Monday, May 10, 2004

The Doctor is in ...

Having recently completed my Ph.D., I've been pondering this whole "Doctor" thing.

For the last few years, students that I have taught have struggled with what to call me. I have always encouraged my students to address me in the familiar ("Rick"), but many of them are uncomfortable with this. For some reason, university students always want to address their instructors as “Doctor,” no matter what degree he or she holds.

I am generally not a status-seeker, nor am I particular about what I’m called (in my experience, “HAY-U” works about well as anything). Students have called me “Professor Stevens,” “Mr. Stevens,” “Professor Rick,” or “Assistant Instructor John Richard Stevens” (that one got VERY OLD). However, one thing I have not allowed my students to call me is “Dr. Stevens.”

I’ve just always felt that titles that are achieved through merit (such as degrees, ranks or awards) should never be assumed by those who have not earned them. And particularly not the “Doctor” title, because it requires so much personal investment and an approval by one’s peers. I would never presume to adopt such approval and acceptance before it was granted me by those who are in a position to judge me competent. To do so would simply be arrogant and diminutive to those who have earned the title.

The other day, I was at a reception honoring a faculty member who was retiring after many years of dedicated service. I was supposed to deliver some remarks about this person, and when the emcee introduced me, it was as “Dr. Stevens.” And I almost corrected her, for old habits die hard.

This “Doctor” business is going to take some getting used to.

I have friends in practitioner fields who have earned doctorates in medicine or dentistry, etc. And I get a lot of good natured ribbing about not having a “real” doctorate and am at times warned not to announce myself as “doctor” in such a person’s presence.

Apparently, medical practitioners feel they have a corner on the “doctor” market. And in a general sense, I can see why they come to believe this. What child when dreaming about one day becoming a doctor thinks about an academic who studies mass media forms? Or a historian? Or a linguist?

Unfortunately, this seeming cultural controlling interest of the doctorate by the medical community is actually a rather recent development. “Doctor" is actually a Latin word for “teacher." In classic times, the original degrees of “doctorate” were issued for the study of philosophy and mathematics. The title of “Doctor” was usually awarded to a middle-aged man who had proven to his peers his dedication to learning, to teaching and to the spreading of knowledge.

It was not until the later medieval period that doctorates became associated with the disciplines of law, theology and medicine. In the later Western (and particularly in the American) mind, knowledge, science and medicine have become inextricably linked (I believe largely as a result of the effect of the Industrial Revolution on our culture).

Americans are a practical people, and as inheritors of the Protestant Reformation legacy, we are often quick to define boundaries between “real” groupings of people and “false” groupings.

There are currently close to 100 degrees classified as “doctorates.” I am proud to be the bearer of the oldest form, even though I am using it to study new technology and future trends.

Now, if I could just get used to be called “Doctor.”


Blogger Elise said...

Titles - especially titles of "doctor" and whatnot" - have always confused the heck out of me because of the way I view respect. I've always disliked the idea that by virtue of a graduate program, even though I'm aware of how much personal investment it takes, I'm supposed to afford a professor some magical layer of respect. As I said the other day, if someone has a doctorate, but is also a serial killer, should I still afford them the respect of a doctor? "Dr. Mengele," for example.

For me, you get a default respect based on the fact that you're human, and of a certain age. Anything beyond that is earned.

Take for example the other day. I was informed by my boss that when my great-great grandboss (or great-great-great grandboss) walked in, I was supposed to address them as "Mr. Watkins," or "Dr. Eberling," respectively. Now, "Mr. Watkins" has explicitly introduced himself as "Morgan," so I'm assuming I'm supposed to call him that. Eberling has never introduced himself - I didn't even know he held a doctorate until that point. They get respect because they're human, and more because they both struck me as well-spoken and intelligent.

Ah well. I suppose I'll just make people call me "Elise" if I end up getting advanced degrees. :)

12:57 AM  

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