you?  What do you prefer?  I wonder if those of you who teach at tony liberal arts colleges and fancy universities get more students assuming a familiar tone with you than those of us at the local A & Ms, community colleges, and Big State Unis?  That would be my guess, anyway.


53 Responses to “A Guide to Modern Manners, by Mistress Historiann”

  1. Dr. Crazy on 20 Oct 2009 at 12:19 pm #

    As per local custom, my students typically call me Dr. Crazy, though Professor Crazy gets used with some frequency, too. (The “Dr.” is local culture partly because in our not too recent past it was not the norm for most faculty to have Ph.D.s.)

    That said, I’ve had students call me “sweetheart or sweetie” (and I’m not talking about older students – I’m talking about young male students who have no reason to think that’s an appropriate way to address me); I’ve had students who just assumed they could call me by first name and persisted in doing so after I gently corrected them and explained why that wasn’t what I preferred (typically non-trads, but also, always male), I’ve had students insist on calling me Miss or Mrs. Crazy after many corrections (the most notable time with a male student in a feminist theory course, and ultimately the women students in the class went after him on it).

    I’m not bothered anymore by getting called Mrs., Miss, or Ms. by students in a first instance. Esp. with first-year students, it’s a left-over from high school and they don’t mean anything by it. It’s similar to being in kindergarten and calling your teacher mom. The issue isn’t so much the title as it is the level of respect. If you slip up once, cool, but if you repeatedly refuse to respect my wishes about what to be called? Not cool.

  2. Historiann on 20 Oct 2009 at 12:24 pm #

    Dr. Crazy–yes, it’s the repeat offenders who are the problem. Then it’s clearly a power maneuver. I wonder how students would react if we refused to call them by the names they prefer?

    I just don’t get why anyone would refuse to call you by the name you prefer, even if they’re thinking “Dr. Crazy B!TCH!” every time they say it. I guess some people are happy living with a higher level of conflict than I am…

  3. HistoryMaven on 20 Oct 2009 at 12:26 pm #

    Oh, Historiann, just yesterday I had this discussion with my students in “Introduction to Women’s Studies.” I introduced the issue as part of thinking about second-wave feminism. Though I have “professor” on the syllabus and announced my preference on the first day of class, I still receive emails and notes with “Ms.” or “Mrs.” I’m single.

    I asked the students if they ever address a male instructor as “Mr.” Every student said no. You could see a bit of the shock of recognition on their faces at their own assumptions.

    My issue is not my own feelings about the form of address but rather what it may indicate about a student’s awareness–be it the classroom or the world. I’d like them to engage, consciously and conscientiously, with their own assumptions and behaviors in relationship to what they are learning–in the course content, as human beings, as women (in this course all students are women), and as members of a collective–a campus, a class, a state, a nation, a world. When I receive a note with “Mrs. Maven” on it, it is, more often than not, from a student who isn’t getting it–college is just like glorified high school. The majority of such note writers in my twenty years’ teaching have ended dropping out or flunking out or barely making it to graduation.

    I’d like students also to recognize the achievement of their professors–especially women. Higher education is so underfunded and under siege in the United States, dangerous but feminized in political discourse–but at the same time put forth as a means of economic security and advancement for individuals and for the nation as a whole.

    Here I am, having left a tenured position because of bullying and discrimination and now teaching as an adjunct (in both instances at public universities), and in both positions my students don’t get how universities run. We also discussed in class yesterday the family leave act, and I offered that my former institution gummed up my request for such a leave for my late father’s massive stroke. Students couldn’t understand why any other professor in the department couldn’t just take over my teaching. (Universities are very bad at dealing with this issue.) Students didn’t understand that faculty are hired not because they possess teaching certificates but because they have expertise in specific areas of knowledge. I had them laughing when I reminded them about substitute teachers in their high school days.


  4. Historiann on 20 Oct 2009 at 12:34 pm #

    History Maven wrote, “My issue is not my own feelings about the form of address but rather what it may indicate about a student’s awareness–be it the classroom or the world.”

    Very well put. This is kind of what I meant when I said that we have to teach some of our students how to do college. It sounds like your students are very fortunate to have such a thoughtful professor. (I love your comment about “do you ever call a male proffie Mr.?” I may have to borrow that sometime, to help make a point.)

    One of my hardest lessons as a young faculty member was getting student evaluations back from some of my women’s history classes, and they had the same condescending and nasty comments that the other, non-women’s history classes wrote. Even self-identified feminists can go after other women in clearly gendered terms.

  5. Clio Bluestocking on 20 Oct 2009 at 1:03 pm #

    My non-American students always call me “Professor,” but my American students tend to go for the “Ms.” or “Mrs.” (I’m not married). I’m quite often addressed as “Sir” or even “Mr.” by students in my online classes, particularly if they are G.I. or ex-G.I. “Sir” makes me think of Marcie in the “Peanuts” comic strip. I’m not sure what to make of “Mr.”

