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Who do you think you are?
October 10, 2012 - 9:15pm

When I graduated in March last year, I expected to enjoy the pomp of the ceremony, the sumptuous and faintly ridiculous robes and hat of formal academic dress, and the joy of receiving my doctoral degree with my parents in the audience.

And I did enjoy all of this, but what surprised me was my pleasure at being able to call myself Dr Duff. I have a title which is absolutely gender neutral, and it reflects the decade’s worth of hard work which went into my university education. But I never expected to insist that others use my title, and I still feel slightly odd calling myself Dr Duff.

During my Ph.D. studies, I taught at two universities in London. At both of these institutions, academic staff and students were on first-name terms. This came as something of a surprise to me. I had completed my undergraduate and MA degrees at – what was then – a conservative and largely Afrikaans university in South Africa. There, nearly all students addressed staff by their titles, with only doctoral candidates – possibly – calling their supervisors by their first names.

When I lectured and tutored in South Africa, I was always Ms. Duff, which amused me considering that I was only a few years older than my students. But while working in Britain, everyone – from the most senior Professor to the very newest first year – was called by his or her first name. I really liked this. Not only did it make tutorials and seminars less formal, but I felt less intimidated by my colleagues. I hope that my students found me more approachable too.

Admittedly, the two universities which employed me are both fairly unusual: one has a very high proportion of mature, part-time students, and the other is a small institution which focuses exclusively on the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Partly as a result of this, I taught students who were particularly receptive to more egalitarian and less hierarchical learning environments.

Crucially, my students understood that even though they could call me by my first name, they still had to respect my authority in the classroom, as well as my expertise on the subjects I was teaching.

Yet since returning to my old university in South Africa, I have, increasingly, begun to insist that students call me by my title. This is largely because it remains the norm at the university for all academic staff to be called by their titles, even if it is a considerably more liberal place than it was when I left it six years ago. I do, though, have two other, equally significant, reasons for insisting on being Dr Duff, rather than Sarah.

The first is connected to the fact that many undergraduates do not seem to understand the role and purpose of the university. When I commented to a group of final-year undergraduates that my main role at the university is to produce research, they were shocked. They believed that I was primarily a teacher. This accounts, I think, for many students’ confusion and, occasionally, anger when I am not always in my office, or when I cannot to assist them with administrative or computing snarl-ups.

At the beginning of every course, I make a point of explaining to students my research interests and qualifications. As petty as it may seem, insisting that academic staff are called by their proper titles is one way of demonstrating to students how university systems work: that in South Africa, Britain, Australia, and elsewhere, the title ‘Professor’ is bestowed only on those academics deemed to be exceptionally talented by their peers. Even if they intend to leave university after three years, undergraduates are part of this academic system, and should understand where they stand in relation to other members of academia.

Secondly, I insist upon being called ‘Dr’ because students consistently assume that my male colleagues are better qualified than I am. Students are quick to promote all my male colleagues to the rank of Professor, while I and other women are usually called ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs’. Male colleagues have little trouble keeping order in class, and their expertise is never questioned.

In this environment, I use my rank to impress upon students that am equally – if not better – qualified than many male lecturers, and am as deserving of their respect and good behaviour in lectures.

When I began my Ph.D. degree five years ago, I had very little idea of how much these two letters before my name would come to mean.

Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Sarah Emily Duff is an NRF Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Stellenbosch University, South Africa and is a regular contributor at University of Venus. She can be contacted at sarahemilyduff@gmail.com.

 

 

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