Blogs > Jim Loewen > Should Students Call Professors by Their First Name?

Nov 7, 2016 3:40 pm

Should Students Call Professors by Their First Name?

Sociologist James W. Loewen is the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me.

            A young professor of English (they're all young to me!) at Boston University, Carrie J. Preston, has just published an interesting article at the Chronicle of Higher Education. She tells of her journey from "Carrie" to "Professor Preston," a trip complicated by feminism and Japanese Noh theater. My own journey on this matter was complicated by my teaching at the Blackest and Whitest schools in America.

            In the Midwest, where I went to college (Carleton), all teachers were "Mr."[1] This, we were told, was a Midwestern tradition, deliberately nonhierarchical.

            Not so at Harvard, where I got my doctorate. I recall one of the few meetings that I attended in graduate school. It was on what if anything the Department of Social Relations, including sociology, should do or say about the ongoing Vietnam War. Sociologist Alex Inkeles chaired, and his selection of nouns of address was exquisitely nuanced. He called full and associate professors "Professor," and assistant professors and instructors "Dr.," unless they hadn't finished their doctorate, in which case "Mr."[2] Graduate students he called by first name. So did undergraduates, including my students in the "pro-seminar" in sociology, a crucial course for majors that Harvard fobbed off on third- and fourth-year graduate students. 

            In 1968 I left Harvard for Tougaloo College, a small predominately Black liberal arts college in Mississippi. There I observed the classroom interactions of Dr. Ernst Borinski, storied professor of sociology.[3] He called all students by their last names — "Mr. Jackson," "Miss Evans."[4] His reasoning was simple. At its heart, racial segregation is a system of etiquette, every element of which expresses White supremacy and Black inferiority. In Mississippi in 1968, Black adults called White adults "Mr." followed by their last names, only to get called by their first names in return. In intensely hierarchical situations, such as on plantations, African Americans might even say "Miss Ann" or "Mr. Charley," expressing even more deference, and would of course get called by their first names with no honorifics, back. The practice even extended to the U.S. mail: banks and utilities would send out statements addressed to "Mr. Curtis W. Shepard" if White, "Curtis Shepard" if Black.

            A few Black parents countered by giving their children no first names, only initials.[5] A few others named their children "Elder" or "Missy," forcing Whites to use courtesy terms while first-naming them. Most just gave their children the names they chose, like any other parents would do, but they hated the first-naming etiquette. Some women supplied only their husbands' names — "Mrs. Robert Walker." "I dare them to call me "Bob!" one said to me with a smile.

            Whites came to avoid "Mr." and "Mrs." during the Nadir of Race Relations, that terrible era, 1890 to 1940, when White America went more racist in its thinking than at any other time. During the Nadir, instead of "Mr." or "Sir," which might imply that the older and more senior African American was fully human, Whites used "Uncle," or "Aunt" or "Auntie" if the person was a woman. We still have these terms today, of course, in the form of atavistic survivals like Uncle Ben's Rice and Aunt Jemima Pancake Syrup.

This ad for Cream of Wheat epitomizes the racism of the Nadir of Race Relations. A little White boy whips an old Black man, shouting "Giddap, Uncle." The man is the boy's babysitter, of course, not his uncle. Whites said "Uncle" as a term of quasi-respect used across the color line because "Mr." would connote actual respect. The Cream of Wheat Company, in 1916, right in the middle of the Nadir, believed that this heartwarming scene would make most Americans warm and friendly inside and likely to buy their product. Probably they knew their market.

            In 1968, segregation was still in full force in Mississippi, although it was cracking. Its etiquette code covered all Black/White interaction. On two-lane highways, it was risky, hence rare, for Black motorists to pass White-driven cars. Black adults were not to look White adults in the eye while talking with them; nor were they to sit with Whites at the same table, even if friends. They were to step aside on sidewalks to let Whites pass.

            Chinese Americans had moved into the Mississippi Delta — the flat northwestern sixth of the state, from Memphis to Vicksburg, comprising the richest plantation land in the United States. They opened grocery stores, mostly serving the Black population, which was much larger (and poorer) than the White. In this niche they found economic success well beyond that realized even by White grocers. Nouns of address provided part of the reason why. As one Black customer told me, "They [Chinese grocers] don't worry the hell out of you about saying 'Mr.' or anything." Elsewhere, to speak without deference could be fatal, especially when speaking to White grocers already unhappy at the scorn they received from other Whites precisely because their store clientele was largely Black. Emmett Till was lynched because he claimed social equality in his brief interaction with a White Delta grocer, may even have whistled at her.

            In central Mississippi, Tougaloo offered almost the only respite from such threats. Before his legendary Social Science Forums, which offered Mississippians of both races almost their only opportunity to hear important speakers together, Borinski hosted dinners. He invited Whites and Blacks from the community, along with Tougaloo students. They then found themselves sitting together conversing across racial lines, many for the first time in their lives.

            In Southern society, to do the usual — address students by first name while they addressed me by my last name — thus constituted inadvertent compliance with the norms of segregation.

            I went the opposite direction, asking that students call me "Jim," as did "Prof. Preston" (her choice, today). I recall one time in 1969 at which mirth ensued. Near the beginning of a class early in the fall semester, I made my usual request to be called "Jim" thenceforward. Later in the hour, a student with a full Afro, just getting into the Black Power movement, raised her hand excitedly with a question. "Mr." she started, and then stopped abruptly as she remembered what I had said. "Jim," she continued, and then stopped again, blushing in confusion.[6] Unthinkingly, she had mimicked the plantation folkway, the opposite of her intent. "It's OK, you can just call me "boss man," I replied. The class laughed, and she asked her question.

            "Jim" worked, but then, I was in my twenties. Preston notes that it worked for her in her twenties, too, although she did face the additional complication of being female, which she shows presented difficulties. At 33 I moved to the University of Vermont. There the problem wasn't racial etiquette but sheer numbers. I had no problem continuing the use of first names for students in my upper-level seminars, but the educational philosophy of the school was quite different from Tougaloo's. At "UVM," as Vermont is known, a professor had to have permission from the dean to teach a lower-level course smaller than 40. At Tougaloo, a professor had to have permission from the dean to teach any course larger than 36. Tougaloo was structured for education; UVM for profit.

            The difference affected nouns of address. When I had 36 students, I knew the names of at least 30 by October. When I had 60, by the end of the semester I knew the names of maybe 10. It felt awkward to me to have students calling me "Jim" when I could not call them by any name. So I started suggesting that they use "Mr. Loewen" — that Midwestern equalitarian thing again — until they knew me well enough to use "Jim." That seemed to work, and if they said "Doctor," that was OK too.

            Now, at The Catholic University of America, where I sometimes guest lecture, students prefer "professor." Whatever! Mainly, we want to make it easier for students to address us, do we not, regardless of which noun of address they choose.

    [1]Carleton did have female professors, but only about ten, not counting Women's P.E. and Music, and I never had one in my four years there.

    [2]The Harvard Social Relations Department had one female professor, Cora DuBois, in anthropology. She was a full professor. Hence, no "Mr.'s."

    [3]Borinski is a major subject of the book, video, and museum exhibit From Swastika to Jim Crow.

    [4]"Ms." had not been invented; this was 1968.

    [5]Mostly boys were named with initials, but L. C. Dorsey, pronounced "Elsie," provides a female example. Whites called her "Elsie," but in a sense they were not calling her by her first name.

    [6]Yes, African Americans can blush. Besides, she was light-skinned, so her blushing was easy to spot.

Copyright James W. Loewen

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