    I prefer “Professor” or “Doctor” because, as friend of mine put it, “after all of those years, I earned the darn title!” Plus, it establishes a particular relationship and indicates a level of expertise. Still, like you, Historiann, I’m willing to accept anything honorific that doesn’t involve “Hey, dude.”

    For instance, I’m sitting in on a Intro to Women’s Studies class because I will be teaching it next year and want to see how it goes. One of the few guys in the class keeps calling everyone “Moe,” including the professor. They all keep telling him to stop — and the whole class ganged up on him for calling the professor “Moe” — but he continues. He shows a complete contempt for the subject, and very patriarchal attitudes, so this is definitely a disrespectful power play on his part.

  6. Historiann on 20 Oct 2009 at 1:24 pm #

    Moe? I can haz definition? Is this some new word the kids use these days?

    I’d be tempted to return that “Moe,” right back at him.

  7. Flavia on 20 Oct 2009 at 1:57 pm #

    I’ve had much less trouble with being called by an appropriate title than many of my female friends in academia — and, like Dr. Crazy, those few students who do call me “Ms.” or “Mrs.” are usually newer students, and only need to be corrected once. (Maybe it’s my being in the liberal East, but “Ms.” is more common with my students than “Mrs.,” and I’ve NEVER been called “Miss.”)

    But I was out this weekend with a women (older than I am, and not a touchy-feely personality) who is routinely addressed by her first name, even though she includes her first name NOWHERE in any materials she hands out, always signs her emails “Professor So-and-So,” etc.

    As for merely social titles — if/when I get married, I will not be changing my name, so I have no intention of ever being a “Mrs.” And I’m leading a private campaign against “wife”: I’ve taken to using “spouse” for people of both genders.

  8. rootlesscosmo on 20 Oct 2009 at 2:02 pm #

    I’d be tempted to return that “Moe,” right back at him.

    I knew a switchman on the railroad who called people he was irritated with–a numerous group–”You bubblehead.” By a sort of freightyard Rough Music, he was universally known, and directly addressed, as Bubblehead; he didn’t change his ways, but any respect he might have claimed for skill or seniority was gone for good. Maybe someone who refuses to call you by your preferred term can learn to answer to “Hey, schmuck!”

  9. Rosa on 20 Oct 2009 at 2:04 pm #

    I was taught, growing up, to always call a professor “Doctor” and let them correct if you if they don’t have a doctorate or prefer something less formal.

    I notice at the online university where I work, a lot of faculty go by Professor/Dr. Firstname. Is that regional? Or some sort of norm for professors who deal mostly with nontraditional students? It looks odd to me.

  10. Notorious Ph.D. on 20 Oct 2009 at 2:05 pm #

    You know, this whole “It doesn’t bother *me*, so feminists must be a bunch of overreacting harpies” crap chaps my ladylike behind.

    I think that most of my students who call me “Mrs. Notorious” or some such are *trying* to be respectful, by the rules they were taught in K-12. But a grown woman telling me how I should feel about it? Forget it, lady.

  11. life_of_a_fool on 20 Oct 2009 at 2:06 pm #

    I don’t even mind the “hey dude” (largely because I never knew what to call Professors and so often took the nameless “hey you” sort of approach). I prefer everything to Miss and Mrs. I get that it is often just because they don’t know, but it still grates. I like the “do you ever call male prof’s Mr.?” tip.

    I have had students (male and female, not-trad and (I think) trad) occasionally start off calling me by my first name. I don’t like it when they assume that’s o.k., but I often tell them it is o.k. I once had a student call me “sweetheart,” but given the context (after the semester ended) and the student, it struck me as funny (but odd). In a different context I wouldn’t likely respond the same way.

  12. justme on 20 Oct 2009 at 2:10 pm #

    I’m an adjunct at a community college, and my poor students rarely know what to call me. I’m relatively young and not married, and I repeatedly tell them that they can call me by my first name (reminding them that we’re all adults here) if they are comfortable with that, and either Dr. or Professor otherwise. They continue to call me Mrs., although explaining to them that I am NOT married to my job– even though it might seem that way– tends to help a bit.

    The main reason I have for insisting on pretty much anything other than Mrs., Miss, or Ms. is that my cc students often have a hard time accepting that this is COLLEGE and not just an extension of high school, and when they come into the adjunct office looking for Mrs.- or Mr. So-and-So, it just continues that high school dynamic for them. It also helps a bit to remind them that I do, in fact, have a PhD.

  13. the rebel lettriste on 20 Oct 2009 at 2:46 pm #

    I get called “Miss” everyday. Also, as I am in the South, “ma’am.” I tell students that I will respond to “Dr. Lettriste.” Being relatively young and female, I get why they might be troubled.

