Why You Should Care About Dr. Jill Biden’s Title Even If You Think Academia Is Elitist

Why You Should Care About Dr. Jill Biden’s Title Even If You Think Academia Is Elitist December 21, 2020

I know the ivory tower can seem insular and out of touch to some people, but I assure you, there are good reasons to care when a woman with a PhD is being publicly demeaned.

Image of empty classroom.
Photo by Nam Hoang on Unsplash. In public domain.

As much as I like having friends who share my values, I try to make sure my broader social circle includes people who aren’t like me (cue the accusations of living in an echo chamber, gasp!). So at the very least, I try to follow folks on Twitter who are different than me and have interesting things to say, even if I don’t agree with all of them. I don’t need to be BFFs with every human out there; I just like to learn about other people’s lives and views.

So, when the Wall Street Journal published that awful take calling the future First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden, “kiddo” and arguing that her doctorate is worthless because it’s not a medical doctorate, I immediately saw a lot of friends and colleagues sharing my outrage. For instance, my folklore colleagues, Dr. Cleto and Dr. Warman, immediately published this excellent blog post articulating the many problems with that gross and misogynist perspective.

But…I also saw people on Twitter being like, “Get over yourselves with your elitist BS, nobody actually cares about your PhDs.” These takes weren’t just coming from men, either. I took that as an important reminder that the ivory tower remains somewhat misunderstood and mischaracterized, so I thought I would write this blog post about why this is not only an issue of academic integrity and respect, but also a larger feminist and social equality issue.

First, yes, university life can be somewhat elitist. We’re not rolling around in caviar, but we’re also paid to use jargon and teach. Living the “life of the mind” comes with many perks, and I will grant that this can sometimes lead to us being out of touch with daily reality. However, that is a vanishing spectrum of the population; around 75% of college classes are taught by adjuncts and short-term instructors like myself, where we are not always guaranteed health insurance/benefits and a living wage (especially insulting and dangerous in a global pandemic where we’re literally risking our lives to teach!)…so, yeah, a lot of us are impacted by the same capitalist forces as the rest of y’all, and we do very much have to keep track of money and daily expenditures. It’s pretty awesome to have it guaranteed that you can take time off to attend an intellectually stimulating conference…but academia is not an even playing field, even if we’re basically being paid to do what we love and to try to be our best intellectual selves.

Second, I agree that our positions are often misunderstood; I don’t know if this is due to pop culture depictions of professors as white men wearing wearing tweed jackets with elbow patches and nobody else, or what. Grad school can be grueling; so can departmental politics when you’ve finally “made it” and gotten some sort of faculty position. Many people leave academia altogether, finding it unsatisfying or being unable to find work altogether. Not everyone is eligible for tenure and the academic freedom it guarantees; all us contingent folk mentioned above fall into that category, as do the academic staff who work tirelessly to support us and the students.

Given that there are many stereotypes and misunderstandings about what life in the university system is actually like, I can’t actually be that upset that some people are like “ugh get over yourselves already” over this latest kerfuffle. The solution: please talk to people who actually earned PhDs in order to understand how hard we worked for our degrees and why we insist on the respectful terminology of our titles. Of course we’re not ignorant to context, either; most of us are not going to throw our titles around just to be jerks about it if that’s what you’re worried about (though I do love checking “Dr.” as my title on any and every form that gives me the option).

However, I’d like to argue that using a doctorate’s title is actually a feminist and social justice issue a lot of the time. See, the ire that Dr. Jill Biden drew wasn’t only from the original WSJ piece and its promoters; a pile-on soon occurred. First there was that piece in the National Review by Kyle Smith titled “Jill Biden’s Doctorate Is Garbage Because Her Dissertation Is Garbage.” Then there was this rather inexplicable spell-checking Twitter post by Mark Perry (screenshot by my Twitter friend Dr. Liz W. Faber). Um, no duh dissertations will have some typos despite our best intentions to the contrary? We’re paying to finish our degrees and trying to do so as quickly as possible, and most of us are too far in debt to hire an editor like you’d see at a commercial press!

Also, education tends to be a feminized field, undervalued and underpaid, and thus an easy target for people who dislike women and/or things that help with social equality. The fact that Dr. Biden is explicitly concerned with education at the level of community colleges in her work is also an indication of where some people assign value, or lack thereof; community college educators do important work, and research on them is valid, it turns out!

I don’t think any man’s dissertation has ever drawn this amount of public attention. Maybe that’s because most dissertations are somewhat obscure: we don’t write them for the public, we write them for our committees so that we can finish our degrees. Later, hopefully, we rework them into articles and/or books, where we retool our research to make larger points to our colleagues in our disciplines. We’re supposed to be contributing to scholarly knowledge, yes…but the dissertation itself is one more requirement to pass our degrees, not necessarily meant for public consumption (and I agree, that’s not ideal! I believe there should be way more scholarship oriented towards the public, hence this blog).

Thus I believe it is a feminist and social justice issue when women’s scholarly work is held up to increased – and increasingly cruel/mocking – public scrutiny when men’s scholarship is not. It is one more way of policing borders in academia as in other sectors of society; one more way of asserting the validity of the ivory tower as an old boys’ club where women are not welcome. Using our titles, and upholding the very basic standard of civility of not ridiculing our scholarship, is all a part of this same issue.

And, of course, this is an intersectional issue. As Dr. Faber pointed out: “people are belittling Jill Biden’s accomplishments by questioning her doctorate, but people dehumanized Michelle Obama by calling her a gorilla. Neither is okay, but it’s important to understand how sexism and racism work together.” For all the poor treatment and questioning of our right to be there that white women in academia receive, women of color have it worse, and those of us in positions of power need to keep that in mind, be better allies, not commit microaggressions, and otherwise help out where possible (obviously those folks in positions of power should also do better and make space for folks who are marginalized, but I mentioned all the stuff “we” white women should do better because I’m reading Presumed Incompetent 2 with a group of peers, which is about the prejudices and microaggressions women of color in academia face, including from white women colleagues).

I actually got a good metaphor for this whole thing when talking to my mom (herself an educator) about how we want our titles used because we earned them. She compared it to people getting married, and wanting their titles and/or name changes respected. Which, yeah, I agree…but then I thought about it and made the metaphor a bit more detailed: just as women couldn’t enter the academy for serious study til around a century ago, hence it’s quite important to acknowledge that progress and use our earned titles, queer people in the U.S. could not get married until within the last decade, and so it’s super important to use their titles and/or name changes.

Obviously the metaphor breaks apart at certain junctures; academics are not particularly persecuted in the mainstream U.S., whereas gay, lesbian, and bisexual people are still discriminated against in many ways. But I see the same spiteful prejudice at work in refusing to use a woman’s earned title of “Dr.” and refusing to use a same-gender couple’s marital names/titles. It’s the same “misogyny as police baton” sort of rhetorical brutality that Dr. Kate Manne describes in her book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny. Comply, take your seat, and be spared. Argue that you are entitled to the same respect as mainstream folks (whether male or heterosexual or both), and prepare to be verbally assaulted if not worse.

The point is: even if you’re not involved in university life, even if you think it’s somewhat elitist and out-of-touch, you should care that there’s a sector of Americans who think women who earned doctorates don’t deserve to use those titles, and will in fact come after us with demeaning and harassing rhetoric (while having the double standard of ignoring this same apparent transgression when it’s men with doctorates wanting to use their non-STEM or non-medical title of “Dr.”). These people are the gatekeepers of patriarchy, and regardless of your educational status or career, they’ll probably find a reason to come for you too someday if you appear too uppity or brazenly accomplished.

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