What’s in a Name?

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Category: Legal Education
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A very interesting debate went on over at PrawfsBlog last month, as found here, here (in a post by Professor Esenberg), and here. It began with a discussion of how professors should address students in class (i.e., would I be called “Andrew” or “Mr. Golden”), and vice versa, but it has seemed to extend beyond that to how students are addressed outside of class and even what they are called once they graduate. Based on the posts and the bulk of comments I’ve seen over there, it seems the majority of the professors on that site tend to hold the opinion that it’s important for faculty to call their students “Mr. ___” or “Ms. ___”, be it to remain professional, show a level of respect, appreciate the formality of the law school process, etc. The level of importance indicated in their comments surprised me; I had no idea that this was something professors felt so strongly about!

But is it much ado about nothing?

Let me say this to begin: while I have had friends jokingly call professors by a familiar nickname (so as to imply that they’re best friends) while we’re all sitting at the bar or somewhere like that, I know of no student at Marquette Law who would call any professor here by anything other than “Professor ___.” In fact, I’d wager that most students here operate the same way I do: call everyone in a position of authority “Mr. ___” or “Ms. ___” until such time as they’re told by the person, “No, just call me ____.” It’s a sign of respect and authority, and I’d certainly argue that anyone who’s a faculty member at a law school has earned such respect. So while I have no doubt that in some law school somewhere there are students who treat the faculty members like equals when they shouldn’t, I’m not sure that’s really the main issue.

So what about how professors address students? Well, I think I’ve personally had about an even mix of classes in which I’m called “Andrew” versus classes in which I’m called “Mr. Golden.” I think the majority of them have started out as the latter and progressed to the former as the professors got comfortable with the members of the class. Frankly, it doesn’t matter all that much to me what approach is used within the walls of the classroom, and I don’t think it matters much to most other students; I think we’re all happy to go by either name (though I imagine many would prefer not being called on at all!).  But what caught my attention in the PrawfsBlog posts were the comments by professors who insist upon calling their students “Mr. ___” or “Ms. ___” outside the classroom.

It’s that last point that I don’t understand. Why would faculty feel the need to create a barrier like that between themselves and their students? In an environment as stressful as law school is, wouldn’t it make more sense for professors to, at the very least, try to humanize everything outside of the classrooms? Some have argued that the power dynamic needs to remain clear to students; to that, I submit that no student’s actually going to forget who’s got the power when we’re talking to you in front of a lectern or sitting in front of the desk. It’s also my belief that if a faculty member puts up those barriers long enough, students will stop feeling comfortable asking questions or coming to office hours. After all, if it feels like you’re conducting a job interview students won’t want to show weakness, and that fear of looking weak compared to other students is already a big enough problem in law schools anyway. As to the other somewhat-related argument — that while the act of keeping one’s distance may feel cold and impersonal, students ultimately learn more and respect the professors more if it’s done — I’d suggest that anyone making that argument take a look at the teaching styles of the professors who vie for the Ghiardi Award every year and tell me how many of them put that kind of barrier up with their students. And if the logic is that in the real world judges and other decision-makers don’t refer to attorneys by their first names, I’d point out that if the goal of law school is to prepare students for how lawyers live their day-to-day lives, we have a lot of curriculum revision to do.

In my five semesters at the Law School, I don’t think I’ve met more than six administrators, faculty, or staff who consistently refer to me by my last name, and even then that number is probably skewed upward because most of those who do so don’t actually know who I am. Even Dean Kearney calls me by my first name! And, quite honestly, I prefer it; it makes me feel like I’m more than just a name on a roster to the faculty and staff, and I believe that I’ve done better as a result of that. I’m willing to wager that many students share that perspective. Why put up walls when we do better without them?

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5 Responses to “What’s in a Name?”