    What I hate is being addressed in email by admin. staff as “Mrs.” My BF thought to chastise me that I was being “too sensitive” (because we all know that’s a congenital feminist problem) about this issue. “They’re just trying to be polite!” he said.

    I very carefully explained–once–the history behind women’s titles and said that in no uncertain terms was it “polite.” He got it. Which is why he’s still my BF.

  14. Indyanna on 20 Oct 2009 at 2:58 pm #

    We were coincidentally talking today in the U.S. survey course about the flap when the Congress first debated in 1790 what to call the President. The “Second Worst President–To Be,” wanted a string of high honorifics, but the consensus settled on the more republican “Mr.” I told the students that when anyone calls me “Mr. [Indyanna],” I reflexively look around to see if my father has walked into the room. I get a lot of that from newer college students, but our students, as at Baa Ram U., are pretty deferential, and they quickly enough catch on to the accepted nomenclature. Back in the day, I must say, I loved getting cards addressed to me as “Master,” since they invariably came from my mother’s aunts, and in addition to being almost the only mail I ever got, they often included offerings that doubled or tripled my existing net worth in one smoosh. ‘Long as they spelled my name right on the right line on the check.

    I love the trope of “freightyard Rough Music.” It puts me in mind of an interesting book by Linda Niemann, _Boomer: Railroad Memoirs_ about a former seasonal migratory brake(Wo)man, described in the Amazon blurb an “ex-druggie, ex-alcoholic, bisexual English Ph.D.” [U. California Press, 1990, since republished, I think].

  15. Historiann on 20 Oct 2009 at 3:22 pm #

    Notorious, Ph.D. wrote: “You know, this whole “It doesn’t bother *me*, so feminists must be a bunch of overreacting harpies” crap chaps my ladylike behind.”

    Sing it, sister-from-another-mother! You know, the 1970s feminists were sooooo tedious with their bull$hit conversations about titles and language. Isn’t it cool that we’re all soooo super-smart now we can pretend that language doesn’t matter? So long as the boys wink when they say it, they can call me sweetie and doll anytime they like. (I watched another Mad Men episode last night, one in which the male ad execs ogled Joan’s rear end through a one-way mirror and whooped and hollered like dogs in a kennel the whole time. Good lord.)

    I too liked rootlesscosmo’s “Bubblehead” story. “Bubblehead is a pretty good gentle insult–I suppose it’s a good thing he wasn’t going around calling people “$hithead!” (The latter is a name that was in fact used by my grandmother in her 60s, 70s, and 80s as a not-at-all affectionate nickname for various irritating in-laws…)

  16. Susan on 20 Oct 2009 at 3:37 pm #

    I hate the Mrs., and I hate the first naming. Some of the younger faculty do first names, and I don’t. I sign emails either as “Professor X” or with initials.

    I did not change my name when I got married, and that confused a number of people who didn’t quite know what to do. . . but I was my husband’s second wife, and there is NOTHING that reminds you of the interchangeability of all women than realizing that if you change your name you are (formally) exactly the same as wife #1. Also, I wanted to construct a separate academic identity.

  17. Janice on 20 Oct 2009 at 3:42 pm #

    Dr. Crazy, your institutional culture’s and mine have that in common. I have to admit that I was pretty tetchy at times about getting the “Dr.” in my address since “Professor” was reserved for the many faculty without Ph.D.s and I’d worked hard for mine.

    HistoryMaven, great call about the gender assumptions that goes into students addressing their female instructors as “Miss”, “Ms.” or “Mrs.” while male instructors are “Prof.” this or “Dr.” that. Even though I’m closer to 50 than not, I notice that I still get “Miss” thrown my way an awful lot from new students. But my fresh-faced colleague who’s male and who also teaches a passel of first years? I’ll ask him if they ever call him “Mr.” but, from what I hear in the hallways, I don’t think that’s happening much.

    But the initial reference? I think that Gibbs understands the importance of names. Her dilemma is that she has so many from which to choose and no strong call to any one or the other. When I’m not at the U, you can call me anything but Mrs. Hisfirstname Hislastname as long as you do so with courtesy!

    However, inside academia, the fight to get the respect (of which the titles are just minor signifiers) means that most women academics can’t be all “live and let live” as Gibbs suggests.

  18. Historiann on 20 Oct 2009 at 3:44 pm #

    Susan: same with me. (Well, one difference: I jokingly refer to my husband as my “first husband,” and he calls me his “first wife.”)

    I’ve never understood the argument (which Gibbs dutifully trots out) that “it doesn’t matter which name you use, it’s always some man’s name–either your father’s name or your husband’s name.” (Actually, that’s not true–a lot of people use or are given their mother’s name.) The same is also true of men–and yet they’re never hectored to change their names in adulthood, because it’s presumed that they have an attachment to the name they’ve been called since birth. So that advice has always seemed so patronizing to me.

