Just Don’t Call Me Late for Dinner

A couple of weeks ago, one of my composition students asked me why I prefer to be called “Adam” rather than “Dr. Fajardo” in class. The question took me off guard, and I didn’t give her a great answer, but, in some respects, being taken off guard is exactly why I ask my students to call me by my first name. This student was asking because she had accidentally called another professor by their first name. That professor had scolded her, saying something along the lines of, “It took me years to earn this degree, so you need to show me the respect that it entails.” I told her that I go by “Adam” because the norm at my undergraduate school was to be on a first name basis with all of your professors. I valued that aspect of my college’s educational culture because it made the faculty feel much more open, available, and approachable, and I want my students to have a similar experience. That’s what I told her, but the question stuck with me.

Like my student’s other professor, I also want respect, but I’m somewhat suspicious of the respect that is automatically endowed through certifications, degrees, and prestige. This isn’t just an antiauthoritarian remnant from my short-lived punk phase. There is a real danger, I think, that comes from being at the top of your field. (People with terminal degrees, in my view, are basically at the top of their fields because, while there is always someone who can publish vast quantities, write a more field changing book, or land a huge grant, we are the 1%-ers relative to the general population.) The danger is complacency. Recently, I listened to an interview with a chess prodigy and competitive martial artist who described how many martial arts champions  go on to start their own schools. In their schools, however, they often train very little with their students because they are scared to lose. When they do train, they’ll rely on the familiar tricks and techniques that helped them win before, which means that the masters aren’t regularly challenging themselves to keep growing. I think a similar phenomenon can happen in higher education. For academic, being right is similar to winning a sparing match. It’s good to be knowledgeable, of course, but I think we should be wary of complacency if the goal is to remain sharp and present to students.

None of this is to say that I’m not proud of my degree or that I question other professors who insist on having students address them by their titles. I learned first hand in my undergraduate college that being on a first-name basis with a teacher does not guarantee that person will be approachable or will allow you to ask challenging questions. I could certainly go by “Dr. Fajardo” and still cultivate an open, engaged relationship with my students. Also, going by my first name does not by any means remove the hierarchy that exists between my students and me. (And I don’t want that hierarchy to go away, either—if a student were doing something dangerous or harmful, I would not hesitate to use the full power of that hierarchy to correct the situation.) I just believe that empowering students to ask hard, insightful questions is healthy for the student and the faculty member alike.

The opening of Chris Palmer’s “Reflections on Teaching: Mistakes I’ve Made” reminded me of a Zen saying popularized by Shuryu Suzuki in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Palmer admits that, when he began a second career as a teacher, he did not have a “teaching philosophy beyond some vague, unarticulated feeling that [he] wanted [his] students to do well.” While Palmer uses this unprepared feeling to frame a discussion of how he began to make a lot of mistakes as a teacher, it also perfectly illustrates the power of what Suzuki might call shoshin, or “beginner’s mind.” The power of “beginner’s mind,” Suzuki explains, is that “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities,” while in the “expert’s mind there are few.” “Beginner’s mind” names a state of awareness and attention that is tuned in to the present situation (and thus not encumbered by habit, preconceptions, or the desire to be perceived as knowledgeable). Palmer is able to turn around his inital self-doubts by asking lots of questions and continually assessing (in a much more systematic way than I ever have), what was and was not effective in his teaching practice. This seems to me a natural and healthy outcome of a pedagogical beginner’s mind: he didn’t come into the classroom armed with theories and “best practices” that should work. Instead, he tried lots of things, failed often, and course corrected along the way. I have been teaching composition and literature for about eight years—not so long in the big scheme, but more than long enough to become mired in habits that might limit the amount of learning that can happen in my classroom or could keep me from fully engaging with my students. Though I wasn’t thinking in these terms at the time, I can see that I made certain pedagogical choices this year that encouraged me to adopt a “beginner’s mind” in my classes. Going by my first name at GGC, when the norm seems to be to go by title, is one of those choices.

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