Friday, July 09, 2004

Herr Professor Doktor, if you please.

I know the title of Chad Orzel’s post is just a joking reference (as if there is any other kind) to Austin Powers and has nothing to do with the content of the post, but it brings up a topic that has been bothering me a while. I am proud of my doctorate, and it makes me feel good when I get called “Dr. Spiegelberg.” But I also feel pretentious (and possibly annoying) if I insist upon the formal honorific from students. And it isn’t just being called, “Scott.” A student worker at IU’s music library has been calling me “Mr. Spiegelberg,” which bugs me even more than being called by my first name. I did not attend Evil Graduate School for seven years to be called “Mister!” But I haven’t corrected this worker because it is horribly snooty (in my ears) to say, “Call me Dr. Spiegelberg, please.”

My brother (also a Ph.D.) feels that any college student should be free to call professors by their first names. On the other hand, my dean feels that all the students should refer to all the professors as Dr. or Professor. I agree with my brother in principle, but I also know that I twinge when some of my students call me “Scott.” I don’t think my concern is a respect issue, as two of the professors I respected most as an undergrad went by their first names. One insisted on being called “Fred,” as “Mr. Sturm” was “the guy who collects Social Security checks.” At this point in my life I’m not concerned about being regarded as old, though this will probably change within a few years, perhaps when I turn 40.

My issues about titles might be about power within the teacher-student relationship, much the same as between parent and child. The latter relationship is both more intense and more clear-cut (in my opinion) about the idea of friendship. I am not my children’s friend, I am their father. I play with them, but I also discipline them and teach them. I joke around with my students, but I also judge their classwork and do plenty of lecturing. I am prepared to learn things from my students, but much of the education and control is one-way.

In the past I have announced to each new group of students that they can call me “Scott,” “Dr. Spiegelberg,” or “Professor Spiegelberg.” Almost all choose Dr., with a few shortening it to “Dr. S.” I’m happy with that. A few rare ones (mostly sophomores or older, and mostly singers) call me “Scott,” causing the inner twitch. (One former student calls me “Theory Man.”) Should I still give the option, thus maintaining the fiction that I am not full of my degree, but disliking the few bad results? Or should I embrace my inner elitist and demand that all my students acknowledge me as their Evil Theory Doctor?

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