Wednesday, March 11, 2009

What’s in a Name?

Originally posted on the Faculty Blog on January 6, 2009.

A very interesting debate went on over at PrawfsBlog last month, as found here, here (in a post by Professor Esenberg), and here. It began with a discussion of how professors should address students in class (i.e., would I be called “Andrew” or “Mr. Golden”), and vice versa, but it has seemed to extend beyond that to how students are addressed outside of class and even what they are called once they graduate. Based on the posts and the bulk of comments I’ve seen over there, it seems the majority of the professors on that site tend to hold the opinion that it’s important for faculty to call their students “Mr. ___” or “Ms. ___”, be it to remain professional, show a level of respect, appreciate the formality of the law school process, etc. The level of importance indicated in their comments surprised me; I had no idea that this was something professors felt so strongly about!

But is it much ado about nothing?

Let me say this to begin: while I have had friends jokingly call professors by a familiar nickname (so as to imply that they’re best friends) while we’re all sitting at the bar or somewhere like that, I know of no student at Marquette Law who would call any professor here by anything other than “Professor ___.” In fact, I’d wager that most students here operate the same way I do: call everyone in a position of authority “Mr. ___” or “Ms. ___” until such time as they’re told by the person, “No, just call me ____.” It’s a sign of respect and authority, and I’d certainly argue that anyone who’s a faculty member at a law school has earned such respect. So while I have no doubt that in some law school somewhere there are students who treat the faculty members like equals when they shouldn’t, I’m not sure that’s really the main issue.

So what about how professors address students? Well, I think I’ve personally had about an even mix of classes in which I’m called “Andrew” versus classes in which I’m called “Mr. Golden.” I think the majority of them have started out as the latter and progressed to the former as the professors got comfortable with the members of the class. Frankly, it doesn’t matter all that much to me what approach is used within the walls of the classroom, and I don’t think it matters much to most other students; I think we’re all happy to go by either name (though I imagine many would prefer not being called on at all!). But what caught my attention in the PrawfsBlog posts were the comments by professors who insist upon calling their students “Mr. ___” or “Ms. ___” outside the classroom.

It’s that last point that I don’t understand. Why would faculty feel the need to create a barrier like that between themselves and their students? In an environment as stressful as law school is, wouldn’t it make more sense for professors to, at the very least, try to humanize everything outside of the classrooms? Some have argued that the power dynamic needs to remain clear to students; to that, I submit that no student’s actually going to forget who’s got the power when we’re talking to you in front of a lectern or sitting in front of the desk. It’s also my belief that if a faculty member puts up those barriers long enough, students will stop feeling comfortable asking questions or coming to office hours. After all, if it feels like you’re conducting a job interview students won’t want to show weakness, and that fear of looking weak compared to other students is already a big enough problem in law schools anyway. As to the other somewhat-related argument — that while the act of keeping one’s distance may feel cold and impersonal, students ultimately learn more and respect the professors more if it’s done — I’d suggest that anyone making that argument take a look at the teaching styles of the professors who vie for the Ghiardi Award every year and tell me how many of them put that kind of barrier up with their students. And if the logic is that in the real world judges and other decision-makers don’t refer to attorneys by their first names, I’d point out that if the goal of law school is to prepare students for how lawyers live their day-to-day lives, we have a lot of curriculum revision to do.

In my five semesters at the Law School, I don’t think I’ve met more than six administrators, faculty, or staff who consistently refer to me by my last name, and even then that number is probably skewed upward because most of those who do so don’t actually know who I am. Even Dean Kearney calls me by my first name! And, quite honestly, I prefer it; it makes me feel like I’m more than just a name on a roster to the faculty and staff, and I believe that I’ve done better as a result of that. I’m willing to wager that many students share that perspective. Why put up walls when we do better without them?

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