Tuesday, July 17, 2012

I'm a doctor! I'm a doctor and I want my sausages!

One of my internet guilty pleasures* is reading Slate's "Dear Prudence" advice column. Yesterday, she answered a letter from a woman whose parents were offended that their future mechutonim, who are doctors, were planning to use their titles on the wedding invitation. Prudence advised that the parents shouldn't feel threatened, and that since the in-laws were medical doctors, it was perfectly fine for them to use their titles. But, she added: "I have more of a problem with people with Ph.D.s using the Dr. title, which I think is better reserved for those with medical degrees. Try to convey to your parents that it's not a putdown of them they you're marrying into a medical family and their using Dr. is just the facts." 

Erm, Prudence? When those of us with PhDs use the title "Dr." it's also just the facts.

My commentary brain immediately runs to snark when I read something like this. (Oh yeah? You try out grad school and then tell me I'm not entitled (so to speak) to use the title I've earned, etc.)

But past the snark (Oh yeah? And how many advanced degrees do you have? (Okay, almost past the snark)) there is a serious observation to be made: Especially in the absence of any kind of explanation for why, exactly, she has a problem with PhDs using their title (she does know that the D in PhD stands for "doctor," right?) this just reeks of anti-intellectualism and the sort of attacks on the academy that have become all too common. Slate is a left-ish leaning news magazine, and I guess I'd always assumed, if only for that reason, that Prudence was also left-ish leaning. And working on that assumption, this very unnecessary assault on PhDs (not even material to the discussions about the wedding invitations -- a nasty non sequitur) would seem to suggest that the anti-intellectualism that I mostly associate with the political right in this country is actually much more pervasive. It means that even people who don't decry evolution and global warming have been, perhaps subconsciously, influenced by that narrative such that the trappings of it have become part of their world view even when they don't buy into the substance of it. And that's unquestionably a negative development.

My PhD is new enough that I'm still pretty uncomfortable being addressed by my title. I definitely don't lord it over people or use it when I introduce myself or in my email .sig file. I really don't care much at all about my title. I don't care, that is, until somebody tells me I shouldn't be using it. Then I will doctor myself (so to speak) left and right.

And that includes with students. I think that the icing on the cake of infuriation was to see a woman writing this column. Obviously as an outsider to the academy, Prudence has no way of knowing this, but it's very common for students to presume to calling their female professors by their first names or Ms. Lastname (or even worse, Mrs. Lastname) while, by default, calling their male professors Dr. or Professor. So, thanks, Prudence, for striking a blow against academics in a battle that also happens to be fought harder, by necessity, by your half of the species.


*One of my goals for next year is to cut down on Internet guilty pleasures in the interest of not wasting so much time and also not having my down time spent with my butt in a chair and staring at a screen, which I think is contributing to. My sense of burnout. That said, I'm mostly planning on cutting out the reading of blogs that I follow not because they're good but because they are total train wrecks. (Hopefully cutting down on my input of bad writing will also be good for my prose style.) My Prudence readership is safe -- for now.

** I wrote this post on my iPad, just to see what writing on it would be like. I'm withholding judgment until I can try it a few more times, but so far I'm not crazy about having to contend with autocorrect nor about lacking a full QWERTY keyboard. In fact, I find that I keep hitting the shift key in anticipation of needing to punctuate, but that's not one of that key's functions in this setup. (Actually, I've been looking forward to having a chance to try it for taking lecture notes, and now I'm curious how it'll work with the modified keyboard.) Plus, it took about three time longer, there are limited formatting and linking options, and I found myself editing myself down preemptively solely to avoid having to type more or use complicated key combinations.

*** Post title is from Fawlty Towers.

**** Yes, I realize that three of the four footnotes to this post don't have referrents. It's variant championship footnoting.


  1. I hear your points, though I'd be happy to see a title for PhDs that is distinct from MDs, just for clarity's sake. I mean, we don't call lawyers "Dr.", even though their degree has the word "doctor" in it.

  2. Fair enough. The JD counter-example does address that one bit of parenthetical snark. Convention is, though, that PhDs do get to use the "doctor" title and it just raised my hackles for an advice columnist to completely randomly assail that. (There were no PhDs at play in the letter -- it wasn't totally immaterial to a wider discussion, but it was almost as out of the blue as if she had said that, by the way, she also thought that the father of the bride shouldn't wear his kilt to the wedding because she has a problem with men wearing skirts.) The interesting thing, too, is how locally-bound the custom is -- like for example, I actually *legally* can't call myself "doctor" in Germany -- and so the broad brush-stroke also seemed a little, well, broad.

    Socially, the confusion is easily addressed with a quick "no, I"m not that kind of doctor." Although I thought this was an interesting take on (and locus for) the confusion issue: