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Higher Etiquette: The Case For, and Against, Fogeyism

May 15, 2017

As has been the case recently with Molly Worthen’s essays (especially these two, on lecturing and the great books), I have an opinion, or three, about this current piece. Before I continue, it’s nothing personal with Worthen. She just happens to write about things that pique, or have piqued, my interest—that trigger responses from me. And she has a platform that attracts a lot of attention.

In the current piece, regarding etiquette in communications between students and professors, Worthen argues in favor of formality. She calls herself a “young fogey” in advocating for titles, proper salutations (a dominant concern, for her), proofreading, and conventional grammar. Worthen cites a study regarding increased concern generally in higher education about etiquette, but also notes some anecdotes from other members of the academy and historical concerns deference and etiquette in the academy. But the clincher, for Worthen, is that calling for formality helps increase respect for non-white, non-male professors. This last point of justice cements Worthen’s case that we should all be young fogeys.

While no one could be against the desire to ensure respect for those with non-traditional identities working in instructional roles, I am of a mixed mind about this overall.

I favor students knowing and practicing the rules of formality as fostering professionalism. Whatever is unknown must be made known. And there are few better positioned to explain the ins-and-outs of formalities than instructors. Looking at it overall, up and down the education establishment, some practice in formality should begin in elementary school, continue in high school, and be maintained through at least the early years college. Why? Etiquette matters in the business world. And even if how it matters is uneven, it’s best for students and educators to be conservative. It’s better to learn and practice these behaviors unless one is given permission otherwise.

It’s around that idea of permission that I depart from Worthen. She doesn’t acknowledge that not all instructors (from any identity base) desire formality. Also, not all instructors have doctorates and not all have been formally allowed to use the title of professor. An instructor might, furthermore, want to underscore that point in how they communicate with students as a labor solidarity strategy. That doesn’t mean that formalities must be dropped. But it can be tricky terrain for students, especially if it’s inconsistent through and institution or department. Humanities instructors, for instance, are notoriously variable on the desire for formality.

It’s one thing to ask new students, or first and second year students, to maintain formal titles. But when they repeat courses with you, or come to office hours regularly, it’s hard to maintain a high degree of formality while also fostering collegiality. Formality can be incongruous, or counterproductive, for helping students develop a love for the field. At what point can a student drop formalities? It might be that permission is explicitly by the instructor, but it might occur naturally, and unobjectionably, after many interactions.

In sum, I don’t think the prescription for formality in higher ed is clear-cut for students. Institutional guidance for instructors and students would probably be helpful. It’s best to not pretend that there’s one kind of “higher etiquette” or a unified kind of desirable “young fogeyism” across the nation’s institutions of higher education. Students will learn to adapt to regional, institutional, and departmental norms. That kind of situational adaptation also has virtue, as it mimics the complexity of life after one’s formal education. – TL

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