Why #drjillbiden Means so Much
Educators push back against Epstein's disrespectful rhetoric
More than a few academics and non-academics alike have taken issue with the latest Epstein article from The Wall Street Journal in which he stated his opinion that upcoming First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden, remove her doctoral title from her name on the basis that it "feels fraudulent, even comic," as he proclaimed in the article's subtitle. What follows in his article is an opinion so misguided and infuriating that it is what rather feels comic.
Epstein's argument follows a rhetoric claiming that doctoral degrees are insubstantial unless they are M.D. degrees. He briefly identifies Jill Biden's degree as Ed.D. as a way to say that Ph.D.s are essentially superfluous and no longer hold any real standing outside the sciences ("The Ph.D. may once have held prestige, but that has been diminished by the erosion of seriousness and the relaxation of standards in university education." Really?). He goes on to wax poetically on honorary doctorates and his own humble B.A. and how he never required students to call him Dr. Epstein when he taught, even though they liked to automatically assume.
Well here's the problem with assumptions. They work both ways. And while, historically, men are always assumed to be Dr.s in academia (even if they aren't), women are just as frequently assumed to be Ms. or Mrs. in the samenstitution. I earned my Ph.D. in English, and the number of female colleagues (both graduate students and professors) whose titles were ignored was astronomical.
I had male colleagues in the graduate program who wore jeans and t-shirts to teach their Composition I and World Literature undergraduate courses, and were not only respected the moment they walked in the door because they were male, but were called Dr. despite the fact they were only M.A. or PhD candidates at the time. On the flip side, I and my female colleagues wore secondhand mismatched professional attire we bought at thrift stores with our below-poverty level stipends, and we were called Mrs. while they treated us like the grade school teachers they saw us as.
At one point, I raised my left hand, palm inward, and displayed my fingers wide like show and tell. "Do you see a ring on my third finger? Why do you write Mrs. on your papers to me?" I waited until I got an answer from one shy student who said, "I guess we're taught it's a sign of respect." The rest of the day in Technical Writing turned into a lesson on assumptions and the vital necessity of paying attention to names in writing cover letters and resumes.
But there's also the issue of where a title like mine comes into play outside the world of academia. Friends not in the university joke about calling me up now when they have health issues and ask what insurance I take. I can do nothing but smile. It reminds me of the Friends episode where Ross and Rachel are at a hospital and Ross introduces himself as Dr. Geller, to which Rachel chides, "Ross, please, this is a hospital, ok? That actually means something here." We are not living in an episode of Friends (even if it sometimes feels like it in 2020). None of us are going to jump up if something happens in a crowd of people and the question "Is anyone here a doctor?" sounds out.
We are more aware than ever of what our degrees allow us to do and not do. Academia is in trouble--something COVID-19 has only made more apparent. I, and many of my recently graduated colleagues, am facing the real possibility of having to find employment outside the job market of community colleges and universities. Am I still Dr. Fern if I'm scanning groceries at Publix? Do I keep "Bryana Fern, Ph.D." as my email signature in my formal account, or leave it only to a university account that I have no real reason to use once I leave the institution?
The answer is yes for of fairly simple reason. I didn't put myself through ten years of higher academia for a dream job or for anyone else. I did it for me. You could even say I did it for fun. I love English. I love writing. I love literature. Do I know what I want to do with it yet? No. Is that the point? Of course not. I still earned it. It's something no one can take away from me and no one can deny me. I am Dr. Fern now. I survived the world of "grace under pressure," a world of toxic environments and cohorts of dismal disillusionment and free student counseling services being overrun with grad students from the humanities. So if I want to keep the title I was resilient enough to earn, Mr. Epstein, I don't need your permission or anyone else's.
If men are afraid of women with titles higher than theirs...good. Get used to it. Mr. Epstein's closing lines include (and I will not give it the attention of displaying it in a block quote), "As for your Ed.D., Madame First Lady, hard-earned though it may have been, please consider stowing it, at least in public, at least for now. Forget the small thrill of being Dr. Jill, and settle for the larger thrill of living for the next four years in the best public housing in the world as First Lady Jill Biden." Literally cringeworthy. I hope I do not need to outline the disgusting problem inherent in this rhetoric of "recognition." It is the same logic that allows sports announcers and article headlines to list female athletes as "the wife of famous [fill in the blank of some male Olympic winner]." And it is horrendously troglodytic.
Whether or not I ever get married, my title stands. And it stands for me and me alone. (If I do, we will be announced as Dr. Fern and Mr. Hiddleston--if only.) Jokes aside, though, that's not pretentious. It is my work. My reward. My right to use. And if you find yourself offended by it, then maybe your validation is what needs analysis. That is why #drbilljiden matters. It is not just a defense for a woman who earned her doctorate, but for all women and minorities who have earned theirs, yet feel pressured to omit it.
Will all the Doctors please rise?