Just Don't Call Me Dr. Bitches

I have a tough time holding back my feelings of rage whenever a student addresses me as “Ms. Vague.”  Even worse are the times when they call me “Miss” or “Mrs.”  It’s not just because I have a doctorate and want to be acknowledged accordingly and it’s not just because “Ms.,” “Miss,” and “Mrs.” sound like a divorcée, a debutante, and a woman married to one of my male relatives, respectively.  In my opinion, knowing how to address your college instructors/professors is about knowing where you are.

Let me explain.  When I started college back before the earth’s crust cooled, when I had to walk to campus every day uphill both ways, I knew immediately to call all my professors “Dr. So-and-so.” I’m not sure how I got the message, but it was immediate and it was total.  No one was immune from being called “Dr.,” not even the art and creative writing professors who, with their MFAs, actually should have been called “Mr.” or “Ms.” (I did eventually figure that out and address them correctly, it was just that at first I felt somehow wrong not calling them “Dr.”) In my mind, their title differentiated them from my high school teachers. I was entering a new and different world and this form of address was an integral part of it.

I don’t think I ever thought of it consciously back then as a way to show respect, but I certainly see it that way now.  I occasionally feel silly or vain for caring about this — like, who am I to be so full of myself? Who am I to demand that my students acknowledge my degree? Why should they care? But then I remember that, in fact, they really SHOULD care.  My education is directly relevant to their education.  The time I spent earning that degree makes me a better teacher.  It does.  I’m in no way arguing that it makes me a better teacher than my colleagues who have earned their MAs or MFAs and who go by Mr. and Ms., but I do believe that my having completed my PhD makes me a better teacher than I would be if I had stopped earlier with an MA.

The letters behind my name are important to me. I had to go through a lot to earn them and I’m proud of that. I don’t think it’s silly or vain to care, especially because addressing faculty by their proper titles is the common convention at every university in the United States. It is just what’s done, period.

But I still wonder why so many students fail to get the message that I received so clearly when I started college — somehow I just picked up on the fact that everyone was called “Dr.” I don’t remember if someone told me that directly (Maybe in orientation? Maybe my dad, a PhD himself, told me?) or if I just echoed what I heard other people saying.  I mean, it’s not really the students’ fault if no one tells them this, right? Which is why I tell them.  I introduce myself as Dr. Vague on the first day; I put it at the top of my syllabus and at the bottom of every email. They know — or they should. But some of them still like to call me “Ms.”

I suspect that this is something that happens to women more often than men.  None of my male colleagues have ever really complained about being erroneously addressed as “Mr.,” and, in fact, more than one older male colleague has been guilty of calling me “Miss” in front of my students.  Being called “Miss” by older male colleagues and “Mrs.” by younger male students makes me think that these forms of address reveal something about the gender-based assumptions being made.  Older men see younger women as children while younger men see older women as someone’s wife. Pardon me while I go vomit. It’s true, though, that the way we speak is a clear outward sign of the value system(s) underpinning our beliefs.  In this case, it is ever clearer to me that I live in a place where career women are an anomaly. Hopefully soon I’ll be able to take my freakish, unmarried, degree-having self elsewhere.  Until then, call me Doctor, bitches!

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11 thoughts on “Just Don't Call Me Dr. Bitches

  1. clarabella November 18, 2009 / 11:29 am

    Excuse this (possibly somewhat unfair) observation, but sometimes students are SO clueless. I get the Mrs. all the time, because how could I possibly be THIS old and not married, ESPECIALLY with a kid. Oh dear lord. This pisses me off for several reasons, obv. & most of them are wrapped up in that last sentence, but also b/c even if we were married, I would probably keep my last name, which would STILL not make me Mrs. VeryGermanLastName. Woe.
    Philly seems to have the opposite problem as you, which is VERY interesting in light of your observations about gender, in that students call him Dr. VeryIrishLastName all the time. All. The. Time. Even in the classes where he tells them to call him just Philly. And that’s another thing about gender differentiation. It has been my observation that if a man, say Philly, walks into a class and says “Hi, I’m Philly,” it does nothing to his credibility as an educated instructor. If a woman, say me, walks into a class and introduces herself (myself?) as Clarabella, most likely, most of her credibility flies out the window. It has happened to ME. Obviously. Why is THAT?
    All that said, I think you are completely entitled to how you feel about your Dr. & just keep telling the little oblivious ones that it’s Dr. Vague, bitches. I know I’ll be going by Dr. VeryGermanLastName, bitches when I finally finish this damn degree.

  2. suomichris November 18, 2009 / 11:46 am

    It is so much easier on the Left Coast where we just use people’s names instead of silly titles… :p

    Seriously, though, as a life-long West Coaster, I HATE being called Mr., or sir, or anything other than my name.

    Having said that, I will almost certainly spend weeks yelling “CALL ME DOCTOR, BITCHES!” after I get those coveted letters after my name…

  3. Danimal November 18, 2009 / 12:30 pm

    Hmmm. What?

    I never knew to call professors “Dr. _________” or anything else according to degree. As far as I knew the convention at your old stompin’ grounds of Zembla — from day one of freshman year through the end of law school — was that you call them “Professor ________” regardless of degree.

    Well, if this is how it is …. call me doctor, bitches, as well.

  4. Brandon November 18, 2009 / 1:18 pm

    I think I managed to get through four years in Zembla without ever once addressing a professor by their name or their title. It was simple. I’d start off conversations and emails with a simple “hello.” Never a “Dear Dr/Professor So and So.” ‘Tis better to avoid the situation altogether and not step on any toes.

