Preferred Name Dilemma

I use students’ preferred names full stop. This post is not about whether I should or will use someone’s preferred name. I do and will continue to do so. Instead, I invite you to the messy middle of something I’ve been thinking about for quite some time: Do I have a preferred name? Do I prefer for students to call me Leslie or Dr. Gates?

The university where I work has a preferred name policy that allows students to change their legal name to a name of record for university purposes. Each class I teach typically starts with me and the students introducing themselves to each other. Part of this introduction usually includes us telling one another what we prefer to be called. I have recently told students that they can call me Leslie or Dr. Gates, whichever is more comfortable to them.

I’ve started to actually wonder if I prefer one or the other. I’ve always deferred rather than preferred on this issue. That is, I’ve deferred to what is most comfortable for my students. I have recently wondered what that deference might be modeling.

I wonder this, in part, because a student of mine anglicized her name after her classmates struggled to pronounce her birth name correctly. That is, she changed her name based on the comfort of classmates who struggled or were uncommitted to do the work to pronounce her name correctly. Her decision might also be described as deference. To be honest, her decision made me sad because I think pronouncing people’s names correctly is so important. Her decision stands, regardless of how I feel about it.

I have given my students a choice about how to address me because I think there are decent rationales for using both my first name and my formal title.

  • There are 12 full time professors in the department where I work. Ten of my colleagues have earned MFAs as their terminal degree, not doctorates, and so the culture in our department has been to address the studio faculty by their first names. I’m not a studio faculty member, but do work in the department in which art education students spend the most time, and where there is a first name culture. Call me Leslie.
  • My PhD is something I sacrificed for, earned, and am proud of. Being a first generation college student who earned a PhD and is now working in academe models something significant for my first gen students. Call me Dr. Gates.
  • Some teachers make a deliberate choice to use their first name with students. Neal Brown noted that this practice is values-driven, especially in schools that seek to “break down unproductive barriers and to engender mutual respect between adults and students.” I do care about this. Call me Leslie.
  • Art education students move back and forth between the art department and courses and clinical experience within the College of Education. There, the culture is to address faculty by their titles, and students hear faculty refer to me as Dr. Gates. Maybe I should get them used to this culture instead, which is also the predominant culture in K-12 schools where most will end up working. Call me Dr. Gates.
  • I have quite a few students who have transitioned from undergraduate students, to graduate students and/or colleagues in local schools who host the undergraduates in the program. Some have become friends, have invited me to their weddings, or regularly text me photos of funny things that happen in their classrooms. (I LOVE YOU FOLKS!) At what point do I go from being Dr. Gates to Leslie? Call me Leslie.
  • There is a tendency for students to expect female professors to be nurturing. I’ll spare you the stories of some of the ways I’ve experienced this. Perhaps a title does professionalize my role a bit more in ways that could be a helpful reminder to students that I am not their mother or friend. Call me Dr. Gates.

Here’s the thing about each of these ideas: they are all still focused on what is easier or best for students and not what I want. I am wired for deference (and am not prepared to pay each of you a co-pay to process why this might be). Considering what’s best for my students is not bad; having students’ needs at the center of one’s decision-making is a hallmark of a great teacher. Yet I’m also wondering whether, by letting students choose how to address me, I might be modeling “sacrifice what you want based on what everyone else prefers until you don’t even know your own preferences.”