    Dr. Mister has been pretty happy to have a different last name from mine. Then again, because he had already gone to medical school and completed his residency by the time we married, I thought he had earned the right to keep his name (except on my blog of course.)

  19. Historiann on 20 Oct 2009 at 3:49 pm #

    Janice, I think this is correct:

    However, inside academia, the fight to get the respect (of which the titles are just minor signifiers) means that most women academics can’t be all “live and let live” as Gibbs suggests.”

    There’s a difference between what you’re called at work, what you’re called in your own home, and what you’re called when the school nurse phones home to let you know you’ve got a sick child. Most people wouldn’t go ballistic on someone outside of their professional setting, but it’s different at work.

    The unis and departments I’ve worked at also tend to use “Dr.,” for perhaps the same reasons that you and Crazy suggested. I attended a college where everyone was traditionally called “Mr.” or “Miss/Ms.,” because that was presumably an indication that everyone had a Ph.D. so no one needed the honorific “Dr.” to distinguish hir.

  20. thefrogprincess on 20 Oct 2009 at 4:18 pm #

    I don’t have a PhD yet so I can only talk about how I’ve addressed professors. My parents were pretty big on respect (maybe even too big on it) so the idea of calling a professor anything other than Prof. So-and-So is pretty bizarre to me. (My undergrad institution tended to call professors Professors, rather than Dr. I would have had no problem calling them Dr.) I don’t call my advisor by hir first name, in part because the dynamic this professor cultivates is not one in which first name usage is acceptable. Some people find that onerous; I’m fine with it. Ze has a PhD, several books, and is an expert in the field; I’m not, I have no problem acting accordingly. I do think much of this comes from a lack of home training. I spent no time around academics growing up and I managed to make the switch from Mr./Mrs./Miss/Magistra/Mademoiselle High-School-Teacher to Prof. So-and-So without any incident.

    For what it’s worth, I think it’s interesting that the rebel lettriste dislikes “ma’am.” I grew up in the South but my parents forbade the use of “ma’am” or “sir.” I never really figured out why; neither parent was liberal and my father is retired military. They just preferred that I refer to the adult in question by their honorific+last name. The thing about “ma’am”, though, no matter how much it grates and calls to mind Southern conservatism, is that it doesn’t discriminate between married and unmarried (or at least it doesn’t in the ways I’ve heard it used) and it’s a rough counterpart to “sir.”

  21. Katherine on 20 Oct 2009 at 4:20 pm #

    I also dislike being called Mrs. or Miss Z. I tell them that Mrs. is my mother, I am Dr. or Professor Z. Most get it. I correct them gently, and am happy to explain why they should call me Dr. or Professor Z–that is often an interesting conversation, which has changed as I have aged. Early in my career some students didn’t think women could have Ph Ds, but mostly it was about age. Calling me by my first name meant they recognized I was 20-30 years younger than all my other colleagues. (Now I am not so young, and have colleagues who are younger.) But the other side, is that keeping some distance from students is easier on me. When I have to give them a bad grade or give them other tough academic news the distance that calling me Prof. or Doctor Z helps. I am very fond of some of my students and when they screw up it is easier to give them the appropriate response if we still remember we are not yet friends. That being said, when they graduate I tell them to call me by my nick-name, which most don’t know. When I sign my e-mails I start out the semester with Prof. Z, but over the course of the semester I get busy and start to abbreviate it to PZ and some call me by those initials. I am okay with that. It fits our casual students, but it isn’t my “real nick-name.”

  22. wini on 20 Oct 2009 at 5:01 pm #

    I am teaching a class this year intended as an introduction to college for First Years. In the second week I talked to them about address. I told them, roughly, that “Professor is always the safest, Doctor is great but not every instructor has a Ph.D., and you shouldn’t use first names ever. Ms and Mr can be okay, but why use them when you can use Professor?” I didn’t specifically go over Mrs. versus Miss, instead I pretended that Ms was the only normal way to address any woman.

    It worked surprisingly well, and I could see a bunch of students visibly relieved. Now they know what to do! My undergraduate major department was all first names and I was never comfortable with it.

    Personally, I don’t like Mrs. since I’m not married to anyone with my last name. Miss is weird, and Ms is great outside of work.

  23. HistoryMaven on 20 Oct 2009 at 5:31 pm #

    On “Mrs.”: I ask my students if being married makes a difference in their relationship to me as an instructor. My being married (or not) has no bearing on my ability to perform my job. And it doesn’t characterize the professor-student relationship. So, I ask, why then am I still addressed as “Mrs. Maven”?

    My real pet peeve is when groups of women are addressed as “ladies” and, more and more, “guys”–as in “you guys.” Wolf Blitzer thanked a panel of women the other night by saying, “Thanks, guys, for an interesting discussion.” The once informal “guy” to refer to a young man or boy has now been extended to everyone. It’s become the “Have a nice day” of the new century.

