From the Editor

Mastering the language

When a time-honored title makes people uncomfortable.

In the summer of 1986, English professor Traugott Lawler, incoming master of Ezra Stiles College, wrote to Stiles students to introduce himself. In the course of the letter, he recalls, he told them, “I really expect to like this job, but I don’t like the title.” He asked them to call him “Mr. Lawler”—the standard form of address for male professors when he started teaching at Yale in 1966. As he explains it today: “It’s down to earth, it’s normal, and I don’t like the inflation of titles.”

But “it gave me no end of trouble,” Lawler says. “My attempt to avoid it basically failed.” Students got tongue-tied in choosing between Master and Mister, and moreover, they “just wanted to call me Master Lawler.” Even the custodial and dining-hall staff, many of whom were African American, kept using it.

As Stiles alumnus Mark Alden Branch ’86 of our office remembers it, Lawler’s request was much discussed. Some students liked it; others were irritated that a new master was overruling tradition. But the discussions never got passionate.

Compare that with the online reaction to Pierson College master Stephen Davis’s e-mail to the Pierson community this past August 14. The religious studies professor asked students, staff, and fellows to stop calling him Master Davis and “please...find an alternative way to address or refer to me.” Immediately after a student posted the e-mail on the Facebook group Overheard at Yale, it received ecstatic comments. “You go, Dr. Davis! Cultivating the spirit of welcome and hospitality,” wrote Sei Han ’16. Pratik Gandhi ’18 commented that Davis was “setting a brilliant example for the whole of Yale College.” Patrick Peoples ’18 was joyful: “This is amazing!!!!”

For Davis, the problem lies in the malign past of the word master in a country that once practiced slavery. “I think there should be no context in our society or in our university,” he wrote, “in which an African American student, professor, or staff member—or any person, for that matter—should be asked to call anyone ‘master.’” He also deplored its inapplicability to female heads of colleges.

But the past resonates in different ways for different people. Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway ’95PhD, an African American and a professor of African American history who previously served as master of Calhoun College, told the Yale Daily News that the title seemed “a strange piece of karma” for a black person—but he “never worried about the title beyond that.”

For others, the title is a Yale institution worth preserving. An alumnus, Jim Fink ’85, called it one of the “traditions that made Yale special.” A commenter on the Daily News website wrote, “Since the title has been awarded irrespective of gender, race, sexuality, etc., for a long time, isn’t it reasonable to assume that the associations [Davis] sees...are no longer valid, and that the word has been reclaimed?”

Language shifts, and often connotation is in the ear of the hearer. The word master, Lawler points out, derives from the Latin magister—teacher. But we’ve largely forgotten that meaning. And the continuing national debate about race relations may be surfacing the plantation connotation now for people who wouldn’t have thought about it before.

At this point, Lawler himself “would love to see the word changed” in all the colleges. But it remains to be seen whether Davis’s choice is a trend or an outlier. In language, says Lawler, “you just go with the times.” Judging from the strong feelings on both sides, the times haven’t resolved this issue yet.

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