Jan 202011


When do we address someone  by the term  ‘Professor’? Anne Hodgson has just raised this and other interesting questions about ‘college talk’ around the world in her blog .

Americans have a reputation for informality. But there ways in which I think folks are more formal and attached to ceremony here than in Europe. One of them is the ‘Professor’ title. My impression is it’s accorded more liberally in the US than the UK.

I think it stems from politeness and positive face issues. As a Brit, I’m uncomfortable being addressed as ‘professor’ when I’m working at the University of Pennsylvania or the New School. It’s like receiving a compliment I don’t feel I merit. And I probably should know better because I realize it’s generally just a matter of routine. In British terms, it’s akin to someone at my bank calling me Mrs or Ms when they call me up. But it’s actually quite hard to think of British equivalents because I think we tend to use titles less in the UK. (‘Ma’am’ is another one I only hear in the US)

I wonder, am I’m undermining my students’ status when I say ‘Don’t call me ‘Professor’’? If their teacher is putting themselves down, might it imply that they’re getting put down too. Oh what tangled webs we weave.

Other posts on similar topics:

Terms of endearment


 Posted by at 10:05 pm

  31 Responses to “Dear Professor”

  1. Hmm, interesting. I wonder if “Professor” is more common on the East Coast. I really only run into it here (on the West Coast) when a writer/speaker needs to use *something* initially, and isn’t sure whether the recipient has a doctorate or whatever. However, it’s quickly dropped most of the time, as the “professor” almost always encourages the other person (even students) to just use his/her personal name. The only professors I’ve run into here who went by Dr. So-and-so were a couple at Stanford and two older men at another university–and no one at all persistently uses Professor So-and-so that I can think of. I can’t remember ever using it to someone’s face…When I hear students saying “Professor?” in TV shows and movies it sounds bizarre and artificial to me. Hmmm.

    It’s always interesting when I go to the south to visit family and the “ma’am” count suddenly shoots up! I don’t hear it nearly as much here. (Not sure about the east.)

  2. (Thinking about it more, I have seen it on some student e-mails, but it generally seems to be a mark of … unfamiliarity with academic culture, and often precedes some sort of inappropriate request or other awkward message!)

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Karenne Sylvester, BELTfree. BELTfree said: via @vickihollett Dear Professor […]

  4. Hi Clarissa – great to see you again and thanks for this.

    I should have been more specific about the different usages I was referring to. They’re to do with the ‘need-to-use-something-initially’ use you mention. So for example if I write to the university library or HR with a question, they’ll generally email back to ‘Professor Hollett’, although I don’t have a doctorate or tenure of anything to merit the title in British terms. Similarly, American students have a tendency to refer to me as Professor Hollett at the start of a course here, until I say ‘Call me Vicki’. I haven’t interpreted it as awkwardness – just a more liberal use of the term.
    Other Brits need to correct me if I’m wrong, but I’d be very surprised if anyone addressed me as ‘Professor Hollett’ in the UK. I’d think they were taking the mickey. 🙂
    I’m less sure about other countries in Europe, and perhaps others can fill me in, but in Germany for example, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t happen either.

  5. I think more than anything else, Professor is just a safe title to use when you aren’t sure what else to call them. For whatever reason, Mr and Mrs aren’t really used in a university setting, so Prof is the safest bet.

    As for why Mr and Mrs aren’t used, I certainly don’t know.

  6. Thanks Trent! Yeah I think you’re right and it’s just a safe bet in a US context. And yeah, there seems to be little ryhme or reason to customs like this… except perhaps positive and negative politeness tendencies.

  7. Thanks for picking this up, Vicki!
    So – in the States – if I were to refer to my Professor to a third person, and my professor had a PhD, and I wasn’t going to use his first name to avoid confusion or a false sense of familiarity because the person I was talking to wasn’t in our class, would I say “Professor Whogummy” or “Dr Whatshisname”?
    What about the UK?

  8. Thanks very much for sparking this post, Anne.

    So this question’s about a ‘Professor’ in the British sense of the word – someone who we wouldn’t want to sound over-familiar with?

    In that case I think it’s pretty straightforward and we’d generally call them ‘Professor’. It’s clear in some contexts, of course. If someone were introducing a talk by Henry Widdowson at a conference, they’d be likely to say ‘Professor (Henry) Widdowson’. But now I’m starting to wonder. Did students always call him ‘Professor Widdowson’ in class, or was he sometimes just ‘Henry’? It might have become a mix over time, but I really can’t remember.

    And with ‘Dr’ it might get even more muddy – but I’m really not sure.

    Are there any British professors out there who can help us with this question? What do your students call you? And do we have any British academics with PhD’s reading this. How do you get addressed?

