A Humble Proposal

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.

*** Cross-posted at the Anxious Bench ***

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