  1. Brian Borkowicz Says:

    I personally prefer to be called by my first name by everyone for the simple reason that it makes me feel the most comfortable. However, there were no less than five students in my entering part-time class who had earned the right to be addressed as Dr. (two MDs, a DVM, and at least two Ph.Ds). To them, being addressed by their first name may well be an insult to their personal accomplishments, although, after getting to know them, I doubt that any of them felt that way. And, as someone (either Andrew or someone on Prawfsblog, I’m not sure) pointed out, most of us referred to each of them as Dr. until we were asked not to. It just seemed to be the right thing to do.

    Like Andrew, I’ve had professors who have called me by Mr. and some who have addressed me by my first name (as well as one unforgettable professor who, after class one day near the end of the semester, referred to me as Chad). One reason that I prefer to be called by my first name is that many professors mispronounce my last name. I’ve never been comfortable correcting law school professors, even when they’re wrong about something as inconsequential as my name (especially as a 1L, which is when most professors exclusively use surnames). My Torts professor, for example, never got my name right once throughout the entire semester – despite the fact that I corrected him at least five times and despite the fact that other students corrected him on my behalf. I would have much preferred the relative anonymity of being just another Brian, and I’m sure that it would have been easier for him to pronounce.

    The only time that I’ve been consistently referred to by my first name by professors is in emails. Even professors who exclusively use Mr./Ms./Dr. in the classroom seem to use first names in their emails, which has always made me feel more comfortable in talking to them through that medium.

    I sincerely doubt that this is a revelation, but almost every student refers to almost every professor (outside of earshot) exclusively by their last names. It’s not meant to be disrespectful and it shouldn’t be taken that way. It’s done simply for the sake of convenience. The only exception seems to be Dean Kearney. In seven semesters, I’ve never heard him referred to as “Kearney” or, God forbid, something even less formal (like “K-Man” or “The Kearnmeister”). Maybe it’s because he’s the Dean, or because he speaks Latin, or because he clerked for Justice Scalia, but he seems to be the only one who is referred to with formality even when he couldn’t possibly be around. For the rest of the staff, it seems to be presumed that you’re professors and that the title is unnecessary unless you’re being directly addressed. I would think that the same holds true for students; professors either refer to us solely by last name when talking to other professors, or by first and last name, but I doubt we’re referred to as Mr., Ms., or Dr. in such a context – and there’s nothing disrespectful or improper about that. As for when professors are talking to students outside the classroom, it’s entirely up to the professor as to whether Mr./Ms./Dr. should be used. It will rarely be inappropriate to use the title, but if, in context, it makes the professor feel awkward to do so, he or she should use the student’s given name (assuming of course, that the professor knows for sure what the student’s given name is).

  2. Scott Butler Says:

    Unlike the above commentators I would prefer to be called by my last name. Using a title, Professor/ Doctor/ Mr. / etc, is a sign of respect, respect that the faculty of Marquette certainly deserves. However, students also deserve, although perhaps not to the same degree, a certain level of respect. If I refer to a professor as Prof. _____ and that Professor refers to me as Scott, the dynamic is clear: I am using a title as a way of paying the professor respect while the professor is choosing not to do the same (that being said there are multiple ways of being respectful towards a person). Respect is a two-way street and is something that both parties should give. Calling a student Mr. or Ms. ___ outside the classroom does not “create a barrier.” Rather it is a sign that the professor views you as a future colleague who is also deserving of a certain level of respect. I know of at least one professor who has received the Ghiardi Award multiple times who always refers to me as “Mr. Butler.”

    This is not to say that I am offended every time a professor uses my first name. There is a lot more that goes into respect than simply how you refer to a person. I have had professors called me “Mr. Butler” who I doubt ever remember I was in their class, and professors call me “Scott” who, I believe, respected me. Ultimately it is not how you address someone but your conduct towards that person that shows respect.

