January 28th, 2010

Instructor or Professor, It's Not Your Title but What You Do That's Important

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In a recent conversation, an online teaching colleague complained that her school had wrongly listed her as “adjunct instructor,” rather than “adjunct professor,” in its faculty roster. “That term ‘professor’—it means so much more than merely being an instructor,” she complained. Au contraire, I countered: ultimately, titles—and one’s accomplishments—count for little throughout any online course one teaches and never equate to long-term respect.

Titles are nothing but dry words in an online course. There will be those students who believe that one called a “professor” has more knowledge, more panache than, say, “instructor,” but as the course comes to life—and so does your teaching—what title you own quickly fades in importance.

Your school administration determines the title you will use. Each school decides on what its faculty’s titles will be. There could be one title for all—for example, “adjunct professor”—or titles based on degrees earned, such as “professor” for those with PhDs/EdDs and “instructor” for those with no higher than a master’s degree.

Never make a big deal out of what students prefer to call you. No matter what your title, students will often settle into their comfort zone regarding titles. For example, some schools and/or online instructors prefer using a first name, while many students have never experienced this, being used to a more formal “Mr.,” “Ms.,” “Professor,” or “Doctor.” That’s fine—don’t push your de rigueur title on them. It’s your attitude and your teaching ability they will ultimately react to, not your title.

Offer your accomplishments only when necessary. What goes into your bio should, for the most part, stay there. You should not push your accomplishments on your students simply to brag; this quickly will turn students off. Use your background only in class and only as part of a legitimate example to illustrate a point—and then sparingly.

Keep your title and accomplishments in perspective. Because there is no physical interaction online, students react more swiftly and acutely to what an instructor posts—especially because everything the instructor “says” is in print form and thus can be reread. An instructor who is prone to boast about his or her title and/or accomplishments does little to establish a strong student/instructor rapport.

Never fear: students can quickly learn about you. B.I.—Before the Internet—students could learn about their instructors only from what their instructors chose to share with them and anything about the instructor that appeared in print. But with the Internet, students have quick access to nearly everything they need to know about an instructor—often including how other students rate the instructor. And make no mistake: students will Google their instructors to learn more about them. So rather than showcasing what and who you are, be content with teaching—the students will quickly discover much about you on their own.

Know your student demographic. Depending on the school, your student demographic can range from newly minted high school grads to graduate students to military folks to students returning to college after a long absence … and many more. And each of these groups will react differently to your title and accomplishments. For example, military students are used to addressing others as “Sir” or “Ma’am” while students fresh from high school tend to be more open to casual, less formal titles. It’s important to understand this so you can interact effectively with your students.

Ask what your students prefer to be called. Students are nearly always listed in your class by their formal, full names—those that they enrolled with. Yet in establishing a rapport online—where you can interact with students at any hour on any day of the week—it is important that you refer to students by their preference. They see your use of their names again and again; ignoring their name preference can hurt your ability to establish rapport with your students.

There is only one way to earn your students’ respect: by doing. In the end, all the titles and all the accomplishments amount to mere words—words that initially are sure to impress and buy a few days of respect … but that’s all. It is your action as an instructor—what you do and how you do it, both with the materials being taught and your interaction with students—that earns you respect.

Errol Craig Sull has been teaching online courses for more than 12 years and has a national reputation in the subject, both writing and conducting workshops on it. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his next book—The Student’s Complete Guide to Online Learning.

Excerpted from Teaching Online With Errol: Titles & Accomplishments Do Not Respect Make, Online Classroom, December 2008.