Professionalism and Formality
I am not your friend, but I do want students to feel comfortable approaching me. And I am not “Mr.” That would be my father.
Last week in this same space, Katrina Gulliver, made an argument regarding “an epidemic of familiarity among undergraduates” that directly implicated white male faculty for “resting safely in the comfort of assumed male authority.” I have witnessed this alleged epidemic in my very own classroom; and I have — much to the chagrin of Gulliver — done nothing to prevent it. Some, in fact, may even accuse me of silently fostering it.
Who I am is a white, male, millennial faculty member and college administrator who prefers creating a respectful environment in which my students are afforded the greatest opportunity for success without worrying about the same interaction in other classrooms. I have been known to occasionally teach in clothes that I could mow the lawn in and apparently a student or two have at some point said I was cool. That’s not my goal, however: I did not pursue a doctoral degree with visions of becoming Robin Williams in "Dead Poets Society." Instead, I worry about making sure I deserve the respect of my students rather than expecting my title or position to simply demand it. I want students to respect me as an individual, not solely for my role, title, or degrees.
I strongly believe there is no need to rest on my apparent genetic laurels. I may be a white male, but this has nothing to do with why I am comfortable in a classroom. And more importantly, I think it has little to do with why students can respect me despite knowing my first name and using it if they feel so inclined. The underlying current of any college classroom involves a faculty member who is supposed to be more educated then the students on the topic being covered and understanding that this person will control assessment and grading. No matter how formal or informal interactions may be between faculty and students, those facts rest squarely in the backdrop of everything. If what students call me determines whether I am respected or not, I’m not deserving to be in a classroom.
Rather than worry incessantly about how an email is drafted, I am thankful students are asking questions. On the first day of class I consciously do not demand to be referred to by any particular title. There is no need for a lecture on why I want to be called Dr. Miller, Professor, Will, or even Master of the Universe. I may have a reputation for being laid-back and getting good teaching evaluations, but I also carry a hefty DWF percentage. Being informal does not imply that I am an easy A. In fact, I’d argue the opposite. If students respect me as an individual, I firmly believe I am able to push students to do more because of that mutual respect.
In an era of discussions throughout higher education about flipped classrooms, student engagement, and whether faculty should be a sage on the stage or a guide by their side, some faculty seem to be forgetting the importance of place, comfort, and feel in determining how to run their classes and manage their relationships with students. Like Gulliver, I did not use first names with my undergraduate instructors and still struggle using the first name of my dissertation chair. In fact, I still have nightmares about accidentally slipping and using the first name of a particular faculty member during an office hours meeting and the subsequent tongue lashing I received. Yet I did not lose respect for her nor her for me. Because the interaction fit the expectation for that particular faculty member.
And that is my major concern with the line of reasoning used by Gulliver yesterday. Without question, certain colleges, programs, and student bodies necessitate different levels of familiarity between faculty and students. Even perhaps more importantly students do need to be exposed to professional work behavior. Unlike Gulliver, however, I believe a part of that process is being able to navigate different environments and interactions. Students are fully capable of discerning what is acceptable with one faculty member and is not with another. If we look at today’s work environment, it is hard to believe that a student would fare well attempting to enter the workplace at Zappos.com or Google if they demonstrated the type of behavior Gulliver mandates with students.
In short, it is about fit. I am at time envious of my friends and colleagues who wear bow ties, five piece suits, or even just sports coats to class every day. But that’s not me. And I do not view colleagues any differently who wear Vans and comic book t-shirts into the classroom. What I wear, how I allow students to address me, and the way I conduct class sessions does not make me an inferior instructor or complicit in some alleged epidemic of familiarity. In my experience, it creates the learning environment that I feel best allows students in my classes to succeed.
Faculty should make expectations clear to students, but in an era where higher education faces regular attacks from outside actors, should we really be casting stones at each other regarding interpersonal style and choices? So, Dr. Gulliver, I apologize for not helping you out. But, in the grand scheme of things, I am considerably more concerned with making an environment that works for my students and I then worrying about you thinking I’m “down with the kids.” After all, am I not here for the kids? There is an important difference between formality and professionalism that appears to be misunderstood by some in the academy. I feel more comfortable teaching in jeans and being called Will than being Dr. Miller with a necktie on. Yet I’d welcome someone to attend one of my classes and suggest that I am ineffective as an instructor for these reasons.
Will Miller is director of institutional research and effectiveness and teaches at Flagler College.
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