Dr. Crazy had an interesting post the other day which has generated some conversation about terms of address between professors and students, and persona in e-mail and in class. It's got me thinking a bit about a sort of creepy moment in my last class period. A (male) student was doing a poster presentation on the history of some obscene terms (a project that appears about every other year--usually in this course someone wants to write about the history of slang, and on and off people are interested in the history of obscenity. The topic is actually a pretty interesting one and totally appropriate for the course). The presentation was OK; I've not read the paper yet but it sounds like the only really substantive research he did was in a book I recommended to him, and the rest of his work was on the web (I may be wrong here, but if his research was stronger it wasn't coming out in the presentation). Part of the poster had a list of phrases for sex, and as part of his presentation he ran through them, which generated a fair bit of giggling. Not the world's greatest use of presentation time, but ok. Then he said "She [i.e., me] helped me a lot." This led to more giggles from the group of (presumably straight) men who had sat together on one side of the room all term. "Not in a hands on way," the student said, "but with this book she told me about." I felt my cheeks vaguely flushing, although the moment passed quickly and then other students did have some good questions to ask about etymology and the social history of language taboos.
But still, the moment felt weird. It's the only time in the classroom I thought students were having a slightly sexual moment of humor remotely involving me. And in a weird way, what bothers me more is the student's phrasing: She helped me a lot. It's the last week of classes, and he's not using my name.
The conversation at Dr. Crazy's, which was started on another topic, has included some discussion of the importance of formality. I have gotten more formal as a professor as I've moved on in my career--I still believe passionately in a decentered classroom, but I have found as a woman the title of Dr. or Professor often helps me gain or keep authority (which I can then deploy to decenter things). It also helps convey to students that I have a PhD (which not all their teachers do) and I want them to know I spend time studying and researching and learning things in my discipline. I put Dr. Granola on my syllabus, but I tell students that they can call me Dr. Granola, or Crunchy, but not Mrs. Granola. With my first-year students, in a small thematic community that developed a pretty informal ethos very quickly, I started signing my e-mails Dr. G. and that became a form of address (one student calls me Crunchy, which is fine, but all the rest call me Dr. Granola or Dr. G.) In my upper level class, I verbally delivered the same message, but tended to sign my e-mails "Crunchy Granola" which elides the what-should-you-call-me question (although most students have called me "Professor Granola" or Dr. Granola with the occasional Crunchy mixed in. And really, they have been a respectful group all term long.
But it bugged me, the anonynimtiy of She helped me a lot. On the last day of classes, with a student I've had a couple of conferences with, answered questions about the upcoming teacher liscensing exam, I just felt like I deserved more. And the laughter associated with the (totally unintended) comment about my help just made it all feel creepy.
So I'm trying to decide whether I'm incredibly insightful or incredibly oversensitive.