Hey, Doc Johnson. How should I address you?

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“Hey, Doc Johnson. How should I address you?” So began an e-mail from a student this semester, who was unsure about how to write to, or speak to, her instructor. And for good reason. We at Marquette have no official guide on how to address the faculty who teach students. The students know one thing: they are students, and the person talking to them in front of the chalkboard is the teacher. How does a student address that teacher?

The plain fact is that instructors teach, grade, and assign final grades to the student, and their personal standing within their discipline does not affect the undergraduate student in any way. An august professor of thirty years, and a graduate student working on a doctoral dissertation, teach, grade, and assign grades to an undergraduate’s transcript, grades that remain forever. So a full professor (to use our lexicon) and an ABD (all-but-dissertation graduate student) function at the same level as far as the student is concerned.

But then there are the courtesies necessary to living well in daily life. As a child I was trained by my parents to answer the telephone: “Johnson’s residence. Mark Johnson here. May I help you?” Formalities may seem wooden, but they have the benefit of indicating who is doing the talking or asking, and who is doing the answering. “May I help you?”

So when it comes to addressing one’s instructor, how should one proceed? Here is a suggestion.

While from the student’s point of view there is one way to think of their instructor, from the perspective of the attainments and status of the instructor there is a straight-forward difference that results in two options: has the person who is teaching them earned their doctoral degree or not? If the person has obtained that degree, then they are a ‘PhD,’ a ‘doctor.’ “Doctor Johnson, I have a question about Tuesday’s assignment.”

If they have not yet attained it they are a ‘professor’ in the classroom: “Professor Smith, how long does our first paper need to be?”

So there you have it: if the person has a PhD then they are a ‘doctor,’ and otherwise they are ‘professor.’ ‘Nuf said.