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The Name Game

A conversation on navigating the names, titles, and honorifics in graduate school.

March 27, 2018

Patrick Bigsby is an alumnus, former employee, and lifelong wrestling fan of the University of Iowa. Sometimes, he tweets.

Alexandra (AJ) Gold is a Ph.D. Candidate in English at Boston University. Follow her on Twitter or check out her website.

Note: this post is inspired by Alexandra Gold’s recent post about authority and the behind-the-scenes conversations it sparked among GradHacker’s authors. She and Patrick Bigsby wanted to continue that conversation with GradHacker’s readers. They’re designated below as A and P, respectively.

In academia, we attach a lot of importance to names and titles, in ways both explicit and implicit. Names and titles, of course, are not unearned, but they are a source of currency, indicating the relative power of those whom they describe. It is something of an open secret, for instance, that letters of recommendation from “big name” scholars — those, not incidentally, who often bear the title Full Professor — may have more caché for graduate students on the job market; similarly, these names and advanced titles carry weight at conferences. Big names and tenured faculty are also institutional draws, as they attract prospective graduate students and, frequently, prestigious grants and funding. More insidiously, and in view of the recent #MeTooPhD phenomenon, university structures may conspire to protect those with prominent names and titles, largely at the expense of those who are, in an important sense, without them.

Graduate students, positioned somewhere in the nebulous middle of the teacher-student spectrum, must navigate the name-scape in multiple capacities and with their own attachments to these outward signifiers. They are often forced to negotiate this terrain in ways that directly reflect their gender, race, age, sexuality, ability, and other embodied experiences.

A: For me, the issue of names and titles has been fraught (and not just because I am widely known as AJ but go professionally by Alexandra). I’ve continually struggled with what to have students call me in class, and this, no doubt, has something important to do with my gender and its implications for my perceived authority, expertise, and experience. Sometimes, out of uncertainty, I’ve simply neglected to tell students what to call me — no doubt the biggest mistake of all. I have found that I can enhance my authority by encouraging students to refer to me by a title. But what title? Ms. Gold seems formal, but ineffectual; Alexandra, fine, but far from commanding; and AJ, far too informal and friendly. Professor is “technically” unearned — as several commenters in December were quick to point out — but it might signal to students the degree of respect I feel is warranted (and some students do default to a version of this).

P: I found this idea fascinating, mostly because I began the first day of every class by telling students “I’m Pat.” and signed each and every email as Pat. I couldn’t imagine going by anything other than Pat where I had a choice in the matter. Quite a few of my professors called me Mr. Bigsby without any input from me. This presumably was designed in part to condition me against flinching when a judge said it and to ensure that certain cultural touchstones remained relevant. However, my favorite professor of all time told his students that he used Mr., Ms., and M. to refer to us in order to demonstrate that he and we were essentially equals (or at least soon-to-be) equals, even if we didn’t believe it at the time. This impressed me, and I adopted the same logic; I wanted my students to recognize they weren’t all that removed from whatever status they believed I had. I hadn’t considered that doing so might undermine my authority — perhaps a luxury of being a man with a loud, deep speaking voice. My desire and decision to go by my first name as a teacher was underscored by my supervisors referring to me as Pat to my students.

A: I’ve also struggled with what to call my own professors, even those who have routinely insisted on their first name. Early in graduate school, I remember balking at and feeling slightly jealous of the ease with which fellow graduate students addressed professors casually, on a first-name basis. Part of my own hesitation was certainly rooted in imposter syndrome: the nagging feeling that I did not deserve to be and perhaps would never be on a peer level with my professors, even though many suggest that graduate students imagine themselves as such. Yet I think part of my hesitation, too, was borne of a recognition that we students are in ways both structural and individual emphatically not our professors’ peers; calling them by their first name therefore seemed like a contradiction or an overstep. With time, some of my trepidation has subsided, particularly with specific professors (and notably, I should add, without regard to title, status, or gender), but the issue, for me, remains a tricky and uncomfortable one.

P: My default is to call professors by whatever moniker they introduce themselves with, as I imagine they’re using whatever name and title combination they prefer to be called. The trickiest part comes when I reference them in conversation with others. For example, I might greet a supervising professor with a hearty “Hi, Firstname!” minutes before going into a classroom and asking my students if they recall what Dr. Lastname said in lecture. Some teachers draw an invisible line between grads and undergrads on the issue of their names, and it’s not always obvious. There’s something to be said for erring on the side of using honorifics, but I tend to fall away from this habit when the person doesn’t self-identify by an honorific or I don’t openly fear them. Again, this tendency is probably egocentric: I don’t like to go by Mr. Bigsby, I’m not a professor, and no one should call me doctor, so I imagine others feel similarly unless they tell me otherwise.

P: AJ’s post was dedicated specifically to how female graduate students cultivate authority, which made me consider the gender implications of names and titles in a new way. I agree, for all the reasons AJ cited her previous post, that women face more structural obstacles in conveying authority than men do. However, while female instructors who go by their first names might risk being seen as pushovers, I feel male instructors who use their first names run the risk of being too familiar, in the McConaughey sense. Though I would never deviate from going by Pat in hopes of creating a friendly, egalitarian classroom, this tactic has always been counterweighted with a healthy dose of dressy apparel and unrelenting professional competence and confidence.

A: Patrick definitely hit on something important, which is that all graduate students, regardless of gender, are constantly negotiating their authority in the classroom and other spaces. I’ve only learned what works and doesn’t through the process of trial and error all teachers face. I did want to bring up one final point, at the risk of belaboring the discussion, about women and names. Something I’ve talked about a lot with friends in my Ph.D. program, especially several who are recently engaged, is whether or not to change their last name once married, for both professional and personal reasons. I know Patrick got married while in grad school (be sure to check out his awesome post on wedding planning), but I imagine this name aspect was not something he considered in the same way. Because our professional careers are often tied to our names (via publishing, for instance), it’s something a lot of women think seriously about. I’m not in a position where it’s an immediate consideration, but I’m still really interested to know how women navigate this dilemma, if it’s a dilemma at all, and how their choices impact their careers.

There’s a lot more that could be said about these topics, but our goal here was to begin a conversation about these important issues and to consider them from our own divergent viewpoints. That said, we hope others will weigh in with their own experiences in the comments!

Tell us about your own experiences with issues of names and titles below. How do you navigate the academic “name game?”

[Image from Flickr user Avi Kovacevich and used under Creative Common License.]

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