Carrie J. Preston authored an interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled, "Do You Make Them Call You 'Professor'?" In the article, Preston reflects on her pedagogy practices of the past and present, answering the question she poses in the title in the affirmative. This article pushed me to reflect on my own pedagogical reasoning for asking my students to refer to me by my first name.
Though Preston used to go by her first name with her students, she argues that a move to "Professor" helped her to accomplish a variety of pedagogical tasks. For one, she states that "students might avoid asking questions or visiting office hours because they feel uncomfortable using first names or don’t know what to call us." She cites her personal experience as an undergraduate, feeling uncomfortable not knowing how to address her professors. Preston also points to the power dynamics between student and teacher.
While in the past Preston used her first name because she had "always assumed that erasing markers of hierarchy — including the title 'Professor' — was crucial to fostering a feminist, queer-friendly, and democratic learning environment," she now prefers "Professor," because "power relations shape every pedagogical situation, and it might be more honest, even comforting, to acknowledge them," and too, she recognizes that using her first name performed a refusal. In refusing to claim her "expertise and authority ... [she] was obscuring the very real operations of power in the classroom, including the ritual of grades."
Preston cites an encounter with cultural difference as the turning point in her pedagogical approach. She trained in Japanese Noh dance and chant as part of her researcher for her book titled Learning to Kneel. Part of her training was the formal address she performed at the beginning of each lesson, in which she would bow on her knees while addressing her teacher with a scripted phrase. Another part of her training was always addressing her teacher as "Sensai," which, she notes, literally means "Master."
Though, I should first note that Preston does acknowledge that "we all have different teaching styles and different preferences on our interactions with students." With that said, I don't see myself making the same move that Preston makes, from first name to "Professor," for a few reasons. For one, I feel that the ambiguity students experience when they don't know how to address a professor isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's a situation they will encounter in the real world over and over again, especially concerning the increasing use of non-normative and gender-neutral pronouns, personal titles such as Mr., Mrs., Miss., Ms., etc. I'd rather they figure it out with me and learn both how to ask someone what they'd like to be called or infer the answer, than blunder at a new job.
Preston notes that "Many students don’t know how to write a professional email ... to a professor. They will have to learn how to do that eventually when interacting with an employer, so we should teach them those skills now." I completely agree with this sentiment, though I wonder if establishing a professional title with students alone is enough. Our titles should, perhaps, coincide with other pedagogical aspects of our teaching. For example, I identify with Preston's former reasoning for going by her first name because I, too, feel like it helps break the hierarchy between student and teacher. However, I also believe that using my first name alone is not enough to break the hierarchy, or really enough to do anything in terms of power, respect, etc. Demanding respect by solely asserting oneself from their power position and doing nothing else, in my opinion, is the lowest and most ineffective form of leadership (not that Preston is necessarily advocating this).
As previously mentioned, Preston references the need for this hierarchy of Teacher then student because she hands out grades. In my personal pedagogical philosophy, grades, first, do more harm than good since the goal becomes getting an A+ instead of learning anything, and second, I feel that grades should be an interactive and collaborative determination, assuming students are willing to make the effort to discuss their initial grade honestly and critically.
This last point is really important, because part of the problem may be the assumptions we make about our students. I agree with Preston when she states that we need to acknowledge the power relations at play in the classroom, but if we assume that our students understand those power relations we are conflating understanding with performing. While students may perform their role, it does not mean we should assume that they understand their role within the dynamics of power. A pedagogical practice I have come to believe in is the practice, not only of asking my students to call me by my preference, but also discussing with them why this is my preference. If we can openly discuss the moves we make we will sooner be able to answer Preston's call for an acknowledgement of power relations in the classroom.
Overall, I really believe that any pedagogical practice can only be measured by the outcome, of which there will always be some students that don't seem to have learned anything new, nor were affected by the course in any meaningful way. What works for one Professor won't necessarily work for another, and so on and so forth, yet, in general, pedagogical philosophies are not unilateral. Well thought out pedagogies must be at play in every moment of teaching. From the moment I walk into a classroom, whether class has started or not, I am implementing my pedagogical philosophy in a way that will color not only the whole session, but the whole semester.
Preston, Carrie J. "Do You Make Them Call You 'Professor'?" The Chronicle of Higher Education. 2 Nov. 2016. http://www.chronicle.com/article/Do-You-Make-Them-Call-You/238282
Often times, when I am thinking through a new idea, it is helpful to have a space away from my long-term research. While compartmentalizing space for knowledge production has its risks, the benefit of having a blog is the low-stakes, free exchange of ideas, through which others can comment, build, and enter a discussion.
Though I am knee deep in final papers and grading, finishing my tenure as a student at Michigan State University, summer is almost here. And, as most graduate students can attest, with summer comes a sharp decline in motivation, support, and feedback. I'm hoping that this blog may keep the juices flowing as I transition from one graduate program to the next.
I hope you will join me on this journey. Knowledge is a dish best shared.
Assistant Professor of English/Film Studies
Transnational Cinema, Decolonial Methodologies, Feminisms, Neoliberalism
Winona State University
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