  9. Certainly when I left the UK, back in the mists of time, ‘Professor’ was an honorary title, given in recognition of a distinguished academic career, hence ‘Emeritus Professor’
    So a university lecturer was adressed as Doctor so-and-so unless they gave permission to be called by their first name, which they usually did.

    Now I work in a Spanish university where they tend to follow the US system. Very confusing for me: My MA dissertation is now a thesis and my PhD thesis is a ‘doctoral dissertation’.
    Visiting academics are generally acknowledged as ‘Professor ……….’, although the one of the most recent was Paul Meara, who actually IS a professor in the British sense, I believe.

    As for me, if my students call me professor it’s usually an instance of L1 transfer from Catalan or Spanish. More often than not they call me ‘teacher’ which normally means they can’t remember my name. Long gone are the heady days of ‘Miss’, as the Spanish are quite strict in their age distinctions. Strange how it annoyed me at the time. Now I’d like it back!

  10. Here in Brazil students of English of both language schools and regular schools tend to call their English Teachers “teacher name” .. For instace, students usually call me Teacher Dani, which is okay for me even though it is not the norm in the UK. It is not the norm here to call somebody by their last name. Now, in college, students usually call their professors by their names.

  11. Why yes, if we could have a penny for everytime we’ve been called just ‘Teacher’. ‘Teacher Dani’ sounds like a neat solution. I think I’d be happy with that.
    I think Anne has a difficult task advising her students, because there’s so much variation. ‘Keep your ears and eyes open and see what others are doing’, I guess. But you may have helped here Jessica. Maybe she could suggest they don’t call anyone just ‘teacher’ and that they should address all women over 40 as ‘Miss’.

  12. My brother helpfully set up a contact to a colleague who did her MA in Edinborough, where she called the professors in her large seminars and lectures “Professor”, and in the last year, in those very small classes, by their first name. She did her PhD in Cambridge, and it was first names throughout. In tutorials it was also mostly first names for profs. So the “progressive stations” are relatively clear.
    In the US, however, it’s far more complicated, as Clarissa said, because there are regionally different cultures of deference and civility. He wrote:
    “‘Active listening’ in Brooklyn means finishing peoples sentences for them; in Savannah, Georgia, that will get you shot. At DC General Hospital, the nursing assistants called each other by their last names and infallibly used Mr or Mrs as a honorific; at Mass General doctors and the nurses call each other by their first names as a sign of respect and peer acceptance.”
    It’s as you said, Vicki: Students need to be awake to potentially different cultures.

    But there’s something that’s bugging me:

    My brother said “So asking how people want to be named is never inappropriate.” This is a progressive agenda rather than a description, and I get the sense that this might not be applicable in a sea of ambiguity (that was your term, I think, for English culture).

  13. I think there may be a difference between the Scottish and English conventions! As an undergraduate I definitely didn’t call any of my lecturers ‘professor’. I’m originally from Edinburgh, did my first degree in England and MA in Spain. You can see my confusion. I may been committing a faux pas without realising it.

    Here’s a question. If I ever finish my PhD thesis/dissertation, here in Spain, I will have to ‘defend’ it. Surely that’s not English, is it? Does the expression ‘PhD defence/defense’ exist? I’ve been out of the system so long now I’ve forgotten – if I ever knew. Anybody help?

    By the way Vicki, going even further back in time, at secondary school we used to call all our female teachers ‘Miss’ regardless of age or marital status. Bit sexist in retrospect.

  14. @ Jessica, it’s always great when neat systems come crashing down, eh? 😉 I’d like to add a question to yours about “defending your thesis”: What exactly is a viva? And do you say I’m giving my viva or I’m doing my viva? Does anyone use the full term ‘viva voce’? Is it essentially different from the “defence” you’re talking about? Here in Germany it’s the Rigorosum, which sounds rigrous, and is indeed an exam by the advisors rather than just a presentation.

  15. Hi Anne,

    The German situation sounds similar to the Spanish one. There’s a reason they call it a ‘defence’ here as it’s rather like a courtroom; you have to stand as the examining board enters, there is a public gallery etc.

    A very wise man (my boss) has just informed me that the ‘defence’ would actually be the PhD Viva in the UK, that nobody actually says Viva Voce and that you ‘have’ a Viva, as you ‘have’ an exam. But they do call it a ‘defence’ in Australia, apparently. Hmmm, curioser and curioser. What about the US?

  16. I spent much of October and November working in Australia and East Asia with a colleague who is (a) older then me; (b) much more well known than me; and (c) worked at a University for much of his career (but he’s now retired). However in terms of qualifications we are pretty similar – neither of us have a PhD. The fact that he was constantly referred to as Professor XXX while I was always referred to as Mr Hockley by everyone we encountered – from professional colleagues, to hotel staff – amused us both.

