In Defense of Mr. and Ms. So-and-So
Over at Prawfs, Jay Wexler confesses that early on his “Doofus-Prevention System” caused him to give up on calling students by their last names. My own DPS being considerably less developed, I actually call all of my students by their last names, at least in class. Of course, the sad truth is that I am really bad at remembering names of all kinds, and I regularly screw-up even my own students’ last names. I had been married for several years before I was able to sort out all of the names in my wife’s extended family. I am still working on all of the names in my own. Given that some sizable proportion of the male law student population is named “Matt” I might be better off simply dispensing with last names entirely. Still, I keep last names because I actually think that there is some pedagogical and social value to formality.
In part this is probably simple insecurity. I arrived at William & Mary the summer before my first semester teaching, and after I had been at the school for several weeks one of my deans confessed that she had seen me around the building and thought that I was a student. More recently, a 1L who was working the reference desk in the library tried to keep me from using the faculty copier because, he informed me, “those are only for professors.” His look of horror when I informed him that I was a professor was priceless, although come to think of it, I don’t actually know if the horror was caused by his own faux-pas or the knowledge that he was at an institution that would let me be a professor. I console myself with the knowledge that many of my senior colleagues would love to be mistaken for students.
I do think, however, that a little formality does more than provide a security blanket for the gravitas-challenged like myself. I’m not a hard-core curmudgeon on this, but I do think that there is real value in carving off the class room as a social space where students are encouraged to see themselves as playing a certain role. I believe in being friendly with students, but I also want them to feel like when they are in my class we are engaged in something more than friendly banter. I am mindful, of course, that the detailed discussions of the UCC or the doctrine of consideration may be sufficient to signal this without insisting on calling students Ms. So-and-So, but I still think that a bit of formality is a useful reminder. Finally, I think that addressing students by their last names with a Mr. or Ms. attached encourages them to think of themselves as adults engaged in an adult enterprise. More importantly, it is part of how I signal to them that I think of them as grown-ups embarked upon a profession rather than kids involved in the great and fun-filled hiatus between high school and grown-up-dom of undergraduate education.