What’s in a form of address?

By Paula Marantz Cohen


When I was an undergraduate, we students addressed our professors as Mr., Miss, and Mrs. (This was before Ms. had taken hold in speech, though it had already made inroads in writing.) The professors called us by our first names. In graduate school, we called them Dr. or Professor; they referred to us as Mr. or Ms., thus preserving the hierarchy even as we students moved up in rank.

But when I began teaching myself, I discovered more variation in how professors were addressed—a reflection, perhaps, of the greater diversity of my particular institution or maybe even of society as a whole as it has evolved since my student days.

I know some professors in my department who have students call them by their first names, and others who are adamant about being addressed as “Dr.” I don’t have strong feelings on the matter, though I admit to liking a certain formality that also acknowledges me as an individual. I feel annoyed, for instance, when a student writes me an email that begins: “Hi Paula.” But I also don’t like one that addresses me as “Hi Professor.” If the former is too informal, the latter seems too generic. (I’m also not a big fan of “Hi” in emails, though I prefer it to the equally common “Hey”).

I suppose I favor hierarchy in some sense. I don’t mind being addressed as Ms. instead of Dr., but I understand why some instructors feel they want to have their hard-won Ph.D. acknowledged. I personally object to the use of Miss and Mrs., having lived through the women’s movement, though I can understand how some women might want to be addressed as Mrs. If I don’t like my students calling me by my first name, I realize that some teachers with a more informal style may teach better when they are addressed that way. If I like a certain formality in the classroom and even outside of it, I see this as a personal preference that I wouldn’t want to impose on everyone. I’m glad that we don’t have formal and informal linguistic forms of the kind present in some languages. One of the great aspects of American society as it has evolved over time is that these things are not set in stone and that, over the past 40 years, we have gained more control over how we as individuals are addressed.

Paula Marantz Cohen is a distinguished professor of English at Drexel University and the author of the novels Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death and the SATs and What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper. Her new novel, Suzanne Davis Gets a Life, will be published this spring.

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