In most of the classes I teach, at the beginning of the semester, I tell students "what to call me"--mostly so they won't agonize over the competing alternatives but also so I'll see or hear more often the alternatives I prefer. When they forget--or don't care--I really don't consider it a big deal. As long as both my students and I know more or less who we're talking to when we communicate--and as long as the assignments they mean to give me actually get to me--I'm OK.
I've noticed, though, that some of my colleagues prefer different titles than I do. The preference for "Dr. So-and-so" seems to have increased over the years. When the university is giving awards to faculty, I notice that sometimes the commendatory description moves among the alternatives ("Dr.," "Professor," "Brother" or "Sister"), perhaps linking each to different aspects of the honoree's work, different roles--researcher, teacher, mentor, colleague. Some college teachers prefer being called by their first name--something that I'm guessing would have been rare on any college campus before the 60s.
The teacher of one of the classes I took as an undergraduate at Brigham Young University was Jean Anne Waterstradt. She emphatically preferred--insisted on--the traditional custom not only of being called by her last name ("Miss Waterstradt") but of referring to her students in the same way (I was "Mr. Young" and sat next to a "Miss Wilson"). I called most of my other teachers "Brother" or "Sister"--I think that was the prevailing custom in the 1970s at BYU.
It was hard for me to make the adjustment to calling these same teachers by their first names when I returned as a faculty member in 1983. I managed to do it--call these respected figures from my earlier days "John" or "Elouise" or "Marden." But my effort to accept my place as a colleague ran into a bit of a wall one day when I was walking across campus with Jean Anne Waterstradt. I said something to her, prefacing my words with "Jean Anne." She responded, "Well, Mr. Young, . . ." Perhaps she was telling me I wasn't yet on her level, perhaps just that I was not yet a familiar friend. I never quite figured out whether she reserved first names for a small circle of friends or for all colleagues who had been around long enough. I avoided using any name or title when talking to her after that.
Over 30 years of teaching, I've never asked students to call me by my first name, though a handful have on their own initiative. Though I like to think of my students as fellow learners, even people who can teach me in various ways, I guess I've also wanted to remain conscious that my role as teacher and mentor in some ways separates me from them, gives me a different role. I'm not just one of the guys. At the same time, I think almost anyone who knows me--including my students--would say I'm approachable and, most of the time, genial and unassuming. That may be one reason I've been asked, for the past several years, to serve as the department ombudsman--the one who usually handles student complaints against teachers and tries to mediate between the conflicting parties.
My wife likes her students to call her by her first name--she says that makes the class feel more like a family. At the same time, she says she's increasingly taken on a maternal role with students. They often come to her for comfort or reassurance. I'd like to think I do at least a bit of the same for my students, but it's true I rarely get as close to them as Margaret does with hers. (She has fewer students and has regularly taught creative writing, where students often share their personal stories.) Yet I'm not sure making the class feel like a family requires teachers to be called by their first names. I can't help thinking of how odd it would have felt to me to call my own parents by their first names or of the challenging moments when (during her teenage years) one of my daughters--actually a stepdaughter, though I never felt she was anything less than fully my daughter--would call me "Bruce" sometimes in conjunction with saying, "You're not my real dad."
I guess my way of trying to have the class feel like a family--or at least like a community--is to be called "Brother Young." To me, that title carries gospel connotations: the reminder that we are all brothers and sisters. Using "brother" and "sister" as titles is a standard practice among Latter-day Saints, as well as in Black churches and many other religious groups.
So I've made my confession: "Brother Young" is my first choice. But "Professor Young" comes in a close second. (I honestly love the word "professor"--partly because it sounds truly cool but also because of all the traditions and connotations it brings with it.) "Dr. Young" comes in a distant third--yes, I have a hard-won Ph.D., but I generally don't feel a need to remind people of that. (Doing that makes me think me of the kooky self-published books on off-the-wall political or pseudo-scientific topics in which the title page proudly bears the author's name, followed by "Ph.D.") Then, of course, there's "Mr. Young," which I almost never hear, except from an occasional first-year student fresh from high school, where "Mr." and "Ms." (etc.) are probably the common titles for teachers.
