People are crazy. It seriously blows my mind that anything about my latest Slate article–which offers helpful navigation about what to call your college instructor in an ever-stratifying university–could be the least bit controversial. Like my idol Clarissa often says of my work, all I really do, the vast majority of the time, is point out the obvious: the job market stinks; adjuncts are underpaid; grad programs need to react to the adjunct crisis; essays are over-assigned; racism and sexism are things.

Let’s review.

College students often don’t know what to call faculty, because faculty come in many forms. FACT.

When you enroll in a college course, you are proclaiming to the Registrar and the world that you would like to learn something you do not already know, from a person who knows that thing as a profession. As such, that person is in a position of authority about this one single thing. FACT.

That person has often–though not always–earned a terminal degree in her or his field, and often that degree is the PhD. FACT.

The officially “correct” form of address for a person who has earned a doctoral degree of any sort–juris, medical or otherwise–is Doctor. FACT.

Some “doctors” do not want to be called Doctor. This is totally fine. FACT.

Some do. This is also totally fine–and it’s up to them, and not you. FACT.

“Doctor” is a a gender-neutral title. FACT. (This is, indeed, one of the reasons I like it.)

The outsized, vitriolic and altogether hilarious response to this article demonstrates that someone who looks and acts like me (a lady-woman; sarcastic and authoritative) assuming any form of authority about anything will immediately receive derision and scorn (and multiply what I’ve gotten by infinity-x if I were not a white woman).

If Slate had published the same article under a different name–a male, WASPy sounding name, like, oh, I don’t know, Brett Betherton Weatherby IV or whatever–I guaran-fucking-tee you it would not have provoked the same response.

As one of my Twerplez, Josh Raulerson, pointed out a few hours ago:

Yep. Yep. Yep.

32 thoughts on “Dafuq?

  1. It’s weird for me to think back about the professors and institutions I’ve been involved with and when titles were and weren’t used. The only time I’ve ever had a professor come out and *say* “Please call me Doctor [redacted]” was when she had just completed her degree. That was also a graduate course, so setting some boundaries was probably wise. At that same institution, there were professors who all the students (grad students included) called Dr. , others who were referred to by first name, and others who got a little of both. (This was in reference, too, not just in direct address. A few I *still* have a hard time not referring to as Dr. , even when sitting in a conference hotel bar drinking with them.) My undergrad was at a SLAC where pretty much everybody was on a first-name basis. None of that changes the right of professors to claim their earned titles if they want; that’s their prerogative and responsibility. As an adjunct, I got everything from Mr. to Sir to Doctor to Professor to Instructor to “Hey, teacher.” Nobody ever addressed me as “lecturer” which was my title as often as not.

    Having followed some of the ensuing nonsense on Twitter, you obviously hit an (idiotic) nerve with a surprising swathe of (mostly white and male) people. The usual dudebro stuff is obviously in play, but it also strikes me that there’s something particularly American about the anxiety raised by these questions. We’re trained to have knee-jerk reaction against authority, especially when young…at least in matters we can write off as cultural and therefore of little consequence. (What would have happened if the piece had been about calling part-time or reserve police officers “Officer” when they’re on duty? There’s no way it would have even gotten published, because it’s “obvious.” Again, rebellion only where it’s inconsequential.) Titles are uncool when they’re not yours. So, you know, you’re not only a , you’re a *square.*


  2. So what is the dig about dance teachers about in your article? Dance teachers possibly are TA’s, professors, PhD’s. Do you have something against dance teachers?


    • I love dance teachers. I was a serious(ish) dancer for many years. It is standard in non-academic dance academies for a dance teacher, especially a ballet mistress, to ask to be called “Miss [First Name.]” That is all.


  3. I see you’re laboring under the mistaken impression that trolls are interested in facts. This is wrong. The more you point out facts to trolls, the angier they will become. I think trolling correlates not only with Machiavellian tendencies, sadism, and narcissism (and having a penis), but with anger and fear at what is slipping away for people who possess those characteristics (and I oughtta know).


