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Friday, May 7, 2010

Compliment, disrespect, or just "these kids these days"?

For those who don't know me personally, and haven't figured it out from my name, I am a Japanese-American woman. I'm closer to forty than to thirty but because of my genes, I look a lot younger than I am. So it's not uncommon, when people find out what I do, for the response to be something along the lines of, "Gee, you look more like a student than a professor!" It took me a long time to not be offended by this. I realize that most people consider it a compliment, that they are saying I look much younger than they now realize I must be, but no matter how many times I hear it, it's hard not to think that they are saying something about more than just my youthful looks. It feels like they are saying that I'm somehow not a "real" professor because I just don't look the part. And of course, when these comments come from students, I immediately worry that if they think I don't look like a professor, then they won't treat me like a professor and give me the appropriate respect.

This was a huge worry of mine in graduate school but I assumed/hoped it would simply get better with time. But I'm thinking about this today because I just happened to hear the "you don't look like a professor" comment, or variants thereof, from three different people in as many days this week (hmmm, now that I put that into writing, I'm thinking: maybe I'm just having a particularly good week?:-)). But on top of that - and this really is the real crux of my issue - I had a student who came to see me twice this week, for undergraduate advising, who kept calling me Jennifer. Now, I almost never have this problem with undergrads because if they are in one of my classes, they hear me say on the first day that they should call me Dr. or Professor Imazeki (and I spell it out phonetically for them), and I make it a point to sign my emails 'Professor Imazeki'. But this student only came to me in my role as an undergraduate advisor. Perhaps he doesn't realize that department advisors are professors (I know he had already talked to our central advising office, which is staffed with, well, staff, not faculty), but at the very least, he could have addressed me as Ms. Imazeki. I felt like it would be too obnoxious for me to ask him to call me Dr. or Professor, but really, every time he said Jennifer, I wanted to shake him and ask him who the heck said he could call me Jennifer?

I know I'm extra-sensitive about it. And the reality is that with one exception, I haven't actually had any students who treated me directly with disrespect (other than the usual stuff like falling asleep in class) or who have tried to take advantage of what they think is my youth. I think I have to partly credit that to my mother and aunts who have perfected that attitude and tone of voice that instantly communicates "don't mess me with me, young man/woman", which I think I learned by osmosis... And I know that lots of students call other professors by their first name (or, as a colleague mentioned, by just their last name, without even a 'Mr' in front), and that I should be happy that at least some students like me more because I seem young. Or maybe if I stop dying my hair, I won't have this problem...

[Update: I wrote this last night and specifically avoided saying anything about my gender being part of the reason that people think I don't "look like a professor" (I happen to think it IS a part of it but figured I'd just focus on the "young" aspect), but this morning, a colleague happened to point me to this article in the Chronicle. Ugh.]


  1. I've also noticed an increase in the number of students who address me by my first name...and I'm male, 62 (and look older--imagine Santa Claus, but not so ruddy in complection). I discourage it, because I find it valuable to maintain a considerable social distance between myself and my students. (Makes it easier when I have to be the bad guy, frankly.)

    I've also noticed that the students most likely to use my first name fall into two groups--the oldest cohort of students (we have a fair number in their late 40s and up) and the youngest (just out of high school). In speaking some with igh scholl econ teachers, I discover that the use of first names by high school students when speaing with their high school teachers is becomeing relatively common. Which may be a partial explanation...

  2. There's a cultural component here, of course. I grew up in South Carolina, and it never occurred to me to refer to my K12 teachers or college professors by their first names. Later, I taught college in the Northeast and found that many of my students wanted to call me by my first name. That was the standard practice at my institution, but it didn't seem natural to me. I was very clear with my students what I wanted them to call me, but I had a couple of students who kept using my first name in their emails to me.

  3. @Doc: Wow, I hadn't even thought about what's going on in high schools - I would NEVER have called any of my high school teachers by their first names! But that's good to know...
    @Derek: I have wondered if the fact that I'm in California has anything to do with it. It's a cliche but things ARE more laid back out here. I guess what both these comments are telling me is that I should probably not take any of this personally...

  4. As I say, I'm 62. And I still call my college debate coach "Dr. Weiss." Somehow unable to call him "Bob," although he has told me I should.

    My undergrad adviser (in econ), however, is Ralph, and has been since the mid-to-late 1970s.


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