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Or how would you like to be addressed?

As a graduate TA, I went by my first name. But I thought that some students were becoming too friendly. They took things for granted (for example, asking for a homework extension every week without even bothering to make up an excuse, or showing up to my office hours and interjecting with comments meant to be funny but came out sounding obnoxious).

I will be an assistant professor next year, and I am wondering whether asking my students to call me Dr. LASTNAME would resolve some of the rudeness that I've encountered.

But how do you ask? Sign my email Dr. LASTNAME? That sounds pretentious. Should I just use initials (FL for FIRSTNAME LASTNAME)? I sign all my emails with my first name, but doing that for students is an open invitation to call them by my first name. How do people transition from a graduate TA to someone with a PhD in front of a class full of undergraduate students?

**EDIT: I have had several students be truly rude to me, but in keeping with the spirit of anonymity, I did not describe in detail what happened. But My colleagues were shocked and appalled at some of the behaviors that I have encountered.

That said, I do very well with evaluations, often nearing perfect score, and my students score well above average in multi-section calculus classes. As you might imagine, my classes are fairly well-attended with high level of participation. Of course there are pros and cons of familiarity, but I am somewhat puzzled at this display of lack of authority in my classroom, as all of my colleagues also go by their first names. I hope this is more information.**

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I sign all my emails with my first name, but doing that for students is an open invitation to call them by my first name. — Indeed. Which is precisely why I do it. –  JeffE Feb 13 at 5:09
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Maybe you could tag the question with your country as these things are very culture dependend. –  cbeleites Feb 13 at 11:47
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I use Dr.LastName. I don't do this out of "authority craving" issues but just to get students used to the fact that if they do deal with an "authority figure" in the future (in industry or academia) they would be safe broaching the first conversation with Dr.AuthorityFigure. –  drN Feb 13 at 13:24
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Sign the note with the way you want to be addressed. If you don't want to be called by your first name, don't sign it that way. This may mean you need to maintain two different signature blocks, or edit your signature before hitting send... or it may mean you just use the formal signature block and trust that your friends will know it's OK to call you by your first name. "Absolute is the right of any man to spell his name 'Jones' and have it pronounced 'Smith'." –  keshlam Feb 13 at 17:24
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"I am wondering whether asking my students to call me Dr. LASTNAME would resolve some of the rudeness that I've encountered" No. Telling them how to refer to you is useful for them at the very beginning of the relationship where they don't know what to expect of you. However it's your continued interaction with them that ultimately defines where the "line" is, how gray and wide it is, and how much they can push against it before you react. Students, like children, will always, always, always push against that line, and if you don't have it well defined in your head, they will never find it. –  Adam Davis Feb 13 at 18:06
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12 Answers 12

Like JeffE's comment, I always prefer students to call me by my first name. My male and female, Asian and white colleagues also prefer to be called by their first name. There are some exceptions where they insist on some title according to local custom for showing respect. However, I do not have the problem you describe (students expecting unreasonable things and acting in completely unprofessional ways). The reasons that I do not have to deal with these problems is because I simply do not accept them.

Actually, I am fairly strict but also fair and I always try to be open, transparent, and predictable to my students. They know if they arrive to class late, they are absent. If they submit late, they fail. They want more time, they won't get it.

I do not see how what I allow them to call me (excluding rude names) would result in overly familiar behavior. Indeed, many of my Asian colleagues are far closer to students than I would ever allow myself to become. The ones who demand more formal forms of address are the ones who seem to get the closest with students. Perhaps this is how they remind students that they are still the teacher.

In short, student behavior is driven by your attitude towards them and you can convey a tone of seriousness in the relationship without requiring formal salutations.

