SL 816

My twitterfeed was abuzz over a WSJ opinion piece deriding Jill Biden for her penchant for using the honorific title, “dr.” She could call herself the Duchess of Kent and I wouldn’t care.

Other gift guides: Cosmopolitan’s Work-From-Home Essentials.

I’ve not been paying attention to Trump and his election lawsuits, because it’s all so incredibly insane, and I’m just ready for all this to be over. But his allies aren’t giving up. We’re going to be dealing with this clown, in one way or another, for a long time.

In the short term, we really need to worry about the Religious Right.

Reading: Station Eleven. Watching: The Undoing. Picture: From a trip to the Cloisters Museum, NYC in Sept.

55 thoughts on “SL 816

  1. So, is assessment is that the law will hold, but that we should fear violence?

    I have been spending far too much time following the machinations of the lawsuits. I am still horrified that 126 Republican congressional representatives and 17 attorneys general signed on to Paxton’s lawsuit (after first being horrified that he would file it). I honestly wouldn’t have expected it from Cathy McMorris Rodgers. Was signing on a prereq to any leadership position?

    I did appreciate the Wash Post article, “Hijacking the electoral college: The plot to deny JFK the presidency 60 years ago” which explained how segregationists tried to overturn the 1960 election (*without* the support of Nixon). It’s certainly something I’d never heard about, though I knew vaguely that the 1960 election was close and that there were allegations of voter fraud. But, I didn’t know that there were electors who cast their votes for a Harry Byrd, and, had previously organized to try to flip Republican electors to support Byrd, or another southern segregationist. The effort failed (which is good), but also provided a frightening parallel to the antics of the Republican party now.


    1. The 2016 election saw a record number of faithless electors, part of a concerted campaign to overturn the results of the actual popular vote. Also articles in mainstream publications urging a military coup to overturn the election results. I’m not sure why anyone is talking about 1960, except as a distraction. In that year, some electors ran and were elected as unpledged, with the understanding that they would vote for a Dixiecrat, and they did. Once you concede that democracy includes the right of the common people to vote for bad, immoral things, then there’s nothing wrong with what happened in 1960.


    2. All I know about 1960 is from the washington post article, which may have exaggerated the efforts of the segregationist Southern coalition to ally with Nixon electors to choose an alternative President (or the seriousness of the effort).

      “ Once you concede that democracy includes the right of the common people to vote for bad, immoral things, then there’s nothing wrong with what happened in 1960.”

      Well, if you accept the wholesale disenfranchisement of Black citizens in the South as “nothing wrong”.

      But, i do understand better what “unpledged” means now in describing the Alabama electors.


  2. I loved Station Eleven so much.

    We’ve been watching Mrs. America (Cate Blanchett is a goddess; Character Actress Margo Martindale is a goddess; Rose Byrne … meh). It’s such a depressing miniseries because you know they lose in the end, but for a while there was such hope, until the Religious Right mobilized.


    1. I once took a vacation in England inspired by a British murder mystery. It was fun, and no, I did not murder anyone or solve any murders. Still fun.


    1. Husband and I have just finished the first season of the Israeli cop comedy The Good Cop, which is sadly the only season available with English subtitles. It’s really fun!


  3. Laura wrote, “My twitterfeed was abuzz over a WSJ opinion piece deriding Jill Biden for her penchant for using the honorific title, “dr.” She could call herself the Duchess of Kent and I wouldn’t care.”

    It’s more of a question how the press refers to her and whether it’s insulting not to go along with her preference.

    There are a heck of a lot of PhDs and actual MDs in DC and elsewhere who usually don’t get referred to as “Dr” in the media:

    Some examples cribbed from that thread: Bill Cosby (EdD–same degree as Jill Biden), Ron Paul (MD), Rand Paul (MD), Condoleezza Rice (PhD), Charles Krauthammer (MD), Michael Crichton (MD), Lynne Cheney (PhD), Ben Sasse (PhD), George Will (PhD), Tom Wolfe (PhD), Newt Gingrich (PhD). More: Madeleine Albright, Alan Greenspan, Ben Bernanke, David Petraeus, Neil Gorsuch and Kyrsten Sinema.

    Kissinger was often called Dr. Kissinger and people say “Dr.” Martin Luther King a lot, but that’s somewhat exceptional in political life. My biggest objection to the use of Dr. for Jill Biden is that it’s confusing to the public. A lot of people are going to assume that she must be an MD if she’s referred to in the press as “doctor,” which leads to situations such as Whoopi Goldberg wanting Jill Biden to be Surgeon General.