  24. Feminist Avatar on 20 Oct 2009 at 6:49 pm #

    I had a strange thing today when I was sending out a job application and was told to send it to ‘gender neutral firstname’ ‘secondname’ and had no idea of gender. The person was also an administrator, rather than an academic, so had no online profile to determine gender or professional title such as Dr to use. ‘Dear firstname’ seems too informal; while ‘dear firstname secondname’ sounds odd to my ear. Sigh.

    As a British person, I visited Tennesse when I was twelve and addressed an adult woman and was given a lecture because I had not addressed her as ‘ma’am’. I remember her creating the conversation in such a way that the appropriate response was for me to repeat my statement, but with ma’am at the end. But, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it, so I just stared at her silently. Because in Britain to call somebody ma’am would have been considered utter cheek and would have resulted in lecture/punishment/clipped ear of some sort. My cultural training was to ingrained to break it for some ‘crazy’ American woman.

    I think in Britain where we are definitely more informal and where addressing people as Mr or Mrs or Dr is unusual except in formal situations (like job applications), many staff just introduce themselves as firstname secondname to students and are happy to be addressed as first names [I am]. But, I also think that there are contexts, especially where power is ambiguous or for young staff members where they want their position to be clear, where staff are reluctant to announce this overtly, but still want people to know their title. So it leads to an odd situation, where people say ‘I am firstname secondname and completed my PhD in…). Or, perhaps, get themselves introduced by another staff member as Dr firstname secondname, but never refer to the title themselves- as they want to indicate rank, but not pull rank.

  25. Erica on 20 Oct 2009 at 7:16 pm #

    When I’m teaching my 6th-graders, I decided to not make them call me Mrs. Thingy-Whatsit, and instead was introduced as Mrs. Whatsit. To date, not a single one has called me MRS. Whatsit; it’s regularly MISS Whatsit (actually pronounced more like one word, Mizzwatsit). If I think this is probably something of a Southern thing, as the various other female teachers are all Miss Whoever regardless of their marital status. Everyone also invariably addresses me as ma’am, which is definitely a Southern thing — it was considered sarcastic snark in Ohio, and I am still slightly shocked whenever I heard it addressed to me.

    The difficult pronunciation of the full fifteen-letter hyphenated Thingy-Whatsit often leads to adults ditching the Mrs./Ms. dilemma altogether and going straight to my first name. However, I prefer that approach to “Wow, what a hard name” or similar commentary on its inconvenient, foreign spelling — like they’re really the first people who have noticed it’s unusual…

  26. New Kid on the Hallway on 20 Oct 2009 at 7:25 pm #

    When I worked at a pretty tony liberal arts college, first names were completely out of the question – everyone was Professor or Doctor (and, in fact, the faculty addressed the dean and president as Dean X and President Y). But it was in the south, which I think is more determinative than fanciness or liberal arts-ness. (I also got ma’am all the time, which I didn’t mind, although it always made the students seem incredibly anxious to be polite, and I wanted to tell them they could calm down! But I do know non-southerners who dislike ma’am, maybe because it has little old lady connotations?)

    At my other little SLAC, everyone from chancellor down went by first names (which actually did turn out to be pretty nice, because it really was everyone). But I think that’s because it was founded in the 60s and really really big on egalitarianism. It was an aggressively anti-elitist part of the country, too.

    At the latter school, I had one student who, every time he saw me, greeted me with a HUGE grin and a “Hi, Miz Hallway!” Not as bad as Mrs., but I did tell students to call me either First Name or Prof. Hallway. But it was so obvious that he was obeying the rules of etiquette drummed into him by mother/grandmothers that I never had the heart to correct him!

    Like others here, I didn’t change my name so don’t ever expect to be Mrs. I’ve decided another good reason for not changing my name is that people can’t find out about my private life from it – recently someone started going by a new name and I’m pretty sure it’s because of a divorce; why do you want to have to advertise that to everyone?

  27. Clio Bluestocking on 20 Oct 2009 at 7:45 pm #

    I really have no idea what “Moe” means except that he won’t be bothered to learn other people’s names and use them, even when explicitly told to do so. At first, I actually thought that he was saying “Ma.” That would have been a whole other set of issues!

  28. rootlesscosmo on 20 Oct 2009 at 7:48 pm #

    It puts me in mind of an interesting book by Linda Niemann, _Boomer: Railroad Memoirs_ about a former seasonal migratory brake(Wo)man, described in the Amazon blurb an “ex-druggie, ex-alcoholic, bisexual English Ph.D.” [U. California Press, 1990, since republished, I think].

    That’s a terrific book–Linda Niemann worked on the same piece of railroad (Southern Pacific SF-Watsonville Junction) I did, though she also moved around much more–Klamath Falls, El Paso, and many other places. That kind of follow-the-work life used to be called “booming,” but by the time the book came out “boomer” had taken on a different meaning, so the second edition was retitled “On the Rails.” Her descriptions of railroading in unpopulated country–”the Brakeman’s Reward”–are gorgeous and her chapter on what happened to the caboose is an eye-opener to people outside the industry, who tend to view it through Ken Burns’ patent sentimental lenses when they glance at it at all.

