I like and respect my students, but we cannot be friends. I need to enforce rules, hold them to deadlines, and give them grades. If your friend Steve gave you a D you’d be angry, but if Prof. Lake gave you a D then he’s just doing his job.
The title is needed also to keep a degree of formality in our relationship. This is as much for me as for them. I need to do what is best for them, which is not necessarily what they would want. Thinking of them as peers would leads to a temptation not to challenge them, to be the ‘cool’ teacher instead of the good one.
I also suspect it helps in other ways to maintain this formality. I have only heard of a couple of cases of professors behaving inappropriately with students, but in both cases they were the kind of professors who went by first names.
Besides, I am not at all convinced that the seemingly egalitarian idea of first names is actually egalitarian. Formality makes it easier for those unfamiliar with a culture to navigate it. Being informal just hides the rules and may actually make it harder for those from disadvantaged groups to understand what is expected of them.
My students can call me Steve when they graduate.”
Comment 2. “One thing I’ll add to this excellent post: I am slightly autistic, and one of the ways that manifests in me is that I find rules of social behavior unintuitive. If you put me in a highly egalitarian spontaneous order situation, I don’t really know how to act or how to talk to people. What I need are clearly defined social rules, scripts if you will. Formal, hierarchical relationships like teacher-student or colonel-major make me comfortable because there is a clear script for me to follow.”
Comment 3. “I always ask my students to call me David, but Steven makes a good point that I hadn’t previous considered that formality is easier to navigate – especially given the international nature of the student body.
Nonetheless, I have always found that colleagues that insist on being called Professor or Doctor (or use the titles on Twitter) are almost always insufferable in person.”