Monday, November 26, 2007

That's Professor SteveG, To You...Or Not

I teach critical thinking to a middle school class and the teacher has the students call me Dr. Gimbel. I've had my Ph.D. for almost a decade now, but it still sounds funny to my ear. Part of that is the fact that at work, my students all call me Steve (although I'm sure my logic students have several other more colorful names for me...).

an interesting post over at Adventures in Ethics and Science about titles in academia. It begins with an observation from ScienceWoman that students are much more likely to refer to a female prof as Ms. or Mrs. than they are to refer to a male prof as Mr., rather it is much more frequent that the more prestigious title Dr. or Professor will be used if the referent is a man. This is something that I've seen as well.

Indeed, some of my female colleagues tell me that they received explicit instructions from older female colleagues to demand that students refer to them by title in order to reinforce their authority, something they will not have, or at least have a harder time establishing, if they are allowed a more informal greeting.

I will freely admit that this is one place I undeservedly profit from male privilege. Not only am I male, but with the beard, small glasses, and greying ponytail, my goofy jokes and obscure references in the classroom, I am a walking caricature of the archetypal philosophy professor. I look like I'm right out of some sit-com about college life. As a result, I get instant recognition as "The Professor" and all of the respect that comes with matching up to the preconceived image.

That said, however, the whole title thing has always rubbed me the wrong way. Having to lean on the fact that you survived grad school for respect in the classroom frankly strikes me as cheesy. Maybe it's the liberal arts kool-aid kicking in, but creating a comfortable environment seems advantageous to learning and when the mode of address begins the student-teacher relationship with an explicit statement of "you are my inferior, linguistically bow unto me" it seems not to foster the sort of interactions that would be most conducive to growing and stretching one's mind.

Maybe it's because I have a skewed reference frame here because I work in a place where pretty much everyone has a Ph.D., so it just doesn't seem that big of a deal.(Everyone, that is, except the studio art folks and they DO get less respect in certain ways from some corners -- so that does seem to speak to a problem with my position.) Insisting on the title creates an alienation -- indeed, this distance is exactly why the senior profs insist upon it -- but that alienation does not seem to help in the learning process which is supposed to be our task.

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.