Wednesday, January 09, 2008


For the first time today, I got an email to "Bardiac sensei" from my university across the sea. "Sensei" is basically a title of respect for a teacher.

My stereotypical associations give sensei an almost mystical connotation for me. One of my friends is a ceramicist, a potter, who's studied with masters from different areas of Asia; that sort of mastery is what I think when I think "sensei." Or I think of stereotypical martial arts masters, especially with the mystical connotations of mastery that come across in US culture about Asian martial arts. And as much as sensei gives me mystical connotations, I don't feel that I deserve it; I haven't gone through the apprenticeship of the sort I associate with such titles. (Though I've done my time in US grad school.)

My understanding is that sensei is used for everything from grammar school teachers, to people like me, to masters of various arts, so while it's a title of respect, it's not necessarily got mystical connotations.

But the mystical connotations make it weirder to think of myself being addressed as Bardiac sensei. I'm a pretty non-mystical person, not even a very spiritual person in the ways people talk about spirituality.

And I have some rather typical US type reactions to titles of respect. I grew up calling all adults Mr/Mrs/Miss (and then adding Ms when that became a possibility). When I was young, I rather resented having to show all that respect, especially to people who showed little respect for me. Eventually, I got to a point where I actively value respecting others (and they usually respect me), so I don't resent using titles for people. But I'm also a fairly informal person in a fairly informal profession.

On the other hand, it took me a while to feel comfortable calling my college president by her first name.

I invite my students to call me by my first name, and am comfortable with that. But I respect that others don't prefer that, and I always refer to other instructors as "Professor X" to students. (Professor is the best I can do for a working compromise for colleagues who do or don't have doctorates, do or don't have whatever official position; it's perhaps not entirely accurate, but it's good enough for government work.) I was old enough when I started teaching that I didn't need to use a title for students to know that I was the one with power.

It's important to realize that power is part of the whole title thing. And I have enough sense of that in the US to talk about it with my students when I invite them to use my first name, and to tell that to use a more formal address with others unless invited to use a first name or something. I have a sense of how to manipulate power relations in address here. I know that when someone uses my first name, and then their own title, power's in play.

But my understanding of formality and power across the sea is minimal. So I'm bemused at my own reaction to becoming "Bardiac sensei," the pleasure of a title, the discomfort of a title, all at once. And unsure how to use titles and such myself in return.

This is going to be interesting!


  1. From reading about your work for a couple of years, I think you definitely deserve that title and all it means to you.

    (I got a kick out of being addressed as Maestra Theodora while we were in Ecuador. :-) But I didn't take it too seriously.)

  2. richard11:09 AM

    Akemashite omedetou, Bardiac Sensei!

    Just to give you a little perspective, Sensei (or its Korean or Chinese equivalents, "Seonsaengnim" and "Laoshi") is really only one of many titles people use. It is common to address (or refer to) people by their job title, with or without their name: "Assistant Vice Chancellor, What do you think of this stationery?" Sensei can substitute for the longer title, is a lot shorter and, really, it doesn't carry the same baggage there as it does here. It's more like Senator or Governor or General when used to address or refer to someone who no longer does those jobs. It recognizes achievement in the same way. It's just that Asian societies recognize a broader range of achievement, from noodle makers to physicists. It is, in a unique way, a simultaneously hierarchical and democratic impulse.

    Make sure you use the titles when you're over there talking about someone. Otherwise, your Japanese acquaintances will be confused.