Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Nominal Hierarchy

When I first started out as a professor (all of 18.5 months ago), I was tormented by indecision over how to sign my emails. At Field, we're pretty hierarchical, so it is standard for students to call me Dr. Mihi; however, I wasn't really comfortable actually signing that. It seemed pretentious. So I started doing what my undergrad advisor did--and which I found so maddening--and using my initials.

But then I wasn't really pleased with that, because after a while I felt a lot more comfortable being called "Dr." than I did at first (and a lot less comfortable with "Ms.," "Heu," or--worst--"Mrs." Gah!). So I started occasionally using "Dr. Mihi"; however, that seemed excessive. Finally what I settled on was "H. Mihi."

However, some students became very comfortable with the "HM" in the first semester, including my thesis advisee, with whom I have a good relationship. She actually addresses me as "HM" in her emails. I have no problem with this--but it has caused me to continue signing some emails "HM." In fact, I tend to sign emails to my upper-level classes, and to students who have been in those classes, with just the initials.

Just now I was replying to an email from an absolutely top-notch awesome brilliant student who hasn't taken the upper-levels yet but is still finishing her surveys. I almost signed it "HM"--recognizing as I nearly did so that it was owing to her awesomeness and English-majorness.

But I stopped myself. "H. Mihi" I remain--for now.

However, it made me realize that I have unconsciously established a hierarchy whereby the "in" students get my initials, and the others don't--because, you see, when an upper-level student is out of line or demands some kind of formal response, s/he gets the "H. Mihi": a demotion.

So now I wonder, given how much students chatter (or how much I, as a student, chattered), is it clear from my signature who's "in" and who isn't? Do they notice when I switch signatures on them? What messages am I sending, after all?

And then I think, Wouldn't this mental energy be better spent on something productive, like grading? Or, really, anything other than this line of thinking?

God, I need this vacation. Three more days.


BarbS said...

I solved this issue by using a sig file with my email, that is first name last name, title, school (on three lines). For lower level students or ones I don't know very well, or for "official" mail, I just use that. For those with whom I have a closer relationship, I use my first name, after the message and before my sig file. Students seem to understand that if I use the sig file, they need to address me as Dr.

Dr. Richard Scott Nokes said...

The truth is, the students probably don't notice, and care not at all. Don't worry about sounding pretentious -- if you're over 25 years old and stand before a class professing, you're already an alien creature to them.

Dr. Crazy said...

See, I'd disagree - I suspect that they do notice this, and that they work to make it to HM status. I've been surprised at the ways in which students have scrutinized my behavior and have decided what it meant. That said, I don't think it's bad that they want to be "in" or know that there is an "in." I think that can be motivating for those who notice, and those who don't notice probably don't care one way or the other about how you sign your emails.

Ortho said...

Dear H. Mihi,

The students definitely scrutinize how you sign your emails. They scrutinize how all of their professors close emails. Then, in the campus cafeteria, they talk about email signatures with each other. They compare different signatures, analyze different signatures, and try to establish a meaning for each signature. When some realize that they're not in the "in-crowd" they become depressed and stop working. The "outs" may even become hostile to the "ins" and the instructor.

Be careful with the status system that you're establishing. Status is a touchy subject for teenagers and young 20-somethings.


Fretful Porpentine said...

You know, now that you mention it, I remember being giddily thrilled the first time Freshman Shakespeare Prof signed off with his first name (when I was a second-semester senior who wouldn't be taking any more courses with him, and had just been admitted to grad school). I don't think I worked up the courage to call him by his first name until I was at dissertation stage, but it felt like a nice welcome into the world of grown-up academics.

I don't think it ever occurred to me to scrutinize initials vs. full names vs. first initial and last name, though!

Flavia said...

I don't know that I would have noticed it as an undergrad (though email was rarely used by instructors until my last year or to, so there really wasn't this problem), but I DO know that as a grad student I obsessed over what it meant when my advisor signed her emails with her first name rather than with her initials. I never did decide whether there was a consistent pattern, though I tentatively concluded that it signaled that she was feeling warmly toward me for one reason or another.

Some faculty members in my program (including said advisor) were so relentless with the initials that graduate students took to referring to them, among ourselves, by those initials. I wouldn't be surprised if my students now did the same.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

You know, I *still* scrutinize sign-offs: whenever I e-mail a professor at another university who I've never contacted before, I address them by title. As soon as they send me an e-mail with a first-name sign-off, I consider that permission. So I'm hyper-conscious of all this.

And I, too, do the initials thing.

Here's the maddening thing: My campus e-mail gods only allow me 8 characters. So my e-mail address is "notoriou@blahblah."

And I have some students who address e-mails to "Professor Notoriou." Really.

heu mihi said...

I know that *I* am still hyper-conscious about sign-offs. I think, though, that all of you are at least partly right. The majority of my students (first-year comp students, those who are taking the surveys for gen ed purposes) won't notice or care. And our English majors, who are mostly a bright and charmingly geeky bunch and who tend to take to the English faculty in an equally charming way, probably notice and like being "in" (as most of them are, according to this system). So, therefore, ta da! My accidental hierarchy of nomenclature works!

meredyth said...

Oh god. I've never considered it before and now you've given me a new thing to analyze when I get paralyzed by seeing a professor's response in my inbox. As a grad student I am simultaneous excited to be on a more intimate level with my professors and also terrified that they won't like me or think I'm smart, thereby somehow limiting my chances of getting good references when I apply to fellowships and PhD programs. That being said, I've never noticed a sense of hierarchy according to sign offs. I do however register how friendly the email seems and respond accordingly. Ugh, these petty little things are giving me an ulcer.