Names give us insight into how language works more generally. The relationship between a name and what it represents (in the language of semiotics, the signifier and the signified, or a sign and its referent) is complicated. For example,
- Names mark us as individuals and yet situate us in a larger social framework and connect us to a broader history (think about where your name comes from, what it means, who else shares your name, what makes your name similar to or different from other people around you).
- In some ways, our names seem to capture exactly who we are; in other ways, the fit is off or incomplete or random.
- Names fix us as a singular entity even though we change over time and have multiple aspects to who we are. In other words, we are more complicated and various than our static names would suggest.
- On the other hand, our names give us a sense of identity and stability, helping us make sense of all the different aspects of ourselves.
The same can be said about language in general, and one of my pedagogical goals across classes is to help students understand how language works in these different ways. I offer all this as a brief introduction to my thinking about language and writing and to begin to introduce myself.
My name is Matt King. You can call me Doctor King or Professor King. Some students have called me Matt or Matt King (some of my friends like to use my full name – Matt King – too; it has a particular rhythm to it). The question of how to address your teachers is complicated in its own ways. At Bonaventure, our culture tends toward referring to teachers as Doctors (if they have a Ph.D.; I received my Ph.D. in English from the University of Texas at Austin in 2012) or Professors as a sign of respect.
My thinking on this goes in a few different directions. Some teachers are invested in shifting more authority to students in the classroom in an effort to make learning spaces more egalitarian. Toward this end, some teachers go by their first names with their students to level the playing field and disrupt the hierarchical relationship between teacher/authority and student. I share the desire to shift more authority to students, and there are various ways this can be accomplished (for example, I aim to work in this direction through my grading policy). At the same time, the nature of our institutional relationship ensures that aspects of the hierarchical relationship will remain. So, I see the value in going by first names, but I tend to focus on other ways of decentering my authority in the classroom, and I also do not want to ignore the fact that I always maintain aspects of my institutional authority regardless of what you call me.
I also find it important to consider how this question affects teachers in different ways depending on their identities. As a cisgender white male, I experience a range of privileges due to my race and gender, and one privilege is the authority I am inherently granted by our society in general and academic institutions and students in particular. I could ask you to call me “Matt,” confident that you would probably still grant me the same authority and respect for being a professor and expert in my field. I might even get double benefits, maintaining my authority while also coming off as laid back, friendly, or cool (to whatever extent professors can be cool, if that’s even what people say anymore).
People who occupy other identities, however, do not automatically receive the same level of authority and respect from society, academic institutions, students, and other faculty. For women, LGBTQIA+ folk, people of color, disabled people, or anyone else who has an identity that is not privileged by our society (keeping in mind that some people occupy more than one of these non-privileged identities), we have been socialized to question their authority or grant them less authority and respect. Even if you think you treat all people the same, inherent biases distort our thinking and our actions. We see this in the fact that the majority of professors and administrators on campus are white men; faculty experience it when white male teachers receive higher course evaluations for the same performance as other faculty; women professors see this when they are mistaken for students or staff (the majority of women professors I know have experienced this). For faculty who occupy less privileged identities, asking students to call them Doctor or Professor reinforces the fact that they do have authority and expertise and deserve the same level of respect.
So, I will ask you to call me Dr. King or Prof. King. I worry that asking you to call me Matt potentially obscures the fact that our relationship, no matter how laid back or friendly or collegial, will always be shaped by institutional authority; I also worry it would both obscure and reinforce my privilege as someone who can count on a certain level of authority and respect regardless of what you call me. It will never bother me if you call me Mr. King or Matt or Matt King, but it is important to remember how our relationship is shaped by the institutional context we find ourselves in. It is even more important to be mindful of how you engage with other professors who are not white men and how inherent biases might shape your thinking. This is an important point to remember: our words always say more than we realize, and we should aim to be mindful of the work language does in the world.