  4. This whole thing reminds me of when I started doctoral studies at a school with a lecturer on the faculty WHOM I HAD WORKED WITH IN THE PAST ON A FIRST NAME BASIS, who now insisted I refer to him as Dr. This sort of blew me away, but I went with it, because, you know. Me student. He teacher. It was a culture shift, that’s all.


  5. Women always get the worst vitriol on the internet. Now that you have poked the hornets’ nest of aggrieved white men who feel wronged by the progress of modern society with that sexual harassment piece, they’re going to find something to enrage them about everything you write for a while. Until some new uppity woman or two come along to distract attention. Like maybe if Anita Sarkeesian say something they don’t like (or anything at all.)

    I think it’s self-evident that students don’t know what to call their instructors, even male ones. I certainly ran into that. The reasons why this is an especially significant issue for female and minority scholars should likewise be self-evident, but some people live in isolated pockets of the world where no sexism or discrimination seems to exist because the thick fog of sexism and discrimination blocks all light.


  6. You aren’t a doctor unless you are a prescribing physician. I am a professor, at a university, with a PhD. What I see is that those who require their students call them Dr. or Prof. tend to be unhappy or otherwise disappointed in their job. They also tend to be highly insecure. Usually because they have been through multiple post-docs and make about the same as a high school teacher. I make less than my private sector counterparts, but I don’t complain. I knew what the job entailed. While I understand academic departments can be difficult places for females, this is an entirely separate issue. If anything, a female prof requiring deference when others do not is undermining her legitimate grievances.


      • I assume the ad hominem is due to my poor wording. I was not referring to you specifically with my opening, though I now realize you hold a PhD and might have interpreted my comment as an attack on your credentials. Regardless of the history of the word, times are changing in academia, particularly in the US, and it isn’t rooted in disdain for female academics. To many non-PhDs, a person referred to as “Doctor” is usually assumed to be a physician, particularly when outside of the classroom.

        I train my graduate students to be colleagues, and I expect them to act as such. That means being respectful and deferential (in some cases) to their more senior colleagues, regardless of whether titles are involved.

        As an applied researcher, I find the Doctor title to be counterproductive when working with people from outside of academia. Similarly, I find there are much better ways to maintain proper boundaries with classroom students, but that some formality is necessary at the beginning of the semester.

        If you earn a PhD, you have the right to be called Doctor, Professor, etc. If your department/university/discipline tends to be less formal (as mine are), you may come off as insecure and pretentious.


      • The point of my article, you inveterate condescending mansplainer, is that it is up to each individual faculty member to communicate with students. Everyone has the right to be called what he or she wishes in the classroom. Regardless of what you have descended from on high to proclaim. And the very fact that you claim privilege has nothing to do with it simply demonstrated how blind to yours you are.


      • Privilege? You keep saying this. Are you referring to me being a white male? Because I’m not talking about privilege, nor saying it has nothing to do with whatever the hell you are saying.

        So I suppose you are talking about my male-ness. I am well aware it has helped me get to where I am. I am also a huge advocate for hiring more women in my department (while women are well-represented in our junior faculty, the imbalance is painfully obvious among the tenured and, in particular, full professors). Further, of all the chauvinistic bullshit I have seen that actually affects female academics, failing to refer to her as Dr or Prof is not on that list.

        Once again, this is a completely separate issue from the one of titles. Further, titles are a red herring if you want to discuss deference to and respect for professors. I have many undergrads who call me Dr (I let them call me whatever they like once I get to know them in class), and then proceed to play on their phones in class or, worse, submit garbage to me, as if my time is of no value.

        Sorry if this sounds like “mansplaining” to you. It still stands: when a prof (male or female) makes a fuss about being called something other than doctor or professor, it comes off as petty. I am clearly not the only person who feels this way.


      • First of all, I apologize for calling you a privileged twit and an inveterate condescending mansplainer. That was wrong. I am going to take a different angle and actually attempt to go into actual, honest depth about something important to me. I am doing this because you are quite obviously too intelligent not to ‘get it,’ so I can only assume your ‘not getting it’ has to do with some other reason. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and say it’s not willful ignorance or snobbery.