    I also worked with a guy called “Shithead,” honest, though not because he called other people that but because it described him. His older brother was called “Bedsores” because he slept on the job.

  29. Indyanna on 20 Oct 2009 at 7:54 pm #

    Another tricky thing about naming protocols is the grandfathering (or grandmothering) of early-in-life nicknames or diminutives, by which people up to a certain chronological point of acquaintance are allowed (sometimes even encouraged to) use since-abandoned monikers, but those from after that point are not. This makes for all sorts of complexities about introductions, two-tiered conversations around seminar tables, and similar things. And it can lead to some rather spectacular gaffes that are amusing, except on those occasions when they are not amusing. There’s a very funny one, Historiann, about your mentor, which might have occurred after you moved south, or north, or west– but probably not farther west. It was a knee-slapper, and ze was, of course, very gracious about it…

  30. John S. on 20 Oct 2009 at 8:04 pm #

    On the term Moe–I had the pleasure of growing up with some individuals who called other people “moes.” It was used frequently to describe someone as a dumba$$ (similar to Moe of the Three Stooges). As I check urbandictionary DOT com (which I do use sometimes when the language of the youths leaves me clueless), it has taken on more different meanings. I doubt, CB, that your student is using it to denote someone obsessed with Japanese anime. But it can also be used as an epithet to substitute for “homo” or (I’m quoting here) “A term used to define an associate, person, homeboy/girl originally used in the DMV(Washington D.C., Maryland, Virginia) area as an alternative to the ‘N’ word.” (The Urban Dictionary can be oddly formal in the way it adopts the style of real dictionaries.)

    Oh, how very cool this student must believe he is.

  31. Historiann on 20 Oct 2009 at 8:34 pm #

    You people all crack me up! Great stories. (And nicknames: “Bedsores!” Love it.)

    As for ma’am: from cultural differences, hillarity ensues, as Feminist Avatar’s story suggests. I don’t mind being told “yes ma’am/no ma’am,” although I get it mostly from military/ROTC students and football players, for some reason. It’s an exotic quirk here in the Rocky Mountains (outside of the AFA, that is.)

    Moe needs someone to put the smackdown on him big-time, Clio. Good thing this guy will already have taken intro to women’s studies by the time you get to teach it!

  32. Mamie on 20 Oct 2009 at 9:08 pm #

    I loved this discussion. I really hate being called “Mrs.” by my students, and I have wrestled with why my response is so visceral. It’s not about the status of being “Dr.” because I don’t mind being called “Ms.” I finally realized that it has to do with the failure of imagination it represents. Students who call me “Mrs.” literally cannot imagine that a (fairly attractive) woman could reach (fairly happy) middle age without being married. And that’s sad and disturbing and creeps me out.

  33. Digger on 20 Oct 2009 at 9:28 pm #

    I had a student call me Dr. just last week, though it is common practice to refer to professors as Professor where I adjunct. I thanked hir for the compliment, but that I wasn’t a PhD (yet)!

    My default is always to refer to the other person as Dr. in an academic situation where I am in the not-faculty category (student, prospective student, random email, etc.). In social situations or informal business situations, first names or however the person was introduced to me; in formal business situations, I use honorifics; if I’m unsure if they have a PhD, I use their job title (Superintendent, Director, Chief, etc.)

    For any follow-up interactions, I address the person however they indicate they’d prefer — either saying “Call me so and so” or by how they sign their letters/email. And I never shorten someone’s name! If they sign that sucker Robert, I sure as heck ain’t going to call them Rob, Bob, Robbie, etc.! I hate having my name shortened!!

  34. shaz on 20 Oct 2009 at 9:38 pm #

    A travel agent recently labeled my children “Master” (yes, still being used!) and “Miss” on airline tickets. I made them reissue them with Mr. and Ms. I’ve taught my children that for our family, it is offensive to use the titles, “Miss” or “Mrs.”, because it is sexist — men don’t get labeled by marital status. Even 5 year olds understand fairness.

    I encourage grads to call me by my first name, now that I’m more senior and more comfortable in my authority — BUT I’ve noticed that students of color are consistently more deferential, and don’t use my first name; which sets up a difference in familiarity that can be racially problematic.

  35. rootlesscosmo on 20 Oct 2009 at 9:57 pm #

    OK, one more anecdote. During Bella Abzug’s first campaign for Congress (1970) someone set up a meeting between her and Arthur Goldberg, who by that time had been Secretary of Labor, UN Ambassador, and an Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court. The campaign staff were worried about how he should be addressed; Bella solved the problem by striding into his office, extending her hand, and saying “Hiya, Judge!”

