Don’t Call Me ‘Sir’

Upon arrival at university, one of the first things you probably realise you’ve never thought about is how to address your tutors, lecturers, seminar leaders and the other academic staff with whom you come into contact. ‘Miss’ and ‘Sir’ are no longer appropriate, in line with a fundamental shift in what teachers and students expect of each other – the ‘independent learning’ that Birmingham University students are talking about in this video. So what is the correct form of address?

The first thing to say is that, especially in written communications such as emails, you should address them. Simply starting an email with “Hi!” or worse still “Hey!” or even “Yo!” is too informal, certainly until you know them much better. It suggests a lack of respect, but more importantly it makes it appear you’re not taking the situation seriously. So you should address them, but how? Unhelpfully, there is no one answer.

Personally, I’m happy to be addressed by my first name and many others feel the same. However, that is by no means true for everyone. The safest option is to address the teaching staff formally, at least on first contact. Annoyingly, there isn’t one formal form of address that covers everyone, but if in doubt the safest option is Dr Bloggs. There will be some professors who expect you to address them as such, so if you notice they are Professor Bloggs then begin by addressing them that way. (This is, of course, specific to the British system where the title of Professor is reserved for the Chair in a subject.) On the other end, there will be some teaching staff without a PhD – perhaps postgraduate teaching assistants working on their doctorate – who are still Mr or Ms. But if in doubt, use Dr. This way the worst case scenario is that you’ve promoted your tutor, if you use Mr or Ms then you run the risk of demoting them. Personally, I pretend not to mind being addressed as Mr, whereas I happily laugh off being called Professor (more often now by my dad, who seems to have adopted this as an affectionate greeting).

Having my students address me by my first name is what social anthropologist Kate Fox calls polite egalitarianism – the way we say “thank you” to those serving us in shops, pretending we’re on an equal social footing when we’re clearly not. In her book Watching the English she says that’s how we cope with otherwise awkward situations. In the university setting, of course, the tutor and the student are not equals in many respects. But intellectually we are. The difference, by and large, is not one of intellect but of knowledge – simply a matter of having a head start. Being on first name terms offers the pretence that there is no difference, and in doing so makes it easier to narrow the gap. And that is what university is, or at least should be, all about.

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