Naming rights

Many years ago, when I was an undergraduate student, I was enthusiastically elected by my fellow students to represent them at staff meetings of my Faculty. Well, I was elected. When I came to the first meeting, I found that all the academic staff present addressed each other by their surnames. In fact, it went further: staff always called students Mr or Miss (Ms hadn’t yet become popular; yes I am that old) Bloggs.

When I started as a lecturer in the same institution I initially continued the tradition (I was even known, at first, to lecture occasionally in a gown). But after a while I got tired of all that and started calling everyone – staff, students, anyone within earshot – by their first names. And that’s how I have kept it as I climbed up the academic ladder and, eventually, became a university president (or principal, here in Scotland). In DCU I used to tell colleagues that the only time I would tolerate being addressed as ‘President’ was if the person so addressing me intended to follow that with something entirely insulting.

But it is useful to remember that not everyone is comfortable with this. In an article on the website Inside Higher Education an Australian lecturer laments the growth of the now standard informality because, in her view, it undermines the lecturer’s authority and the desire to teach students in a professional manner.

So now, I am wondering whether her views are more typical of the profession than mine. It would be interesting to hear feedback from readers of this blog.

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14 Comments on “Naming rights”

  1. Respect is essential between academic and student but surely this should be mutual respect.

    In certain cultures calling a member of academic staff by first name is disrespectful and unacceptable. Therefore these students may feel much more at ease with a more formal approach in addressing the academic member. Or they may be happy simply to tag on the title to the first name.

    Whereas for others using the academics first name may help to put the student at ease and for them to realise that should they require additional support all they have to do is ask.

    Personally, in the multicultural society we live in providing the student is courteous and respectful I don’t mind what form of address they use.

    My only hope and concern is that they find me approachable and someone who can facilitate their learning. Having alumini phone and call me by first name and say – we have a problem can you help usually has the power to make my day.

  2. Anna Notaro Says:

    There is a gender dimension to this discussion that the Inside Higher Education article clearly underlines, this has to do with issues regarding perceptions of women and authority, cognitive biases etc. Personally I am happy for my students (and colleagues) to address me as Anna, as I hope that that my credibility derives more from my actions than from any other formality..having said that I do reserve the right to use my professional title (Dr) in the appropriate circumstances, mostly when dealing with utility companies 🙂

  3. Sam Withers Says:

    Times have changed, there are not many professions anymore that do not use a persons first name when addressing them. I used to be a nurse and I would always refer to someone as Mr or Mrs initially until they told me to use their first name. It is a mark of respect. Having said that I think that often title is used as a status or superiority and when teaching I would prefer to learn from someone that also respects me as a student. Just because I am studying a topic does not mean I do not know anything about a certain topic or that I am inferior in anyway to the lecturer. Respect goes both ways. I have a supervisor for my final MSc year and he is lovely. He is a Dr and very knowledgeable and educated. I do not think he would ever expect me to call him Dr …

  4. Pinka Says:

    Personally, I come from different cultural background and different education system to British ones. There is a requirement to name teachers and lecturers by their title. I was even made to call my high school teachers “professor” althought none of them hold this academic title. As I have chosed British University I have never experienced how it looks like at Uni, however from my friends stories I conclude there is stil the official way of caling both academic staff and students.

    I find calling academic staff is not disrespectful, it’s just and outcome of cultural and generation changes. Obviously, here are individuals who are disrespectful but the majority is not. With no intention of offending anyone, I find this dilema is a consequence of generation change and the older generation (calleg by sociologists “X”) may struggle with accepting the new one (called “Y”).

    From the student point of view who experienced different cultures I find giving up the official titles creates friendlier atomsphere and helps studying. Moreover, it makes students to enoy studing more.

  5. Niall Says:

    In my children’s primary school in Dublin, the pupils address the teacher by first name – which I found a little odd. My mother, a retired teacher, did not approve at all.

  6. I think the move to calling people by their name rather than their professional title reflects the wider democratization of the professions. Is this a good thing or not – I certainly welcome greater accountability in the professions but sometimes it can feel like students in University view themselves more like customers buying a product rather than as participants in an educational process that is being led by a professional who is qualified to do so.

    This leads to a sense of entitlement among the students who find it hard to understand why their grades are not higher or why they should have to come to class instead of just printing off powerpoint slides that can be regurgitated in exams.

    I suppose in the end it doesnt matter what students call me (to my face) as long as we all remember that we must respect each other’s roles in the educational process.

