When I started at University, I spent the first, painful term, calling my tutor, Dr Taplin, “Errrm,” because I didn’t know what to call him. I now see from his College bio entry that he was frighteningly old (to use a phrase from Lucy Boston): in his mid-thirties. Maybe as old as some of my younger colleagues, such as Jon or Mat. I was completely in awe.
But that was 1976. Oliver Taplin was a young, successful academic in the only University I knew. Heir to C S Lewis (who also taught Classics at Magdalen) , but very willing to shake us out of the reverential classics of school by getting us to look at Archilochus, or to try for an appropriate modern word for “pedicabo” in Catullus. As I said, I was completely in awe: when Dr Walker said hello to me outside Blackwells Bookshop, I was dumbstruck. When we last met, at a Widening Participation event a couple of years ago, I called him Ralph, and even then wasn’t sure if that was sacrilege.
Language changes, status changes, and with both of those forms of address change. As we get ready for a new academic year, as we read the comments from students of last year – cards after graduation, the Trip Advisor that is NSS – I wonder what this cohort will make of me. It’s (just) possible this is the last group of first years that I will see through to graduation: how will I appear to them? To rub it in, I look for my own staff page, and find a “Page Not Found.” Absit omen.
Which brings me back to my jokey title. How will the emails address me and my colleagues? “Dear Professor”? “Hey, Nick”? And does it really matter? Is respect something that goes hand-in-hand with cautious forms of address? Should formality be demanded? What does it signify? What is gained, what is lost?