I received an email from MLA recently addressed to “Professor Silva.” It made me smile, but immediately after that it made me furrow my brow. Professor Silva? Who is this Professor Silva? Nothing in my past emails indicated I was a professor. I put it away, thinking it may have just been a mistake. But it bothered me a little: I did not want to claim “Professor” when I am not one.
Weeks later, I walked into a classroom to talk about our writing center’s services for graduate students. I am often on a first-name basis with the faculty, but I was still taken aback when the instructor introduced me as Ms. Silva to the students. I used to introduce myself to such groups as Liana when I had not finished my Ph.D., but now I make a point to say “Dr.” And that’s what I did. “Hello everyone, I’m Dr. Silva.” As I said it, I heard echoes of my mom: “You should introduce yourself as Doctor Silva! You worked damn hard for that Ph.D.!” I’d been waiting so long to finally call myself Dr. Silva.
I wonder what part of that has to do with me transitioning from student to alumna. The ink on my diploma is still fresh. Perhaps it also has to do with the fact that I am in a job where I am unsure of how people should refer to me. At our writing center, referring to people by their first name is common; it’s a way of establishing yourself as a peer with other writers. Therefore, I feel awkward telling students I am Dr. Silva…even though I am. On the flip side: I have lost count of the number of staff members who don’t know me and who email Mrs./Ms. Silva. I always go out of my way to make sure I refer to people I don’t know as “Professor” or “Doctor” if it applies.
Maybe I’m old school like that, but I learned early on in academia that titles matter.
In the past few months, the topic of being referred to according to one’s title has come up here at Inside Higher Ed and at The Chronicle of Higher Education. U Venus Blogger Sarah Emily Duff shared in “Who Do You Think You Are?”  how she felt about using her title of Dr. Duff when she returned to her university in South Africa. Although she had grown accustomed to being referred to by her first name in London universities, she insisted that her students in South Africa refer to her as Dr. Duff; part of that was because at the campus this is a habit, and part of this was also because she wanted to give them a message about how the university works. However she also wanted to emphasize the point that she is as qualified as her male colleagues. At the Chronicle, Stacey Patton in “That’s Dr So-and-So to You”  (behind a paywall) surveyed different professors to gauge their attitude about using their title or not. … Clearly this is not a conversation that has died, especially among women faculty—the Chronicle, in what I deem a controversial move, chose a picture of Dr. Julianne Malveaux in order to illustrate its point.
As someone who understood the profession of teaching at the collegiate level, I assumed that I would be using my title from Day One. That was the custom at both of my alma maters, and, frankly, that’s what I wanted to be called. However, now that I am a staff member at a doctoral granting institution I find myself feeling a bit more conflicted, especially when the office culture at large is to refer to staff members by their first names. This too is problematic: why do professors get to use “Doctor” while staff are meant to be on a first name basis with students? The opposite could also be argued: why should there be a distinction if we all work with students and want to make ourselves more approachable? What are the consequences of having this unclear nomenclature? For one, it makes a false distinction that staff members do not have Ph.D.s, or that the Ph.D.s are only in the classroom.
Another aspect that should be included in the conversation is the aspect of class: for how many of us the Ph.D. is a symbol of the hard work we put in to earn our degrees? For my parents, being working class who made it into middle class (in a way), the “Dr.” for them is a sign that I’ve “made” it—never mind that making it required a heck of a lot of student loan debt. Gender also plays. Some readers may say that insisting on being called “Dr.” is petty, but I disagree: for many of us in the academy, we have little else to trade on other than the status of “Dr.” How else do we get “paid,” after years of debt and hard work? And compensation is such a dirty word in academia.
For academic women, the issue of nomenclature goes a step further: although academic men have the neutral Mr., for women Miss/Mrs./Ms. is never neutral. The use of any of those titles always hinges upon a woman’s marital status. Like Duff mentioned in her post, Doctor is a gender neutral term. For many academic women, being able to use Doctor instead of the confusing Miss/Mrs./Ms. can be a relief…until someone refers to you in an email or class as Mrs. Then you realize it can take forever to catch on.
I don’t have the answers; honestly, I’m still thinking through these questions. But one thing is for certain: nomenclature matters.
Kansas City, Kansas in the US.
Liana is a regular contributor at University of Venus . Follow her on Twitter @literarychica .