  7. Robin Says:

    I find it interesting that the desire for use of title came from an Australian. As another Australian, we are generally not exactly respectful of, or impressed by, titles.
    I’m happy with the use of either my first name or Dr Price, in oral or written communication. It is emails addressed ‘dear respected Madam’ that make me cringe. I know that this form of polite address is culturally accepted and prominent in the Indian subcontinent, but it really makes me feel uncomfortable.
    Another trend in email communication is to use no name or title at all, just ‘Hey’. It is oh, so tempting to respond likewise. These students generally don’t bother signing their name on their email either, so I have started responding ‘dear no name student’, or ‘dear s72635348’, or as they frequently don’t use their university email address ‘dear‘, which is giving me some enjoyment. Usually I get a follow up apology.

  8. Stoodent71 Says:

    Whether you want to be addressed formally or not depends on what type of stiff you are, how vain you are, how ambitious you are, and whether you cling onto the pathetic idea that academia is somehow distinct from ordinary life. The pomposity of academics never ceases to amaze me. Even the person who posted this blog, expects kudos for wanting his underlings to shout “Hey Norm” when he walks into a meeting when he is about to sack them, reduce their wages or pander to the latest government policy-induced derriere intrusion. I will be a Professor in two months’ time – and the only reason I care – other peoples’ snobbery and my own lust for power – though like the poster, I will pretend till I am blue in the face, that I do not care a bean, that it is beneath me to care. Academics have no power, the stakes are so low, that’s why the vehemence is so enormous.

  9. Stewart Eyres Says:

    Respect isn’t born out of forms of address, but out of what you say and do. Our student have great respect for the world-leading prof they know only by their first name, and for the very informal engineering lecturer who has long experience in the industry they want to work in. In the other hand being new to the University can be harder when everyone is referred to by first name and you are given no clue as to what they do “oh, he is the Vice Chancellor” can be a bit of a shock six months in when you finally work out that a particular name seems to wield peculiar influence!

  10. no-name Says:

    It is not merely in academia that the use of titles has subsided. When was the last time someone could be overheard uttering a question prefixed, “Waiter?”. We live in a world in which very few people train for their professions, and in which many change from job type to job type so fluidly that it is now alien to contemplate prefixing (or postfixing) the names of most people with a title that acknowledges any investment in formal education made in order to gain entry to their current sphere of employment. Given that the use of titles is limited elsewhere, it is natural to understand that people think them anachronistic where they linger. On the other hand, perhaps retaining the ritual where it remains appropriate could make a small contribution to reminding people of the value of thorough training leading to qualification as a prerequisite to entering more career paths than is currently expected.

    Independently of the value of professional titles, one might wonder what value there is in the false friendliness implied by addressing people by first names and not with more formal titles and surnames. It creates dissonance to reflect on asymmetries inherent in some being content to be addressed by title by people encountered professionally and to reply with first name reference: why should medical doctors, for example, address patients by first name but expect to be addressed themselves with a title? It is equally odd that people are happy to endure the ambiguity about who their friends are as implied by accepting all communication on a first name basis. It is not obvious that there is positive value in confusing professional interactions with personal interactions.

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      I think no-name (the irony of commenting on such a topic with a similar nick 🙂 ) is quite right in describing a dissonance in confusing professional and personal interactions, in contemporary society this is predominantly due to a blurring of the distinction between professional and amateur and the advent of the “AmPro” (

      Also, one could ponder as to why an ‘insult’ might become acceptable if prefaced by the professional title (as suggested in the post), preferred informality, in this case, might be viewed as a clever strategy in order to shield from insults in the first place..

      While reading this very interesting thread of comments I could not help thinking about Juliet’s line “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet”
      still a valid reminder of the arbitrariness inherent in names and the complexities of our identity..

  11. Niall Says:

    I wonder is age a factor here. Perhaps, the original poster – young woman in Australia – wanted to distinguish herself from students as she might appear to still be a student both to older colleagues and to the student body.

    A 50-something male seen on campus is unlikely to be considered a student (though of course he may be one)

  12. OMF Says:

    I developed a very succinct, rurally inspired soultion to this, but at the cost of an additional memory overhead.

    You address everyone, in second and third person, by _both_ their first and second names.

    “Well John Murphy”. “I agree with Pat Carey”, “What about Mary Smith’s idea”, etc, etc. You may end up being regarded as a weirdo, but no-one will ever be able to accuse you of being either formal or informal. The way I look at it, if you absolutely _need_ to say someone’s name, you probably need to say the full thing.

  13. suchled Says:

    Not just in academia. I choose to have dental work done by the students at the Melbourne Dental School. My student, who is about three months shy of graduating calls me Mr Suchled. I say, Mr Suchled was my Father and he’s dead. You can call me Jack.

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