fidesquaerens (marta_bee) wrote,


Over at FB, my friend Dan started a lively discussion on university students and first names. A lot of the comments focused whether it was ever appropriate for a university student to refer to his teacher by the first name alone - no last name, no Ms./Mr./Dr./etc. - and, if not, why not. This isn't an abstract issue. With courses starting up next week, most of my fellow TAs TFs* and I have probably already received an email or two where the student used our first name alone. Certainly we'll get the first-name greetings within the first week or so of class, next week.

For me, titles matter. This isn't a pride thing, it's a professionalism thing. Or perhaps more importantly, it's a professorial thing, a word I claim more for its pun value than because I think of myself as a professor. I'm not, but in many ways I have to fill that function. I don't just grade exams or lead discussion sections, but have control over everything from course design to assigning final grades. And a lot of that requires that I not be my student's best friends. It requires what I called psychological distance over at Dan's initial post. I'm informal by my nature and I'm also fairly young (physically but also emotionally) - I have to fight that tendency to be "one of the guys" with my students pretty strongly at times. Insisting on a title of some sort along with my last name is one way I can do that.

Being the philosopher that I am, though, I like taking a deeper look. "I need psychological distance" is a practical concern. Do I really deserve that title? If so, why? Two potential reasons jump to mind. Either I am in some way better, or I am in a position of authority for some other reason. An example of the second type of case might be if a policeman pulled you over for speeding. You call the policeman "officer," even perhaps "sir." Why? It's not because the policeman is perfect; if he had once sped through a red light he'd still be addressed with respect, and rightly so. In this case, the policeman represents the law, something in a position of authority over the driver. So we respect that law, and we should show our respect to the policeman as the law's representative.

In many cases I really do have some knowledge most students lack. Part of this is that, to really "get" a philosopher you have to read him several times, and I've worked through the texts for multiple semesters, perfecting my lecture notes. I've also read other pertinent texts, either from later in the semester or from sources we're not covering that term. To the extent that that knowledge is a good thing, I am better than my students lacking that knowledge. At least regarding that particular knowledge - they may have the leg up on me in other areas. More importantly, I have skills in reading and understanding a text, giving a complete but focused answer to a particular question, writing a well-structured paper, and evaluating an argument logically. Most of my students don't have those skills, and they will develop them over the course of the semester. I don't totally buy into the idea that teaching is like a data transfer, especially in philosophy. Students need to work at it, they need the opportunity to build up those mental muscles in a controlled environment with help from a trainer. But even so, I know what the end goal should look like and I have some experience walking students through the process of developing those skills. I won't claim that makes me morally better, but in a philosophical sense, as in better = has some perfection that others lack, yeah, I think I'm probably better than at least some of my students.

But occasionally I run across a student who is my equal on the first question, or at least much more my equal than most. Sometimes it's the senior English major who's picking up a credit so she can graduate. Or the recent graduate who's taking a course in preparation for graduate school, or (since I teach a lot of philosophy of religion, and at a Jesuit school) the seminarian who is used to thinking about these issues and discussing them in a different context. I've never come across a student who is completely equal with me in terms of knowledge and skill at term's beginning, but some have come pretty close. What if I did meet such a student? I'd still say I owe it to the student to insist on a title. I'm a bit like the policeman who's in a position of authority not because he is better than the student but because of what he represents. (In this case I represent the rulestick that will evaluate the student's work.)

Dan actually brought up one other interesting case: religious clergy. Do they deserve a special title? Dan thinks no. Unlike with medical doctors or philosophy Ph.D.'s (or, in my case, TA's TF's), there's not really a special set of knowledge religious clergy have mastered. Dan happens to be an atheist, so that view makes sense (you can't be an expert on God's nature if God doesn't exist), but anyone who points to the mystery of faith would have to believe the same thing, right? And as a good Protestant, I don't really think that any clergyman is God's representative or anything.

I do think clergymen deserve our respect, though, and even have a right to insist on the title and the collar and all the rest. It's not moral superiority. Nearly a decade of pedophilia scandals and longer than that of televangelists shows us that a divinity degree isn't the silver bullet against human failings. Plus, titles don't really have to do with morality, at least not as most people conceive of it. (Note, I used "better" in a rather special way.) But clergy do have some special training that I think does count as a perfection. First, they have a graduate degree usually of equal length with law school. In many cases this degree gives them a sort of interdisciplinary background in psychotherapy and social work on the one hand, and in how to interpret a certain family of texts on the other hand. (Yes, they think those texts are divinely inspired, but in the best cases priests and pastors are using to interpret them using the same tools philosophers do - language, cultural context, inter- and intratextual cues, logic, etc.) Priests in particular also develop a spiritual discipline through habituation that I also think is a kind of perfection. All of that makes me think that - in some cases at least! - clergymen do deserve their titles.

What do you think? Am I just puffing myself up to insist on the "Ms." in front of my name?


ETA: I changed TAs to TFs. I always use the wrong term, somehow, because at my undergrad school the graduate students teaching courses were called TAs for teaching associates. They had their own courses, though, like we do. Our term is teaching fellows, or in my case STF, senior teaching fellow. Don't want to give people the wrong impression about the kind of position I'm talking about, since in many cases a TA is someone helping a professor teach a large course.

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