Sam Newsome

Sam Newsome
"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy

Sunday, May 17, 2015

How Should Students Address Their Music Professors?

Here’s a question that I sometimes discuss with my professor colleagues: Should students address professors by their titles or should it also be acceptable for them to address professors by their first name?

This is something I'd rarely thought when I primarily taught saxophone lessons. However, when I started teaching at LIU Brooklyn as full-time faculty, back in 2006, my teaching responsibilities included lectures, masterclasses, and student advisement--which promoted me from instructor to professor. So for the first time I found myself being addressed not just as "Sam,"  but, "Professor Newsome"--which felt very strange.

Keep in mind that I was educated at a very progressive music school like The Berklee College of Music, where the professor/student relationship was pretty informal--to put it mildly. I knew plenty of professors who would hang out with students like "they were boyz." In fact, many of the students in my social circle with were pretty cocky. I don't think we had enough respect for many of our professors to actually address them as "professor. " What we usually called them was "sad ass motherfu#ker"--behind their backs, of course. Like I said, we were young and cocky. So you can imagine after I began teaching at LIU Brooklyn, how strange it must have felt to have students call me--a jazz musician--Professor Newsome.

I asked soprano saxophonist and bassist Dr. Michael Veal about the topic, who teaches ethnomusicology at Yale University, and he had this to say:
"Coming from the world of music, I was initially more comfortable dealing with people on a first-name basis when I started teaching back in the late 1990s. But being the only faculty member of color in an elite setting, I felt that consistency was preferable across the board. So, if other professors were addressed using their titles (i.e. "Professor So-And-So"), I expected to be addressed similarly. Almost twenty years later, things have started to loosen up, with professors being more frequently addressed on a first name basis. So, I have followed suit and allowed the graduate students to address me by my first name. When undergraduate students are speaking to me, however, I still expect them to use the title. Because of the wider age differential, I expect that that will take much longer to change."

Dr. Veal made a very important point: Which is that he was comfortable dealing with people on a first-name basis coming from "the world of music;"  however, the culture of academia, particularly at an "elite" university like Yale, had different expectations. So if you're a performing artist, like myself or Dr. Veal, and you find that you are all of the sudden with a tenured track faculty position, conforming to the culture of the academic world becomes necessary for your survival.

When I first started teaching at LIU Brooklyn, I was very comfortable with the music majors calling me "Sam." Frankly, it was all that I knew. Some of them actually new me from recordings and having heard me perform around New York City. So in my mind, they were just young musicians, which did not require the same hierarchical teacher/student classroom etiquette as your run-of-the-mill liberal arts student. However, I did notice that non-music majors preferred calling me professor. And I certainly understand why. Professors who teach liberal arts courses typically don't have the type of informal relationships with students that music professor have--especially ones who teach jazz. It's not uncommon for jazz music professors to socialize with music students outside of the classroom. Sometimes, that where the real learning begins.

While I was a student at Berklee,  I went to my professors' gigs, to their homes, and sometimes we even performed together. Their pedagogical methods were often  hands on. This is certainly not the type of interaction a history professor has with his or her students. And I imagine Dr. Veal did not have these informal teacher/student gatherings with his ethnomusicology students, either. It would have felt weird to address Donald Brown and Billy Pierce as Professor Brown and Professor Pierce. They probably would have laughed at me, or thought that I was making fun of them.

Dr. Andrew Raffo Dewar, who is a soprano saxophonist/composer and Associate Professor in New College and the School of Music and Co-Director of Creative Campus at the University of Alabama School of Music, expressed that how a student addresses their professor can also be regional:

"I've noticed that working in a Southern university these titles are very important down here, and are nearly always used by faculty, staff and students - I didn't notice that when I taught in NE universities. I never tell my students what to call me, and I never correct them, as it doesn't really matter to me, but they nearly always use "Dr." unless they address me as "Hey" in emails, which happens pretty regularly in this post-texting world! I think because I'm a (relatively speaking) younger prof. the title is also good, as it maintains a healthy teacher-student relationship. After they graduate I always ask them to call me 'Andrew.'"

And since Dr. Dewar also brought up the topic of age, I'd like to make another point. 

I have noticed that as the age gap widens between my students and me, having them address me as "Sam" becomes more and more uncomfortable. What most people don't realize is that students don't age, just the professors. When I first started at LIU, I was forty-one, and the average age range of my students was 18-24 years old. Today, I'm fifty, and the age of my students is still 18-24 years old. And if I'm lucky, the age gap will continue to widen.

So as you can see, having someone who's thirty years my junior than call me "Sam" feels a lot more inappropriate than having someone who's only twenty years younger. And I must say, after being in higher education for almost a decade, I am finally becoming more comfortable with the title of "Professor Newsome."   When I first started almost ten years ago,  I often told people that I wasn't a real professor, but a sax player with a day job.

But as I get used to the position, I do see the importance of setting boundaries between the students and me, or as Dr. Veal says, having"that consistency."  It does help us as professors to define our roles. I'd much rather hear an 18 year old student say, “Professor Newsome, may I talk to you?",  than "Hey, Sam, I need to holla at you, son!

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