Saturday, February 25, 2012

A Query about Titles and an Excursus on Pseudonymity

I have a student who keeps calling me "Ms. Pearce." I'm ashamed to admit it, but it's driving me up a wall. I'm pretty uncomfortable with titles in general, and it's taken me this long not to cringe every time someone calls me "professor." (One of my own professors started to do that, jokingly, right after I was hired, and stopped when she realized I had was starting to twitch every time I saw her.) I've been told that at Yale in the 1950s and earlier, everyone — faculty and student alike — was simply called "Mr. Lastname," because the presumption was that if  you were teaching, you had a PhD, so why flaunt it? I actually like that model of more egalitarian title-usage and implicit respect. So this case really is just an issue of me not being used to yet another title rather than of my ego demanding that I be called by the titles I have earned. Even though we've not invited the students to call us by our first names some students do. It bugs me that they presume, but even that is preferable to my ears.

I'm totally confident that this student is doing it because she just doesn't know any better. She's a mouselike freshman. She's quite shy, quite timid, not at all passive-aggressive in the way that some students can be and have it come out in the forms of address they use. She really seems to want to do well in the class, and not in a grade-grubby way. I think she just hasn't fully transitioned out of high school in certain respects. It's as if I'm her eleventh-grade world literature teacher. It's not even a question of her having subconsciously internalized a certain kind of sexism that leads some students to call their female professors "Ms." and their male professors "Dr." as she's calling my co-teaching colleague "Mr. Vazquez."

So the question is this: I know how one would address this issue with a student who was being deliberately disrespectful. But what is a kindly-worded way to ask this sort of student to call me "Dr." or "Professor"?


This request for advice actually does raise another issue, namely: How and when is it acceptable to write about students online?

There have been a few moments when I have found myself wishing that I had made the decision to blog pseudonymously, when I wanted to write about something going on in the office but obviously couldn't; pretty quickly though, as I got over these one or two things (just one, really — my department is actually a pretty awesome, sane and humane place to work) I was glad that my blog was set up in such a way that I have to write about the substance of my intellectual life, rather than just whinging about the day-to-day of academia. Another instance was when a pseudonymous blogger had written a post about a topic that was very relevant to me but whose pseudonymity I might have compromised by linking to it or responding to her post, simply because the nature of my interest would have given clues about her real-life identity that she herself hasn't revealed online.

Last winter break, I had a conversation with a high-school friend who had just started his grad-school teaching, and one of the directions the conversation wandered was just this: if or when — or where: Facebook? A blog? A forum? —we would ever be comfortable posting about students on the internet. I had only just recently posted a really rude email from a student. I was comfortable posting that because I wasn't writing about student deficiencies or bemoaning student performance, but rather writing about having to deal with someone who was failing at basic human decency, and that was the limit of it. I anonymized the essay both out of a sense of fairness and to comply with the Federal Educational Records Privacy Act, and that was that. I told my friend that I wasn't quite sure where I drew the line with respect to posting about students, but that this was far off to the right side of it.

Since that conversation, I've been better able to refine the location of that line in my own mind. Recently-ish (and I don't want to be more specific than that about the timeframe so that on the odd chance that the student in question were to stumble across this blog, s/he would not be able to identify him/herself as the source of the particular email in question), I've received a series of increasingly rude emails from a student in one of my classes (blaming me for his/her inability to find the required readings, "helpful" suggestions about how to make the course run better that looked suspiciously like dumbing things down, etc.). I've shown them to a few friends who are also in academia just out of my own sense of incredulity and, yes, anger. But this is a different case. It's not a student blaming me for his own failure to complete work or for not completely rearranging my life to schedule an appointment on the one specific day that it is convenient for him to meet. No, this series of emails has come from a student who is very deeply confused, and certainly seems to be less capable than the student who wrote to me last fall. It strikes me that s/he probably does not even realize that s/he is being rude. So as frustrated and irritated as I am by those emails, I'm not going to post them, because it would, at least in part, be making a spectacle of someone's ignorance rather than simply of his or her terrible manners.

This new post that I began to write above strikes me as okay because while there is a student involved, it's entirely about me seeking advice about how to handle a situation to which I don't know to respond, and a situation where the student is in no way at fault, to boot. Even so, I struggled with how much description it was acceptable to include in order to indicate that I didn't hold the student responsible for this uncomfortable situation without revealing too many details about her.

While I am a little bit freer on Facebook — because, despite its periodic security breeches, I don't pretend that my profile is my professional face, I also don't post anything that I wouldn't be comfortable with my mom seeing that I had posted just as a general rule of thumb, I'm not friends with colleagues, and it seems much more like a place where I can digitally sit around and gripe or shoot the breeze or do any of the other things I might do in real life with my real friends (and I do observe a policy of only friending people on FB people who are my friends in real life) — my line for this blog, then, is drawn well clear of any interaction, incident or anecdote that has to do with a student's understanding of the material, performance as a student or his or her intelligence.

This may be a resolution that is forced by the fact that the public attachment of my name and university affiliation to this blog makes it much more possible for students to be identifiable if I were to write about them. But I like it. If I were writing pseudonymously, I think it would be much easier for me to give in to that very delicious temptation to gripe about students. This way, I am forced either write or ask about seeking a productive solution to a specific issue, or to just let it go. No dwelling. No stewing. Deal with it, or drop it. I suspect that this is a good outcome both for my humanity and for my teaching.

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