Which name?

Last week, I published a post about “What am I?” in reference to categorization of my blog. Today, however, I want to look at “Who am I?” But in this case, “I” refers to the blog writer, rather than the blog.

And before anyone asks or assumes, no, I am not undergoing any sort of existential crisis!

Today, while at UW-Stout’s annual Engagement Sessions, I overheard a conversation about addressing someone by first name, and I had mused that it seems more common to use first names when not in a professional setting, and to not use them otherwise. There is also the idea of “first name basis.”

For example, in primary and secondary school, I NEVER called my teachers by first name, even if I knew what the first name was. In these levels of school, there is definitely a power and status difference between the students and the adults. However, I knew what some of their names were as I got into middle and high school, but did not call them by said first names until after graduation (and even then, sometimes).

In fact, let me give a few examples of when teachers became First-Name Bases:

  • Ann Ellenberger, whom I honored on National Teacher Day, I continued to call by last name until a few years ago.
  • Most of the other teachers on that post I have started referring to by first name. They are now some of my friends, and once a person becomes a friend instead of a superior, it is appropriate to be on a first-name basis.
  • Yet, there were a few times where it seemed somewhat weird calling someone by first name…
    • Just before I graduated from high school, when I was getting signatures for my yearbook, I requested a signature from Gary Czapla, one of the assistant principals. He said, after I addressed him as Mr. Czapla, “You’re almost an alum. You can call me Gary from now on.”
    • In 2013, I called my third-grade teacher, Marty Payne, on her birthday, and it felt weird calling her by first name (or even calling her), considering that I had not seen her since I left Fort Dodge, seventeen years to the prior.
    • Similarly, today, I called my 11th-grade AP US History teacher, Brent Toalson. It felt strange to call him by first name, for the same reason as with Marty.

This awkwardness came to me a bit when I was a graduate student TA. I never had a policy about how to be addressed, because “Prof. Weiss” or “Dr. Weiss” was obviously wrong, and “Mr. Weiss” felt too hoity-toity. Despite not having a policy, all of my students referred to me as “Noah.”

Now that I am a Lecturer, there’s a further distance than the Grad Student-Student distance, even though some of my students may be older than me! In my syllabi, I do not have any policy as to how to address me. I will answer to either “Dr. Weiss” or “Noah,” given that my syllabus has “Dr. Noah Weiss” as my title.

(However, I did do one thing: I added the parenthetical “last name rhymes with peace” since 90% of people mispronounce my last name the first time!)

The more burning questions for me, and maybe for others in my position (i.e., contracted academic staff): Toward which of the following people would you use first-name or last-name basis? Why?

  • Colleagues that are in non-tenure track positions
  • Colleagues that are in tenure-track positions
  • Tenured faculty at your university
  • Collaborators for research or other scholarly activity

And one more thing for thought: What is your take on the construct Title plus First Name? (e.g. Dr. Noah in my case)?


Math 121: 9 days.

Rosh Hashanah: 14 days.

Memorial Stadium: 53 days.

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2 thoughts on “Which name?

  1. Noah, my policy after leaving grad school was to force myself to use first names for colleagues (now it comes pretty naturally). The thinking is that you want them to see you as their peer, and not a student or subordinate. Even if they are tenured faculty, they usually aren’t your “boss,” so it can introduce unnecessary/awkward power dynamics to call them by their title. I do make some exceptions, mostly for people who I do not know personally who are in a named position like “dean” or “provost,” etc.

    I found in my first year of teaching that my students explicitly wanted to know what they should call me, so I’ll be interested to hear how your current strategy works out! I quickly nixed the idea of going by my first name (also due to power dynamic issues), although it seems this is more of a problem for women rather than men.


    • Thanks for the input, Haley! That was in my line of thinking that I would go by first names for my colleagues, but use titles for those who have specific offices.

      Another question: what about colloquium speakers? Are they “colleagues” in the sense of being called by first name?


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