Formality, Its Reasons And Excuses

There isn’t always something fascinating to be found at law professor blogs, which makes an issue raised by Shima Baradaran Baughman at PrawfsBlawg all the more significant. In a nutshell, the question raised was whether she should be disturbed by the fact that she sought to be addressed by her students as Professor Baughman, but her students, without her approval, took the liberty of calling her “Shima.”

I introduce myself every year in class as “Professor Baughman” pronounce it and sign all of my emails “Prof. B”, but still somehow, I am referred to as “Shima” by a large number of students. I understand that I went from one hard to pronounce last name (Baradaran) to another (Baughman) when I got married, but I don’t think that’s the problem here. I’ve spoken to several colleagues and they have experienced frustration with this nonconsensual first-name calling as well.

I wonder what percentage of law professors encourage or allow students to call them by their first name and whether this is a good move. I tend to think that it is not a good development.

Her primary argument is that law, unlike many other areas of endeavor, retains much of its formality, and students should appreciate this professional norm by addressing their professors with the formality they would use in addressing a judge.*

But PrawfsBlawg being an academic hangout, the reactions were, well, unsurprising.

For the love of god, not everything is about Those Damn Millennials.

When I went to law school, my torts prof called me “mustache man,” as I had a mustache. There were only two things about this that matter. First, I took no offense, and second, it never dawned on me that there was anything offensive about this whatsoever. He was the professor. I was the student. There was a damn good reason we sat in our respective seats.

But is this a problem of Millennial entitlement, unwarranted self-esteem, a social norm of informality among Millennials?

The relationship between law professor and law student is a professional relationship. Even more important, students are entering a profession, and it is important that we teach them the norms of professional relationships. I signal the professional nature of our relationship on the first day of class by referring to all students by their last name. I never vary, even in one-one-one discussions in my office. The students, of course, immediately get it, and consistently refer to me as “Professor Rosenthal”.

I have never understood why law professors do not think that there should be symmetry in the way that students and faculty refer to each other. If you refer to students by their first names, you should not be surprised when they reciprocate. It may be that the impulse toward symmetry is what causes some faculty members (many of whom spent little time in the profession and who have little sense of professional norms) to adopt the universal use of first names. In my view, that ill serves our students; it is our job to help them develop a professional identity.

There is nothing wrong with formality going both ways, with students calling the professor by his title and the professor addressing students as “Ms. Smith.” But to chalk it up to symmetry? The teacher and student are not, nor should they be, equals in the classroom. If they were, there would be no reason to be there, no reason to pay all that good money.

My policy has been to say nothing about how they address me. I don’t want to be in the position of policing my title. For the most part, all of my students have called me Professor Edwards. I refer to students as Ms. Smith or Mr. Smith to show respect when I interact with them.

Characterizing it as “policing” is interesting. There has been a trend in law schools, wrapped up in words like “respect,” that relieves them of the unpleasant duty of being the grown up in the room. The prawfs are paid to be there, to teach, not to give kids tummy rubs and bend and twist to accommodate their feelz. It’s not “policing.” It’s your job. Do your friggin’ job.

If you’re fine with students calling you by your first name, that’s great. But to characterize it as a pejorative, “policing,” is an abdication of responsibility. And so, the obvious was finally said:

As far as the problem of student’s calling profs by their first names without the prof wanting them to, whenever a student calls me by my first name I just don’t respond. I keep lecturing or doing whatever I’m doing. That has seemed to work.

They are, after all, students. I have knowledge that they do not and which they want me to share with them. The relationship is not an equitable one. No need to treat it as such.

In a follow-up, Howard Wasserman raised questions about the reciprocity aspect, what professors called students.

At SEALS last week, a co-panelist told a story relayed of a female law professor who had twice been the subject of formal administrative complaints by students whose (first) names the prof had mispronounced in class.  In the discussion that followed, some panelists recognized the concern that mispronouncing the name can send a message of exclusion or otherness, while others suggested that this provided another good reason to use last names in class (hence the connection to Shima’s post).

This story unnerved me, although I recognize that there may be more to it. I am troubled that students are so suspicious and so ready to assume the worst of what was presumptively an innocent mistake that the professor (hopefully) handled with some tact. I am troubled because, if mispronouncing a name does send a message of exclusion, there is not much I can do about it; any attempt to avoid mispronouncing would send that same message of “you have a funny name.”

A brave new world. A repeated “solution”:

Ask students their preferred name (with pronunciation) and pronoun.

And Orin Kerr’s response:

I would have thought that those of us with relatively uncommon names just take mispronunciation as a routine part of life. I once worked for boss who called me “ARE-en” for the entire time I worked for him. It never occurred to me to correct him. It would be different if the person was intentionally trying to mispronounce the name or the context suggested that the professor didn’t care that she was mispronouncing it. But without knowing if those facts existed in the story, I tend to share Howard’s reaction.

