Does academic informality matter?

Since I started teaching at Whittier, I’ve been thinking about how I like my students to address me. There’s something of a local norm of just calling everyone “Professor.” It cuts down on cognitive overhead, no doubt, to be able to address all of one’s teachers by their title; it saves on having to keep track of their names. Not to mention that my last name is hard to pronounce, so perhaps students don’t know how to say it, or don’t care to risk getting it wrong…

I’ve started to tell them they can call me “Eli,” as a sign of… a sign of what? Familiarity? Informality? Friendliness? Being easygoing? Not wanting to reinforce the old-school hierarchies? Some combination of these. But it also occurs to me that telling my students what to call me is still a way of inhabiting authority, even if I ask them to call me something less-hierarchical. So instead of requesting that they call me “Eli,” I just frame it as giving them the option of calling me by [firstname]. They can exercise it as they choose.

I’m less invested in what my students call me, per se, than in the forms of knowledge and eloquence that we’re able to create together, and the broader institutional structures that make that possible. In that sense, forms of address seem like a relatively ornamental part of classroom culture, while the deeper forms of learning, bureaucracy and institutional power seem more fundamental. At the end of the day, I’m grading their work, and not vice versa, however we may address each other.

That said, ethnographically speaking, there’s something quite interesting about these moments where shifting to an informal speech register doesn’t really change the academic hierarchy. Maybe it does shift the atmosphere a bit, or pushes classroom culture in a certain direction; maybe it differentiates you from your more old-school colleagues. But even this obviously has a lot to do with the teacher’s social characteristics; many women academics — who get subjected to casual but structural forms of gendered disrespect in the classroom — have good reasons for preferring more traditional forms of address. I’m not convinced that familiarity necessarily breeds disrespect, but clearly formality can discourage it, as if one kind of hierarchy could help undo the bad effects of another.

I started out here wondering if classroom informality really matters. Yes, perhaps, but it doesn’t always accomplish what you want it to.