I have reasons for my preference, significant ones (at least in my own mind). I've almost never discussed the question with colleagues--except just recently, when I talked with an esteemed colleague who seemed to feel almost exactly the same way I did and for some of the same reasons. The fact is that "Dr." is NOT the preferred title at many universities, and there are historical as well as cultural reasons it's more common in some places than others. My impression is that some of those who think--erroneously--the only professionally appropriate title (for those with Ph.D.'s) is "Dr." are unaware of the cultural differences among institutions or of the history of academic titles. Whether or not my impression is right, I like to remember that history when I think about the matter.
So here's why my preferences rank in the order they do. I've already said I like the connotations (ethical and religious) of "Brother" and that I think the word "Professor" is cool. Here are further reasons:
(1) From the Middle Ages (when the university as an institution was invented) until the nineteenth century, doctorates were offered only in three subjects: medicine, law, and theology (or divinity--as in "a doctor of divinity, who resides in this vicinity"). For everyone else, the M.A. was the terminal degree. (The phrase "Master of Arts" suggested someone had mastered a subject and had authority to teach it; the word "Doctor"--literally "teacher"--implied much the same thing, just in other disciplines.) The Ph.D. was invented in the nineteenth century by the Germans--who also reimagined the university with its disciplinary divisions and other changes. Of course, a Ph.D. is not really a doctorate in philosophy; it's a doctorate in "whatever," as I like to say--or at least in just about anything other than medicine, law, or theology. Apparently, the German Ph.D. was originally the equivalent to an M.A., but it eventually became an additional degree.
The Ph.D. was soon adopted by Americans. But the British resisted it until the twentieth century when (it appears to me) they started offering it, at least in part, to Americans who wanted a Ph.D. at a British university. Though it was also available to British students, the Ph.D. did not become the standard terminal degree in many British institutions--Oxford and Cambridge in particular--through most of the twentieth century. I don't know what the common practice is in Britain now.
(2) Because of the fairly recent invention of the Ph.D. and the difference in national practices, some of the great modern figures in the world of scholarship--in particular in literary studies, which is my field--did not have a Ph.D. One of my heroes, for instance--C. S. Lewis--never had a doctorate, nor would anyone have expected him to. The M.A. was the terminal degree in both English and philosophy, the fields in which he studied and later taught. Also, though he was an esteemed teacher, scholar, and critic (not to mention writer of fiction and apologetics), Lewis was not, through most of his career, a "professor." At Oxford and Cambridge, the title of "professor" was reserved for those who were elected to a "professorship." Lewis was passed over more than once by his colleagues at Oxford. His friend J. R. R. Tolkien, on the other hand, was elected Professor of Poetry and so could be called "Professor Tolkien." But neither of them had a doctorate and so no one would have called them "Dr. Lewis" or "Dr. Tolkien."
Lewis was finally offered a professorship by Cambridge University, and so late in his career he became the "Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature" at Cambridge--and finally could be called "Professor Lewis." But through most of his life, he was "Mr. Lewis" to his students.
I jokingly tell my students, "So who am I to be called 'Dr.' if C. S. Lewis wasn't?" But, inconsistently, I don't use the same argument against being called "Professor" (nor do I say "don't call me that until I get an endowed chair"). My real point is that "Dr.," because of its idiosyncratic origin and history, has not been a title associated with many of the greatest figures in the broader world of modern scholarship. I like to think of these figures as being among my colleagues and mentors, even if I've encountered them only through their writings.
(3) So what led to "Dr." being the preferred title in some parts of America in recent decades? My version of the story goes something like this: From the time the Ph.D. was imported into America in the mid-nineteenth century until World War II, only a small fraction of college and university teachers had a Ph.D. After World War II, the practice of getting a Ph.D. as a terminal degree before teaching at a university became more common, and many of those who had one (and who wanted other people to know it) insisted on being called "Dr." The title became a mark of distinction not only with one's students but among one's colleagues. By the end of the twentieth century, almost everyone teaching at most American universities had a Ph.D. (or equivalent terminal degree). An M.A. had come to be considered a sort of half way mark and was no longer considered sufficient by most departments in many (if not most) universities when they considered applicants for faculty positions. So now--in many institutions--virtually ALL the teachers have Ph.D.'s or their equivalents. But in many--though not all--"Dr." still carries a special prestige.
