Ask the Expert: How Can I Get Students to Address Me as “Dr.” Rather Than “Mrs.”?

by Dr. Shay L. Butler

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Question: How can women politely coach new students to see them as professors? I find my first-year students regularly call me “Mrs.” (even though I always state on my emails and syllabi that I’m “Dr.”), but my male colleagues don’t seem to face the same issue. How can I stand up for myself without embarrassing the student for making a mistake?

Answer from Dr. Shai L. Butler, VP for Student Success & Engagement and Chief Diversity Officer: I share your pain on this one. I also see that it’s pretty trendy for a student to call their professor by their first name instead of “Dr.” or “Ms.” or “Mrs.” I have a few ideas that have worked for me.

1. You may do some sort of activity on the first day that sets the tone by asking people to go around the room and share their preferred gender pronoun and what they would prefer to be called. and give an example like, Robert goes by Bob and his preferred pronouns are he, his, and him. Let everyone in the class have their chance, and when it comes back to you, give your preferred pronouns and say you prefer to be called “Dr. Butler.” Then, ask the group why they think you did the activity. Someone will inevitably say the word “respect” and you can very casually agree and say that it may take us all some time to remember the preferred names and gender pronouns of others so we are all going to be very patient and understanding with each other as we practice, practice, practice. Then, if you like, start the next class reminding everyone that we are using preferred names and gender pronouns and if everyone who raises their hand to respond to a question could remind us of their preferred gender pronouns, it would be helpful. I will go first: I am Dr. Butler and let’s turn to chapter 5 to review…

2. If you have a repeat offender, you need to address it individually in a non-confrontational email along the lines of:

“Joe, I really enjoy your contributions in class, you ask such great questions! Just a friendly reminder that I go by Dr. Butler and not Mrs. Butler. Mrs. Butler is my mom (or mother in law), and as awesome as she is, I love being a doctor (insert smiley face). See you in class on Tuesday.”

3. If neither works for a particular individual, then it might be that person’s intent not to call you by your preferred name and you might have to resort to a more public in-class reminder that is firm, but not aggressive.

“Thanks for answering the question, Larry. Just a reminder, as your professor, I go by Dr. Butler.”

If they are embarrassed and apologize, just follow up by saying, “No worries. We all forget things sometimes. I am here to support you and will always help you remember when you forget.” If this is the case, then every time they call you Mrs., unfortunately you will have to correct them. I don’t think that it will come to that too often, but at least you have a few options to choose from. Good luck!

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