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"I do not have the problem you describe (students expecting unreasonable things and acting in completely unprofessional ways)" This may be an issue of language and local culture. In France, when interacting in French you would quickly avoid wanting your students to address you by your first name (as reported in the OP); when interacting in English, however, it is much easier to keep a healthy respectful distance while lowering the barrier (i.e. aim at using the first name). –  landroni Feb 13 at 17:01
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Apparently things have changed since I was in college (late-70's). Back then professors/instructors were addressed as Dr.-or-Mr. XYZ, and I was uncomfortable with the one prof who wanted to be called by his first name - it felt too familiar. I think a certain formality between teachers and students is valuable and necessary. (If it matters - I'm Caucasian, male, and live in the USA). YMMV. –  Bob Jarvis Feb 13 at 18:03
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@BobJarvis It hasn't really changed, it just depends on a lot more factors than year. "Professor Foo" was standard when I was in college, 2006-2010. (in the US) –  Izkata Feb 13 at 19:54
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The "standard" varies significantly by field/department and by institution, not just by country and by time. –  JeffE Feb 14 at 10:31
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Do not worry too much about it. The way you're being addressed has very little to do with the respect students give, otherwise all these tyrants in the history would have been very respectable. Just go with how your peer professors being called, and use that as a benchmark.

And more importantly, try not to pick one imperfection and magnify it to out of proportion. Zoom out and evaluate these:

  1. "... asking for a homework extension every week without even bothering to make up an excuse... " Does the syllabus specify that there has to be an excuse? If not, why do they have to give one (or worse, make one up?)
  2. "... office hours and interjecting with comments meant to be funny but came out sounding obnoxious... " Hmmm... I can't understand what the problems are. If it's crossing the line, then casually, with a bit of humor, tell them jokes will be for another time, focus on the questions on [the subject].
  3. Did teaching and learning actually happen?
  4. On the flip side, with this "friendliness," are the students also more willing to ask questions and give comments in class? When you walk by the groups during their discussion, did they immediately incorporate you, or close up?

Overall, may I humbly suggest you not to stand out there, getting all ready to be offended? In the contrary, when these "bad" behaviors happen, an educator should use the opportunity to teach, not to internalize the (real/imaginary) lack of respect, get all angry and proceed to pout for the rest of the day. We are their first line to test their professional interactions, and both the students and the teacher will benefit by being leaning towards more reflective than judgmental.


And finally to answer your question. I teach in the US and go by my first name. One year, I decided to keep a beard (bad decision, please don't ask) and all the students called me professor. Having tried both, I will not think twice opting for first name-based interaction.

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Ha! Is that why they all called me "professor"...I've had a beard for a long time, so I never got to test the control condition. I insisted I was not a professor, but a graduate instructor (single-quarter appointment, no PhD at the time, was still a grad student at that university), and actually got a comment in my evaluation from someone who thought I was shirking my responsibilities by denying the fact that I was a professor. Kids these days... –  Nick Stauner Feb 13 at 19:01
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@NickStauner Even though that usage is becoming outdated, "Professor" can also mean instructor, regardless of professional achievement/degree. Analogous to calling the person in command of a craft "Captain" even if they have a military rank lower than "Captain." –  trutheality Feb 13 at 21:41
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As earthling says, student behavior toward you is influenced by a lot more than how you have them address you. But that doesn't mean that how they address you isn't a factor.

This can depend a lot on the culture of your institution and department. If all the other faculty in your department have students address them by last name, and you stand out as more informal, it may well make it more difficult to establish authority in the classroom. (Especially if you are, e.g., younger / more soft-spoken / shorter / more female than many of your colleagues.) On the other hand, if the students are used to addressing all of the faculty by first name and you stand out as more formal, you may come across as either unfriendly or as trying too hard. You should ask your new colleagues about what the common practice is in your new department. (But you also don't want them to think you're overly worried about student interactions. Explain that you're just trying to get to know the local culture so you can fit in.)

Whatever you decide, you can establish what you want to be called with how you introduce yourself at the beginning of class. (Amazingly to me, many instructors never think to introduce themselves to the class.) At different institutions (with different cultures, and at which I held different positions), I've either started the first day of class with "I'm Mark" or "I'm Professor Meckes". If you do decide to go by last name, you should definitely not sign email to students with only your first name. I use my full name; many other people I know use initials.