(4) When I say "not all," I'm thinking especially of Ivy League schools and other major universities in the Northeast. What I'm about to say may be true elsewhere as well, but I speak mainly of what I know from experience. In many of the schools I'm thinking of, simply being a tenured faculty member is prestigious enough. In fact, the distinction between tenured and non-tenured faculty is much more significant than the question of degrees earned, especially in those universities where few junior faculty are given tenure. (New senior faculty slots are usually given to scholars who have already gained a high reputation at another university.)
When I went to graduate school (at Columbia and Harvard) in the late 1970s and early 1980s, none of my professors were called "Dr." so far as I remember. They were usually called "Mr." or "Mrs." or sometimes "Professor." Of course, we thought of them as "professors." One of my professors--Harry Levin--did NOT, despite his high reputation, have a doctorate. But apparently he had met James Joyce, and he knew Leonard Woolf (Virginia's husband), who (he said) was very upset at Ed Albee for calling his play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. In any case, nobody thought Professor Levin was in any way on a lower level than his colleagues because he lacked a doctorate.
At BYU, we've come to expect a Ph.D. as standard, certainly for anyone we consider hiring in the English Department. Yet one of our greatest professors of recent years, the late Leslie Norris, did not have a doctorate. Of course, even now a doctorate isn't necessarily expected of someone who is primarily a writer of fiction or poetry, but we do expect an MFA. But with Leslie, degrees were really irrelevant: he was a wonderful writer with an international reputation and one of the best teachers we had had at BYU; he mentored a generation of writers and was a valued colleague. Not a Latter-day Saint, he had somehow fallen in love with Utah and BYU (though also capable of being a gentle critic). Wikipedia calls him "one of the most important Welsh writers of the post-war period."
Students, who were learning that many of their teachers expected to be called "Dr.," often called Leslie Norris "Dr. Norris"--which he wasn't. "Professor Norris" was the appropriate title. I don't know what he thought about being called "Dr." (I suspect he didn't mind). I vaguely recall some discussion I had (maybe with Leslie himself?) about his sometimes being called "Brother Norris," something that would have sounded odd to him, I suppose, given that he came to BYU relatively late in his life, as a non-Latter-day Saint. But I think he wasn't bothered by "Brother" either--didn't mind in a way being adopted into the LDS community.
I see that my supposed three reasons are really more occasions for reflection. But they can be boiled down to (1) the Ph.D. is a fairly recent invention and even took a while to be considered an essential terminal degree; (2) many of the greatest figures of modern scholarship did not have a Ph.D.; and (3) its use as a mark of prestige has been limited in time and geography to places where it really served that function but even in those places is not necessary for someone who really has earned distinction as a member of the academy through quality of teaching, thinking, and writing.
And I guess I should add some of my real reasons--by which I mean the ones that matter most to me or have most influenced my preferences. I am influenced by my own experience as a student. When I was an undergraduate at BYU, my teachers (as I remember) didn't insist on being called "Dr."; certainly the best ones didn't. In the graduate programs I attended, "Dr." wasn't commonly used as a title--in fact, I don't remember it at all among the teachers I studied with. It was "Professor Donno" or "Mrs. Fredman" or "Mr. Perkins" or "Professor Bate" or "Professor Evans." So it appears I prefer what I'm used to.
But I also have a visceral reaction against using titles as a way of setting oneself higher than others, of competing for prestige. Not that I'm entirely immune from the temptation to do just that--but I don't like the way I feel when I'm in the grip of that temptation, and I don't feel good about myself when I yield to it.
There's one other reason that honestly carries more weight than it probably deserves. But life is filled with these sorts of quirky things. When my children were young and answered a phone call to my home from a student asking for "Dr. Young," they would sometimes say, "Mommy, is Daddy a doctor?"
No, I'm not that kind of doctor. And given the way language works, especially the wonderful free-for-all that we call the English language, "doctor" to many of us means someone who probes us in ways we wouldn't normally let much of anyone else, prescribes things we take on trust, and (sometimes) delivers us from danger or into life in ways no one else can. If I'm a doctor in that sense, I would have to be a metaphorical one. But I hope that on occasion I rise, at least metaphorically, to that level.
(P.S.: I call this "Names and Titles (part 1)" because I focus here on academic titles. But there's so much else to say in connection with church, family, and other settings. Part 2 will come . . . whenever, if ever, it does.)