  5. oxr November 18, 2009 / 1:30 pm

    Danimal: yep, but even in the US there’s a big difference between “Dr.” and “Professor”. Fortunately or not, it is rendered completely invisible to undergrads by the practice of calling us lower-level types “visiting assistant professor” (if NTT) or “assistant professor” (if TT). Some of my more politically-minded students back at that old stompin’ ground were calling me “Professor” when I was a grad student, which was absurd. (Yes, I corrected them. Sometimes.)

    On the other hand, many of my less perspicacious students to this day go with “Mr.” I tend to think it’s a matter of being under 40, rather than necessarily gender-related, but who knows. (Well, the choice of “Mr.” versus “Ms.” is gender-related. You know what I mean.) I am also heartily sick of being asked if I am trying to get a Ph.D, although as with getting asked for ID at bars I’ll probably miss it when people stop. I generally tell my classes that I’ll answer to more or less anything but that if they’re asking me for a favour it would be a wise decision to use the most formal mode of address possible.

    Also, “Doctor Bitches” was my favorite of Ray’s AIBOs.

  6. Danimal November 18, 2009 / 6:25 pm

    Oxr: Sure, there are Venn diagrams a-plenty to be drawn here. All I know is “professor” was the word, even for adjuncts and instructors, and for grad students it was “hey you.” And whenever I was among the doctorate-holding full-tenure professors in the small high-level classes, it was all first names.

  7. Kristen November 18, 2009 / 6:46 pm

    I think you should start off next semester by walking in and yelling that. Let them know where you stand, you know?

    But seriously, you’re well within your rights to get peeved about this. If I had those letters (and it’s something I gave a lot of thought to), I would be the same way.

    Slight tangent: When I moved to the south, people started calling me “Miss Kristen” in a variety of situations. I called dance instructors and preschool teachers Miss FirstName, but nobody else. Down here, it’s common, and totally unrelated to whether or not you’re married, or young, or … I don’t know, anything. I effing HATE it, but I know it’s considered polite, so I come off as a big jerkass when I ask people to STOP FUCKING CALLING ME MISS KRISTEN.

    Perhaps if I add BITCHES to the end, it’ll be more effective.

  8. Vague November 18, 2009 / 8:01 pm

    C – Yeah, it does not surprise me at all to hear that Philly gets called “Dr.” and you get called “Mrs.” But that is indeed SUPER annoying!

    SC – Did you call your profs by their first name as an undergrad, too? Now that’s just weird. I would not be having that at ALL.

    D – Yes, but I believe Zembla U is an anomaly where this is concerned. More on that below.

    O – Yeah, I have thoughts on the Dr/Prof thing. What’s the common thing at your school – is everyone Dr. or Prof. So-and-so?

    B – I wound up doing the same thing at Zembla U for reasons I’ll explain below.

    K – OMG YES. Ever since I moved down to New Wye (Deep South here), people have been doing that whole Miss Alfina thing with me. I hate that! To me it reminds me of my day care teachers and family maid when I was little. They got called Miss Firstname, but I can’t think of anyone else who did. I would rather people either call me just Alfina in informal situations or go all out with Dr. Vague if they want to be formal.

    OK, so here are my thoughts on the “Dr.” vs “Prof.” thing. The only place I have ever been where professors actually go by the title “Professor” was Zembla University. Everywhere else I’ve been, it has been either “Dr.” or “Mr.”/”Ms.” as appropriate. It took me a while to realize that when I got to ZU – at first I was doctoring everyone, then I realized they all went by “Professor” and I had to change my ways.

    It complicated matters that some of my profs wanted/expected their grad students to call them by their first names while others didn’t. I think the only time it’s appropriate to call a professor by their first name is if you are a grad student and/or they directly ask you to. At any rate, I usually did as Brandon described and just avoided addressing people by anything. In emails, though, I used “Prof.”

    Expecting to be called “Professor Lastname” is, to my mind, even more formal. English Department grad students at ZU were notoriously told to call their graduate advisor “Professor Lastname,” which the prof explained as follows: “You will address me as ‘Professor Lastname’ because that is my job title. Calling me ‘Doctor’ ignores the fact that I have not only worked hard to obtain my degree but I have also worked hard, beyond that, to become a professor.” While I agree with the logic here and understand it, it is just not something I have seen anywhere else. Here at Wordsmith, everyone goes by “Dr.,” which covers us instructors as well as the tenured professorial faculty.

    On calling everyone “Professor” regardless of job title, I disagree that that is actually what’s done. If someone has a job title containing the world “professor,” then yes, they can be called that. “Instructors” and “Fellows” of any stripe should not be called “Professor.” I don’t usually bother to correct people who erroneously call me “Prof. Vague,” but, now that I think of this, it has only happened 2-3 times, ever. (Because I’m here at Wordsmith, where as far as I know no one goes by “Prof.” at all.)

  9. cazzableu November 18, 2009 / 10:24 pm

    Maybe you should try something like: “My name is Dr. Vague, but you can just call me Doctor.” Heh.

  10. Vague November 18, 2009 / 10:59 pm

    Hee hee. That would be excellent.

  11. Danimal November 19, 2009 / 10:37 am

    On calling everyone “Professor” regardless of job title, I disagree that that is actually what’s done. If someone has a job title containing the world “professor,” then yes, they can be called that. “Instructors” and “Fellows” of any stripe should not be called “Professor.”

    I heard it done all the time, never did it myself, but Instructors usually were happy to not correct students — except for legal writing instructors, who were a bizarre breed of blond, young but very old-fashioned women who actually preferred to be “Ms.” even though, as lawyers, they all had doctorates.

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