The vocational vocative

The ever-eloquent Plashing Vole has some interesting meditations on forms of address in academia. This is an awkward one for me, though perhaps for different reasons from Dr Vole’s. (I find that my courteous pen can’t bring itself to refer to him as Plashing.)

I’m not consistent in my use of titles. My bank cards acknowledge my PhD; I changed the honorific the moment I could, and was amused that the tellers promptly stopped treating me as though I’d recently left a turd in the foyer. My office door doesn’t, thanks to a strategic blob of blue-tack on the nameplate. I tend to omit the title in paperwork for students, except in reference letters where it joins the other post-nominals to put a little heft behind my recommendations. I have used the title on one occasion, and without guilt, to get sight of the medical records of a relative who was dying in hospital and about whose state the ward staff were misleading us. I will respond to most forms of address: Dr and Mr are both fine, though I wince at “Professor” — a title to which I do not pretend — and I’ve been known to respond to “Sir” with a gentle “we’re not in the army here, you know”. I will respond to my first name, though preferably in unabbreviated form and from students in their third and fourth years, and I’d find it unnatural for one of my graduate students to address me in any other fashion. I tend to address my students by their first names (likewise unabbreviated), not because I’m comfortable with this but because any other form seems more unnatural: “Mr” or “Ms” carry too many disapproving overtones, and “Mx” I haven’t yet encountered often enough to have a feel for its social register.

At the same time, I dislike being addressed by my students in ways that deny the social distance between us, because that denial is a lie. I have to deal with students, especially in first and second year, in groups of one or two hundred at a time. My role is partly to teach, partly to encourage, and partly to control. I may be no better and no smarter than my students, but unlike them I am paid to be there and to maintain an environment in which each of them has an opportunity to learn. I have to quieten noise; I have to deter distractions; I have, occasionally, to put an end to sexist or homophobic “banter”. (Overt racist abuse, mercifully, I’ve yet to see in my classroom.) For that I need to maintain some social authority, and I might as well be honest about this. So: I don’t socialise with my students; I don’t share certain aspects of my life with them; and I maintain a slight air of formality in my dealings with them, signified by conventions like the use of “Dear X” in emails. Similarly, I try to be punctilious in using colleagues’ titles when referring to them in the third person. For some of these colleagues — particularly those whose gender or ethnicity accords them less privilege than mine do — the title is important, and to use it only for them would risk making informality a subtle, but quite recognisable, marker of those whose status was unchallengeable.

And yes, of course these conventions are tied to social structures, and some students will recognise them more readily than others. Not all my students can switch between registers, and most of them seem to have learned their formal letter- and email-writing skills from Clippy; most of them, though, even if they don’t get the nuances of these conventions, seem to be aware of what they signify. As with much else in classroom management, students will sense and respect a claim of authority as long as they can see it being benignly used.

Perhaps the best analogy for the use of these forms is with a police officer’s or a nurse’s uniform. It may carry a lot of historical baggage, and it may have some unwelcome associations, but principally it states that the wearer is here to do a job, and politely but firmly requests the space in which to do it. Could we, I wonder, resurrect some ancient title and use that as a mode of public address to academics, carrying the tone with which one might open “Excuse me, officer”? I quite like the Eastern European custom of addressing graduates as “Magister”. I’d take that happily from students, but perhaps I’d be even happier just to abandon my first name, and be addressed in guid Latinate Scots as “Dominie”.

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