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06 June 2016

Why I'm on a First-name Basis with My Students

...despite the Privilege.

I've been waiting to respond to this essay for a while. Here it is, warts and all.

First, let me offer context. My social location is the height of privilege. Everything below should be read in that light. This is not mansplaining but a dialogue.

Students come to college having been taught in primary and secondary education to respect their teachers because of their traditional and/or rational-legal (a/k/a bureaucratic) authority. In order to redefine the kind of authority to professional-client that is endemic in and essential to higher ed, I ask students to call me by my first name instead of with a title that aligns with a bureaucratic office (e.g. "Professor" or "Doctor"). This informality highlights that my authority rests in my expertise, not in customs or rules. (See [1] for a thorough treatment of these kinds authorities.)

I have always been of the view that traditional and bureaucratic authority in the classroom is a hindrance. This is not to deny that there is a power differential. As a professor, I hold a lot of power over my students, not the least of which is my ability to assign grades and, ultimately, to bestow or withhold a degree. (I go to great lengths, though, to craft syllabi that remove as much subjectivity from the process as possible--or at least to lay as bare as possible where my expert status affords subjectivity.) The students in my classes are adults, however, and I treat them as such. I am not the high school teacher; I will not coddle them or hold their hands. They are fully capable of being self-sufficient. In secondary education, it is the teacher's responsibility that the student learns; in post-secondary education, that responsibility belongs to the student. Because of this, I see no need for deference.

I do not agree that it is our job to teach students how to behave in a professional setting, as Prof. Gulliver claims. That is the creep of corporate influence into academia. College is not--or at least shouldn't be--job training. Regardless, behavior in professional settings has been becoming increasingly casual for decades. Most employees are on a first-name basis with their boss. Arguing that college has a duty to professionalize students would require that we help students transition from their high-school habit of calling authority figures Mr., Mrs., etc. to having the bravery to see themselves as closer in status to their superiors and setting aside the titles.

There absolutely is a problem for women professors, professors of color, and instructors of otherwise marginalized identities, and we should do everything to address the cultural and structural realities that cause these problems. But I, "the cool white guy" doing my best to meet my students in a place that will best facilitate their edification, am not the problem. I am an ally, not an enemy.

I think Prof. Gulliver underestimates her capacity for being the "cool" professor. What stops women from being the "cool" professor, too? Using your first name removes an easy opportunity for douchy undergrads to challenge authority. If anything, it opens up an opportunity to be surprised by those who find it hard or impossible to call a superior by her first name.

Finally, let me close by saying that I very much appreciate Prof. Gulliver's essay and I continue to wrestle with her arguments. I hope the dialogue continues.

[1] Pace, Judith. 2003. "Managing the Dilemmas of Professional and Bureaucratic Authority in a High School English Class." Sociology of Education 76(January): 37-52

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