On Maintaining the Line Between Teacher and Student

My article here, “Professors Should Dress like Professionals,” speculated that the loss of classroom authority was at least partially traceable to a decline in sartorial standards among the professoriate. 

            More, however, is involved than shabby attire. It is the systematic attempt to demolish the line between teacher and students that is the culprit. Consider the use of titles–students once addressed their teachers inside and outside the classroom, even if the instructor were young-looking freshly minted Ph.D., as Professor Smith, not ‘Prof” or, heaven forbid, by first names (“Doctor” would also suffice though awkward) . If informality did occur, it would immediately be corrected–“That’s Professor Smith.” Students were addressed with “Mr.” or “Miss.” Yes, in today’s egalitarian atmosphere such formality seems archaic and stiff, but the convention served to remind everyone that the professor, not the students, were in-charge and this, in turn, brought respect.

            This arrangement was deeply ingrained. It took me a few years after obtaining my Ph.D. to address my former professors by their first names though I was now also a professor (well-published and teaching at an Ivy League school, to boot). A similar formality occurred at my high school reunions–classmates 50 years out of high school still today talk of Mr. Martino or Mrs. Hill, and in most instances nobody even knew their first names, not that it mattered. 

A similar formality applied to social interactions. Yes, there may be periodic social events with both students and faculty but a closely proscribed etiquette governed these events. At most, a few professors would invite a few students to their houses for a post-semester party, but it was unimaginable that professors would spontaneously offer to have a few beers with undergraduates just to chew the fat. Such informality was reserved only for senior graduate students and infrequent. Academic business was conducted in the classroom or the professor’s office, not at Starbucks.  The medical profession still insists on this distance. My doctor is quite personable and we sometimes trade doctor jokes, but it is inconceivable that I would say to Dr. Howard Schiff, “Hey Howie, why don’t we talk about this over a few beers?” 

            In a similar vein office décor reflected the “life of the mind” –shelves of hardcover books and journals, stacks of scholarly manuscripts and other intimidating signs of academic seriousness (students in awe would sometimes ask “Have you read all these books” and the answer would usually be, “Not all but most”).  Office “decorations” might include maps (preferably old ones), obscure diagrams and charts, perhaps pictures of disciplinary or historical notables. Maybe a witty New Yorker cartoon or two on the wall but never anything overtly ideological, let alone partisan. Professors were scholars who pursued truth professionally and, plastering the wall with agitprop would violate this norm (savvy grade-grubbers always paid attention to such details so as to flatter prejudices). Students saw that the professor was a serious and knowledgeable professional.

            The beauty in all this, from dressing professionally to insisting on correct forms of address is that everything can be accomplished individually and quickly. No department meetings, let alone approval from colleagues or administrators are necessary. And the financial cost is minimal. Put it this way: more frequent expert haircuts, $50 a month; the professional-looking wardrobe $2000 but new-found respect from students, priceless.

Robert Weissberg

Robert Weissberg

Robert Weissberg is a professor emeritus of political science at The University of Illinois-Urbana.

2 thoughts on “On Maintaining the Line Between Teacher and Student

  1. In my line of work, student respect is earned by knowing my stuff. It’s hard. They want to understand it. They need to understand it. They see that I do understand it and will go to considerable lengths to help them get there too.
    Voila! Respect. Not that I dress like a tramp, but a nylon backpack is just the thing for getting to school on a bicycle, and a bicycle is just the thing for that whole sound-mind-in-sound-body schtick. Which isn’t a schtick.
    It also saves time, and that goes into doing a better job preparing classes and pushing the frontiers of knowledge. And for what else, after all, would I wish to be respected?

  2. I would never have dreamed of addressing my advisor or any other professor in grad school by their first names. After I had received my Ph.D., my advisor ceremoniously (the occasion demanded ceremony) gave me permission to use his first name. It was a watershed moment, I was no longer his pupil, but his colleague. That’s the way it should be done, I believe.

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