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I just joined a faculty as assistant professor, at a university in South America. The admin team and students treat me as "professor". Moreover, because the official language is Spanish, people refer to me as "usted" instead of "tu" (see difference here).

Just coming out of the PhD, and feeling still "young", I find this treatment very odd. I would like to be treated, particularly by students, by my first name.

Now, without trying to foster authority styles, or exercise power, or being pedantic, I wonder whether there is an actual "benefit" in keeping this formal relationship? For instance, perhaps it gives me more capacity to extract effort from students? Diluting the boundaries might give them confidence to go against my instructions or so. And yet, conversely, someone might argue that a more friendly approach can actually help me gain confidence with students, understanding more their interests and motivations.

In the end my question is what are the pros and cons of each approach, based on your experience. Any help is more than welcome.

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    Are you in Spain or a Spanish-speaking South American country? I've found that in Spain, "usted" is seen as too formal and only really used when speaking to the police or a judge or similar position of authority. Whereas in South America they use "usted" a lot more (a visiting friend once was mortified to hear me address my girlfriend's father with "tu" :-D ). The use of "usted" might be more or less common depending on your location. – Aaron F Nov 26 '19 at 9:06
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    @AaronF: and it may depend on where in Spanish-speaking America. I learned Spaniard Spanish in school as a second language and I was told to address people I am not close to with "Usted". I used "Usted" with professors when I visited a Mexican university as a PhD student and they laugh a lot because I was too formal. – Taladris Nov 26 '19 at 14:19
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    Do you look like a student? Non-Spanish speaking, but my experience was that professors who were obviously not students could be much more casual, whereas those who were indistinguishable from students had to make an effort to be differentiated. – user3067860 Nov 26 '19 at 14:41
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    What do your colleagues do? Not that you have to copy them, but if you're literally the only professor who asks to be addressed by your first name, then it could be weird for students. If there's a good mix then you have more leeway to use the method you prefer. – Kat Nov 26 '19 at 21:00
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A certain amount of separation from your students has value. You have some power over their future, for example. The use of usted implies respect as well. This is useful if any conflicts arise in the future where you need to take a role of authority.

But, having a friendly and open relationship with your students is also useful if it gives them the "permission" to seek you out for help when they need it. Mostly I'm thinking of academic help. Even if they have personal problems (health, family,...) it is useful to them to know that you understand difficulties that may affect their performance. You can encourage them in such situations.

Sometimes you need to be understanding. And sometimes you need to speak somewhat strictly. Both can advance their educational pursuit. Less frequently you need to speak with full authority. Don't make that impossible, should the need arise.

So, a small gap is useful, and too wide a gap is probably not optimal. There are some students who will try to take advantage of you (e.g., by trying have you change grades) if you seem too much like "one of the gang".


Note that I was always Dr. Buffy or Prof. Buffy to my undergraduate and even MS level students. But with doctoral students I (and my colleagues) more or less insisted on first names. But the expectation was that they had achieved the status of colleagues at that point and we wanted them to think that way.

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    As a Spaniard, I say its better to use "tu", or first names. "Usted" has not only the obvious meanings of respect, but also has connotations of talking with someone with power, above your level. It disconnects you too much from the students, I think. – Ander Biguri Nov 26 '19 at 10:48
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    The discussion about sextortion and Jeffrey Epstein has been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment. – cag51 Nov 26 '19 at 18:30
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    Well said, but I think it is worth highlighting that this topic is very much a cultural thing and the norms may vary not just from country to country but form institution to institution. – TimothyAWiseman Nov 27 '19 at 17:44
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Another element to consider is the point of view of students : in some cultures the students might be very uncomfortable calling you by your first name (and even if it isn't an issue in your country it could still be for international students).

I would recommend "allowing" your students to call you by a formal title even if you allow them to use your first name.

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    It doesn't even have to be international, people from different parts of the same country can have very different cultures regarding the student/instructor relationship. It's good to be accommodating, allowing them to use the more formal title like you suggest if they're just more comfortable with it. – Davy M Nov 26 '19 at 8:51
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It depends on many things.

What is the general culture at your university? You should at least be aware of how other faculty approach this situation. Being the one person who does things differently might be your style. But maybe you should consider that it gets you talked about, and not in a good way. At least until you have tenure.

For undergrads, you will probably be in a superior or supervisory position. Is it possible you will be in the position of giving a student a failing grade? If there is some misbehavior on the part of a student, might you be the person (or one of the people) who decides on punishment? If you are friends with your students, this sort of thing can be a problem, even a conflict of interest. One of my previous bosses once told me that being friends with the people you supervise is a potential issue should you ever need to discipline one of them. If you had to expel a student for cheating, but you were friends with him before the cheating, that could be a very sticky proposition.

