When I was a freshman, I called my professors Professor. Not, I hasten to say, just plain Professor: Lawrence Rainey was Professor Rainey, Stanley Insler was Professor Insler and so on. It jars me that many students these days use the term as a form of address on its own, writing or calling out “Dear Professor” or “Hi, Professor” rather than “Dear Professor Insler” or “Hi, Professor Rainey.” When people say to me, “Hi, Professor,” I sometimes respond, “Hi, Student”; unfortunately, only I seem to find this funny.
Undergraduates are by and large expected to call their professors Professor as a mark of respect, though some professors don’t do much to earn that respect while a few others manage to earn it in great measure despite being on an easy first-name basis even with freshmen. As for graduate students, casual observation over the years suggests that departments differ in level of formality, though first names are the norm among the folks I see every day. Most, but not all, of the Ph.D. candidates in classics call most, but not all, of my colleagues in East Pyne by first name. The question is, how does one move from calling Yelena Baraz Professor Baraz to calling her Yelena? Is there a secret initiation the day you receive your diploma? Obviously not.
I can’t speak for Professor Baraz — whom I call Yelena since that’s what colleagues and friends do — but there are people who insist on calling me Professor Katz long after they have graduated and others who call me Joshua long before they are entitled to do so. In the past month, for example, I have, to my amusement, received notes to Professor Katz from old students of mine who walked through FitzRandolph Gate in what was still the 20th century; they are somewhat older now than I was when I taught them. But to my chagrin, I have also received notes to Joshua from members of the Class of 2013 I barely know. Many finesse the issue by calling me JTK, which I consider a solution both practical and aesthetic.
The name game can be hard to play. Back in our rooms, my classmates and I in those early days of college would tell stories about Rainey (never Lawrence) and Stanley (never Insler) — well before we dared address either one face to face with an untitled name. But at a certain point, professors become friends — or at least that was generally my happy experience — and there was a thrill to being an undergraduate and holding privileged invitations from the professors themselves to call Lawrence Lawrence and Stanley Stanley.
And now that I am a professor? I don’t know whether it thrills any students at Princeton to call me Joshua, but if you have taken two or three courses with me, done really well and hung out with me over meals at Forbes, or if you are a senior applying for fellowships and we’ve drunk a dozen cups of coffee together at Small World, then chances are that you should stop calling me Professor Katz. Because it amuses me to see how people react, I tend to make the move toward intimacy obliquely, in the first place by signing off on e-mails as J. rather than my usual JTK. (By giving this away, I end an unscientific experiment I have been conducting for nearly a decade.)
What you must never do is call me Dr. Katz. Yes, I hold a doctorate. Yes, there are many universities in the country at which Doctor is in fact the preferred appellation for faculty. And no, it’s not a snob thing. (Not so long ago, it was considered vulgar to have a Ph.D., and students and teachers routinely addressed each other as Mister. Of course even now a very few very special people are so brilliant that they reach the academy’s highest tower without having a regular doctorate: Peter Brown and Joyce Carol Oates come to mind.) The problem, in short, is that Dr. Katz makes me sound like your psychiatrist. Which I am not.
I’d also rather you didn’t call me Josh, though many more people do say this rather than Joshua. (The following conversational exchange takes place just about every week: JTK — “Hi, I’m Joshua”; Interlocutor — “Great to meet you, Josh!”) The possible phonological and sociological reasons for the success of the shortened name will not fit into this column. But one thing is clear: The better you know your professors, the better your experience in college will be — and the more likely it is that you will end up calling us Lawrence, Stanley and Josh(ua).
Joshua Katz, a professor in the Department of Classics and a Forbes faculty adviser, received the moniker Zak from the students in his freshman seminar last semester. He can be reached at email@example.com.