UNC students, it’s Swaggy J to you

With update below:

History students at UNC-Chapel Hill may be different from students in the School of Media and Journalism.

That’s the first conclusion I draw from this column in the New York Times by Molly Worthen, an assistant professor of history at UNC-Chapel Hill. Professor Worthen takes issue with the decorum – or lack thereof – in which students address and communicate with teaching faculty.

“Over the past decade or two, college students have become far more casual in their interactions with faculty members. My colleagues around the country grumble about students’ sloppy emails and blithe informality.”

I don’t know about the time frame here. When I was in college I submitted sloppy work, called some professors by their first names, and drank beer with others. Of course, this was back in the go-go 70’s so….

“Why are so many teachers bent out of shape because a student fails to call them ‘Professor’ or neglects to proofread an email? Are academics really that insecure? Is this just another case of scapegoating millennials for changes in the broader culture?

“Don’t dismiss these calls for old-fashioned courtesy as a case of fragile ivory tower egos or misplaced nostalgia. There is a strong liberal case for using formal manners and titles to ensure respect for all university professionals, regardless of age, race or gender. More important, doing so helps defend the university’s dearest values at a time when they are under continual assault.”

It’s a good column. I have always liked Worthen’s writing and appreciated her thoughtfulness. Read it all, then come back.

I’m sure everything Worthen writes is true, but I haven’t experienced it. Maybe I’m lucky. Or maybe it’s because I’m closer in age to students’ parents and grandparents, and they know better.


To my face, I’ve been called professor, prof, Dr. Robinson, Mr. Robinson, John, JR and, finally, Swaggy J. Who knows what behind my back. (More on Swaggy J in a bit.) While most students call me Mr. Robinson, I don’t interpret any of the names as disrespectful. I don’t interpret them as inappropriately intimate, either. Instead, I believe the students do it because they trust me and consider me a friend — a friend who evaluates their work, who will tell them the brutal truth about it and who occasionally irritates them, but a friend nonetheless.

In fact, I think the names are highly respectful of me and my position as a teacher.

Perhaps it’s because I’m in the journalism school that I don’t receive many emails written with slang or texting language or poorly constructed messages. Yes, I’ve gotten emails with misspelled words and with poor grammar, but they’re usually from students who need help with spelling and grammar on their class assignments, too. Help, by the way, that I try to give them.

Have I had to ask students not to text during class? Yes. Do I ask them not to wander around the web during class? Yes. Do they refrain after I ask? Yes.

I’ve found that if you give students respect, they give it back.

I engage with students on social media. I learned as a newspaper editor that smart journalists go to where people gather. Students gather there. I was active on Twitter and Facebook long before I became a college teacher. I still am. I have two social media rules:

  1. Follow students only after they follow me.
  2. Don’t be stupid.

I also don’t see a lack of etiquette. Occasionally students will ask me what the proper, professional style is when applying for a job or internship, but I rarely see them blundering into the unknown, acting as if a prospective employer or professor is their high school bro. Someone before me has either taught them how or taught them to ask if they don’t know.

From the article:

The facile egalitarianism of the first-name basis can impede good teaching and mentoring, but it also presents a more insidious threat. It undermines the message that academic titles are meant to convey: esteem for learning. The central endeavor of higher education is not the pursuit of money or fame but knowledge. “There needs to be some understanding that degrees mean something,” Professor Jackson-Brown said. “Otherwise, why are we encouraging them to get an education?”

Maybe it’s that I don’t have a doctorate or a title higher than adjunct lecturer. I’m not officially a doctor or a professor; it’s not accurate or ethical for me to use those titles. But I do have an esteem for learning. One of my messages on the final day of classes is to be a lifelong learner, to never stop reading or paying attention. And my final pledge to students is a commitment to be there for them whenever they need help or guidance or a shoulder.

Like all teachers, I care deeply about my students. My philosophy is that I’m not successful until they are, both in my class and beyond. It’s a lifelong challenge for me, but what else do I have to do?

Oh, and Swaggy J? One day I wore a pink sweater to class and a student, Aaron Dodson, who is now at the Undefeated, called me Swaggy J, after Swaggy P.  I don’t know why. I believe he called me that with affectionate respect. Two years later and a few students still call me that.

I wear it with pride.

Update: From Denny McAuliffe, a Washington Post copy editor and my colleague in the School of Media and Journalism: “One of my most entertaining challenges every semester is to insist on Day One that students call me by my first name, as an intro to newsroom etiquette. I tell them that if the great Ben Bradlee allowed us mere mortals to call him Ben, they can certainly call me Denny. I also tell them that if they ever get to the Washington Post newsroom and call the executive editor Mr. Baron instead of Marty, he’ll ask, What are they teaching you at that UNC j-school?”

2 thoughts on “UNC students, it’s Swaggy J to you

  1. My thoughts exactly. I have had experiences similar to yours with my students at UNC (J School, still want to call it that), NC State (College of Design), and Meredith. Although no one ever called me Swaggy B, unfortunately. Thank you for writing this.

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