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+1 ...for younger / more soft-spoken / shorter / more female. Sometimes behavior of others towards us is influenced by external appearance and not just position / teaching ability. In those cases, extra effort is required to set barriers and ascertain hierarchy. –  Alexandros Feb 13 at 10:13
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I will be an assistant professor next year, and I am wondering whether asking my students to call me Dr. LASTNAME would resolve some of the rudeness that I've encountered.

Yes, what students call you will probably have some impact on how they behave, but I would not stress about it. As you say in a comment, many white males (myself included) don't have these types of authority issues. On the other hand, my wife used to regularly have students tell her inappropriate personal things because they think she is their mother or act inappropriately because they think she is weak/helpless. The way to resolve these issues is to tackle them head on and not change what they call you.

As a male I keep my office door open when meeting with students to prevent accusations of sexual misconduct. My wife keeps her office door open to try and prevent sexual misconduct and to cut down on the student crying. She has developed a low tolerance for students going off topic and stops most in their tracks by asking if she should call the student counselling services.

In the US and UK system, I find that telling students what you expect and making it clear you are not their friend from the first day of class helps a lot. If you are a women you also need to make it clear you are not their mother. Tell them extensions require a doctors note or a death certificate. Tell them that personal issues should be taken up with counselling services. Point out that sexual misconduct and bullying is not tolerated in your classroom and that you will report any and all incidents. Then explain you have office hours and what types of issues can be discussed during them. Finally, explain how they can contact you (e.g., no text messages and grammatically correct emails). Somewhere in this introduction, you can tell them what to call you.

As for signing an email, don't. A signature is redundant with information in the message header and in this case can only cause problems. An auto attached footer with your full name and titles and contact information is fine.

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I told my wife (a tall slim Nordic looking blonde with vague Euro accent... tenured prof) to put a star on her door for each student that she weeded out from the university for presenting a bs document when she asked for a proof of why a student had to be absent from a midterm. A death certificate signed by a pediatrician? An auto insurance agent by the last name of Abelson three states away... obviously the first to be pulled from the national directory? Come on. She can use the phone to make a call, and a fax to send that note back to the pediatrician, insurance agent, etc. Kids these days. –  StasK Feb 14 at 1:47
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I would put something in at the end of your email just to signify to the recipient that you've actually "ended" the message, not just misfired and sent it off halfway through. –  aeismail Feb 14 at 5:10
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I want to add to the other answers by taking a wider look. The way students and teachers address each other is not only a difference between universities etc. it is also a cultural difference. Some cultures (countries) are more title oriented than others. In Sweden (and the rest of the Nordic countries), titles were largely laid aside in the late 1960s/early 1970s. If a Swedish student approached me as "Professor Jansson" I would almost be shocked. If a foreign student did the same I would not react since I am aware that titles are handled differently around the world. Being aware of differences should therefore be in everybody's mind and also that adhering to local customs may be necessary, regardless of ones opinion on the matter. It should be said that laying titles to the side is not the same as removing politeness and respect. So awareness of the local culture shows respect and etiquette but realizing cultures vary is also a sign of tolerance. As long as both parties tries to be respectful and help each other to find the proper (local) way much will be gained.

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(Localized answer: I'm in Germany and in my work experience also [the north of?] Italy thinks along the same lines. Both languages have the concept of changing pronouns as well as first name vs. last name to express different grades of formality and closeness)

Spoken interaction with students

  • The default here is to address TAs by "Sie" (formal pronoun) and last name. Addressing in everyday spoken language by Dr. is becoming more and more unusual, it is still the default with people who are much older and/or are known to put much emphasis on this formality. Same with Prof., the default being slightly more on formal side. Needless to say, the TA or prof also adresses the students by "Sie" and last name.

  • For mass courses (labwork practica where I have different groups of students on every occasion or seminars), we just stay with the formal way of adressing. These courses typically have a comparably low number of one-to-one interactions with the student.

