First Name Basis?

I am warning you, readers, right up front, that this post is a complaint, but  I will also say, right up front the I love my job and love my students, so this is not an “anti-student’ rant.  I have recently completed grading a set of papers in which students had to analyze a poem, examining the way poets use metaphor, imagery and sound to create meaning. In many of these papers, the students consistently referred to the author by his or her first name, as in,  “In her poem, ‘I could not stop for Death’, Emily writes about her journey with  death.” Emily?  I see this every semester. I really want to know possesses students to think that they can refer to writers by their first names.  “William’s play involves star-crossed lovers,”  “Robert’s poem about apple picking” I have never referred to writers this way in class. Nothing in the other literature uses first name only, so I am puzzled about where this usage comes from. I tell my students that they cannot do it simply because the convention is either the last name, “Shakespeare” or first and last, “William Shakespeare.”  I used to tell them that these authors are not their personal friends and, therefore, they need to use the conventional way of writing about authors, but it’s not that, because even if they were friends with the authors, they should still use the convention. When I write book reviews for friends or acquaintances, which I occasionally do, the fact that I know the writer has nothing to do with how I refer to that person in the review. I am interested in examining the work, not writing about my relationship to the author.

So, is this pattern of using an author’s first name simply ignorance? Is it that my students have not read enough writing about writers to understand the convention? Is it that somewhere in high school, they did this and were not corrected by over-worked high school teachers? Or, heaven forbid, some teacher told them to do it?  Or is this a reflection of our familiar culture where everyone is everyone else’s friend, a sort of “Facebook” in the literary world?  Do students have the mistaken idea that they somehow sound part of the “literary world” if they use an author’s first name?

I wish I knew the answer to this. I know it seems like a small thing, but as I read these papers, the first name only reference grates on me like fingernails on a chalkboard.  I want polished, articulate work from my students, and polished, articulate work must, necessarily, follow the accepted conventions of literary writing. The difficulty is not just that it drives me crazy; it is also that in order to be taken seriously, students must use accepted conventions.  Familiarity, whether it’s the use of an author’s first name, or over- use of the first person (as in “I think Emily is a genius”) demonstrates a writer’s ignorance and ineptitude faster than anything else I know.  I want my students to leave my classes better writers, writers who will be taken seriously whenever they write something. To do that, they need to understand the conventions of  whatever form they are using. Learning that Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson and William Shakespeare should not be referred to their first names is a place to start.


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