Last-naming professors

Most of this posting is in effect a guest column by Ben Yagoda: a re-posting of a thoughtful column of his from, omigod, 2017, from the Chronicle of Higher Education’s blog on language and writing in academe, Lingua Franca, which was discontinued in (apparently) December 2018, and is currently inaccessible.

I’d saved Ben’s column because it dealt with one of my long-term interests, address terms — there’s a Page on this blog with an annotated inventory of my postings on address terms — but now that you can’t get to it on-line, I think it’s important to give it an audience, even without further commentary from me.

From 11/13/17, Yagoda on Last-Naming Professors:

In her recent Lingua Franca post “Do Courtesy Titles Matter?” Lucy Ferriss discusses two alternatives in addressing people — by first name, and by honorific (Dr./Mr./Ms./Professor X). I will add to her cogent analysis a working hypothesis on such customs in academe that I developed a few years back: “Significant factors leading to calling professors by their first names appear to be: smallness of college and class size, location in California or the Northeast, nearness to the humanities of the subject taught, and youth and maleness of the professor.”

Lucy doesn’t mention a couple of other one-word salutations I’ve often come across in student-emails: “Professor” and “Hey.” Nor does she discuss another form of address that just now seems to be having a moment. My wife, Gigi Simeone, an academic adviser at a small liberal-arts college, encountered it just last week. She was meeting with a student and asked him if he had decided on his schedule for next semester. “Not yet,” he said. “I’m meeting with Richardson to talk about it this afternoon” — Richardson being a professor. This was the first time in several decades in the profession, Gigi told me, that she had heard a student refer to a professor by his or her last name.

It rang true for me: I feel that for the past two or three years, I’ve been overhearing students refer to me and other professors in this way. And once or twice — the horror! — I’ve been addressed as “Yagoda.”

Curious as to how common the custom is, I posed the question on Facebook. The answers confirmed that last-naming is indeed a thing. Some responses from professors:

“This tic took over UCLA. My guess is that some dean somewhere said, in orientation, ‘Never address a professor by their first name,’ so they opted for the last, and it stuck and spread.”

“Yep. It makes me feel like a gym teacher.”

“That was not uncommon at South Carolina. I asked a student why, and the response, essentially, was ‘’cause.’”

“Happens at HBCUs [Historically black colleges and universities] all the time based on my experiences.”

“One does it to me. I am puzzled by it but just enjoy it.”

“That’s the default.”

One professor said that at her institution, there had actually been talk at a department faculty meeting of banning the practice.

I tried to think back to my own college days in the 1970s. We certainly didn’t call the professors by their last names; in my recollection, we didn’t address them much at all. In talking about them, I seem to recall that the most common thing was to use both first and last name, often choosing the familiar form of the first — “Dick” or “Marge” — as a kind of backdoor way of claiming familiarity. I suppose we did sometimes refer to them by last name as well. “Who do you have for English 25?” “Sewall.” Saying “Professor Sewall” would have been too obsequious even for us.

There is of course a long history of people (usually males) addressing each other by their surname; I’ll call this VLN, for Vocative Last Name. In A Dictionary of Epithets and Terms of Address, Leslie Dunkling writes that in England, public schoolboys “would at one time have been horrified to use hear their first names used.” This jibes with the dialogue in Tom Brown’s School Days (1857), such as this exchange after a rugby game:

“Who is he?” says Brooke. “Oh, it’s Brown; he’s a new boy; I know him,” says East, coming up.

“Well, he is a plucky youngster, and will make a player,” says Brooke.

In Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time novels, Widmerpool is almost always just Widmerpool, at school and through life. I don’t even remember his first name. VLN apparently extended to American prep schools, judging from the way Holden Caulfield refers to his schoomates “Stradlater” and “Ackley.” He says of the latter, “… nobody ever called him anything except ‘Ackley.’ Not even Herb Gale, his own roommate, ever called him ‘Bob’ or even ‘Ack.’ If he ever gets married, his own wife’ll probably call him ‘Ackley.’”

This custom was possibly at the bottom of the odd way Rogers E. M. Whitaker, who covered college football for The New Yorker from 1937 to 1968s under the byline “J.W.L.,” referred to players (on first reference). From a 1959 column: “Army managed one touchdown … on Anderson’s superb running and Caldwell’s pass to Carpenter.”

Speaking of Salinger, in “Franny” (1955), the title character’s obnoxious undergraduate boyfriend, Lane Coutell, prefigures the current trend in his assessment of the faculty at Franny’s college:

You’ve got two of the best men in the county in your goddamn English Department. Manlius. Esposito.

Adult to adult, there was a time — 19th century, early 20th — when VLN was common among friends. It didn’t occur to Holmes and Watson to call each other “John” and “Sherlock.” I spent a good deal of time reading memos and correspondence among editors and writers for The New Yorker in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, and one of the first things that struck me was the frequency of friendly last-name salutations. Opening up the collected letters of the magazine’s founding editor, Harold Ross, I find on successive pages “Dear O’Hara” (John), “Dear Marx” (Harpo), “Dear Knopf” (Alfred A.), and “Dear Nash” (Ogden).

VLN mostly faded away in the 20th century. A notable exception is male-centered, hierarchic workplaces such as newsrooms, police stations, and military barracks, with power status an important factor: subordinates are addressed by last name, never superiors, and (I sense) rarely equals. Otherwise, VLN is deployed to communicate mild aggression or comedy — as in the characters Doberman (Sgt. Bilko), Schneider (One Day at a Time), and Kramer, whose first name we didn’t learn till the sixth season of Seinfeld.

And the current campus trend? I surmise that students, in conversations among themselves, more and more commonly referred to professors by last name over the past few decades. Eventually, the practice became so natural that it spilled over into VLN. Although I wouldn’t want it to become the default, it doesn’t really bother me, especially as in the instances I’ve experienced, the appellation seems to spring from affection.

(Appreciate the range of cultural references here.)

4 Responses to “Last-naming professors”

  1. Julian Lander Says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I find address terms fascinating, particularly because they’re so easy to get wrong and you sometimes don’t get clues. When I was in college, late 1970s at an Ivy League school, in the sciences, the standard form of address was Professor . I don’t remember how we addressed graduate students, but I’m pretty sure it was not by first name if we were in class. I think we had some teachers who were faculty but didn’t hold professorial titles, and some students used professor although it might be incorrect, while others agonized over whether it was doctor or Mr./Ms. I wonder if some of the trend towards VLN is because the students don’t know or forget the preferred honorific. I was a teaching assistant in graduate school, but have no memory of how I was addressed–I suspect it was generally as “you,” without title or name. As to VLN in general, I always thought is was in imitation of usage in England. With the exception of a few people who specified the use of nicknames, I always addressed peers by their first names.

  2. Robert Coren Says:

    I think it’s been common for a long time for students, when talking to each other, to refer to faculty by last name alone, and I can see how it would be easy to slip up and do so when referring to a faculty member in conversation with another such. Using it in direct address does seem to me disrespectful, unless the faculty member has explicitly encouraged it.

    • J B Levin Says:

      I have to go along with this. As an undergraduate before 1970, I recall discussing professors with other students using last names only. Of course we would never directly address the professor except as “Doctor” or “Professor”, with or without the last name (unless specifically invited to, and I don’t recall that ever happening to me). Graduate student TAs were another story: usually just first names.

  3. jpgoldberg Says:

    My wife’s last name is Markóczy. Most students do everything they can to avoid having to speak it.

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