  • When students join our research group, I offer the "Du" (informal pronoun): this is done by (re)introducing yourself "By the way, I'm Firstname".

  • As a student I found it very awkward if the teachers weren't clear about this: in our culture it is clearly up to the more senior (also or even mainly professionally more senior) person to offer to drop the formalities.

e-mails

For inner-German emails I'd still consider it rude not to put an opening line and a closing line to the body. For e-mail exchange with other countries I adapt to their customs as far as I know them. In my language the way the recipient is adressed and the email is signed state how formal or close the relaionship is to be. This is information the email adresses and the full email signature cannot provide. The full signature below the "--" line is the place where full professional grades and position go.

Emailing with students without these "instructions" may be perceived as rude or also as insecure. The mass-course email starts with "Dear Mr./Ms. X", or less formally "Dear seminar group A" and ends with "Best, Firstname Lastname" or less formally just with "Firstname Lastname".

I close with abbreviation ("VG C") only with close collaborators. In that case, opening and closing line may be dropped as well.

Students becoming too friendly

I'll try to live up to the stereotype that Germany are direct to the level of being rude. Here are my thoughts:

In German language, the concept of too friendly with a negative connotation does not exist, friendly is unambiguously positive. From that perspective, I'd say that your "too friendly" is a euphemism for something along the lines of presuming and rude, not respecting you.

Now in the described situation I'd try hard to avoid any euphemisms about the student behaviour as they may be perceived as a sign of you lacking confidence in yourself, and submitting to the badly behaving student: your language offers them a very easy way to ignore your request. If that happens (and I'd think it more likely to happen with rude students...), good-bye to the student respecting you.

Even (or maybe: particularly?) in a culture that relies less on formal distinctions (like the formal way of adressing) if someone doesn't know and doesn't get the hints how to behave themselves, it may help to tell them in clear words what is expected and that not behaving accordingly leaves a very bad impression. I'd take them aside to tell that, and I'd make a point that I don't particularly grudge this first time - but that I'm concerned because in a professional environment such non-respecting behaviour may cut their throats.

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"in our culture it is clearly up to the more senior (also or even mainly professionally more senior) person to offer to drop the formalities" - same in Poland. But there is a verb spoufalać się meaning trying to make a friendly relation (in professional setting when it is not necessarily appropriate). –  Piotr Migdal Feb 13 at 17:08
    
@PiotrMigdal: Oh, sure, we have verbs for all kinds of inappropriately close behaviour as well. Dictionary says that spoufalać się is roughly the same as "sich anbiedern". –  cbeleites Feb 13 at 20:17
    
I addressed "In German language, the concept of too friendly with a negative connotation does not exist". In Polish it exists. –  Piotr Migdal Feb 19 at 18:48
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Another localized answer.

I live in Ukraine and when I was doing PhD, I was giving also some Calculus workshops instead of my supervisor, so undergrads were calling me by my first name and father's name.

It is common practice in many post-soviet countries and probably many Slavic countries.

I would probably preferred if they called me Sir [FirstName] or something like that instead of calling me by my first name and father's name.

Also I have never send emails to my students, so I didn't have to sign my emails.

Anyway, I have done some wrong things like accepting their friend requests in social network. I shouldn't do that because they didn't take me seriously and were trying to solve some formal issues through social network.

I think it doesn't really matter how to sign your email. More important is how do you allow to treat yourself, you shouldn't allow students to bully you or something like that.

I allowed my students to treat me too informal, now I realize it was a huge mistake. I shouldn't ever do that.

