Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Should Female Profs Insist on Being Called Dr.?

SteveG tackled a rather interesting issue yesterday concerning the unconscious sexism wielded by our students when they refer to female professors as Mrs., Ms. or Miss. I am calling this behavior "unconscious sexism" for a specific reason. It has always been my belief that students do this because from an early age they have had female teachers, starting with pre-Kindergarten. By the time they arrive at college they most likely have had far more female teachers than male teachers and the etiquette of elementary, middle and high school dictates that they call these teachers by Miss or Mrs. There is another component involved in why it is more "natural" for students to call female profs by these titles: the cultural image of a college professor is still stereotypically male (as SteveG described himself). So the unconscious sexism stems from the lingering effects of overt sexism that segregated the education field.

The far more interesting question is whether female professors should insist that students refer to them as Dr. Like SteveG I have always found this etiquette to be outmoded , if not silly. Our department culture is casual on purpose: it is more successful for educating. Steve is right to point out that we have moved beyond pedagogical models that erect Herr Doktor Professor above the class and force the underlings to bow to his authority. This model is horrible for good teaching outcomes, except in cases where the student doesn't really need a teacher because he or she is quite bright and self-sufficient.

I always aim to create a community in my classroom. I want students to know each others' name, feel safe and comfortable about asking me a question (so many are too intimidated to ask questions for fear of looking stupid). I also want my students--particularly my female students--to be able to imagine themselves in my role. Perhaps more of them will attempt a PhD if they can relate to me personally . I also agree with Steve that you shouldn't earn students' respect simply because you got a PhD; that accomplishment says nothing about whether or not you are a good teacher. So I do not insist or care if they call me Dr. Aspazia.

Having said that, I do agree that SteveG often gets more instant respect from students. Probably what is more important, however, is that students do not challenge SteveG's policies, arguments, and assignments as much as they do female professors. I am sure he gets this stuff, but not in the same numbers that female professors do. What is at the base of well-meaning advice from the more seasoned female faculty suggestion to insist on the title Dr. is a clear reminder to students who is the expert in the room and who has the skill to design the course and assignments.

SteveG writes:

I especially wonder about this advice coming from academic feminists, one of the central concerns of the field being the corrupting epistemological influence of uneven power structures. I fully get the irony that just when these women reach positions of power and prestige, we want to eliminate power and prestige; but the further irony is that their works document the harm from alienation based on power and prestige of being in a socially elite group which surely includes holders of a Ph.D., if it includes anyone. I'm not arguing that any professor doesn't deserve respect for their work and accomplishments, but to flaunt the title as a marker of superiority strikes me as unhelpful in getting students, who are just people (well, some of them anyway) like us to a place where it is most likely that they will see the world in new, wondrous, and disturbing ways. It seems to be emblematic of the old order where professors professed from behind a lectern, pouring their wisdom into the minds of those hearing their lectures -- a model of learning none of us thinks works very well.

The only--ever so slight--disagreement that I have with his assessment here is that what feminists are after is the right to be included in the socially elite group of PhDs. As I said above, I think they are looking for ways to remind students that these women are competent and knowledgeable.

I have chosen to ignore this well-meaning advice because I don't think that insisting on the title is the best way to clue students into my qualifications for being their professor. I have found that students are far more likely to give you respect if you actually show that you care about them. This means you are careful to explain well the point of assignments, the goal of the course, and offer help if they seem to be struggling. You also try to understand a little bit about their situation (I mean this is in the good old Existentialist way); you see these students as embedded in a world. Our students have all sorts of fears and obstacles about learning hard material. They also have real constraints on their time as well as resources. Acknowledging these realities while still being really clear about your expectations, your policies, and your goals is--to my mind--the best way to earn respect.

What is sad, but true, is that very few of our students care if we have published in the last year, or if we have been invited as a plenary speaker at a conference. They do often get wide-eyed if they find out we have written a book, but that stems more from the fact that they cannot imagine writing something that long, let alone getting published. They respect the hardwork, not so much the fame. I think if we landed on Oprah, Survivors, or Jeopardy, they might respect us more.

The old ways of earning respect just don't, in my view, apply. We are teaching a new generation of students and we have to adapt in ways that will really show them that we deserve their respect.

I should add that my post in no way should be construed as being "soft" or "squishy" when it comes to students. I am sure that my students who read this blog can attest to that. I think it is important to be consistent, clear, and firm. But, those qualities alone are not what makes students respect you.