Phil Ford


More pedagogy (pedablogy?). Commenter Byron left a link to his academic blog, which I have duly added to the blogroll — it looks great, and I’m particularly impressed by his most recent post, “The Scrabble Player’s Guide to A Career in Academia,” and not only because it was inspired by my own essay in gangsta musicology. Here is one of my favorite insights:

If you’ve got crappy tiles and no hot spots on the
board to make up for it, then just trade in your problematic tiles and skip your turn. Don’t wallow in your unfortunate situation–it might only get worse.

If you find yourself in a pit of uninteresting material or unsupportable arguments, turn around and start fresh. All
you’ll lose is a little time. If you try to make something out of your dead-end research, all you’ll get out of it is bad scholarship. And that will hurt you more than a little lost time.

I guess anyone who’s opened a newspaper in the last few years has gotten an education in how digging in on a bad idea, whether out of dumb pride or the sunk-costs fallacy, can end in catastrophe. But it’s not always clear when you’re the one doing it, y’know?

Another comment in response to my “Ten Commandments” post, from the Texas Tech Music Theory blog, asked what the proper way to address a professor is, or at least what we all like to be called:

What do your students call you? As I said above, I prefer professor. Doctor is a bit much for me, and heaven forbid someone actually confuse me with a proper doctor and ask me to start a chest tube or order a Chem-7. Some professors let their students call them by their first name–I see this particularly with studio teachers, who it seems to me have a much closer relationship than those of us who cater to the masses. Others permit their graduate students to call them by their first name (again, perhaps because of the typically close relationship). I don’t let students call me by my first name.

My old Stanford colleague Mark Applebaum had a great line, which I’ve adopted: “If things are going fine, I’m Phil. If they’re not, I’m Professor Ford.” You hand in a paper late, and no way am I “Phil.” I prefer graduate students calling me by my first name, but not
undergraduates. Graduate students have already paid some dues; they’re
colleagues as well as students, and they’re traveling the same road I am, so the  distance between us is a bit less. Undergraduates especially need to learn that they can’t go through life weaseling out of every situation with a good line of bullshit and a smile. This lesson is harder to teach when you’re all buddied up with them. Remember Biggie’s counsel: keep personal and professional separated. At least to some degree.

Making a big deal of this issue probably strikes non-academics as incomprehensible, and perhaps confirms the suspicion we’re all status-obsessed high-hat wieners who wear our commencement robes and mortar boards to the beach. But the question of honorifics and modes of address always comes up, and I think for non-trivial reasons.

On the one hand, college professors want to act like everyone else, which means that they don’t want to act like they think they’re better than anyone else. America is an informal and democratic country, after all, and you don’t suddenly stop acting like a 21st-century American (or wannabe-American, in my case) when you get a Ph.D. So for me at least it always feels weird to actually ask someone to call you “Doctor” or “Professor.”

On the other hand, for all that college marketing offices cynically deploy the rhetoric of carrying on proud traditions, etc. (“Generic State University: A Heritage of Tradition”), in order to squeeze money out of parents and alumni, universities really do carry on an old and venerable tradition of learning at its highest level. And attaining this level doesn’t come cheap, either in the expense of time, personal commitment, or money. Humility is a virtue, as both Byron and I agreed, and not only because you don’t want your colleagues hating on you. Humility is the right attitude in the face of The Tradition — the great accumulated weight of thought we might imagine being kept in some Great Book, the Book of All Books, by the Recording Angel of Academia. Sometimes, when I’ve done something I think is clever, I think I’m pretty awesome. But nothing I’ve ever done, or ever will do, will amount to more than a footnote in the Great Book. And this is the same attitude everyone must learn in college. It’s a bit like the “Cruel Tutelage of Pai Mei” episode in Kill Bill.  If the knowledge you seek is really worth attaining, it’s worth showing some respect first. The professor who demands respect isn’t necessarily demanding it for himself alone (although he might be). Ideally, the respect you demand is for the enterprise you share with the student, something that’s bigger than both of you. Undergrads especially need to discover that there is something bigger than them.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
This entry was posted in Education. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Shcool

  1. Galen says:

    I heard a story from a friend when I was an undergrad that one of her professors (I have no idea who, but presumably somebody at Brandeis) answered the question of whether “Professor” or “Doctor” was the appropriate address this way:
    “You should call professors ‘Professor’ — anybody can get a degree, but not everybody can get a job.”

  2. Jonathan says:

    I’ve also heard that only full professors properly get the title “Professor” (though this seems silly to me–maybe a British thing, where they have readers and lecturers and so on). For music in particular, I like “Prof. rather than “Dr.” because you can have hotshot performers without doctorates, which means the faculty is divided into Dr. A, Mr. B., and Ms. C. Not at all the thing in front of administrators, who may understand the reasons for this, but if they’re not musicians they may not. “Prof.” levels the playing field.
    That said, there’s also the specialized nickname–e.g., a certain percentage of the grad students here call us Dr. B and Dr. K, and so there is respect, propriety, and a kind of affectionate familiarity all in one. Seems to work.

  3. Joel says:

    First things first: Dial M is fantastic. I’ve just found it, but consider me in for life.
    As for “prof. vs dr. vs hey dude”
    I’ve made a habit of just letting my students decided for themselves. I just tell them my name and see what happens. I’ve never had an undergrad call me joel so I assume that it must be working.
    Some graduate students need the separation between teacher and student and prefer to still call me Dr. As a student I was this way. To this day I still have trouble calling some of my teachers by their first names.

Comments are closed.