In a classroom where everything is a landmine, where students are entitled to demand “respect,” and where professors are inclined to accommodate them rather than risk complaints and the censure of their peers, these are the sorts of things that cause academics to lose sleep. Some responses raised the vapidness of such concerns, but while true, it doesn’t make the concerns less pervasive.

As for me, I address people formally until invited to address them informally, and expect the same in return. I really couldn’t care less what anyone calls me, but I damn well care that they not be so presumptuous as to think it’s their choice.

*Some argue that the relationship is comparable to lawyers/judge, while others contend that it’s more collegial, like partner/associate.


30 thoughts on “Formality, Its Reasons And Excuses

  1. B. McLeod

    Her students need to learn to properly suck up to authority figures sooner or later. They should probably just address her as “Your Grace,” until she gets over this.

    1. SHG Post author

      Understanding relative roles and acquiescing to authority are entirely different issues. Call a judge “joe” in court and see how well that works for your client. You should know better.

      1. Marc Whipple

        Exactly. *This* may be about the student in a sense, but it won’t always be, and you have to learn. Since parents no longer teach this, somebody has to.

        I have only dealt with a few judges (I was respectful, they were respectful, we got on fine) but I have had innumerable conversations with PTO Examiners, gaming regulators, etc, who I felt, in all honesty, were being morons. I still called them “Examiner,” “Officer,” “Inspector,” and so forth and accorded them the dignity due their positions, if not their actions. Because they held my client’s interests – if not their actual legal fates – in their hands and I am an advocate, not a plucky legal dramedy hero. If you want to be one of those, I might suggest acting school, not law school.

      2. B. McLeod

        Sure, sure. “Relative roles.” That’s totally why we always laugh at their jokes. You should know better.

  2. PDB

    This is probably just due to the fact that lots of undergrad professors are fine with (and often encourage) students calling them by their first names. Then the students assume this carries over to law school (especially if they go directly after undergrad).

    This whole exchange just highlights how law school is somewhat regressive in terms of maturity (at least nowadays). After four years of (presumably) relative independence in college, students find themselves back in high school again. They have a set common schedule, they see the same students all the time, all of the courses are in one building, they have lockers, there is a prom (the “barrister’s ball,” no I’m not making this up), people form cliques very quickly, and gossip is rampant. It would just make sense that instead of calling profs by their first name, students would have to regress to using “Professor ______.”

    1. SHG Post author

      That’s a rather paranoid perspective. I doubt there’s a conspiracy to make law school more like high school to compel students to regress.

  3. Mark W. Bennett

    I wonder if the prof who said “The relationship is not an equitable one” in fact meant “equal” (which is true) or “equitable” (which is fascinating).

  4. dino

    This whole thing just really says it all about academics and law profs in particular. I couldn’t think of something more irrelevant and incredibly stupid than this whole episode, only an academic could have brought it to the forefront. Keep up the good fight academics. You all keep focusing on the things that matter, (which means yourselves) while Rome burns all around and you keep a watchful eye from high above in your know-nothing ivory tower.

    1. SHG Post author

      In fairness, they’re chatting about it on a blog post. It’s not like they dedicated an issue of HLR to it.

  5. Bruce Coulson

    The students, knowingly or not, are being disrespectful. It’s true that our society these days encourages ‘informality’, and that’s what they’ve seen and heard. But calling someone by their first name (or random nickname) used to be a privilege granted to those in a position of authority, or given by you to a close friend. Being addressed formally was a right of passage, a sign that you were accepted (at least officially) as an adult. Gaining a title/position was an additional perk; how many people call their family doctor by his/her first name? The students may not know better; but they should learn.

  6. bacchys

    Well, my first thought is to question how she addresses the students. Does she use their first names? If so, she’s basically inviting them to do the same. That might not be true when it comes to a judge calling an attorney by her first name, but the classroom isn’t a court.

    Officers call me by my first name a lot, at least those that I work for. I still call them “sir,” because I’m old school and an NCO being familiar with an officer isn’t something that fits in my worldview. But I don’t call everyone “sir” or “ma’am,” especially if they’ve started using my first name.

    As for the relationship: those students are paying customers. She’s an employee.

    1. SHG Post author

      Paying customers? Some students seem to think so.

      “Uh, excuse me, Jimbo, but I paid tuition, and I expect an A, so if you want any more out of me, don’t fuck up again, pal. And by the way, don’t call on me in class, it just annoys me, and from now on, how about you try not to be such a pedantic bore and no more of that Second Amendment crap. I’m not paying you to piss me off, ya know.”

      I don’t think so.

      1. TinMan

        When I saw the text of your reply, I scrolled down, line by line, with my arrow keys in anticipation!

        Classy & worth it!

          1. Dave

            I love the ‘stache. And the side burns and hair just give you the full 70s ensemble. I could see you cast in the Paper Chase now.

      2. Fairly Worn

        More striking than the ‘stache is the optimism bursting from the eyes and the happy carefree smile. You could always regrow the ‘stache …

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