Better to be feared than loved?

The results of the Uni's student union "I <3 My Academic" competition were announced last week, and the School's very own Dr Ross Parry won for the College of Arts, Humanities and Law! Ross deserves the accolades, as he is a passionate, engaging, and thoughtful academic who always makes sure to provide opportunities for students in the department to take part (often paid, which is a bonus!) in cutting-edge museum research.

But I wouldn't be me if I wasn't a Negative Nancy, and I have a beef with the title of the competition. When the email seeking nominations came through, I rolled my eyes - anything called "I love my academic" belongs on a bumper sticker or a mug (and believe me, I would buy both, if they existed, for the lulz), not in a university. Sure, the point is to reward good teaching and mentorship, but why does it have to be called "I love my academic"? It reduces the complexities of academic teaching and mentoring to a popularity contest.

I have a problem with the use of the word love in this context. At best, feelings between teacher and student should be referred to as lovingkindness or agape, but certainly not love. I don't love my supervisor; she is fantastic, and we are mostly on the same wavelength about things, but I have no feelings of personal huggy-kissy affection for her. Indeed, I think it would be inappropriate if we had a close personal emotional connection; from past experience, I know all too well the pitfalls of a politics of "friendship". Your supervisor is not your friend, though they can be friendly. You cannot love them, though you can like them. And encouraging a slippage of terminology is, I think, symptomatic in the boundary shift we are experiencing generationally. Sure, a PhD supervisor is more like a close mentor or a medieval Master of a Trade under whom you are an Apprentice; but they are not your parent, friend, or confidant. Again, my supervisor is fabulous, and deserves to be acknowledged for her mentorship, but not in a contest called "I Love My Academic", because I don't love her: I respect her, and that is much more important.

You may think me pedantic, but I am coming from a place of experience here. When I was doing my BA, I had a professor who referred to all his students as Mr/Ms. Lastinitial. We would never have considered calling him by his first name or a nickname to his face; he was always Professor Lastname. Compared to some of our other instructors, this seemed hopelessly old-fashioned, but we looked on it as a sort of loveable eccentricity rather than an uncool anachronism. Fast-forward a few years, and I became an instructor myself - some of my students were significantly older than I was. Because of my own discomfort at being in a position of authority over my "elders", I allowed them to call be me by my first name, but I realise now that that was a mistake; it created a slippage and a lack of titular respect that could be followed by actual personal disrespect. At least amongst my colleagues, we had an agreement that we would, in our classrooms and in our dealings with students, refer to other instructors by their titles and last names, to indicate our collegial respect for one another. Of course, in a more peer-like relationship than undergrad-prof, such as some PhD supervisor-student relationships, it's perfectly acceptable to use first names. And many lecturers in our department have almost-Marxist convictions that signs of status should be as invisible as possible. But what I am saying is that names and titles and words matter, and in a university-wide context, which includes a variety of student and academic "tiers", it is better to err on the side of caution.

Hence my reference in the title of this post to Macchiavelli; it is not because I endorse cruelty in the PhD process, but because I think a little distance is healthy. Love is not all you need - you need some respect and admiration, too.


Amy said…
I have observed that it's more usual to call lecturers by a formal title/name in North America than it is in Britain. That stops when you leave school here. I don't think it indicates a lack of respect, just that you are no longer a child.

Also, in the UK, we don't have the handy title of 'professor', as it is used in North America to mean 'lecturer'. That makes things a little more complicated. Especially if you factor in female lecturers without PhDs - Miss, Mrs, Ms?

I'm not saying either convention is better than the other, just that it's different.

But the thought of being called 'Dr Barnes' by a student fills me with horror.

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