Call Me

Terry Caesar considers why some adjuncts insist on being called "professor" and why some colleges resist that appellation.
February 16, 2007

Recently I heard of an adjunct who insists that her students address her as "Professor." Also, it seems she wants the word, "Professor," before her name on any official written communication. It's not clear to me if she's been apprized of an apparent university policy whereby only full-time faculty merit the appellation of "professor." But what are adjuncts to be called instead? Can even adjuncts who have earned doctorates be addressed as "Doctor?"

These are intricate questions. Has any institution in the country worked out completely satisfactory answers to them? Outside of military institutes, are there any that mandate that both teachers and students must never under any circumstances address each other on a first-name basis? Probably as many as mandate that they must only address each other on such a basis. And the rest of us? Nominatively, we flounder.

I've had more than one student during the past couple years correct me after I called her name on the roll, and ask me to use her nickname. But the great majority seem comfortable if I call them by their first name. Students usually address me as "Sir," often as "Professor," and occasionally as "Doctor." I haven't heard, "Mr.," although friends report a regular appearance of the odd student insufficiently removed from high school who will use "Mr." or "Ms."-- always to their annoyance.

What to do? In such contrast to the above adjunct, I know another who dislikes being called, "professor." "I haven't earned it," he insists. This seems to me too severe, slighting the fact that the name functions as a generic term, or even as an honorific, rather than exclusively as a designation of official employment status. But of course students aren't normally aware of these distinctions [is that person leading the class an adjunct or a tenured faculty member?] much less the professional culture that enforces them or American social conventions in which hierarchy or status boundaries are often casually enforced at the linguistic level.

Not so in other countries. When I began teaching I had a colleague whose background was German. He loved to tell jokes about Germans. One of his favorites was of the student who knocks on the office door of his professor. Then he asks "Herr Professor" for permission to enter. The man gets up from his desk and hits the student with a cane for insulting his dignity. "It's Herr DOKTOR Professor," he cries. Tears would well in Max's eyes (a full professor, he insisted right away that I call him, "Max") each time he uttered the punchline.

I thought of this joke often when I taught in Japan, where I had to address my own colleagues as formally as I used to address my professors when I was a graduate student in the U.S.. (In each case, a first name was inconceivable.) My Japanese students, on the other hand, simply addressed me as sensei. The word might translate into English as "teacher," but "teacher" doesn't begin to express either the fixed, revered cultural status or the deep, sage-like character of a sensei, which literally means, "one who comes before."

Another national practice. In a Brazil even less formal than the U.S., I was customarily either "Teacher," or "Mr. Terry," and with graduate students, "Terry." Happily, in Portuguese the word, "professor" (or " professora") means both "teacher" as well as "professor," and Brazilians are pleased to wave away any worries about when to use one and not the other. In this respect alone, a contrast with how the sensei is addressed in Japan (or even how the professor is addressed in Germany, although I have no direct experience myself) could not be more difficult to imagine.

In the U.S. it might appear at least with our terms of address we ought to be more like Brazil. We're not. Furthermore, as in all things, the great number of adjuncts now among us only exacerbates the problem, most especially when they act to claim hitherto unstated aspects of our identities as professors. After all, we are professors not only because of our contracts or our research. We are professors because we have students who call us professors as well as because we have offices, nameplates, and memos whereupon or wherein we are also so called.

Of course the problem predates the rise of adjuncts. When I began teaching 30 years ago, I didn't have a Ph.D. This mattered to those who did. Consequently, I felt about being called "doctor" the same as my adjunct friend feels about being called "professor" now. Worse, by the time I had earned a doctorate (nine years later), and therefore merited the title, it had ceased to matter much to me. The importance of distinction itself, on the other hand, has never gone away,

Can we say that an institution is an institution, in part, on the basis of how its "culture" (ranging from official administrative policies to casual social codes) negotiates this particular distinction? I believe we can -- and of course whether or not an individual is well and truly termed a "professor" (according to the institution) follows from it. Perhaps only the most elite schools can afford to flaunt the difference -- everybody instead called either "Mr." or "Ms." -- on the basis of the fact that of course everybody has a doctorate.