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Social networks are a communication media, that's all. I helped my students do their statistics homework in my class over FB chat (as their assignments were graded by my software package, and I allowed them to resubmit their corrected work once), which made my evaluations skyrocket. Opening the class with "Let's congratulate John with his victory in the wrestling competition" (learned from FB status) was impressive, too. Social networks need to be used properly. (A two-fold age difference helps keeping the distance no matter how friendly I may have been on FB, though.) –  StasK Feb 14 at 1:53
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FWIW, this however-many-th-generation European-American (i.e., "white") man had some authority issues while teaching an undergraduate course on personality psychology once upon a time in SoCal. I had just turned 28 at the time, so I still thought I could relate well enough to people less than a decade younger, but I was wrong. If there's one simple lesson about how to address students that I learned, it's to avoid giving them anything to object to. I guess I should've said "simplistic", because that's impossible; in sufficient numbers (I had a class of 220+), they will find something objectionable:

  • I insisted I was not a professor, but a graduate instructor (single-quarter appointment, no PhD at the time, was still a grad student at that university), and actually got a comment in my evaluations from someone who thought I was shirking my responsibilities by denying the fact that I was a professor. Kids these days...
    • I told them I wasn't a professor in so many ways, I thought that would produce complaints in itself. I used my first name wherever possible; probably only said my last name once. They still called me Professor Stauner. I think it's just habit—even they couldn'tve been that inattentive.
  • I sometimes used emoticons to try to avoid the teacher = robot fallacy. Again, I was 28, a white dude, and the instructor, so I thought I could get away with it in my class. I even thought it might help me seem less intimidating, which I've sometimes gotten from others. Maybe it did...but one particular student just thought that was incredibly unprofessional, and that I should be forbidden from ever teaching anyone again in this life or any other. Clearly you can't win 'em all, much less control them.
  • The course catalog was updated late, so someone signed up expecting Professor Funder, PhD instead of Graduate Instructor Nick, M.A. (at the time). This person felt the need to blame me for not being Professor Funder in his/her evaluation comment. I guess I can understand that; he's a pretty awesome lecturer...but I wasn't exactly chopped liver myself, even then.

To answer your question directly, I'd echo many others here in pointing to culture as an important factor, because IMHO, it mostly comes down to how your behaviors fulfill or defy expectations. Best practice probably is just to blend in until tenure, then play the game however you see fit (i.e., however is best for students' education, regarding which this is probably irrelevant). I'll echo this part too: choice of signature isn't going to solve authority problems, no way, no-how.

That being said, it's an interesting empirical question, and I'd love to see someone research it:

  • Operationalize rude behavior as words or contiguous phrases in evaluation comment transcripts
  • Code with multiple judges; 3–4 ought to suffice (calculate and report inter-rater reliability)
  • Test for group differences using the signature factor you've described as an independent variable
  • Supplement comment transcripts with counts of behavioral observations during class by TAs, if available, to make it a multivariate ANOVA
  • Probably consult questions like this one on Cross Validated about how to handle the Poisson distributions of counts as dependent variables.

I'm sure some academic journal would want to publish those results, even if the effect is small.

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What about the perspective of a student on the subject? I went to school in south Texas (Houston, to be specific), as location may be important.

  • Every TA I had (graduate and undergraduate) was addressed by his or her first name, including myself when I worked as an undergraduate TA.
  • Almost all of the professors were "Professor LASTNAME" or "Doctor LASTNAME." There were two major exceptions I was aware of:
    • One of my computer science professors went by either "Doctor LASTNAME" or a nickname with approximately equal frequency. I personally always used his nickname, as my father would always use the name when speaking to or about him. (My father was a graduate TA when this particular professor was an undergraduate.)
    • There was a particular adjunct professor whom I always called by first name. In this case, I was the exception to the rule, because this professor was a close personal friend (and drinking buddy) of my father.

In addition, the man who taught the "Game Content Creation" course was called by his first name, and he was not actually (directly) employed by the school; he was the lead developer at a local game company which occasionally poached from the school's CS department. He worked with the head of the department to create the course when he learned the school had a license for 3DS Max which was going unused by any course at the school (the Architecture department would point at 3DS Max, say "this exists and some people use it," and then go back to AutoCad).

Even the professor who I had a close, friendly relationship with (the head of the CS department), I still called "Professor LASTNAME." In fact, to this day I think it would feel strange to call him by his first name. (Heck, I think I would feel strange calling my high school CS teacher anything but "Mister LASTNAME," and the two of us grew very close over the years.)

