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Manner of address

Take the following scenario: you walk into class on the first day, meet your professor, make some friends, get the syllabus. You know what your professor expects, you know the books to buy, and you’re beginning to take notes; nothing stands in your way and you’re all set to dive into the course.

It might happen a day later, a week later, or longer depending on when you first feel the need to approach your professor with a question: you realize that you have no idea how to address your instructor. The idea may seem rather silly at first, but for many students the dilemma causes them to feel fairly awkward when they finally notice that their professor has never specified how they would like to be addressed. Consider attempting to compose an email to a professor, only to be stumped before even typing out a greeting. Should it be formal, or have a more casual tone? What if there is already a relationship with the professor; does that dictate the formality? Do you use a title if your instructor is a T.A.?

Unlike in grade school, where every teacher is called Mr. or Ms., in university there are no set rules defining how a student should address their professor. This allows for a bit of flexibility, since some instructors prefer to be called by their first name, others with the “professor” or “doctor” title. Outside of the classroom, it is easy to find a name to refer to a professor, and often only the last name is used for the sake of simplicity.

But a student would not be able to call their professor by only their last name, in the same manner that they might call their buddy by his or her last name – in most cases – so, let us return to this issue of feeling uncomfortable about searching for a name for a professor.

Usually, the name that your professor prefers his or her students to use is quite clear. On the first day of class, they will likely specify how they would like to be addressed. In this case, knowing what to call your professor is easy. But perhaps you take a distance course and your interaction with your professor is limited to e-mails. In this situation, the name with which your professor signs their email should indicate the level of formality they prefer. If it is still unclear, you can often determine how to address your professor if you notice their level of education. Whether they have a doctorate or master’s degree could indicate the address you should use.

Aside from the title that the professor prefers, some students may have their own preferences when talking to or addressing their instructor. Some students may simply feel more comfortable using the more formal “doctor” or “professor”, and will stick with those, even if the professor has invited students to use his or her first name. Preferring to go the route of the more formal is safer than assuming that your professor is alright with the informal.

In a French course in my first year when it became evident that our professor didn’t plan on specifying her title, a female student saved us all some grief when she raised her hand to ask our professor how she would like us to address her. “Oh, docteur,” she pleasantly replied. “Oui madame.” Problem solved.

So, if you are unsure about how to address your instructor, whether you are meeting them after class or firing an e-mail their way, simply ask them what they prefer. And when in doubt, stick with the more formal “professor.”