Down below, though, everybody, alas, doesn't. Down below, all manner of crudities now obtain. I used to think, for example, that only people outside academic life -- authors of self-help books, say -- give, "Ph.D.," after their names. Vulgar ostentation! Now I've seen it after the names of more than one college president, on official communications, as well as course syllabi of individual instructors. Are there at least departments whose chairs direct these instructors to remove mention of the degree? But what about cases in which the chair -- horrors! -- doesn't have a Ph.D.?

No wonder an American, me, likes to watch old films, such as The Browning Version, about British public schools. The black-robed masters exist in a sublime nominative firmament, from which they bestow the title of "Mr." upon even the lowliest sixth-form boy. No subjectivity ruffles the public surface. Everybody knows his or her place because everybody knows the proper term for each one. Appellatory bliss! I don't want to hear that it's changed in the actual world off-screen or, worse, that it was never so.

Back home, compare the new hire who identities herself beginning with "Doctor," when she has occasion to call her chair on the phone. Why would anybody do such a thing? In a way, the answer is all too simple: because she has an insecure relation to the discipline and so tries to ground it in a more stable relation to the institution (in the person of her chair). This logic is even more painfully operative in the case of adjuncts, which, come to think of it, this particular new hire is.

Adjuncts (even if they are Ph.D.'s) virtually have no relation to the discipline; that's why they're adjuncts. Yet they do have a relation to the institution -- and of course they do have some measure of pride. Hence, their moves to try to recuperate an absent professional relation through a willed institutional presence, often by means of naming or being named. Into the old nominative problem brought about by having a doctorate or not is introduced a more comprehensive one: having a name or not.

Adjuncts aren't normally listed in course catalogues. They don't have name plates on their office doors. They don't have offices. So, much as we might want to bemoan their attempts to secure a public identity beyond the classroom, we can easily look more kindly upon these attempts, especially if we see in them expressions of our own insecurities about enjoying a socially resonant professional identity. Just because you're a tenure-track, or even tenured, college professor doesn't mean that you get the respect you feel you deserve, which begins with how others address you.

This may especially be the case in countries, such as our own, where nouns rather than verbs carry the burden of designating authority. A friend tells the story of taking a graduate course in Spanish, before she was a competent speaker of that language. How to define competence? In her case, being able to use correctly the two forms of the second person, the familiar tu and the more formal usted. One day she noticed her professor visibly wince after she spoke tu to him. A colleague took her aside and explain that you never use tu to a professor.

And yet in Spanish-speaking countries, despite the dispensation of their very language to admit a category of formality unknown in English, it may be no easier to sort out when to use "Professor" rather than "Doctor," or how to call somebody who appears to be somehow different than either one. What to conclude? It's probably too easy -- too secure -- to declare that the whole appellatory affair is ultimately a comic one. This ignores the pain of abiding under a nominative regime which begs to be too ruthless with its limited vocabulary.

Yet as long as we're trying to understand the regime in impossibly global terms, comedy does seem to me the happiest solution. An Australian friend tells me that assistant professors are known in New Zealand as "aspros." This is the brand name of a headache remedy. The friend himself taught for many years in Singapore, where he was a Senior Lecturer, and so not entitled, it seems, to be addressed as "Professor." But not to worry; students call professors, "Profs." It probably sounds more delightful in a rigid system.

Ours might aspire to be. But it isn't, and we may as well celebrate the fact. The other day I chanced to hear of a woman who encourages students to call her, "Doctor Judy." The person who told me this rolled her eyes. I just smiled and thought of the court TV show, "Judge Judy." In each case, what the first word demands in formality the second word withdraws with familiarity. So it goes among we Americans. We keep mixing things up and we just might be the better a little bit more than we are the worse for it.



Terry Caesar's last column was about academic friends and colleagues.


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