    (I do have my kids say “Dr. So-and-So” to MDs and PhDs in our social circle when I know that they have an MD or PhD, just as I have them say Mr. and Mrs. This is not a first-name-your-friends’-parents part of the country. I try to always refer to my BFF as Mrs. So-and-So in front of the kids, just as I call her husband Dr. So-and-So in front of the kids. But we live in the South and within a college community, so that makes sense for us. If we weren’t an academic family and living within rock-throwing distance of campus, I’d stick to just using Dr. for MDs.)


    1. Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, has a doctorate in math. Should he be referred to in articles as “Dr. Kaczynski”?


  4. My sister once spoke very sternly to some one who called my house and asked to speak to Dr. J and asked if he was home. Turned out it was someone trying to reach my dad. I think those of us who work around many people who have PhDs are less likely to use the honorific.

    That editorial, which called Dr. Biden a “kiddo” and told her what she should do (not discussing the use generally) was condescending and patronizing and has no defense, including any whataboutism.


    1. bj said, “That editorial, which called Dr. Biden a “kiddo” and told her what she should do (not discussing the use generally) was condescending and patronizing and has no defense, including any whataboutism.”

      I’d love to see your definition of whataboutism here.

      My argument goes like this:

      –Just about nobody in contemporary, political DC with a PhD or MD gets called “doctor” and in the US, it’s generally seen as obnoxious to expect to be called doctor, especially as a non-MD.
      –Therefore Jill Biden should back off, accept the local DC and national social norms, and save her title for when she’s at work, where it’s more appropriate.

      There’s also the question of exactly how big a deal her EdD degree is. I was just reading a twitter thread devoted to Jill Biden’s dissertation. The dissertation is here:

      Click to access bidens-dissertation.pdf

      It’s on community college retention. That’s an important subject, but the text contains gems like the following (and I’m not making this up):

      “Three quarters of the [community college] class will be Caucasians; one quarter of the class will be African-American; one seat will hold a Latino; and the remaining seats will be filled with students of Asian descent or non-resident aliens.”

      This is on page 2 of the text.


  5. It occurs to me that perhaps Dr. Jill Biden likes to be called Dr. so she is not called the second Mrs. Biden.

    Of course, the American expectation that women will change their names when they get married is a stupid practice to begin with.

    Another thought: do we complain about calling a man Mr. or a woman Mrs. when they’re not really a master or a mistress?

    JFC this is all stupid. We’ve gone from the darkest timeline to the stupidest timeline in a month. Is that a new record?


    1. Wendy said,

      “It occurs to me that perhaps Dr. Jill Biden likes to be called Dr. so she is not called the second Mrs. Biden.”

      That would be a good reason.

      “Another thought: do we complain about calling a man Mr. or a woman Mrs. when they’re not really a master or a mistress?”

      They’re the master or mistress of themselves, which is kind of a big deal.


      I’m getting the feeling that “whataboutism” is what you throw out when you’ve got nothing.

      There is such a thing as real “whataboutism.” I will explain.

      A: Person XYZ does D, E and F!
      B: What about Person GHI, who does D, E and F, too? [Quickly changes subject.]

      The problem in this case is that the “whatabout” is being used as primarily as an evasive maneuver. If this is all B has to say, B is probably not interested in the question of whether doing D, E and F is actually bad. Once we’re discussing the merits of doing D, E and F and creating a common standard for judging people who do D, E and F and attempting to apply that standard equitably, then we have left the land of whataboutism.

      I am interested in establishing what the rule is. Why would it be rude to do omit the “Dr.” title for Jilll Biden, but not rude to omit “Dr.” for Ben Carson (an actual pioneering brain surgeon). What is the standard here? Let’s pick a standard and use it.

      As it happens, newspapers traditionally have style manuals explaining how to do this. It’s just a question of following the style book–which may or may not include calling Jill Biden “Dr.” But she doesn’t merit some sort of special individual carve-out from the normal rules. In any case, she’s going to be “First Lady Jill Biden” until she dies, so it’s largely a moot point.

      Also, I have to say that the EdD is a pretend degree, as is the MEd.


  6. Like I said, I don’t care what Biden calls herself. But I have had issues with administrators weaponizing their education degrees against special ed parents. I have to call them Dr., but they call me “Laura” as they patronize me about disability issues. When I know a whole lot more than they do. And they got their Ed degree through some sort of a degree mill that they did on weekends, while doing a full time job. Please. You know what I had to do to get a PhD?


    1. Yep, both are jerks. That editorial is dripping with condescension and misogyny (he should have retired years ago before he could embarrass himself like this) but insisting on being called Dr. for your PhD is a jerk move. Where I work, most people have PhDs and people who want to be called Dr definitely get the side eye and made fun of behind their backs.


