A Humble Proposal

A Humble Proposal September 4, 2013

At the beginning of each semester, I ask my students to call me David, not Dr. Swartz. Part of the reason I ask them to use my first name is because my religious tradition trained me that way. Raised a Mennonite and nurtured on the language of the “priesthood of all believers,” we never called our preachers “Reverend” but instead addressed them by their first name. We didn’t balk at titles of endearment (like Schnookums), mostly just those of hierarchy.

There is a pedagogical reason as well. I want to create an environment of collaboration. Sure, I know more history than my students, and sometimes (!) I even lecture. But getting them to talk back encourages them to think empathetically, process narratives critically, and view history as an interpretive, not a factual, project. I want my students to see me as an intellectual guide more than an all-knowing god. More than once, I’ve observed students who seemed comfortable in their own skin move suddenly to obsequiousness when I’m introduced as “Dr. Swartz.” It seems to shut down conversations.

Pop sociologist Malcolm Gladwell has written about the potential dangers posed by deference to authority. In fact, he devoted an entire chapter of his book Outliers to this phenomenon in trying to explain the dismal record of Korean Air in the 1990s. Numerous times co-pilots, who were taught to be incredibly deferential toward their superiors, did not correct a pilot in error, which resulted in crashes. He cited the Wall Street Journal, which contended that at least one crash “involved Korea’s authoritarian culture, reflected in a hiring and promotion policy that favors former military fliers over civilians. Too often, the effect has been friction that hampers the pilot teamwork needed to fly Western-built jets.” This example is perhaps overdramatic, but it does point to how hierarchy can impede real dialogue.

There is also the biblical case against titles. The trajectory of Scripture heads in an egalitarian direction, from a set-apart class of religious leaders to a priesthood of all believers who are instructed to use the non-hierarchical terms “brother” and “sister” when addressing co-religionists. This is a compelling argument to students at the Wesleyan college I teach at, at least the ones who aren’t Anglican.

Not all of my students—especially those from the Deep South who were reared to use titles as a sign of respect—can bring themselves to call me by my first name. (Christine Heyrman is helpful in understanding why.) But most of them, especially the blue-collar staff on campus and the large numbers of students who come from lower-middle class homes in the North and Appalachia, grow to really like it. They use my first name tentatively at first—and then enthusiastically as they become more comfortable and invested in classroom discussions.

After six long years in a doctoral program, I remember the minor thrill of being called Dr. Swartz by my first students. To be sure, the Ph.D. was an important marker of my intellectual growth and professional development. But was it really necessary to remind students of my credential every. single. time. they addressed me? About two years in, after the thrill of my new credential wore off, I decided that I would try to strengthen my professorial identity with a little less hierarchy and ego—and a little more emphasis on scholarly rigor and creative teaching. I think my classroom is more engaged and humane as a result.

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  • Jonathan Swartz

    Really appreciative of your comments here David. Getting rid of the titles (and the inherent hierarchy in them) I think actually helps students to see their profs as real people, people who have the same strange thoughts that they do from time to time, people who worry about water leaking into their basements, how their kids are doing at school, etc. This helps to create the collaborative learning environment that you speak of here. Seeing profs as real people I think actually helps me to WANT to learn from them (the investment that you speak of above).

    Have you experimented with collaborative grading yet?

  • This is also very important here in Honduras where I’m involved in a Catholic parish. Deferring to authority is not only part of much of the Catholic culture here, but it’s especially ingrained by the Honduran culture which is very classist and which looks down upon people in the countryside who normally have little formal schooling. And so i have to do some interesting things to undermine the “deference” to a 66 year old gringo. So in introducing ourselves I suggested that we each mention an animal with the same initial sound as our names. I introduced myself as Juancito Jolote – Juancito being the diminutive form of Juan (John) and jolote being the name for a turkey, but often used in the sense of “you turkey.” Laughs abounded.

  • davidrswartz

    Fascinating–thanks for the great story!

  • davidrswartz

    Great thoughts, Jon. I remember thinking of my undergrad profs as somehow floating above earthly concerns. It felt weird to think of them taking out the garbage or sweating while working out–and slightly awkward when I actually encountered one of them buying cereal at the grocery store. But every personal interaction somehow heightened the classroom experience.

  • alturpin

    Provocative piece, David! Out of curiosity, have you seen this technique work equally well for young female professors? I know there is some hesitation among this demographic that forgoing titles/dressing more casually/etc. would lessen student respect in a way that it would not do for men. Thoughts?

  • davidrswartz

    Andrea, that’s a great question, one I thought of while writing this (but obviously didn’t address in the piece). There’s an interesting discussion (and stories) on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/heath.carter.7/posts/10200949822361100?comment_id=5628758&notif_t=like
    As I said there, I’m definitely benefiting from the wages of whiteness and maleness.

  • alturpin

    Thanks, David. I somehow missed that on my facebook feed!