What Shall I Call Myself?



June 21, 2016

“Negotiate salary, never titles” is the advice I give undergraduates. Too often in my career working for nonprofit organizations, I have seen young women accept too little in salary while negotiating to be an “associate” rather than an “assistant.” Again and again, I tell students, as I previously told mentees, always ask for more in salary and negotiate more in the overall compensation package. Money matters. Never negotiate titles. Let them call you chief cook and bottle washer as long as they are paying you well.

Similarly, in the classroom, I always encourage students to address me by my first name. I take this practice from the feminist teachers who taught me in the late 1980s in the women's studies and English departments at the University of Michigan. In those classrooms, when extraordinary scholars and activists encouraged me to address them by their first names, it was a gesture to equality in our commitment to feminism and a promise that, at some point in my future, I might earn the right to be their peers. As an eighteen- and nineteen-year-old, the confidence that these professors conveyed to me by letting me address them with their first name provided a foundation for intellectual and personal authority throughout my life. I want my students to experience something similar when I encourage them to call me Julie.

As both of these stories indicate, for me, questions of address are rooted in feminist principles about equity and equality. These principles seem simple and direct. They also seem not to apply to the question: what shall I call myself? There are limited equity stakes in what title I use when I am listed, for instance, as a peer reviewer or contributor to this or that project. In the world of my academic failures, the question of a title ignores the bread-and-butter issues I urge my students to keep foremost in mind. Yet the question of how shall I be listed here and there continues to be asked and continues to plague me. Without an academic job, what title do I use? What words convey how to place me in the world?

Like many academics, I have multiple roles, each with interesting and useful titles. I write and publish poems. On my tax returns, I use “poet” as the best descriptor of my work in the world. Yet, poet feels not quite right for a title associated with peer review. The broader descriptor, “writer,” could be used to explain my place in the world, but it seems more like just that, a descriptor not a title. I edit the lesbian-feminist journal, Sinister Wisdom. I could use Editor, Sinister Wisdom, as a title. Again, though, editing a journal of lesbian art and culture feels like an inexact match for a biographical statement in conjunction with academic article. Many people use Independent Scholar. Perhaps I will settle on that designation as it seems to be an emerging convention for scholars outside of academia. For now, however, Independent Scholar feels like a statement of defeat: independent, because I was unable to secure an academic position. Though, of course, it is accurate. Academic Failure, which seems like the most apt title of all, does not capture the authority for myself I imagine. Although verbally, Academic Failure conveys quickly and succinctly exactly where I am located in the world.

For now, I have settled on the phrase, Scholar and Poet, to accompany my name when needed for biographical statements. It is not satisfying; it fails to place me, but perhaps exactly in that failure is the success of the title.



Back to Top