Call Me Mister

Professor Molly Worthen has written a defense of old school formality in an NYT op-ed.

After one too many students called me by my first name and sent me email that resembled a drunken late-night Facebook post, I took a very fogeyish step. I began attaching a page on etiquette to every syllabus: basic rules for how to address teachers and write polite, grammatically correct emails.

Over the past decade or two, college students have become far more casual in their interactions with faculty members. My colleagues around the country grumble about students’ sloppy emails and blithe informality.

Mark Tomforde, a math professor at the University of Houston who has been teaching for almost two decades, added etiquette guidelines to his website. “When students started calling me by my first name, I felt that was too far, and I’ve got to say something,” he told me. “There were also the emails written like text messages. Worse than the text abbreviations was the level of informality, with no address or signoff.”

His webpage covers matters ranging from appropriate email addresses (if you’re still using “,” then “it’s time to retire that address”) to how to be gracious when making a request (“do not make demands”).

My own habits were formed decades ago, and I nearly always address my teachers with the title "Professor" unless they signal otherwise, but I was reminded of my own experience that such titles are not always hazardless. In my own research organization, first names were the rule but our administrative assistants usually called us "Doctor".

So anyway, I was in the delivery room while my wife was giving birth to my son when our admin assistant called and apparently asked for "Doctor Measure." They sent me to the phone, and I dealt with whatever crisis could have waited until next week, but when I left the phone I noticed that the nurses suddenly started paying entirely unwarranted attention to what I said. It took me awhile to deduce what must have happened. If the admin assistant had asked for "Mr. Measure" the nurses would quite likely have told her to bug off. Instead, they wrongly deduced that I must be a physician and that my opinions on childbirth ought to be respected.


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