Thursday, February 5, 2009

Titles and respect

A couple of days ago, I was introduced as "Dr. Hannula" to a class of kindergarteners. Doesn't that sound pompous?

Let me back up a bit. Because I'm part-time this semester, I had time to go to my son's 100 Days of Kindergarten celebration and help out in class. He's been asking why I can't come to school with him - his friends' moms, including one who is an M.D. doctor, have, so why not me? So on Tuesday, I went to kindergarten and helped kids count out 100 raisins and Cheerios for their snack.

Apparently, my son told his teacher that I should be called "Dr. Hannula." I vaguely remember a conversation at home about this, in which my husband told my son that I was a Ph.D. "doctor," and I guess it must have made an impression. At least it avoids the Miss/Ms./Mrs. weirdness - I'm married, but I kept my last name, and "Mrs." always makes me feel like I'm on the Brady Bunch or something. So when the teacher asked if I wanted to be called "Dr. Hannula," I shrugged and said "Sure!"

The experience caught me off guard, in part, because of all the discussion in the blogosphere about what to call Jill Biden, Ph.D., adjunct professor at Northern Virginia Community College, and wife of the vice-president of the United States. I'd been thinking more about honorifics, and especially about the sense that people who have earned respect (such as Richard Feynman) don't need titles.

My perspective is a bit warped by being a geologist. We're a notoriously casual discipline, as anyone who has noticed the dress code (or lack thereof) at our conferences could tell you. When I was an undergrad, my role models were Shelby, Mary, Dave, and Ed; in grad school, I added Elizabeth, Louie, and Gary to the list. So when I got my Ph.D. and waltzed into the classroom a week later, I introduced myself as "Kim," and that fit in perfectly with Ray, Pat, Tom, Lucy, and Grant.

But here's the thing. There's something cool and grown-up about being invited to call a respected authority figure by his first name. But what happens when the authority figure doesn't look right - when the authority figure looks more like your sister than your dad? I didn't realize this immediately, but I've seen plenty of hints that women professors have to prove themselves before they earn the respect that male professors get the moment they walk into the classroom and hand out the syllabi. I may have undermined my teaching at my first job by assuming that all I needed to do was explain complex stuff clearly and be tough but fair in my grading - by assuming that I didn't need to prove myself to my students. Just maybe, if I had gone by "Dr. H." when I was 27, I could have avoided getting creepy anonymous notecards on the first day of class.

Going by "Dr." isn't going to earn me respect, any more than wearing Aretha Franklin's inauguration hat will let me sing about it. But maybe by being "Dr." to a group of kindergarteners, I can help change their expectations. And in twelve years, they might walk into my classroom and feel all grown-up when I tell them that they can call me "Kim."


Dr. Jerque said...

You earned that title...I earned mine. Use it and be proud. Why should MDs get all the kudos? Some of us PhD geologists may ultimately save more lives than a handful of MDs if that is the metric. you have any link to UWOshkosh? I took their field camp in 1988 with a geo-Hannula (male specimen).

CJR said...

In two institutions I've ended up being called 'Dr. Chris' by the students. I didn't prompt it, but it was a nice combination of respect and informality.

Kim said...

Dr. Jerque - There aren't any other geologists in my immediate family, but my dad's family settled in Upper Michigan, so it's quite possible that I've got other relatives in the Midwest.

Chris - unfortunately, my students call me "Mrs. Honolulu" when left to their own devices, so I've discovered that I need to choose my name myself.

Isis said...

Excellent post, Kim! I love the idea of changing how young people view women and minorities in science. Here's to hoping that you see one or two of them in 12 years.