(Don’t) Call Me Professor!

Katya de Becerra © 2010
On average, I tend to have one and a half PhD-related drama per year (that's four and a half for the duration of a three-year long candidacy - yay I'm a PhD student who can count!). And trust me - as someone who's been pretty much brought up in academia, academic dramas can be brutal, evil and violent (that is on the intellectual level, so no Rosemary Hathaway or Buffy The Vampire Slayer for you).

So, my 2012 academic drama came out of nowhere and stroke me hard, like a limping but still quite able zombie jumping out of the line of twilighting trees and taking you by surprise. 

In an attempt to attract a diverse crowd to a conference panel I was convening, I endeavored to contact a number of established domestic academics. The very first email-invitation I have inocently sent provoked a FURY. To add to my confusion, the said FURY had nothing to do with my request per se, but aparently with the way I began my letter, that is Dear X...

Ok, ok I see my mistake now, but I guess I got pretty comfy with my wonderful supervisors and professors who've been all treating me and other fledgling academics as equals out of their own pure awesomeness and humility... And so I did a terrible, terrible thing - an unwritten faux pas that can create that insta-hate faster than insta-love can spark between the characters in your beloved YA novels. I have called a professor by the  first name!

The response from the said academic was personal and very rude (what a way to teach a miserly student a lesson about being respectful - such cruel irony...). In a gist, A) the academic didn't like one bit to be called by the first name, B) the academic lamented about the many dangers of universities-supported climate of student-oriented customer service and C) the academic rushed to reassure me (without being prompted) that even if academics say it's Ok to refer to them by their first name, they are LYING... and it went on like this. Jeez, I must have hit a nerve!

Honestly, I think one of the following responses would have sufficed instead of the one I got:

- No response at all (If you don't like me - ignore me! I'm fine with that!)

- A civilized point made about using relevant academic titles when emailing
- Perhaps a joke of some sort or a clever/ironic statement? 

As a way of self-therapy, I turned to Google to see what was being said on the topic.

1. PhD Comics provide some helpful advice...

2. I have come across this gem on answers.yahoo to the following question If my professor demands to be called Professor So-and-so, why does he get to call me by my first name?”

3. Unsurpsingly, the most useful pierce of information came from Futurama:

All this Futurama goodness takes me back to the time when I was a young and wide-eyed US government grant-supported undergrad in a Californian university. I kept calling one of my lecturers Dr Lastname until asked to please stop ridiculing myself and just call the person by the first name. Those were the good times!

I have learnt since then that the issue of how to call to an academic/professor is a rather complicated one, imbued with all sorts of power relations including but not limited to: 

- perceptions of respect and disrespect
- ‘us versus them’ (e.g. academics versus students)
- age
- gender (this among other things is covered in a very interesting way here)
- race and culture
- academic alliance (which ideas do you support, who are your supervisors/mentors?)

After having a thorough debrief of my PhD drama with those much smarter (and more experienced in such things) than me, I'm slightly more equipped to deal with future outbreaks (while hoping strongly I won’t ever have to again!). It is advisable to always use the academic title if there is one in the first instance and then play it by ear. It is also important to gather all the intel about the person you are about to contact to account for any hidden reasons why you might get an angry response. 

Good luck navigating the scary zombie-infested world of academic - you'll need it...


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