Students and Professors: Have We Been Formally Introduced?

By Sara Pompeo

Be it in a new-age liberal arts college — where classes are held in ball pits — in a small town community college or within the hallowed halls of Harvard University, a university student must come face-to-face with one problem over and over again: their relationship with their professors — specifically with their names.

A far cry from a high school setting, universities place student and teacher on a more equal playing field. The teachers are no longer disciplinarians, but serve more as vehicles to disseminate knowledge effectively and provide guidance. The relationship changes and budding friendships between teachers and students are not uncommon.

Some students and professors may feel uncomfortable using first names, thinking it is an informal practice not meant for the more formal nature of some classrooms. On the other hand, some believe it can help students and professors to connect in the classroom.

David Stout, professor of accounting in Youngstown State University’s Williamson College of Business Administration, said that the title of the professor depends on the student relationship.

“It is more acceptable for students in my master’s of business administration program to call me by my first name than it is for undergraduate students, because the older students have more work experience,” Stout said. “There is more of a concern with the older students to socialize and form long-term bonds and relationships, even outside of the classroom, to prepare them for business settings.”

Stout said that he believes it is easier for older students to establish these respectable business connections at a higher level for networking purposes, but the same could not be said for undergraduate students.

“Undergraduates are in more of a formative stage, and need to show respect for positions and authority,” he said.

Stout’s professional area is in accounting. He said he wants to make sure that his students understand and respect these courtesy boundaries in order to help them develop in the accounting world.

“It is professional to call a professor by their title, even though the world is changing. It is not so much of a personal matter, but about responsibility,” he said.

He added that he prefers the designation of professor to a formal degree title.

“I would rather be called a professor than a doctor, because it shows a greater level of respect. It signifies not so much the degree, but the knowledge transition and educational process,” Stout said. “It is a more a significant sign of respect than calling someone by the degree in which they earned.”

Stout said that professors make an impact on lives, and calling someone a professor shows a relationship, rather than calling someone a doctor.

Jay Gordon, associate professor in the English department, said he believes that professors vary in their views of what students should call them, and that there is not a solid answer to this issue.

“Some professors make it a point for students to call them by their titles, while others make it a point to be on a first name basis,” he said.

Gordon added that when he first started teaching, he didn’t mind his students being informal with him.

“GA’s might be trying to establish themselves and reinforce that they are the instructor. On the other hand, I personally used to care about being ‘cool’ in my twenties,” he said. “I was new to teaching and wanted to reduce my insecurities, so I ‘allowed’ students to call me by my first name, to be perceived as one of the group.”

Gordon said that he believes that courtesy titles depend upon the circumstance, what is being said and even the status of a student or professor.

“For the most part, I think that students can call me either by my first name or my title, whichever they’re comfortable with doing so,” he said. “Professors want to be approachable, but at the same time not too casual because there still needs to be respect. Professors have business to take care of in the classroom, but that doesn’t mean having to be strict.”

Gordon also added that professors should have respect for their students because they are not their parents, and thus should not have to reinforce too many rules on them.

Kara Zone, a professional and technical writing major, said that titles show a form of respect toward a professor, especially if the relationship between student and professor is not strong.

“We are here to learn, and if the boundaries bend too much, there is a chance for lax ideology,” Zone said. “This does not happen for everyone, but it can happen more often than not, and I believe there is an opportunity for it to do more harm than good.”