First names? Last names? No names?

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I’m just roughing out something on how students and professors/ lecturers at college talk to each other, and am using the VOICE and MICASE online academic corpora for guidance. Dialogues will hardly contain the names of the two partners. You won’t necesessarily need to use the name of the person when you first address them. At the outset, usually it’s some sort of an interruptive noise or phrase or body language signal to get the other person’s attention. As the dialogue progresses, one of the two might reinforce a thought by using the other’s name, as in “You know, (name),..”, which has quite a strong attention-getting effect. But how often is it really used by the student?

It’s different in three-way conversations, when participants refer to what someone else in the room has said, so they use names all the time: “As (name) was saying…”.

So how do students refer to their professors? Wouldn’t that depend on the situation? Is the student signing up for a course? Wouldn’t they then ask the person at the desk whether Professor Whatsit’s course was already full? Are they in a big seminar or lecture? In class, wouldn’t there be some leftover strangeness in referring to what a professor has said using a phrase like “But the point Peter was making…”? What about deference, is there still any left at college, or has it been driven out by some agenda to turn conversations at university into those between peers to differentiate them from those at school? And how do students who have bought into that concept handle conversations with their peers from other countries and cultures in which deference plays a larger role? I wonder whether this varies very much from campus to campus. After all, some are more rarified than others, and you’d think that using first names would then create a rather exclusive sense of intimacy.

In related musings: Isn’t it funny how we refer to published authors sometimes just by their last name (more academic), sometimes by their full first and last name (more popular), and sometimes – for example if they are present and we’re in a discussion among peers – just by their first name?

And what about the many strategies we use to avoid using names altogether to cover up the fact we’ve forgotten them?


5 Responses

  1. I’ve had some really great responses via email, Facebook, our book wiki, twitter, and if I’m lucky, some will show up here, so I don’t want to preempt anything. The challenge, really, seems to be to learn to deal with uncertainty and complexity rather than assuming informality as the default “in the English-speaking world” (which we do way too much in ELT!). Wherever you look, it all comes down to cultural diversity, with students and teachers at our increasingly global colleges conforming to the local culture to a certain extent, yet establishing agreement on their own, and adjusting to any distance that takes them from the cultural expectations they bring along. It may sound banal, but it really isn’t at all. It’s like they say: You learn many things at college that aren’t written into the curriculum – especially if you go abroad!

  2. Interesting topic Anne.

    Like you say, there are a number of factors that may influence the choice of how students refer to professors in an academic environment. I agree it would seem rather strange as a student refering to a professor/calling a professor by his/her first name in their company. A lot depends on how formal the situation feels and how well aquainted you are with the professor. In my experience as a student in a UK university 10 years ago I would normally have referred to the professor as Mr/Miss/Mrs X in a three way conversation where they are present. In a two way conversation I would probably try to get their attention without using their name, saying something such as, “excuse me” and not using their name at all the in conversation.


  3. Hi Jon,
    Thanks for your confirmation that students might refer to the professor differently depending on the formality or informality of the setting. There are so many nuances, then, aren’t there? I interviewed a student yesterday who just back from India and told me they addressed their professors as “sir” or “madam”.
    Here in Germany, students back in the 80s made a point of saying “Herr ABC” rather than “Professor ABC” or “Dr. ABC”, unless they were students of law or business economics, and more conservative than the run-of-the-mill student.
    A second student told me yesterday that she had a professor who used to joke about the way students were addressing him: If they wrote an email to “Mr”, they didn’t want anything in particular; if they write to him as “Dr.”, there was a request; and “Professor” meant they wanted him to do them a big favor.

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