      1. Yes, when most people have PhDs, most people don’t insist on being called doctor (unless they want to make fun, for example, of Wollowitz, for not having a PhD).

        But, I think respect requires calling people what they want to be called, which applies to both Biden & Laura (or someone leading a SpED meeting). My choice not to use my Dr. designation doesn’t mean that I get to tell someone else not to use it.

        And, I don’t think we get to review each other’s degrees (Jill’s, mine, or Laura’s). I’m guessing everyone here would find my own dissertation very esoteric, but the material in it is unquestioningly valid in my field. And, I don’t believe in engaging in dissertation Olympics, except to say that I did multiple years of all-night experiments and then came home to sketchy areas of town in the wee hours of the morning to gather the data for mine. The work doesn’t get judged by those standards either.


      2. The problem with saying respect requires calling people what they want to be called in this case (call a PhD or EdD Dr) is it actually is violating a norm. The norm is being violated for the demanding person’s self aggrandizement. So she gets the eye roll.

        It isn’t really your choice not to use it in everyday life, because you know others will roll their eyes etc. because that’s not how it’s done in the US. Even the Chronicle of Higher Ed refers to PhDs as Mr or Ms.


      3. The New York Times doesn’t call presidents President.

        Jill Biden’s whole life as a Senator’s/Vice President’s spouse is a public role she plays. She is not in the same situation as you or me or Laura or anyone else here. She has every right to define her own public identity.

        Bet you anything her students call her “Jill,” “Miss,” Mrs. Biden,” “Hey professor” or “Professor.” And I bet you anything she is fine with that.


      4. Can’t speak directly to the EdD — for example, I would agree that it would be norm breaking for someone with a JD to insist on putting Dr. in front of their name.

        But, it’s not norm-breaking for a PhD to use Dr. in a professional setting, broadly defined. There were teachers with PhDs in both my high school and in my childrens’ school and they were called Dr. (in all these examples, they were doctorates in a field, though one who had a doctorate in microbiology but taught Spanish did not use Dr. — used a Spanish title instead). In academic environments I’ve worked in where there are pre-doctoral students, post-doctoral workers, research scientists, technicians (some of whom might have doctorates), and professors, people did use their Dr. titles (and, usually, the physicians who were graduate students didn’t, though sometimes that might be that they were not [yet] qualified to practice in the US).

        Is it norm breaking in a social setting to use Dr. when you are a PhD? I think it depends on the overlap between social and professional setting (say, twitter probably overlaps significantly, and depending on who you are, might tilt towards professional.


    2. I have a fairly strong and nuanced view of when to use a PhD title, applied personally. I first bought into Ms. Manner’s rule: you use your “doctor” designation not as a honorific, but because you will stand up when the theater director announces “Is there a doctor in the house.” That is, you are ready to serve, and, knowing that you are a doctor might be useful in the environment.

      I updated this rule to include other circumstances where one’s degree might be relevant (for example, if you are teaching a class in your area of expertise, it might matter that you have a PhD in that subject).

      Then, I had to modify it further to deal with the circumstance where both medical degrees and PhDs in related topics were common, and it mattered which you aware. Fauci has been a practicing scientist long enough (and, from an older time) that I do not question his scientific expertise for lack of a PhD, but, in the modern world, medical training does not *necessarily* result in scientific training of the sort required in, say, managing an unknown virus.

      I not infrequently have to remind people that I am not a physician (most recently, on a message chain with a group of women, 1/2 of whom are physicians), so I prefer precision (and, also knowing that Dr. Fauci’s degree is in medicine).


  7. *this is the stupidest timeline Wendy don’t do it don’t do AAARRGH*

    I only ever refer to myself as Dr. LastName to my students. I don’t even call myself Prof. LastName because there’s one extra syllable in Prof. I sign my emails with my initials – again, because I am lazy. Actually, if it’s a first contact, I do sign my full name, but I also have a signature file, so I often wonder why I do that.

    I have never told my students to call me Wendy. Ever. But they call me Wendy all the time, ESPECIALLY my Honors students! (I’m Honors Director.) Sometimes they call me Mrs. LastName, which is funny because that is my mother’s name, not mine.

    I don’t know why they do this. (There are many who will call me Prof. or Dr.; I don’t mean to exaggerate.)

    Someone with way less chill than I have would probably assert the honorific to set boundaries. But I have a lot of chill when it comes to students.

    (Sometimes a class will ask me what I want them to call me. So I say O Captain My Captain, which is a Dead Poet’s Society reference they will never get, but it amuses me.)

