Big Switch: Call Me Janni

Communicating with students.


January 19, 2016

I’ve previously blogged about how important it is for my students to read the syllabus and come to class prepared. I’ve also engaged in conversations on Twitter and elsewhere about how important instructor and student communication is face to face or via email. I was used to calling my professors by their professional title. It was not until graduate school that my professors said,“Janni, call me Susan please use my first name.”

During the last decade I noticed an increase in issues with email communication with enough of my students that I had to address it. Several years ago I added a brief paragraph explaining the importance of communication and included a wiki on how to email me or my teaching assistants. The wiki worked. By and large most students are respectful and I have had very few issues with problematic emails or issues in office hours.

Last Fall, I had the chance co-teach a course with a Ph.D. candidate and we realized that it would be best if we both used our first names for communicating with students. Typically I would use Prof. A, which is not as formal as Dr. Aragon. We put the syllabus together and preceded to use our first names on the syllabus, and via all our communication in our Moodle site. When we introduced ourselves to the students at the first class meeting, we also used our first names. I have to say the world did not fall apart, and I did not have any issues with students.

Now, when I first started teaching I used my first name and I noticed a pattern of boundary crossing and conversations that essentially were, “Janni, I thought you liked me. How could you give me a B.” There is lots to unpack with that comment. I do not give marks. Students earn them. I spoke with my mentor about this and she noted that I needed to be more formal and use my title. She offered that once I was mid-career I might go back to my first name, but overall it was better for me and my students if I was more formal. I did for the next 15 years and never looked back at this decision.

Now, I am teaching this term and while I have my title on my syllabus, I am signing all my emails Janni. The other issue for me is I am now older- -- mid career and most students understand this and do not mistake me for another student. But, early on in my career this happened all of the time, and as a short Latina, I was cognizant of my need to be more formal and always dress up for work. I had to work hard to get some of my students to see me as their instructor. I still remember the day I walked into a class with dark jeans, heels, blouse, and blazer and heard a few student say, “Wow, she’s only in jeans…how unprofessional.” I often wear jeans on Fridays and continued to do so, but this group of students were unbearable in their treatment towards me. After that term, I followed my mentors advice and went by Prof. Aragon.

I am a faculty administrator and at the vast majority of my meetings, I am Janni. It really became easier to sign all of my emails with my first name and not remember that some emails were with Prof. A. While this might not seem like too big of a transition, I admit to thinking about this for months. I never thought I’d stop using Prof. A as a preferred name with my students. Many students commented on my course evaluation forms that liked calling me by my first name. The experiment was successful. I reminded them: my name is Janni and it rhymes with July and I teach Poli Sci. No one mispronounced my name!

Students who have known me longer are still using Prof. A, but the new to me students are using my first name. I imagine that some of my colleagues will be aghast that I have joined the use my first name crowd, and I will explain to them my array of reasons. And, I do use my first name in virtually all of my social media accounts. Overall, the timing was right and I am not going back to using Prof. A, Prof. Aragon or Dr. Aragon. Now, I will admit to one thing, I pull the full title out when I need to be the heavy, but that hardly ever happens with students today. My full title is used when I am dealing with an aggressive vendor.


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