Students play the name game: Professors talk nickname preferences

Category:  News
Wednesday, April 19th, 2017 at 8:44 PM
Students play the name game: Professors talk nickname preferences by Nathan Hirth
Photo: Madi Gross

Many people have nicknames, and in most cases they’re chosen by friends. Sometimes they may be flattering, other times, less so. But they can be signs of familiarity, or informality.

“At one of the universities that I worked at, students called me Dr. Gibby,” explained communications professor Dr. Melissa Gibson.

She has had numerous nicknames in her 20 years of teaching, with one of her current names being Dr. G. Almost all are nicknames with titles, a coming together of familiarity and respect. “I like that sort of combination of formality with informality.”

Some people may see titles as a sign of respect, a way for students to show that they understand the accomplishments of their professors, whether they have a doctorate or not.

“I do think that it’s more appropriate for students to call professors by a title, whether it’s Doctor or professor,” Gibson said. “Because I feel like the person has earned a certain title.”

Though, sometimes a title may itself become a nickname. This is something that Dr. Patricia Claster has experienced. Since both she and her husband are professors in the sociology department, students may find themselves taking classes with two different Dr. Clasters.

“I know that students have called me the Mrs. Dr. Claster,” she said. “And that’s fine.”

Claster prefers that students do not call her by just her first name. She explained, “It’s not respectful.”

However, not all professors feel the same way about this. Dr. Lee Williams, for one, prefers for students to call him by his first name.

“I think that sometimes these titles reinforce hierarchy, and we’re going to try and break some of that hierarchy down in here,” he explained.

Though not all students are comfortable with leaving his title out, so they find ways of combining his formal title with the informal

way he prefers to be addressed. “I’ll get Professor Lee a fair bit, or Dr. Lee,” Williams continued. “That’s an interesting way to sort of come up with what you want to use in this moment. And of course, I’m very comfortable with any or all of them.”

One graduate student, Dottie Noel, said that even if asked to call a professor by their first name, it would still take her a while to become comfortable with it.

“We’re so trained,” she said. “We’re in grade school and even if we can’t say the teacher’s name, they just shorten it to like Mr. P., or Mrs. M., but it’s still making sure you have that formal title in there.”

She continued: “And of course, building relationships makes it much easier for a level of informality to be used. You have to build that relationship based off of the relationship you have with them in the teaching environment as a student and as a professor. Because that’s where it starts.”

Dr. Ivan Chompalov is one prime example of this. “Some students... if I come to know them because we have conversations or they come during office hours,” he said, “sometimes they call me Dr. Chomps.”

He continued: “Very few of them become so informal. Like some people say, after having minored in me for a while, then they can just call me Chomps. Which is very informal, but that’s usually in informal conversations, outside of class.”

Setting is considered important by many professors in regard to formality and that goes beyond just using nicknames. Professor Umeme Sababu is one professor who doesn’t go by a nickname. His preference is usually towards more formality in how his students address him.

“Once a student becomes close with a professor, then outside the classroom they’ll say Umeme, but usually that’s in a more informal setting,” he said.

“In the office, of course, we would revert back to the formality of it,” Sababu continued.

This goes to show that the level of formality with which professors like to interact with the students can vary greatly.

Nathan Hirth can be reached at 

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