I can’t remember the last time I received an email from a professor that was signed Professor [Last Name]. Searching my inbox has turned up nothing. Instead, emails both personal and general come signed with first names, nicknames and sometimes only initials.
This can be very confusing. How many times must a professor sign his or her email “Jordan” until it is awkward to keep replying “Dear Professor Hunter?” What if you’ve never met them? And what is so wrong with being called professor anyway?
We live in times of ambiguous social etiquette. Nobody knows what business casual means for women, or when it is polite to open a door and when it’s offensive. The more you think about the possible issues around what to call friends’ parents, the more daunting a task it becomes. There are few right answers today. Such etiquette calls must be made in the moment, using only good judgment and vague guidance from the past.
But there is no reason for this ambiguity to invade our University. The just-call-me-Joe reflex of so many Yale professors gestures toward a student and professor dynamic that does not truly exist. We are not friends, and we are not equals. There are boundaries between us for good reasons. Professors have written a doctorate, published, constructed a syllabus. They’ve done something difficult enough to be in the classroom, and I hope they have some authority over me because they are teaching our courses.
The title of professor should denote respect. Knowledge is not easily won. Our professors have worked incredibly hard for the knowledge they possess, and as a result the professor and the student have different roles in the classroom. Unless a professor has a radical educational philosophy, and does in fact want to overturn a dynamic she believes hinders education, the first-name invitation rings a bit hollow. Nothing really changes in most classrooms. My sense from talking to professors is that most simply feel uncomfortable with the authority that comes from the title and are more at ease being called by their first name. That is an impulse that makes sense, but should be overcome.
It is important not to mistake informality for an educational break from the past. As a professor, one does have unique authority and obligations that must be recognized. And maintaining titles can ensure that boundaries are recognized even as students and professors develop relationships outside the classroom.
Students and professors can and should interact socially — that’s the relationship that actually enhances campus life. I’ve had many professors who have invited their classes over for dinner, taken students to froyo and stayed up late at night to clarify or debate an idea. These meetings have been an integral part of my Yale experience; learning doesn’t just happen in a seminar. Our Yale education should be about us growing as thinkers, leaders and people of character. After-hours conversations with those much sought after mentors might actually help us more than the readings they assign. But professors don’t have to sign their emails “J” for that to happen.
The desire for these more personal interactions is all the more reason for us not to forget the inherent inequality in these relationships.
In the ’60s, students smoked weed with their professors but also wore sports jackets to eat in Commons. In many ways, society is becoming more casual, and sometimes we prize that casualness as signals of a more authentic mode of interaction. This can be dangerous, especially if the nod is all surface and little progress. We’ve lost something real in all the gesturing. We’ve lost a small sign of respect for knowledge, and an even more important acknowledgment of a true distinction between professor and student that allows for those meaningful exchanges. I know very well that a title is not the only way to show respect, but I see no reason to ditch it.
Shira Telushkin is a senior in Pierson College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.