That’s Dr, if you please

October 31, 2013

In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the theme of academic titles makes a fleeting appearance. The title character is an academic archaeologist, and his young sidekick, Short Round, urges the lead female character to “call him Dr Jones” rather than use his first name.

This scene perfectly illustrates a disturbing trend I have noticed in academia, one we should end very soon. It has become popular to rob academics with the title of “Dr” of their titles in professional settings where its use is entirely appropriate.

I first noticed this at a large academic conference where my work was to be presented. On the registration form, I wrote my name as “Dr Becky Lee Meadows”. When I received my name badge at the conference, it said simply “Becky” in large black print, with “Becky Meadows” in smaller print below. When I asked about my missing title, I was told that the conference administrators did not allow the use of the title “Dr” because other conference participants might find it intimidating.

Some quick work with a marker pen and my identity was once again whole.

After that first incident, I began to notice this happening more often at other academic conferences. I started taking marker pens everywhere with me. I cringed as moderators continued to introduce me as “Becky” to a room full of strangers. After more than two years of this, I decided that it must be a cultural trend, and that it must be stopped.

As a cultural studies scholar, I see this for what it is: a widespread tendency in our culture to make everything “user-friendly”, including people. In their papers, my students refer to major authors and figures by their first names – Stephen King is “Stephen”, Edgar Allan Poe is “Edgar”, William Wordsworth is “William”; even President Obama has become “Barack”. However, I see the danger of this in regard to power. As we all know, he who owns the language wins.

Maya Angelou expresses this in her short story Finishing School, in which she describes how she learned etiquette from a wealthy Southern white woman. Angelou purposely drops a set of antique dishes when the woman calls her “Mary” instead of “Marguerite”. “Mary” was shorter, you see.

“Dr” is possibly the most prestigious title in academia; typically, it signifies someone who is a true expert in her field. Those who have sweated through the process of completing doctoral classes, foreign language examinations, comprehensive exams and a doctoral dissertation are certainly deserving of the title.

If you want to be called by your first name, that is certainly your right. My point is that you have the right to be called whatever you like, including any earned title(s), and that others should respect that right. However, when conference administrators – or anyone in academia or elsewhere – rob us of our rightful use of our titles without our permission, they seize the power to rename us. The idea that the title “Dr” might be intimidating is an assumption, of course – it might actually help those seeking an expert to find one at a conference, or even encourage conference participants to initiate conversations with those considered experts in their fields.

In the meantime, while those who would rob us of our rightful titles continue to appropriate that power, we must “talk back”. Short Round verbally corrects the omitted title. Angelou drops the antique dishes. I use a marker pen.

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Reader's comments (2)

Hear, hear! Students in Australia now call lecturers by our first names, but often revert to title and surname in written correspondence. When they do this, I've noticed an increasing trend to use the title "Ms" for women, even when the course material and university directory clearly labels them as "Dr". My male colleagues are much more usually referred to as "Dr".
I've just translated a document into English and the author signs off "Prof. Dr. Name, Surname" - is this common practice? I would have thought either Prof or Doctor would have sufficed, and I'm thinking about deleting one of them, probably 'Professor'.

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