Within the red-brick walls of Pierson College, the word “master” is disappearing.
Three weeks after religious studies professor Stephen Davis requested that students in Pierson College stop referring to him as “master,” students say there has been an active shift away from using the term. Student workers are now officially known as Pierson aides rather than master’s aides, and Davis is addressed as “doctor” or “professor.”
“I’ve never heard of someone using ‘master’ [to address Davis since his announcement],” Stephanie Siow ’17 said. “I heard one person say it and immediately correct herself.”
Four out of five Pierson students interviewed said they have seen a concerted effort among their college peers to stop using the term. But while Davis grounded his request in a criticism of the racial and gendered implications of the word, several students said that Piersonites’ collective efforts to avoid the word may be more out of respect for a beloved college leader, rather than out of ideological agreement.
Siow said she thinks the college community has been largely supportive of Davis’ rationale for the decision, especially since he is a vocal advocate of social justice, both in his academic teachings and in the speakers he selects for the college. But some hypothesized that Davis’ history of social justice advocacy — coupled with his popularity within the college — have made him a well-respected figure who could change the vocabularies even of students who did not take issue with the word.
“Even if people disagree with him for whatever reason, I think for most people the important thing is that he is our head of our residential college, and we respect him and respect his decision,” Grace Brody ’16 said. “If he asks us to do something, we’re going to do it.”
Megan Ruan ’17, a Pierson aide, compared students’ decisions to support Davis’ announcement to people rallying behind a family member: Whether or not Pierson students agreed with the rationale, she said, they would be more likely to defend his decision than the average Yale student would.
Even if students still used the word to refer to traditions like “Master’s Teas” out of habit, Simone Seiver ’17 said, they would not use it to refer to Davis to his face, out of respect.
The shift in terminology has made its way onto the College’s website as well, where the “Master’s Office” page has been renamed the “Pierson College Office” page, and Davis and his wife are called the “heads of college.”
But while Pierson’s culture may be shifting, in the other colleges — where masters have not made final decisions about the use of the title — students have continued calling their college leaders “master,” largely out of habit, they said.
The other 11 colleges’ websites remain unchanged, and 14 of 16 non-Pierson students interviewed said they continue to call their college heads by the “master” title and have not heard others do anything different. Most added that they would make an effort to move away from the title if their college leader asked them to, but did not themselves see a reason to make the switch.
Similarly, four of six master’s aides interviewed said they continue to use the title and have not been referred to by any other word.
“Honestly, there have been no differences whatsoever,” said Jerry Cui ’16, head Morse master’s aide. “We refer to [Catherine Panter-Brick] as Master Panter-Brick, refer to ourselves as master’s aides, and everyone else seems fine referring to us as such.”
Davenport Master’s Aide Kori Baij ’16 said she still calls herself by that title, although she said it is more out of habit than any stance on the issue. Still, she noted that there have been some subtle shifts away from the term within Davenport. During a recent meeting of her college’s aides, she said, some of the group’s paperwork referred to them as “Davenport aides,” while others photocopied from previous years still said “master’s aides.”
But Lucas Riccardi ’17, another aide in Davenport, said he has made a conscious effort to stop using the word, both by addressing Davenport College Master Richard Schottenfeld by “doctor” rather than “master” and telling new students that he works as an aide in his “college office.”
“I understand my job as an aide differently now out of respect to those who feel uncomfortable with the title,” Riccardi said. “Supportive shifts in discourse start with these small changes in our language and attitude.”
The Council of Masters is set to meet this afternoon to discuss the title, though Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway said he does not expect the issue to be resolved this week.
In the meantime, several college masters have sent messages to their college communities telling students to use whatever term of address they prefer.
“I don’t wish anyone to have to hedge or have any self-consciousness about what to call me. Many already address me as Master Laurans as a form of natural habit, and for them the title has taken on the resonances of college life. But I also have answered to many other titles during my time at Yale, and others of you already have called me Dr. Laurans, Professor Laurans, Master L or Dr. L.,” Jonathan Edwards College Master Penelope Laurans wrote in an Aug. 28 email to her college. “Please use what feels right to you.”
Jonathan Edwards student Sarah Kim ’17 said she was “relieved” by Laurans’ email, both because she would be allowed to call Laurans the title she was accustomed to and because it welcomed discussion.
Dale Zhong ’19, a student in Trumbull, said his master, psychology professor Margaret Clark, told students she personally dislikes the title, but has allowed them to call her whatever they prefer pending a final consensus from the Council of Masters. Clark came out in support of Davis’ decision early, commenting on a post on the popular Facebook group “Overheard at Yale” that she was in “complete agreement” with his decision.
But Zhong, who himself does not see anything wrong with the title, noted it is difficult to use an alternative title for his college head when no replacement has been given.
Silliman College Master Nicholas Christakis also sent a message about the issue to his college on Monday. Although he noted that he personally prefers to be called by his first name, he also cautioned against focusing too much on the issue of racially charged words to the exclusion of combating the underlying issues of race, poverty and inequality.
He reiterated those concerns during a Thursday interview with the News.
“Part of the reason I have not been interested in talking to the [News] about this in the past is that I think Yalies have more important things to talk about: free speech on campus, socioeconomic inequality, the undergraduate curriculum,” Christakis said. “What are the sources of political activism that are worth your effort in your generation? Surely you can do better than the titles of officials at your University.”