A silly person named Joseph Epstein has apparently written an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (that is behind their paywall) saying that Jill Biden should not use the ‘Dr.’ when referring to herself because it is unseemly to do so. He seems to think that only those with medical degrees should refer to themselves as ‘Dr.’ To add further insult, he compared her earned 2007 PhD degree in education, which she received after submitting a dissertation on student retention in community colleges, to an honorary degree and apparently even referred to her as ‘kiddo’.
There was of course a backlash, which is no doubt what he was looking for because that is the only way obscure people can get their 15 minutes of fame, though why a major newspaper like the WSJ would want to waste valuable editorial space on this garbage is beyond me. Many of the responders were women and members of minority groups who said that they were forced to emphasize their credentials because otherwise people did not take them seriously. They pointed out that when men (Henry Kissinger always used it) used it, it passed unnoticed.
This issue of using academic credentials is a tricky one. When I was director of the university’s teaching center, I would run the annual orientation for new faculty members and I addressed this issue with them. I said that as an older man, I had what I called ‘default authority’ in that when I walked into class on the first day, students would assume that I was knowledgeable about the subject I was teaching. The fact that I was an Asian also added authority in the sciences. But there were three factors that worked against being granted this default authority: being young, female, and a person of color. The more of those boxes you checked off, the more likely students might assume that you were not that knowledgeable or a teaching assistant filling in for an absent professor.
I told new faculty that while I could walk in on the first day of class dressed casually and tell my students that they could call me by my first name, they may want to be more circumspect. I said that they may want to dress more formally (at least for the first week or so) and let it be known that they were serious and accomplished scholars who had doctorates in the field and were highly knowledgeable about the course that they were going to teach. I suggested ways to do this casually and in passing so that they did not come off as boastful and arrogant.
Was it unfair that they had to do these extra things just to get the respect that someone like me could take for granted? Absolutely! And I hated having to talk about these things at all. I said that each faculty member had to decide what battles they wanted to fight and when. There would be new faculty who said the hell with it, they were not going to conform to these expectations and would instead work to destroy them. That is great because that is how barriers and stereotypes get broken. But being a new faculty member is a very stressful time where they are trying to gain the respect and acceptance of their faculty peers and students, and some new faculty may not want to add this particular battle to the things they already had to deal with. I told them that it had to be a personal choice on their part and that our teaching center would support them either way. I was just alerting them to what they faced so that they could make an informed decision and not stumble into a situation that they had not prepared for.
Because I have default authority, I almost never used the title ‘Dr.’, except when I was writing letters of recommendation for my students because on paper my default authority characteristics are not apparent. But I can well understand why Jill Biden uses it.