Grad students, especially PhD candidates may be somewhat different. Under most circumstances, they have been filtered very strictly before they get to such a program. It is often as big a reflection on the prof and the faculty if a PhD candidate fails out of the program. A PhD candidate is in transition to the level of a prof. Introductory, bottom step on the ladder, not there yet, but transition.

As well, a prof supervising a PhD candidate is going to be interacting closely for at least 3 years. So there is more potential to be more nuanced, and more expectation of commitment and involvement.

So for grad students, generally it will be less of a problem to be friends. I visited my prof's home several times during my PhD. But I never saw the inside of any of the homes of my profs during my undergrad. I went drinking with my PhD supervisor on numerous occasions. We discussed various sensitive topics that I would never have thought to speak to a prof about during my undergrad. I mean, I held my prof's less-than-one-year-old son while he went back into the house to get something.

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    I think the question is not about being friends with students. – user115896 Nov 25 '19 at 18:52
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    @Heutl Precisely. But it is interesting the differentiation between types of students. I overlooked that detail. – luchonacho Nov 25 '19 at 19:34
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    I agree with the previous boss who warns against being friends with students whom you supervise. It is as though he advises you to be their superviser or professor, but NOT to be their friend or parent substitute. No matter your views, it is nonetheless GOOD advice. By personal involvement with students, pitfalls in future are always unpredictable. – Rita Geraghty Nov 26 '19 at 15:19
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From a german computer science student's perspective from 15 years ago:

Our most respected professors were those two who announced that they wanted to be addressed on a first-name basis, using the informal pronoun "du" instead of the formal pronoun "Sie" (which is the standard of addressing a professor in germany). They announced that in the first lecture of each semester, especially for fresh students.

But, and I think this matters, they both had other qualities:

  • They were excellent teachers.
  • They were excellent researchers.
  • They always made time to answer a students question (sometimes even at 3am).
  • It was hard to get a good grade from them, but everyone felt that they graded fair.

On the other hand, our least respected professors were those who explicitely insisted on being addressed formally and lacked some of the above listed qualities.

In the end, I do remember the books and some of the papers our two respected professors wrote (even though I didn't write my thesis in their field), while I don't remember anything from our other professors' academic output. So, I surmise that being in good memory of your students (at least those who enter the academic career path) will increase your citation count, which does look like a benefit for your academic career.

(I don't know whether this translates into your culture... I don't even know whether this would be the same in a different field than computer science, e.g. law.)

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I cannot really answer whether a kind of treatment or another is preferable, but the treatment you describe might be at least partially influenced by a language misunderstanding.

In Spain the word "profesor" means "teacher" or "lecturer". It is not a synonym for "professor" as an academic rank. In Spanish, a school teacher is a "profesor" as well. The word in Spanish for "professor" is, essentially, the word "catedrático".

Many Spanish speakers are in fact not aware that "professor" in English has a different meaning. And, if your class is actually in Spanish and you are being called "profesor", you should then know that they are in that case just referring to you with a standard "lecturer" equivalent.

The "usted" usage is indeed somewhat formal in Spain, though it is still used in certain contexts and universities (not always and not all of them). In many South American countries it is however much more common and has no formality implications.

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I believe your question really stems from wondering if being referred to differently will affect the respect and authority you are recognized with. I was a teacher for 2 years, and because I felt more comfortable being called by my first name, I had the students call me Mr [First name]. That was with 5th, 6th, and 7th graders. They still understood boundaries and authority. I still made the assignments, graded them, taught them. My role did not change and they understood that. You are teaching adults. They shouldn't have any issue with this. This is no different than a student asking me to refer to them by a nickname. It doesn't change who they are to me at all.

Basically, if you want to maintain a professional relationship between teacher and student, your name doesn't matter, how you treat them does, and how you handle disagreements or bad behavior, however that manifests itself, will.

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We had at least one professor (maybe more I can't remember) that asked if it is okay if he uses our first names and we will use his first name in the first lesson. He was "my dads age" and quite infamous for having hard courses. I am not aware there was any problem with his authority.

I think it boils down to your general demeanor and the name only plays a small part on how you are percieved and respected.

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    Thanks. Very important point. If you have a weak character, it doesn't matter how they call you. You can easily imagine something like "but dear professor, please move the test blahblah". – luchonacho Nov 27 '19 at 12:51

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