Sunday, December 13, 2020

Dr. Jill Biden

Joseph Epstein’s complaint in The Wall Street Journal about Jill Biden’s choice of honorific is a strange piece of writing. Epstein touts his own modest academic credentials (“I taught at Northwestern University for 30 years without a doctorate or any advanced degree”) while mocking Biden’s dissertation, bashing doctoral programs generally, and calling out the awarding of honorary doctorates to celebrities (while also letting us know that he has one such degree himself).

What I find most noteworthy about Epstein’s screed is not its condescending misogyny (“Madame First Lady — Mrs. Biden — Jill — kiddo: a bit of advice”) but its failure to consider the ways in which academic honorifics function in and out of academia. Ben Yagoda’s essay “What Should We Call the Professor?”is helpful on these matters:

Forms of academic address are not only intensely personal, but also tied up with far-ranging trends and issues of gender, prestige, and cultural change.
Notice: intensely personal.

My preference was always “Mister” — good enough for my dad and good enough for me, I used to tell students.  Or “Professor” (if you must). My choice, I happily acknowledge, was a form of reverse snobbery on a campus where “Doctor” was endemic (and where first names for profs were never a norm). If I were a woman in academia, I’d probably choose “Professor” and keep students from using “Miss” and “Mrs.” in place of “Ms.” If, like Jill Biden, I had received a doctorate later in life after many years of teaching, I might well choose ”Doctor.” Whatever the choice, it would be personal. And, like Dr. Biden’s choice, it would be none of Mr. Epstein’s b-i-bizness.

[The link in the first sentence should take you to the full WSJ piece. Fingers crossed.]

comments: 5

Anonymous said...

As someone who grew up in academia as my father had a PhD and we moved quite a bit when growing up as he moved up in the academic world until head of a department. When I started at the university he told me to call all of my instructors "Dr" just in case they had a PhD. Those who didn't would be amused but at least I didn't offend those with one.

I always admired those who had gone for the PhD until I worked with someone in the real world who had one who really shouldn't have had one. We figured out that the department had given him one just to get him out of the department!

I've often flirted with the idea of getting a PhD to the point of applying for one in law school. But taking on more large law school debt right now is now encouraging. If not in law, I'm not sure what it would be.

I just love going to school!!!


ps I am of the Mary Tyler Moore school of titles. When I worked for a trade association, I called the President "Mr" not by his first name like others did. I just couldn't cross that line!

Michael Leddy said...

She never calls him Lou, does she?

When I was an undergrad, my favorite professor once observed that it wasn’t the smart ones who went on to grad school, it was the persistent ones. Food for thought, though he was abundantly smart, and a great teacher.

Sean Crawford said...

To me a title is an honorific.

Here in North America we don't do hereditary titles, nor knighthoods and "order of the garter," while in Canada they have an Order of Canada where worthy people meet the Governor General (the queen's representative) and are entitled to wear a broach-medal and to have official correspondence have initials (I forget what) after their name.

Think of the titles at an Agatha Christie garden party. Back when admirals were almost as poor as a church mouse, we used terms like admiral and reverend and Father Brown as a form of non monetary compensation for the service they performed. The title therefore benefited society as well as them.

In that spirit I will use the title professor.

Fresca said...

I like "Dr." Jill Biden.
That she's a woman comes into it for me--show her her due respect, especially in a realm (a world) where women get little respect.

I note MLK's full title, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

But sometimes it's just weird. I used to know a guy (white, professional) who had "PhD" printed on his checks, after his name.
I always thought that was so weird, and a little pathetic.

Michael Leddy said...

I just added to my post — it hadn’t occurred to me that “Professor” or “Doctor” is a good way for a woman to keep students from using “Miss” and “Mrs.” “Professor” has an added benefit, to my mind: you can use it without the person’s name. “Doctor, will you be in your office after class?” sounds kinda silly to me. But again, it’s a personal decision.

Michael Leddy, Ph.D.