University of Utah law professor Shima Baradaran Baughman, who refers to herself with her students as “Professor Baughman.” Or “Prof. B.” in email, has been having a hard time with students addressing her as simply Shima, according to the Wall Street Journal. She's not happy about it. I don't blame her.
Part of that, although in excusably so, may be due to the fact that Baughman, who is in her late 30s, looks like she's in her early 30s or maybe 20s, so she's crowing the apparent age of her students, probably giving them a sense of over-familiarity with her. But more than that, this more likely reflects yet another area where formality has declined.
We've addressed this in other areas, particularly in the decline in professional dress, and in dress in general. Its become undeniable. Entire groups of people who once dressed fairly formally, every day, now no longer do. I'll confess guilt on this recently myself. I'll enter what I guess is a lazy period and dress way down occasionally, and I've been doing that. Not sure why, perhaps just because I've been holed up in my office and perhaps because I'm a bit too tired and lazy recently to put much thought into it. But if it were 1916, or 1966, I would have.
But a trend like this shows that the decline to formality is not just in appearance, it's really in everything. Professor Baughman has noted the same thing.
That's a pretty quick decline in formal speech, just six years.
The article further noted:
Ms. Baughman suspects her classroom experience is part of a larger trend, and one she finds troubling.
“I believe that students call me by my first name because there is a growing movement by professors to allow students to call them by their first name, both in undergrad and in law school,” she writes at PrawfsBlawg.
Based on some of the comments at that Blawg, the concern isn't universal amongst (what I guess are) her colleagues. They aren't worried.
Well, perhaps they ought to be. Professor Baughman is correct in noting this, and in some ways one of the first areas it really turns up seems to be in upper academia. I'm not sure why, but it seems that in more recent years professors have felt a desire to bond more with students, which they probably ought to rethink, and this encourages that. But this certainly isn't limited to academia. It's spread into everything, at least in the United States.
Addressing a person by a first name, not all that long ago, tended to be reserved for people who knew each other at least somewhat informally, or for adults in addressing children. Now, not so much. It has ripples that go out and out. Professor Baughman noted some of these herself, in her blog post, in which she noted:
I wonder what percentage of law professors encourage or allow students to call them by their first name and whether this is a good move. I tend to think that it is not a good development. Here are a couple reasons why:
- Call one professor “Frank”, call them all “Frank.” Some of us prawfs want to keep work life separate from casual life and having a title at work, helps us do that. Some of us feel like we have earned the title of Professor, and feel cool when our students call us that. Others are young (or look young), and the title of Professor may be the only separation they have to distinguish them from their students. Whatever it is, I think that this should be an individual choice that the professor makes. Maybe this can be avoided if professors who like to be called by their first names, warn students that they should not assume that other professors like this and to always ask in advance.
- The Classic Slippery Slope Argument. As far as I understand it, some law firms and definitely judicial chambers are places where judges or partners may not like to assume that interns or new associates or clerks treat them casually. I worry that calling professors by their first name in law school, may lead to false expectation that this is how it is in the legal profession. I actually think the legal profession is one of the few remaining professions where there is a sense of formality in our practice of law. We have to address judges by a certain title (or they will correct you at oral argument), we have to carefully include exact language, color, and formatting on briefs or they are rejected, addressing of opposing counsel and often clients often has to do this by their full name and title. And I believe an awkward situation may arise where a student may call his judge by her first name and it may be seen as a sign of disrespect (And unfortunately, serving on the Judicial Clerkship Committee I have heard these horror stories actually happening). Are we communicating these norms to our students? I worry about this given the growing casual nature of law teaching.
- Casual Nature of Law School. I have noticed in my time teaching that students are getting more casual at law school every year. Where in my first year of teaching, hardly anyone entered the classroom late, brought snacks to eat during class, or wore sweatpants or pajamas to class, these are now regular occurrences. Students have called me on my cell phone regularly (I’m not sure how they have obtained this number) and two students asked me if I could Skype their study group before one of my finals since they had a few extra questions and email responses just didn’t suffice. I regularly am asked if I can review a student’s 40+ page outline to see if there are any mistakes. These are requests I would never have made in law school even if I was paid a large amount of money. I worry that students have an extremely casual view of their professors and calling them by their first names may be exacerbating what I think is an already bigger issue of casual Millennials and respect.
I think she's correct on all of these points, although I'm not sure if she might not be aware of the extent to which this has spread into general society.
The problem is, in general, that people are entitled to respect, and their offices are as well. Some offices, and I'd state that the law, medicine and the teaching profession are amongst them, deserve a certain level of respect even when the occupiers of those offices might not. Addressing the office holder with a first name suggest that there's a true equality of everything in relation to that office, i.e,. I know as much as my doctor. No, frankly, I don't.
That reduction in formality may seem harmless, but at some point it really isn't. If I assume I know as much as my doctor, then my Internet research that leads me to some "doctor" who is practicing holistic nonsense and feeding people extract of gabonzo beans administered with Irish whiskey as a cure for cancer may seem rational. After all, we all know the same amount, right? No, we really don't.
Additionally, the dilution of some level of formality reduces respect for everyone. In school, when I was young, we of course addressed our teachers with their formal titles. At first that was normally "Mrs.", although everyone once and a while there would be the exotic "Miss", usually a student teacher. Later, by junior high there were some who we would of course address as "Mr.", and also the now all but extinct (although I still use it, perhaps alone in the world in these regard) "Ms.", the 1970s marriage neutral title that was supposed to come in and replace "Miss" and "Mrs.". I hear Miss only in schools now. Anyhow, we learned to use those titles at that time, and by extension that level of respect they afforded translated to the older people we met. I can't imagine having addressed people who were my senior by decades as other than their title and last name. They deserved that, no matter what sort of life they may have lead.
While it strays off the point a bit, I will note that I think this situation is worse for women in some ways than for men. I've noted that particularly this election seasons. Hillary Clinton is routinely referred to by her first name. Donald Trump is sometimes as well, but much less often, and sometimes when he is, he's done so in the media title fashion of "The Donald". Like her or not, she's 68 years old and is properly referred to as Hillary Clinton or Mrs. Clinton. "Hillary" isn't the proper way to refer to a 68 year old woman, or a 48 year old one, or a 38 year old one, you don't know.
That may in fact be part of what Professor Baughman is experiencing, I suspect, although she doesn't note it in that fashion. As an attractive young professor, reducing (and that's what it is) her name to Shima is sort of applying a diminutive to her. That ought not to be done.
Anyhow, this blog has long tracked trends of one kind or another and here's a really noticeable one. I don't think when I went through school I ever referred to a teacher by other than his or her title. Even the teacher who lived next store to us, Nancy Messer, whom we came to be friends with, was also Miss Messer. My parents elderly friend Mrs. Reynolds was always Mrs. Reynolds, I have no idea what her name was to this day. I can't say that this change has been a good one.