'Call Me Dr. ______'

A young black female academic notices that students call her colleagues Doctor or Professor, but she is addressed by her first name. Kerry Ann Rockquemore reviews her options.

March 11, 2015

Dear Kerry Ann,

Why won’t people call me Dr. _____ when that is the title I have earned? I hear my colleagues being called Professor _____ and Dr. _____ by the same students who call me by my first name. I understand that they may not have had a young woman of color as a professor before, but why is their default to address me like a peer when they approach my colleagues formally? I am so pissed off about this and at the same time, I feel petty for even caring about it. And the few times I have corrected students ("please call me Dr. _____"), they recoil as if I’ve done something inappropriate in correcting them. This feels like a no-win situation: if I say nothing I feel angry, but if I say something, I get labeled as an angry black woman. I need help figuring out how to resolve this issue.


Can’t Win

Dear Can’t Win,

I’m sorry to hear that this issue is taking up so much of your time and energy! Who gets called Doctor or Professor should be consistent, patterned and predictable. However, the ambiguity and ways in which race, age and gender shape its application are a common stressor for under-represented faculty. And you are correct to identify it as a no-win situation: you’re damned if you do say something (because you get negatively labeled) and damned if you don’t say anything (because you walk around seething with resentment).

While it may be 2015, students still walk into college classrooms with a mental image of “professor.” If you don’t fit that image (due to age, race, ethnicity, gender, etc.), students can become confused and unclear about how to interact with you. This confusion leads some students to engage in differential behavior such as interacting with you like a peer ("hey, [first name]!") while treating your colleagues as people who are in roles of intellectual authority (Professor _____). As frustrating as this can be, it’s up to you to choose how you want to respond. Like most issues, there’s no right or wrong way to manage these situations, and I see people making a wide range of choices. What matters is that you are clear in your thinking and make conscious and intentional choices about your behavioral response. As such, I encourage you to ask yourself a few important questions:

What Is the Culture of Your Department and Campus?

I realize that different campuses and geographic regions have their own unique norms about the level of formality that governs student-faculty interactions. If the prevailing norm on your campus is that students call faculty members by their first names, then you will need to calculate the cost of being the only faculty member who deviates from that norm by asking students to call you Dr. _____. However, if the norm on your campus is that there’s a mix of formality and informality based on faculty members' preferences, then the cost of choosing formality will be lower (it will likely be seen as an individual preference and not a challenge to your overarching campus culture).

Alternatively, if the norm on your campus is uniformly formal interactions between students and faculty, it costs you nothing to ask students to heed that established norm. The point of clarifying what the norms are on your campus is that the cost of correcting students is directly related to the prevailing norms, so pushing against those norms has a greater cost than leaning into them.

What Exactly Does the Title Mean to You?

Titles like Professor and Doctor mean different things to different people. I always ask people to articulate what it means to them, because this is often the source of discomfort, frustration and anger. What does being called Dr. _____ mean to you? Is it:

  • A way to put distance between you and your students?
  • A way to publicly display your educational credentials and expert status?
  • A way to acknowledge all of the sacrifice you’ve been through to get the degree?
  • A way to connote respect, either to you personally or to the role of professor?
  • A privilege earned from years of education that should be unquestioned?
  • Something else entirely?

If you can understand what being called Dr. _____ means to you, then you can more clearly decide how to respond when that title is offered (or withheld).

Does It Matter?

Once you’re clear about what titles mean to you, then you can ask yourself whether -- in the grand scheme of your quest to win tenure -- being called by your title or your first name really matters to you. I don’t ask this lightly, as I know responses to this question vary widely and they can change over time. Personally, I no longer care what people call me, and I lean toward informality. But early in my career it mattered a lot. It mattered because I was 4’10” and 27 years old and was regularly mistaken for an undergraduate (by students). So being called Dr. Rockquemore was an important way for me to establish authority in a classroom full of people who were only a few years younger than me.

If It Really Matters, What Is the Best Way to Push Back?

If you decide that being called Dr. _____ truly matters to you, then I recommend that you come up with a nonreactive way to respond when students call you by your first name. This should be quick, direct and to the point. It should not involve excessive negative emotions or lengthy speeches, nor should it be delivered via e-mail.  A simple and light response will adjust the boundary and is all that is necessary to get what you want.

How Can You Set Healthy Boundaries in the Future?

If you realize that being called Dr. _____ is important to you, the most effective way you can set boundaries in the future is to introduce that idea on the first day of class. When you introduce yourself to the class, you can just say, “Please call me Dr. _____,” and move right on with the content for the day. Setting expectations up front clarifies any ambiguity and will help your students adjust to your preferences.

I know that this seemingly small issue can occupy a great deal of time and energy. I hope that answering these questions can help you to clarify your stance on the issue and resolve it quickly, easily and confidently. As always, feel free to e-mail me your questions (DearKerryAnn@FacultyDiversity.org) or post questions on my Facebook page.

Peace and productivity,

Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Ph.D.

President, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity


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