  36. Paul S. on 20 Oct 2009 at 10:10 pm #

    It was always “Professor [Last Name]” for me through both undergrad and grad school unless the Professor specifically asked me to call them by their first name. In other work, I’ve always worked in a fairly informal environment where people usually used first names unless the person in question was very senior, so the question of Mrs./Ms./Miss has almost never come up for me.

    As a totally subjective reaction, I don’t like “Ms.” simply because I don’t like the actual sound of the word, but that’s neither here nor there.

  37. thefrogprincess on 20 Oct 2009 at 10:22 pm #

    For what it’s worth, Shaz, I’m a woman of color and I really struggle to call professors by their first name, even in email correspondence, even when they consistently sign their emails with their last name. I’m wondering if part of it has to do with more formal family dynamics where aunts and uncles were never referred to by just their first name but also where adults who weren’t blood relatives were either called “aunties” or got “Miss” or “Mr” tacked in front of their first name (regardless of their marital status). Calling an adult by their first name simply wasn’t acceptable in any form and that has stayed with me. I certainly can’t speak for every person of color but I do know I’m not alone in this.

    I’ll have to think more about the point about “difference in familiarity.” On brief reflection, I think there’s something to that observation. Part of the whole referring to your professor by their first name (when it comes to graduate students) has to do with a certain collegiality that graduate professionalization is supposed to accomplish. But when the cultural mores from one’s background prevent that familiarity, is that professionalization happening? Does that add to imposter syndrome type problems? Further marginalization? I’ll have to think on it more.

  38. thefrogprincess on 20 Oct 2009 at 10:24 pm #

    Oh, I meant “even when they consistently sign their emails with their first name.” My bad, it’s been a long day.

  39. perpetua on 21 Oct 2009 at 6:27 am #

    I refer to myself as “Professor” though “Dr.” is fine as well. I haven’t had as many problems with being called “Miss/Mrs.” or by my first name (removing my first name from the syllabus & email address helps). I used to have struggles like that with male students, but I think it’s been easing up since I’ve gotten older. I definitely think these issues tend to be a more serious problem for younger female faculty, since there’s something about youth that makes male undergrads sense blood in the water. My school is one of the places Historiann mentioned where the tradition is to go by “Mr.” or “Ms.” I admit that I reject this tradition and still expect my students to call me “Prof,” because I think the tradition began when all faculty were male and such power struggles with students did not exist. It bothers me immensely that the university doesn’t seem to see the gendered politics even of “Ms.” rather than a professional title. Nobody has said anything to be about it, however.

  40. Clio Bluestocking on 21 Oct 2009 at 7:07 am #

    John S., we are in the DMV area, so you have given me some very insightful information. This young man — who does think he is oh so very cool — will absolutely have to be taken down for it. Thank you.

    Historiann, alas, I fear that there are many more like this guy. Fortunately, they don’t tend to take women’s studies classes. How this one ended up in this class is a mystery to everyone.

    Thefrogprincess, I’ve noticed that my African American students and co-workers use “Mr.” and “Miss” for people from older generations than themselves. Until I read your comment, I actually hadn’t considered that they may be showing respect for their elders rather than ignoring the expertise and status of “professor.”

  41. Ruth on 21 Oct 2009 at 7:50 am #

    I ask graduate students to call me by my first name, though some are uncomfortable with it. My department is split in their preferences on this. Several times I’ve had a student write to hir entire committee: “Dear Ruth, Jane, Professor X, and Professor Y,” and I’ve had to sit hir down for a little talk about context. It doesn’t annoy me, though, because ze is clearly trying to address each person the way ze thinks they want to be addressed.

    I use my husband’s surname, and therefore Mrs. Mylastname is my mother-in-law. It doesn’t bother me if the plumber or the school nurse calls me that, but if a undergrad does, I will ask hir to use Dr. or Professor (I don’t care which). I don’t use Dr. outside of the academic context, except when someone asks me “Is that Miss or Mrs?” in which case it is useful. And once a male MD about half my age bounced into an exam room and said “Hi, Ruth, I’m Dr. Patronizing!” and I had the presence of mind to say “Please feel free to call me Dr. Mylastname.”

    On the journal I edit, we have taken to using “Dear Firstname Lastname” on all communications. Sometimes we don’t know if the person has a PhD or an academic position, and sometimes we don’t know whether it’s Ms or Mr, and we decided to be consistent with Firstname Lastname instead of only using it in cases where we don’t know.

    What drives me up a wall is being called “Director Mylastname.” I do hold that title but as a form of address it makes me feel like a Soviet apparatchik.

  42. PorJ on 21 Oct 2009 at 8:25 am #

    I’ve never heard a male colleague of mine complain about what his students call him

    This surprised me (I’m male). I’m always chagrined when undergraduates call me by my first name. I don’t really care if they call by my last name only – that’s better than the faux-familiarity of the first name salutation. And I’ve jokingly complained about this with colleagues – both male and female.

