A Guide to Modern Manners, by Mistress Historiann

Recently, Nancy Gibbs claimed in Time that true liberation is not caring what people call you, Miss, Ms., or Mrs.:

Whether my children’s friends call me Ms. Gibbs or Mrs. May or any combination of the two, I view it as a sign of respect and don’t worry about the particulars. My husband never remotely suggested that he was bothered by my not taking his name; in fact, he’s accustomed to occasionally answering to Mr. Gibbs. My late father, a fine writer, thrilled to see that name in the pages of this magazine. All these identities are me: Ms. when I’m out slaying dragons, Mrs. when I’m in the company of those I love most, Miss when I want to stay home under the covers and daydream. Feminists a generation ago fought for the title and dreamed of Freedom and Choice and Opportunity; maybe the surest sign that they’ve won is not which title we pick, but that we can have them all at once.


Historiann knows best!

(Don’t you just love those lectures about how feminists in the dreary, ideologically rigid Soviet-era of feminism got it so very wrong?  Me neither.)  Salon’s Judy Berman begs to differ too, noting the position of heteronormative married and maternal privilege from which Gibbs writes that “As a (potentially permanently) unmarried woman,” she doesn’t have access to “Mrs.,” and may never.  “And even if I were, the title’s connotations — that I was someone’s counterpart, that I had taken my husband’s name — would get to me.  The problems with ‘Miss’ are the same as its advantages: Just as it conveys youth and freedom, it also suggests inexperience. On a very basic level, it feels diminutive.”  She concludes:  “As long as we still have ‘Mrs.’ and ‘Miss,’ then ‘Ms.’ will never be the same as ‘Mr.'”

The early Americanist in me wants to remind everyone that these are just abbreviations for “Master” and “Mistress,” and that “Mrs.” was a term applied to women on the basis of family status, not marital status.  (My students always find it freaky to see a baby or a young child referred to as “Mrs.” in primary sources, as they occasionally were in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.)  Wouldn’t that put a fun spin on social relations if everyone starting addressing everyone else as “Master” or “Mistress?”  Would-be language purists who think they’re standing up for a timeless tradition should keep this in mind–“Mrs.” and “Miss” are thoroughly modern innovations.

I’ve never heard a male colleague of mine complain about what his students call him, but this is a matter of constant frustration for many of my women colleagues, especially those who are unmarried and/or non-heterosexualists, who understandably really hate being called “Mrs.”  Because I am a married heterosexualist who’s just happy to be addressed by a student by something other than “Hey, dude,” it doesn’t bother me as much to be called “Mrs.” or “Miss Historiann.”  (Come to think of it, I have only very rarely been addressed as “Ms. Historiann.”)  I invite graduate students to call me “Historiann,” but I prefer to keep undergraduates at arms-length with my surname only, and never even put my first name on the syllabi, just “Prof. Historiann.”  (I also answer to Dr. Historiann, although I prefer “Professor.”)  I was more sensitive about this issue when I was younger, so this is an age thing as well as a marital status/sexuality issue and a gender issue.  Now I’m closer to my students’ parents’ ages than to their ages! 

In my experience, a kind correction is all it takes–Baa Ram U. students tend to be pretty polite and deferential in e-mails and office hours.  And after all, part of our job is to teach them how to “do” college; many of our first-year students have probably never met anyone with a Ph.D., and their most recent experience of education–high school–was probably a place where teachers were called “Mrs.,” “Miss,” “Ms.,” or “Mr.”  I take it as a sign of respect if students use an honorific and a surname, even if they don’t get it right the first time. 

I can only remember one time when a student refused to call me by my preferred name and title.  Ironically, it was in a voluntary campus discussion about gender dynamics in the classroom.  Some of the women faculty who were there–actually, as I recall it was only women faculty who attended–were talking about the name and titles issue, and a very self-confident Sophomore man spoke up and informed all of us that he preferred to call us by our first names, because he was a Theater major, and in his department all of the faculty ask undergraduates to call them by their first names.  Therefore, he explained, it’s just so much more comfortable and conducive to learning if he calls all professors by their first names, no matter what their preference is.  Now, isn’t that just so special?  Fortunately, that guy never took a class with me. 

What do your students call you?  What do you prefer?  I wonder if those of you who teach at tony liberal arts colleges and fancy universities get more students assuming a familiar tone with you than those of us at the local A & Ms, community colleges, and Big State Unis?  That would be my guess, anyway.

0 thoughts on “A Guide to Modern Manners, by Mistress Historiann

  1. My department is split in their preferences on this. Several times I’ve had a student write to hir entire committee: “Dear Ruth, Jane, Professor X, and Professor Y,” and I’ve had to sit hir down for a little talk about context.

    Wait, Ruth, sit *me* down. How does one handle that, as a student? (Also, as a professor, how do I handle addressing an email sent to student and student’s other professors?)

    Julia: (We need to come up with a formal title for people with Master’s degrees…)

    I would consider that all people teaching a college class are entitled to “professor”, even if they are not doctor/phd.

    By the way—I do put my first name on my syllabus. But since my students can’t reliably pronounce it, I am de facto protected from mis-addressment in person. Not in email, though. But I have “call me Professor Laughter, please” on my online syllabus, and will remind students via email when necessary.


  2. Dance, I would suggest addressing a group by treating them all the same. If I were sending an e-mail to a group of my peers, and I had never met some of them, I would call them all Professor.

    If I write to a student and other professors, I would tend to use all first names, unless it was an official communication, in which I would say “Dear Ms. Student and Dr. Advisor . . . “


  3. Pingback: Best books of 2009: No girl writers allowed! : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

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