Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Name Game

While meeting with my Feature Writing class last week, I was trying to tell my students about the importance of developing story ideas.

They are everywhere, sometimes they're right in front of your face. Sometimes they happen even when you're discussing story ideas.

One of my favorite journalism students, a young woman named Victoria Holt, asked me a question in class last week and addressed me by my first name: "Chuck"

I was flummoxed. My softball teammates call me "Chuck." My friends and colleagues call me "Chuck." My siblings call me "Chuck" (except for one sister who insists on calling me "Charlie" because she never got the message I adopted "Chuck" while I was in college,  in need of a byline.

Can you tell me a single reporter named "Charlie"? I sure can't.

Students do not call me "Chuck". And I didn't quite know how to react to her.

Knowing ahead of time some of my students had ordered their text books online and wouldn't have them this early in the semester, I had photocopied the first two stories we would be discussing. Tori told me "I have my book, but I forgot to bring it to class."

As I was passing the stories around, I casually mentioned to Tori when I got to her area of the classroom, "I am ticked off at you, Tori. But not for forgetting your book."  This got the laugh I was hoping for from the rest of the class. One of her friends, a tall lad with wavy blonde hair named Dillon, told me and the rest of the class that "Tori calls him 'Chuck' outside of class, too, so she may as well call him that in class."

This was news to me. And I wasn't too sure how I felt about it.

It only occurred to me the next day: Tori had handed me a golden opportunity to show that even an off-handed aside in the middle of a class can provide fodder for a column. I decided I should use this classroom anecdote to show how you could spin a story out of almost anything if you had an angle.

So, I mentioned this to Tori in an email on Tuesday night and then I asked my class when we met today. Is there a story here? If so, what is it? What is the appropriate thing to call your teachers or your professors? Do most of us insist on being called by our professional titles? How many of you would like to call your professors by your first name?

I admitted to the class I didn't know how to respond to Tori when she called me "Chuck." She had taken two other journalism classes from me in recent semesters, and I personally admired her work ethic and thought she was a promising reporter. But she is still a student, one whose work I have to grade. I cannot pretend to be her friend. Nor would I want to. There has to be some professional boundaries between me and my students. And I explained this to the class, while addressing Tori.

Do you call any of your father's friends by their first names, I asked her? Yes, there was one, she said, someone her father was very close to and someone who had encouraged her to call him by his first name. Had she intentionally called me by my first name last week, just to test the boundaries? She admitted. "I wanted to see what you would do. I did it as a joke."

The findings of my impromptu and very unscientific survey revealed that most of my students felt more comfortable conferring a degree of respect on their professor by calling them by their professional name, Dr. So-and So, or, in my case, "Mr. Bauerlein," (because I do not have a PhD). One or two profs that my students have taken told them on the first day of classes to "call me by my first name". But even when they were given permission, it took a while for them to become used to it. It felt unnatural.

Several students in my feature writing class told me their art teachers in high school seemed more inclined to ask their students to "call me by my first name" because art was a "collaborative effort" and doing so made it seem as if they were "making art together."

My own feeling is that, because I am judging their work and putting grades on it, I cannot allow myself to become overly friendly and allow them to call me "Chuck." If you do "C" work for me, calling me "Chuck" will not make the C disappear, no matter how "friendly" it sounds.

"When you graduate from West Chester, and you are about to embark on your media career, at that point I will consider you a colleague. You may call me 'Chuck' then. In the meantime, let's stick with the standard protocol. Call me 'Mr. B.' or 'Mr. Bauerlein.' "

I have no doubt a few of them have more interesting words for me than "Chuck" when they are talking about me in private. I guess I should be thankful some of the best and the brightest of them call me by a name that I don't mind hearing when I am out of ear-shot.