    And don’t forget why Bobby Knight was fired from Indiana University. He hit an undergraduate who had the gall to say “What’s up, Knight?” to him.

  43. perpetua on 21 Oct 2009 at 9:03 am #

    Just piggybacking on PorJ’s comment – my (male) partner also had trouble when he first began teaching with students calling him by his first name, even after a correction. Youth is a detriment to us all, but of course for female faculty more so.

  44. FrauTech on 21 Oct 2009 at 9:15 am #

    At my university all the professors are referred to as “Professor.” Very often without the last name. I think it’s something to do with large class sizes and students frequently not remembering what their professor’s name is. So Professor is just a convenient way to refer to the lecturer, who may or may not be a PhD (though almost always is).

    Ruth I never thought about it being your mother-in-law’s name, that’s so funny. I took my husband’s name, but as his Mom is remarried I’m the only Mrs. Tech around. I wonder if it would have influenced my decision differently if that were not the case.

  45. Historiann on 21 Oct 2009 at 9:32 am #

    It’s interesting that graduate students whom we invite to call us by our first names resist, and undergraduates who don’t know any better (or who are just jerks, occasionally) are comfortable with the presumption. I really appreciate shaz’s and thefrogprincess’s comments–I haven’t yet noticed an ethnic/racial divide in how the grad students address me, so I wonder if this is an African American thing (rather than a Latin@ thing–we have Latin@s but no African American grad students currently.)

  46. Julia on 21 Oct 2009 at 1:45 pm #

    I would never DREAM of calling a professor Mr, Mrs, Ms, or Miss… I have a *teacher* right now who does not have a PhD, so she wants us to call her “Ms LastName” or use her first name. It is really difficult for me to get used to, and every time I write her an email I feel awkward. (We need to come up with a formal title for people with Master’s degrees…)

  47. The Rebel Lettriste on 21 Oct 2009 at 3:26 pm #

    To be more clear, I don’t mind “ma’am,” at all. I don’t mind “miss” very much either, especially if it’s coming from African American students, who are aiming for respect when they use it.

    What bugs me is “Mrs.” And I didn’t grow up with any kind of titles (Quakers don’t use them), and so it’s still awkward to demand “Dr. Lettriste.” But I earned that title all on my own. “Mrs.” just connotes my mom.

  48. Comrade PhysioProf on 21 Oct 2009 at 6:11 pm #

    I tell everyone to call me by my first name, but that is surely driven in large part by race, gender, and class privilege.

    I think we should just call everyone “holmes”.

  49. Shaz on 22 Oct 2009 at 12:16 am #

    Re: The Frog Princess & Historiann– For me, this insitence on last name has been the case with lots of people of color, not just African American students: Latino/a, South American internationals, Asian Americans, Asian internationals, etc. I don’t have a good solution, other than directly and individually addressing students of color who seem to be reluctant, to encourage them to use my first name, explicitly. That way, I’m not expecting students to pick up on some implicit community mores, when everyone may not have equal access to them.

  50. Historiann on 22 Oct 2009 at 7:51 am #

    Shaz–I think that’s probably the best way to go. I wonder if a lot of our grad students feel more comfortable using our first names because a surprising number of them were our undergrads, too, which I’m sure is not the case at your institution. (Then again, it might be harder for students to call us by first names if they’ve been calling us “Professor” or “Dr.” for three years…)

  51. dance on 23 Oct 2009 at 8:38 am #

    My department is split in their preferences on this. Several times I’ve had a student write to hir entire committee: “Dear Ruth, Jane, Professor X, and Professor Y,” and I’ve had to sit hir down for a little talk about context.

    Wait, Ruth, sit *me* down. How does one handle that, as a student? (Also, as a professor, how do I handle addressing an email sent to student and student’s other professors?)

    Julia: (We need to come up with a formal title for people with Master’s degrees…)

    I would consider that all people teaching a college class are entitled to “professor”, even if they are not doctor/phd.

    By the way—I do put my first name on my syllabus. But since my students can’t reliably pronounce it, I am de facto protected from mis-addressment in person. Not in email, though. But I have “call me Professor Laughter, please” on my online syllabus, and will remind students via email when necessary.

  52. Ruth on 23 Oct 2009 at 3:07 pm #

    Dance, I would suggest addressing a group by treating them all the same. If I were sending an e-mail to a group of my peers, and I had never met some of them, I would call them all Professor.

    If I write to a student and other professors, I would tend to use all first names, unless it was an official communication, in which I would say “Dear Ms. Student and Dr. Advisor . . . “

  53. Best books of 2009: No girl writers allowed! : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 08 Dec 2009 at 9:36 am #

    [...] I for one am totally relieved that there wasn’t any dreary political correctness or Soviet-era feminism involved in this year’s prizes.  Isn’t “postfeminism” awesome?  [...]

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