        So, first things first. What I mean about your privilege is that your privilege is absolutely inherent in your insistence that any college instructor who cares what his or (usually) her students call her is being petty and insecure, or should be regarded by students as such. This is because if you had ever been subject to inherent lack of respect—as women and people of color are, every single day—by students and your peers, by watching your white male colleagues get called Dr. or Professor while you are called Ms. in the same context, then you would know that it’s not petty to want to be viewed on equal footing.

        You are absolutely correct, however, that it is insecure—in the literal sense of the word. Seventy percent of today’s faculty (a disproportionate amount of whom are women) works off the tenure track, many in utmost precarity. We work semester to semester, our paychecks tied almost 100% to our students’ evaluations (and thus we must generally just suck it up, whatever they want to call us, lest we offend them into giving us poor marks).

        Is this because we lack the credentials or talent? Absolutely not. It is because—purely, 100% because—the Profession has been slowly disappearing for decades, and took a precipitous plummet in 2008, while many of us were too far gone in graduate school to turn around.

        But the stigma of the Profession—the faux-meritocracy that says that those on the tenure track are there because they are better, that we off-track are thus here because we are not “the real deal,” tainted somehow, less-than, not good enough—weighs heavy on our shoulders. We cannot be “Professor” because we are nothing more than “Staff.”

        Our tenured colleagues—not unlike you—regard us either not at all or with utmost derision, either openly or in private (as you do your “post-docs”). The profession has forsaken us; its “in” crowd looks down on us, and will never, ever give us respect or credibility—this, despite the fact that many of us, myself included, are highly accomplished scholars with publication and teaching records as good as, or better than, our “better” colleagues.

        The only thing—the only thing—we have that nobody can take away from us, that is secure, is the degree conferred upon us, the fact of whose existence those in power have no power to annihilate. So you will have to forgive us if we believe that using that title—the one we bled for, the one that may, indeed, have ruined our lives—is fucking important to us, in a way that you can either never understand, or refuse to understand. You will have to forgive us if we do not think it is “petty.”

        #MicDrop #EndOfDiscussion


  7. I adore you, too. 🙂

    And I have the same approach to the way students address me. My hair stands on end when they call out, “Meeeez?” Brrrr.

    Why anybody would see this as controversial is still very mystifying.


  8. The most frustrating address for me does not involve students, but professors. People have written me “dear ms. Smith” “all the best, dr. Smith”. If you dr. yourself, don’t ms. me. This lady is as “dr.” as you.


    • It’s interesting b/c I am currently prepping for a big media event in NY that involves a lot of producers & publicists. I am the only woman involved, and all correspondence to me has been to Ms. Schuman. I wonder if the correspondence to the others–to the president of EdX, for example–is to Mr., Prof. or Dr.


  9. I loved the piece. As a woman in academia I just want to be called professor, like my male counterparts, not Mrs. XXX, like the kid’s high school teacher. I earned my PhD! I particularly hate that the students default to all men being Dr (even if not a PhD) and women as Mrs. Hate it.


  10. I had a resident professor in my undergrad residential college who went by Dr. Bill (not Mr. Bill), & I dug that mix of formality levels. So I tell my students to call me Dr. Nick on the 1st day of every class, & I include a pic of the Simpsons character Dr. Nick (general practictioner/veterinarian) on the syllabus. I’ve NEVER had a student go down the formality scale to Nick, but I do get students who insist on increasing the formality to Dr./Prof. + surname. To the extent that students address me informally, it’s always by surname only. Which I have to admit annoys: We’re not classmates in 6th grade gym class. My wife (grad school cohort of Kersten Horn), on the other hand, often gets Frau Seidlitz or just Frau. I’d be tempted to go full on Fr. Doktor Professor (or is it umgekehrt?) on their asses, but she doesn’t.

    Nick D.

    PS I also find that this generation of undergrads often refers to historical figures by their 1st names in essays, as in “Albert [Einstein] was a patent clerk . . .”, so maybe they’re formality-challenged in general.