As far as emails go, all of the professors and TAs I exchanged emails with signed their email with "FIRSTNAME LASTNAME," occasionally with their department, position, and contact information as well.

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"In addition, the man who taught the "Game Content Creation" course was called by his first name, and he was not actually (directly) employed by the school; he was the lead developer at a local game company which occasionally poached from the school's CS department." Someone taught a course at your university for free? That's a bit unusual. (We had a request for "volunteer teaching" in my department a few years back, and it turned out that there was a rule against it.) –  Pete L. Clark Feb 14 at 15:01
    
@PeteL.Clark, I'm sure he was compensated in some fashion, but he was not a university employee. (He was an employee at the game company.) It's not like I asked him what the university was paying him! ;) –  Brian S Feb 14 at 15:18
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I was a student for 7 years and had lots of TAs. My brother was a TA for a couple of years too.

My favourite TAs were the ones who let us use their first names, because it would give a more relaxed tone to the class. When you're in the lecture, the person teaching is meant to be called "Professor" or "Dr" because that's what he is. In the tutorials and labs, you prefer to call them by your first name because they're really just one of you, but with more education. It gives the students the feel of having someone who can relate to them teaching them.

That being said, you're the one who sets the guidelines with students, and the name they call you has little to nothing to do with it. My brother had people in his class trying to add him to Facebook. He would decline, and eventually set his privacy settings tighter so that no one could find him unless they had a direct contact. He even set his Twitter to private because of that.

You should walk into the tutorial the first day and state clearly "If you miss the deadline, you will fail or get a penalty each day it's late." and then say that you have deadlines for marking and every person who asks for an extension is pushing back the date it will be graded for everyone. If you stick to it with only exceptions for students with doctors notes, they'll know they can't mess with that. The first time you give a kid an extension with no good excuse, or even a semi-good excuse, you're telling that student and everyone that student talks to that you give extensions out. It will be hard to start this now unless you tell the class that they've been taking advantage of extensions and that you won't give any out, but you need to commit to it.

As far as students being disrespectful, you should state at the start of the semester that you take the respect laws very seriously. You can even do this now if you're finding it too much of a problem. Then even read some of that rule (respectful speak, respect between teacher and student, etc.) and give examples that are close to reality so that they understand what you're talking about. Even state what the repercussions are. Look very annoyed so the students realize you're not saying this out of needing to, but out of necessity.

Once you're an assistant professor, you'll have an easier time with people being too informal with you, unless you do things like make lewd jokes or say things like "It's due around now." Just be firm with you treat them and they should stay in line.

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If you want a guideline regarding how the students should address you, go by the culture of the department, if the other professors are using last names, use last names, if they're using first names, use first name, if there's no clear pattern, use whatever is comfortable to you. If you sign your emails "Firstname Lastname," it's not an invitation to do anything, since full names are awkward to use in conversation, and it puts the burden on the other person to decide how to address you.

I am wondering whether asking my students to call me Dr. LASTNAME would resolve some of the rudeness that I've encountered.

It won't. If someone is being inappropriate, react immediately and let them know.

Regarding favors like extensions and flexibility, you need to be clear from the start on what your policy is, outline the policy in the syllabus, and stick to it. It's not just a matter of respect, but also a matter of fairness to the students: if the students that aren't playing by the rules are getting their way, the rest of the students are being put at a disadvantage. There will of course be situations where the policy will need to be broken, but those should be extreme (death in the family, student hospitalized/severely ill, natural disaster, global war, etc.) and rare. Sticking to the policy also applies to office hours, btw. You are obviously free to move your office hours for your own reasons, but being overly available to students outside office hours can be a bad thing if it gets out of control.

Disclaimer: I'm not a professor at the time of this writing.

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If you earned your advanced degree why not use it? You shouldn't expect to be friends with your students either. Kids today seem to have all too few figures of authority in their past and they end up being horribly prepared for careers.

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