16.2.07

THE NECESSITY OF SOCIAL DISTANCE. At Inside Higher Ed, Terry Caesar laments the lack of consistency in academic courtesy titles.
Recently I heard of an adjunct who insists that her students address her as “Professor.” Also, it seems she wants the word, “Professor,” before her name on any official written communication. It’s not clear to me if she’s been apprized of an apparent university policy whereby only full-time faculty merit the appellation of “professor.” But what are adjuncts to be called instead? Can even adjuncts who have earned doctorates be addressed as “Doctor?”
The problem, dear reader, is in the academy's use of cheap and contingent labor in such a way as to manifest disrespect for the students which the students learn to return in kind.
These are intricate questions. Has any institution in the country worked out completely satisfactory answers to them? Outside of military institutes, are there any that mandate that both teachers and students must never under any circumstances address each other on a first-name basis? Probably as many as mandate that they must only address each other on such a basis. And the rest of us? Nominatively, we flounder.
Nothing intricate at all about this. Put the equivalent of the senior noncom or the chief check pilot in front of the classroom, and get rid of the touchy-feely faculty as buddy stuff and the intricacies disappear.

To her credit, Professor Caesar identifies the root cause of the problem.
Furthermore, as in all things, the great number of adjuncts now among us only exacerbates the problem, most especially when they act to claim hitherto unstated aspects of our identities as professors. After all, we are professors not only because of our contracts or our research. We are professors because we have students who call us professors as well as because we have offices, nameplates, and memos whereupon or wherein we are also so called.
And proposes what strikes me as a suitable solution.

I used to think, for example, that only people outside academic life — authors of self-help books, say — give, “Ph.D.,” after their names. Vulgar ostentation! Now I’ve seen it after the names of more than one college president, on official communications, as well as course syllabi of individual instructors. Are there at least departments whose chairs direct these instructors to remove mention of the degree? But what about cases in which the chair — horrors! — doesn’t have a Ph.D.?

No wonder an American, me, likes to watch old films, such as The Browning Version, about British public schools. The black-robed masters exist in a sublime nominative firmament, from which they bestow the title of “Mr.” upon even the lowliest sixth-form boy. No subjectivity ruffles the public surface. Everybody knows his or her place because everybody knows the proper term for each one. Appellatory bliss! I don’t want to hear that it’s changed in the actual world off-screen or, worse, that it was never so.

Back home, compare the new hire who identities herself beginning with “Doctor,” when she has occasion to call her chair on the phone. Why would anybody do such a thing? In a way, the answer is all too simple: because she has an insecure relation to the discipline and so tries to ground it in a more stable relation to the institution (in the person of her chair).

The solution is in the middle paragraph. On television, John Houseman did it that way as Professor Kingsfield. At Michigan State, Walter Adams did it that way as Professor Adams.

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