  3. Irene Calboli Says:

    I think this discussion is very interesting. I also do not really understand why professors would be hesitant to address students by their names outside the classroom, but not everybody is equal, and I am sure some of the folks who have this position have developed it as a result of some experience (good or maybe bad, we cannot know). Personally, I have always called my students by their first names. This is the way I have been addressed since I entered Anglo-Saxon law schools — in the Continent, it is unthinkable to be addressed by anything but your family name; there, yes, academics want too keep you distant, behind a wall if they could sometimes — and I found it often more effective, i.e., the overall class result were better. Yet, honestly, I have never pondered this issue until I was asked by youger colleagues whether they should address their students by their first names or rather their family names. I thought a little about it and said: their first names of course (also because I realized that I often was not able to pronouce correctly at least half of my students’ family names!). And the reason, I believe, is exactly because law school should prepare you guys for the real every-day life, where your supervisors will call you by your name, and so will most people around you (of course, if you happen to spend a lot of time in court this can be different, but as a transactional attorney my time was spent with colleagues and associates, so just first names, and rarely family names with clients, who were mostly corporate attorneys or employees of big corporations). Now, the issue here is, however, whether our students should then call us by our own names if we call them by their first names. My great friend Eric Goldman always told his students to call him Eric (not many did, however). Generally, in graduate school students always call professors by their first names. Law school (as medical school) is a little different, I think. That said, I never told my students to call me anything; they most often call me professor, and I call them by their names (or nicknames if they prefer), in and outside the classroom. This does not diminish how much I respect and appreciate them and how high my expectations for them are, and I believe the same is true for them. Still, I do not think there is a totally right or wrong decision here. Some professors feel more confortable in one way, others in another one. The thing that really matters is the respect that is shown from both parties, and the fact that, no matter how they call you, your professors should care for you. In fact, a name is often nothing, what really matters is the tone and the intention behind the words we all use!

  4. Stacie Rosenzweig Says:

    I went to a very informal undergrad (my favorite professor was “Steve”) and I had a few years in the workforce before starting at MULS (again, in an informal workplace that was owned by “The Bobs”). So, it was pretty jarring to hear everyone addressed as “Professor” and “Dean” and “Mr./Ms.” (One of the fun benefits of having those few years in the workforce is that a few of the Professors are younger than I am, which only seems to add to the discombobulation.)

    I quickly got used to it, and now it’s hard to go the other way. I could not force myself to call a particular professor by a first name when so requested; when another signed her email with her first name, I wasn’t sure what to do.

    As for being called “Ms.,” I don’t particularly mind it, except when my last name is mispronounced, which is nearly all of the time. Sigh. I firmly believe this is why I was never called on in Law Governing Lawyers.

    It’s weird, though — I don’t mind the use of my last name while in class or court. (“Attorney Rosenzweig” had a nice ring to it in my student practice rule clinic; even though it’s not accurate yet, I wasn’t about to correct the judge — who knew from my earlier introduction and appearance statement that I was still a student — in front of the clients. Or at all.) But I *hate* it in the outside world. It’s creepy when someone I met five seconds ago calls me “Mrs. RAH-zin..um…zweeg?” based on the credit card I handed over. I don’t really want my stepkid’s friends calling me Mrs., whether it’s with my own name or my partner’s. Perhaps this is something I can file under “work/life.”

  5. Rebecca Blemberg Says:

    Every semester I contemplate whether to call LAWR students by first or last names.

    I’m not a particularly formal person, and I don’t think I build a wall between myself and my students, but I’ve stuck with last names for 2 reasons.

    1. I remember last names better. In a class with 5 Matthews, I struggle to remember who is who. When I use last names, I generally remember my students by name. (which is particularly useful when a former student requests a recommendation. I’m pretty good at recalling the last name.)

    2. My law school used last names in 1L classes. I remember that being called “Ms. Blemberg” as a 1L made law school seem more…professional than undergraduate school.

    I know that I have pronounced some names incorrectly, though usually students have corrected me (per my request). I’ll probably stick with my habit of using last names in 1L classes.

    I use first names in seminars because I have fewer students and can remember names better. Also, in a seminar, we tend to have more informal discussions.

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