Doctor, doctor, give me the news

13 09 2013

I am a doctor.

It’s not a title I use very often: in civilian matters, I stick with Ms. Beats, but in some professional situations, wherein everyone else is using “doctor”, I go with it.

I’ve earned it.

(You want to set me off? Tell me that as a Ph.D. I’m not a “real” doctor, by which you presumably mean a medical doctor. Medical doctors—who fully deserve use of the title—nonetheless are not required to write a dissertation, the traditional marker of the doctorate. And yes, I’m irked by the granting of honorary doctorates, too.)

Anyway, the O’Bagy kerfuffle got me to reflectin’ on the use of the title in my classroom. In the course of introducing myself to my students, I note that they may call me “Doctor Beats, Professor Beats, or Absurd.” Most of them just go with the generic “professor”, and a few are comfortable addressing me by my first name, each of which suits me just fine.

I have noticed, however, that the younger the students are, the more likely they’re to use “doctor”. One of the classes I teach consists of bright Bronx high school students, brought on to campus to take college course, and they invariably refer to me as Doctor Beats—not Professor Beats, and not the generic “professor”.

(I should note that I don’t offer the youngsters the option of addressing me by my first name. I learned the hard way that my usually-casual approach to authority doesn’t fly with high schoolers. Gotta draw the line but thick.)

Why the preference for “doctor”? I thought back to my first days in a college classroom, and remembered how impressed I was that I was being taught by people with Ph.D.s. One of my high school English teachers had been enrolled in a Ph.D. program (which she’s long since completed), and I took courses at the local college center, so it wasn’t as if I’d had no exposure to really smart and credentialed teachers; still, I was awed, and on those occasions when I’d approach them, I’d make sure to use the term “doctor” to signal my great respect.

Second note: I got over this, not least because a few of those professors were not so awesome, but also because it became clear that the convention was to refer to them as “professor”, and some explicitly stated that did NOT want to be referred to as “doctor”.

It seemed a bit of a loss to me to not be able to call them doctors, as if they were downgrading their importance and, in so doing, downgrading the importance of the students in their classrooms.

And I think this is why those young students like to call me doctor: it’s not about me so much as it the sense of importance they get from being taught by someone with a Ph.D. Yes, as I did, they want to demonstrate respect, but more importantly, in using the title they get a kind of status-boost, or, perhaps more accurately, a kind of validation of their own worth as students.

That their professor has a Ph.D. signals that they’re in a real college classroom, and referring to me as “doctor” both indicates their respect for that fact and, perhaps, reinforces a sense that they truly do belong.