Suitable address

Casual wear is not inimical to seriousness, Sue Norton says, but formal titles do have their pedagogical merits

November 1, 2012

Not long ago, I watched a current affairs talk show on which a member of the Irish parliament argued against a dress code for him and his fellow lawmakers in Dáil Éirann.

Teachta Dála Luke "Ming" Flanagan, who sits as an independent, said that what he and other TDs are wearing is the "least important of matters" given the dire state of the country. His clothing has no bearing whatsoever on the job that he is doing, he pointed out. He suggested that seriousness of purpose is not reflected in his attire. Indeed, a cavalier approach to government business, he implied, could be more easily concealed inside a business suit.

Flanagan and other allegedly underdressed Irish TDs would not look at all out of place where I work. In fact, the tieless, buttoned-down shirts they tend to wear might mark them as a little overdressed in the corridors of my academic institution - where, I hasten to add, we are entirely serious of purpose. Although some of us are dressed smartly and others casually, we are intent on the education of our students.

I accept, however, that clothing signifies. For higher education professionals, casual clothing seems to signify that no one is here to put on airs; we are here to knuckle down and help our students learn.

I have been teaching for a long time, and I feel that my students take me no more or less seriously depending on what I am wearing. But I am becoming concerned that increasing numbers of students are not taking themselves seriously as learners. And sometimes I wonder if this lack of seriousness would be partly reversed if we stopped operating on a first-name basis.

Unlike clothing - the meanings of which run on connotation - titles and appellations run on denotation. While an onlooker could be forgiven for gaining the impression that Flanagan is casual about his office, everyone knows that when he addresses the Taoiseach, he respects the position. I am glad that ministers are addressed as "Ministers": the formality helps to emphasise the importance of the role. Did Tony Blair, in famously wanting to be addressed as Tony, subconsciously wish to dilute responsibility?

I teach English studies, and when I am in the classroom with my students, I want them to apply themselves to the written word like scribal monks. They can be joyful monks in jeans, if they like, but I don't want them to get the impression that we are all peers here. They call me Sue because there is a culture in the Republic of Ireland (unlike in the US, where I hail from) of undergraduate students addressing their lecturers by their first names.

I appreciate the reasoning behind the practice. As I heard one colleague explain recently to incoming first-year students, "This isn't secondary school. You are adults now. We don't deal with your parents, we deal with you. You call us by our first names because you are meant to be maturely meeting your learning aims."

She is entirely right, of course.

But if I decide, at some point, to have my students address me more formally, I will not have done so because I believe that they are adolescent and I am a grown-up. I will have done so because I want them to immediately grasp that there is a knowledge gap between them and me. I want them to trust, from the start, that I and their other lecturers have refined points of view about our subject matters, and our students need to rise to certain challenges. This ain't no party; this ain't no disco. I am not just another face in the crowd.

I call my GP "doctor". She knows so much more than I do about the physical well-being of me and my family. She calls me Sue. If she ever wants me to help her with her sentence structure or to analyse a text, maybe she will address me formally too.

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