I was recently privy to a discussion among some new faculty about what to have students call you, where “you” is a young, relatively freshly minted Ph.D. and new professor. There were lots of varying viewpoints, many of which I’ve heard before, ranging from “women just can’t have their students call them by first names and maintain distance and respect” to “I felt so much more comfortable when my professors let me call them by their first name and I went to office hours, so I let my students call me by my first name,” to “I like the ego trip that comes with being called professor so-and-so.” The gender issue is one that is particularly sticky and I’ve discussed it with many female colleagues at every stage of their careers. I come down on the side of staying Professor Fletcher until a student graduates. Having been subject to lovely gender- and age-based attacks such as “my male professor in another course says everything you’re teaching is crap,” and “you’re unprofessional” has only heightened this resolve.
During this discussion, one colleague framed the answer to this question in a way that I thought was incredibly insightful and a great use of his privilege, as a male in the classroom, to even the playing field. He said that a female member of his doctoral dissertation committee had told him under no circumstances to allow students to use his first name. The reason, she said, was that she couldn’t, and so he shouldn’t.
It seems rather simple, but I’d honestly never thought of it. Given the differential treatment women often face in academia, male professors exercising the privilege of letting students use their first names and subsequently seeming “more accessible” is actually a detriment to women’s careers. Another female colleague, who is up for tenure this year, told me that she felt that being hard on her students early in her career had hurt her student evaluations, and thus her chances for tenure. Though she doesn’t like to make such distinctions and would never say it, that’s a conversation I’ve never had with a man.
I do think it’s getting better, but until it’s actually better, we should all do our part. And having everyone be addressed the same way is a good way to level the playing field.
As a side note, the New Faculty Program through the Center for the Integration of Learning, Teaching and Scholarship at Lafayette College is pretty great.