On Academic Titles, Perception, and Respect

by Robyn Repko Waller

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Academic titles aren’t everything. But they signpost what might not otherwise be socially salient; I, and others like me, are present here as members of this academic community. 

Earlier this week the Wall Street Journal published a now widely criticized op-ed piece, imploring Dr. Jill Biden to drop her academic title from her public persona before her tenure as First Lady. Many outlets have condemned the misogynistic tone of the piece, which refers to Dr. Biden as “kiddo,” disparages her dissertation as sounding “unpromising,” and encourages her instead to focus, as if it is mutually exclusive, on the excitement of living in the White House. Even the author’s former employer has distanced themselves from his views. 

Now, the author, Mr. Epstein, does provide an argument of sorts for his views, backed with anecdotal evidence. He cites his decades-long career as a university lecturer and editor of a scholarly publication, a career he has advanced without a Masters or PhD. Sometimes, he notes, students have called him by ‘Dr.’ He reports that he has an honorary doctorate, but he speaks poorly of the kind of individuals who typically have such honorary degrees bestowed upon them in contemporary times — wealthy donors and entertainers. Rather, he quips, “no one should call himself ‘Dr.’ unless he has delivered a child.” (An apropos male doctor reference in a misogynist piece.) Charitably (against all initial recoiling), we may read this as the view that the mere possession of a doctorate, at least of the honorary variety, does little to track the merit or quality of work or worth of the individual. Using the title, then, presumably, does not signify what it seems.

Of course, we may well agree that plenty of meritorious work, academic or otherwise, has been produced by those without a doctorate or even a bachelor’s degree. To think otherwise is to slide into the growing elitism about the “uneducated.” I was a first-generation (undergraduate) college student. Having grown up in a proud working-class family, whose character —community-mindedness, warmth, ingenuity, courage — and work ethic were second-to-none, I also recoil at  this growing elitism. Plus I can understand the frustration about celebrity and money trumping desert for academic accolades. Few scholars, if any, have gotten nearly as much attention as Nicole Polizzi, aka Snooki, did when delivering a lecture to a university (although I’m sure it was an interesting address). More seriously, there is a severe socioeconomic barrier to entry into college in the US and elsewhere. 

Here’s the thing though: anecdotal evidence is just that — anecdotal. Epistemically narrow from the eyes of the reporter. We need a wider lens. Granting problematic elitism, we can look from the viewpoint of others to more clearly see, even so, what is so deeply unsettling about this call for Dr. Biden to shed her title. When we do so we see there are sure-footed independent reasons for women and others who are underrepresented in the academy to use their academic titles. 

I’ll start with my own experience. As a young (now just young-ish) woman with a PhD who has taught at a university for almost ten years, I’ve had plenty of cringe-worthy run-ins. Scenarios that would be better avoided with obvious signposting of one’s degree. For instance, as a newly minted PhD, I was approached by a student in the department on my first day as a visiting assistant professor: “Hi!”, they started enthusiastically, “are you the wife of the new professor?” (The student had likely, unintentionally and non-maliciously enough, picked up on the serious dearth of women professors in philosophy departments over the years.) Several years later, a fellow professor from another institution, a man, strolled up to me at a colloquium gathering at a well-regarded institution. “So,” he began confidently, “you are [a colleague]’s wife?” Taken aback — although why would I be at this point, I replied. “Hm. No, I am a faculty member here in this department.” “Ah.” He shifted around awkwardly. “Well, are you attending the talk at [institution] tomorrow?” “I am,” I replied. “I am giving the talk.”

Although I’m not always mistaken for someone’s wife. Sometimes people take me for a student. Once, when giving a keynote at a conference for high schoolers, I spent the bulk of the time leading up to my talk correcting the attendees that I was *not* in fact a teacher or student at the school. Or, at another conference for which I was a keynote speaker, repeatedly correcting attendees that I was not a graduate student. How could it be that I hadn’t presented yet, each interlocutor wondered, bewildered, when all that was left was a keynote address? Here I was, listed on the program and promotional materials at each as a keynote, here with my name tag displayed for all, and yet I could not present myself as who I really was. Not old-enough-looking and not-masculine-looking. Or one of the most amusing times: Once I was even “complimented” for my articulate questions at a high-profile lecture series. “I just want to say,” the stranger stated admiringly, shaking my hand, “you always ask incisive questions with follow-up replies. Where do you study?” “Gee, thanks.” I responded, earnestly trying not to make the encounter more awkward. “I am a faculty member at [institution with graduate students]. Where are you based?” “Oh.” He demurred, “I am a MA student.”

And on and on and on. These are just a handful of experiences out of the numerous encounters one has as an individual of an underrepresented group in academia. Why all of this unnecessary and ethically dubious awkwardness? In this case, women are woefully underrepresented in philosophy as a profession. There’s a whole blog, beingawomaninphilosophy.wordpress.com, dedicated to reports from women in the field. The excellent recent Netflix series, The Queen’s Gambit, too offers an intriguing portrayal of the what-its-like-ness to be a women in another historically male-dominated arena of achievement, chess, from the perspective of the fictional chess phenom Beth Harmon. And we haven’t even discussed the complexity of how women with children are perceived in academia (That’s why, by the way, I was mistaken as someone’s wife on one occasion. Why would this professor have a baby?) Members of the academy, in philosophy and more broadly, with intersectional identities face especially problematic treatment. 

But it’s not just triggering microaggressions and social clumsiness. Individuals from underrepresented groups suffer professionally. Such individuals, due to operative shared social conceptions, are subject to, among other slights, what philosopher Miranda Fricker has termed systematic testimonial injustice. They are denied their status as knowers. In this context, others miss out or discount these knowers’ academic contributions due to their perceived social categories. If you are looking for an academic doctorate-holding person in the room with your cued-up (perhaps implicit) professor stereotype, you might miss the young woman or nonbinary scholar or the BIPOC scholars across the way (in contrast to, for example, the image above, of the first result for “professor” in an image search.). Even if they are heard, those scholars are less likely to be cited or work in certain kinds of institutions. 

So, yes, academic titles aren’t everything. They aren’t foolproof guides to expertise. But for individuals from underrepresented groups in academia they serve an important function. They mark out the holder, emphatically, as a member of the scholarly community.

What about Dr. Biden, then? Perhaps, one might press, few need to see “Dr. Jill Biden” to know she has a doctorate. Here it’s instructive to note, though, that seeing exemplars of underrepresented faces in the academy attached to academic titles in general reminds us, perhaps implicitly, that the umbrella of knowers in the scholarly world is in fact a wider and more diverse one than we illicitly assume. 

The  prefix ‘Dr.’ and appended ‘EdD,’ ‘MD,’ or ‘PhD’ signpost what is, unfortunately, otherwise not salient: I am present here as a member of this academic community, the signatory states. Respect that I, along with all of those here who are underrepresented, are knowers. In this way Dr. Jill Biden, in embracing her academic title, amplifies this important message.