    Your next step, of course, is to get onto the different uses of “Doctor” on opposite sides of the pond, with particular reference to the fact that highly qualified surgeons in the UK positively insist on being called Mister.

  17. I’m not sure about terms for viva voce here. I once went to one and I’m pretty sure it was called something different – ‘an oral’ or ‘an oral exam’ maybe, but can an American confirm?

  18. Gosh yes, Andy.

    And then there’s the interesting change in the meaning of ‘mistress’, though that’s happened on both sides of the pond.

    Until I watched the US ad for Law and Order UK, it hadn’t occured to me how quaint it must sound to refer to judges as ‘My lord’ and “My lady’.

  19. I had to look up viva voce, so I may not be the best source on this. That being said, ‘thesis defense’ is certainly what I’ve heard used at my American university.

    Viva voce does seem to be a bit broader in definition, though. It’s possible that it includes other sorts of oral exams, which would likely be referred to as such.

    Also, your assessment regarding lords and ladies is accurate. Very quaint.

  20. Hello Vicki and everyone,
    Can you possibly help me out once again:
    So if a students says “Professor Hollett”, what does Professor Hollett say to the student? In your experience, are there any situations where the student is and the professor is ?

  21. Never experiment with brackets in HTML 😉

    That should read:
    …any situations where the student is “first name” and the professor is “honorifioc title + last name”?

  22. Ha! Anne, I’m not a professor so if it happened to me I’d be saying say ‘Please call me Vicki.’

    But do you mean is it possible that a UK professor would address students by their first name and the students would address them as ‘Professor + “last name”‘?

    I think it’s possible (and more likley if it’s a very esteemed professor) but it’s a very grey area. Some places don’t seem to use the title much – so Jessica didn’t use them as an ungrad, for example. I can’t remember what I did as an undergrad, but I think I might not have too. And as the professor and their students get to know one another better, I think it’s more likely that the honorific would be dropped – like in those small classes that your brother’s colleague mentioned. And then there’s Andy’s lovely instance that suggests some people just seem to attract an honorific title and others don’t.

    But I’m not sure I’ve helped at all. Did I answer the question?

  23. I can answer that, Anne. The situation you’ve described is actually the most common one at my particular university. Students are always called by their first name (unless clarification is needed), and professors with doctorates almost always go by Dr Whatever.

    Interestingly though, the professors who don’t have their doctorates seem more likely to ditch the honorifics. I can think of at least one that uses his first name, and another is known casually as “The Tank” (his last name is Tanksale).

    Also, it should be noted that the Dr honorific doesn’t really distance the students from the teacher. The department is pretty small, and most of the professors know me by name. There are even a couple that I wouldn’t feel weird hanging out with on the weekend.

  24. Thanks so much for chipping in Trent. Very helpful!

  25. Thank you very much, Vicki and Trent! So it would be unusual for a college/university student to be called Mr/Ms X.
    What about the top-down use of the last name without a title in hierarchical situations? Insulting these days, right, something to be yelled across the parade ground…?

  26. The U.S. thesis defense is called orals, or if disambiguation is necessary, doctoral orals.

  27. Oh, and Professor in direct address is a mark of the older (therefore Eastern) universities; it’s applied to any tertiary instructor, no matter what your formal title may be.

  28. When I was in college (in Oklahoma), the professors were nearly always addressed as ‘Dr So-and-so’ (but never as ‘Doctor’ without a name). The few that lacked doctorates were known as ‘Mrs Surname’ (or ‘Frau’ in the case of my German professor). And the graduate students who taught classes were usually addressed by their first names.
    I never once heard ‘Professor’ used a title or term of address, only as a description (such as– ‘Dr Franke is a Biology professor’).
    Students were usually addressed by their first names, but some teachers preferred to use their last names (without Mr or Miss, except for my German classes, in which students would be called Herr oder Frau).

  29. Oh very informative! Thanks Michael!

  30. John, at UCLA phd defense is called … phd defense! Specifically, the term our department uses is: Defense of the Dissertation (or Final Oral Examination)

    Which is what I will be having in three weeks :S

    Also I call everyone professor X, unless they told me to call them by their first name. Which is everyone I’ve worked with, but not the ones whose classes I’ve taken. In UCLA all professors are called Professor X in class, unless they specify otherwise.. At least in Engineering.

  31. Welcome DB, how nice to meet you and thank you so much for chipping in. Also – jolly good luck for three weeks time. All fingers and toes crossed, eh?

    But actually, I suspect our good luck wishes could be unnecessary at this point. By the time someone has made it through the long process and many challenges of producing a PhD thesis, presumably the folks who weren’t going to make it would have dropped at the wayside by now. So a defense is probably no longer necessary.

    In fact might ‘defense’ better describe things that happen along the way during the process rather than the finale these days?

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