  11. People are attacking you because of the fact you threw in a few paragraphs on race and gender based privilege in teaching, a fact you fail to list on your blog above. Also likely because your article is just the reheated version of Gulliver’s article and nothing special aside from the fact it puts money in your pocket. Much this this whole page view on your blog.

    Great journalism career you’re having. Two Slate pieces with retractions or edits and this warmed over leftovers. Reminiscent of an academic career almost. Or I suppose if you’re aiming for page views and outrage as opposed to being good at it, I must tip my hat at you for being successful. Enjoy the three cents or whatever, try not to spend it all in one place.


    • 1. Race and gender privilege are extremely real, and all the more evident based on reactions exactly like the one you are having.

      2. In the past year, I have published over twenty articles on Slate, the vast majority of which have not required retractions or corrections (as the vast majority did not deal with a highly litigious subject). Many do indeed involve re-packaging current issues in academe for a general audience. That is precisely what I was hired to do. I’m sorry if you don’t like it. And, for what it’s worth, Katrina Gulliver liked the article and told me so.

      I have only been a journalist for eleven months, and I am not formally trained (unless you count being on my high school and college newspapers, again largely as a humor columnist). As a result, when I go for “big” stories and they do contain errors (which happens, as I’m human), I get called out on them in a grand public fashion. Not everyone experiences the learning curve of a job in this fashion, and unless you have, I suppose I’ll have to kindly ask you to refrain from judging my career as such (especially when you seem unfamiliar with 90% of it, as I also write quite often for the Chronicle of Higher Education, and have never had to run a correction there).

      Finally, please review the Commenting Hegemony on this site, and know that any future comments that contain personal attacks will be summarily deleted.

      And, of course, thank you for the 5 cents.


  12. I really don’t get why commenters are so intent on being asshats about this. I hold a PhD. I teach. I tell my students to call me Dr. Richard, as I’m a professional, I’ve earned the degree, and that’s my preference. Full stop.

    Ain’t no bizness of mansplaining idiots as to what I ask my students to call me or not, you know?


  13. I collected all my classroom experience as a grad student, so “Dr. Wiesel” was never an option. At the East Coast university where I did my MA, the TAs were encouraged to go by Mr./Ms. Whatever; at the California university where I did my PhD, first names were the rule. When one of my students at the latter institution sent me an e-mail that began, “Yo, whassup?” I realized that the extra bit of formality I had experienced before was not necessarily a bad thing.
    In any case, the whole question of what I should call my professors was always fraught with uncertainty, even when I was a grad student. Some were clear about it, but most were not; some seemed offended if you used their first name; others seemed to look down on students who called them “Dr. XXX,” as if it were gauche. I would never use the title “Dr.” in most social settings, but I probably would if I were teaching at a university, and I have it in my professional e-mail signature (I live in Germany, and as you certainly know, Germans LOVE titles…)
    The fact that some people are attacking you about your perfectly reasonable observations (and willfully ignoring the fact that titles matter because professional and academic women are still subjected to countless subtle and not-so-subtle put-downs) is sad and frustrating, but not really surprising. You scare them. Please don’t let them scare you.


  14. I tell my students they can call me Dr. Perez, Professor Perez or Annemarie. Definitely not Miss, Ms. or Mrs. Professor is the preferred title for all teachers at the university where I teach so that’s generally what students use. But I confess a certain fondness for a student who called me “Proffers”.


  15. I’ve worked in industry and government labs, and everyone is first-name — pipefitters and janitors to senior scientists and division directors. When I visit a university to give a seminar, however, I call my host “professor” in front of the students, and they call me “doctor” — never understood why.


  16. I like that you have “don’t be a dick” as the rule for commenting on your blog (which some people just straight up ignore) as that seems to me to be the main thing this whole naming business is about. It’s a perfectly reasonable request to call someone what he or she prefers to be called. Same with any of the politically correct stuff that went/goes around from time to time. It all comes down to don’t be a dick and just address people with dignity and respect by respecting their choice of nomenclature. That this is a hard concept to grasp for people (who in their attack on your system are simultaneously putting forth their own preferences!) is just…well… dickish.


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