    Also, re ““Another thought: do we complain about calling a man Mr. or a woman Mrs. when they’re not really a master or a mistress?”

    They’re the master or mistress of themselves, which is kind of a big deal.”

    Well, having a doctorate is kind of a big deal. But that’s not the argument being made. The argument being made is that when you call someone “Doctor,” it’s about a specific idea of a doctor that is generally agreed upon. So I say: the specific ideas of what a master is and what a mistress is are very different.


      1. I have students call me Shannon ALL THE TIME. My husband, who is in the same department and same rank, RARELY gets called by his first name. So yeah – there’s definitely a gender thing going on here.


    1. Never liked being called Dr. J (with the exception of when I actually defended my thesis and was acknowledged). I let students call me what they wanted and was the irritating person who would tell people who asked that they should do whatever they wanted. I recognize now that answer was annoying (though I’m not sure how it compares to suggesting “O Captain My Captain.” :-). Folks who worked in my lab did used to call themselves my minions, which I kind of enjoyed.


  8. The Dr. thing really depends on the culture of your department. If you start work at a department/college where everyone uses Prof. Lastname, you go with Prof. Lastname. I went into a department that was Dr. Lastname, so I’m Dr. Lastname (except to the darling children of my neighbors who go with Dr. Firstname; that’s just their thing, not my recommendation). I don’t care what title people use for me outside of the college. I’m fine with Ms. at school also. Once the foundation office sent out solicitations for donations to female faculty using the title “Miss” and the men were Dr., and that I objected to. (Foundations people are verrrrry old school, but that got changed.) But if you’re constantly part of Senator and Mrs. Biden and Vice President and Mrs. Biden I can see why you might want to assert your Dr-ness.

    There are EdDs that are unimpressive, and EdDs that are impressive. But the snottiness of assuming that a dissertation studying community college retention is not worthy is way snottier than using the title Dr. Epstein is an extraordinarily snotty guy who thinks that there are only a few intelligent people in the entire city of Chicago. (see, for the saddest essay you will ever see on the limitations of male friendship among people like him). I had him for one required class in the English Dept at Northwestern and he was a bad, lazy teacher. Once he spent an entire class period reading his own short story aloud – and he was not a good short story writer.

    Thinking about this has been a nice distraction from thinking about the election. It’s horrifying what the president and his supporters are doing. I suspect that’s why there are so many people weighing in on it. Also, it’s the end of the semester and so all of the professors, like me right now, are avoiding grading.


    1. “Also, it’s the end of the semester and so all of the professors, like me right now, are avoiding grading.”

      I feel personally attacked by this comment. 😀 😀 😀


  9. I just scanned Biden’s Ed.D. dissertation, and while it’s not as long as a Ph.D. diss, it does some respectable work and research. I am familiar with her sources and the research in the field and she puts it all together more than competently. I did notice a bunch of typos though, but I am a typo-noticing freak. That said, her writing is actually very clear. She would make mistakes like “and investigation” instead of “an investigation.” Spellcheck can’t find that ish.


  10. I’m a white guy with a job where I abet science all the time. I get called ‘doctor’ all the time even though I’ve been ABD since 1996.


      1. The biggest name in the political theory department of my grad school would routinely get stopped by security. They thought he was a homeless dude. Aging Jerry Garcia look.


      2. Theory people are often nuts, but I fell in with the quantitative people. Math and traditional business-casual clothing made it so easy to sell out.


  11. Here’s another prestige and title-related thing – I have a Fancy Ivy PhD but teach at a non-flagship regional state university, so a few years back I decided I should put (PhD, Fancy Ivy) after my signature on letters of recommendation for grad school. It makes me look pathetically pretentious but I thought it might help out the students.


  12. When my dad was teaching at CCNY (mid-60s to the late 90s), he called all of his students by their titles “Mr. Jones” or “Miss Smith.” He said that it helped them feel like adults. He also totally dressed the part of the professor with tweed jackets and elbow patches, because his said that his students wanted to feel like they were in a proper college, not just an open admission city college. They wanted the whole experience.


  13. Our former department head used to call me “Your Malevolence.” That is really my favorite title, but I haven’t been able to get people to used on a widespread basis.


  14. From the other side of the world, it does sound a little pretentious for Jill Biden to demand to be called ‘Doctor’ in her political life (First Lady) – of course, she can continue to be called whatever title she likes in her professional life (Professor). [

    However, she has announced that she will continue to teach (continuing at NOVA) – so presumably won’t be resident at the White House – or carrying out the standard First Lady activities. Don’t know how/if that’s going to work.

    Have to say that (while I don’t have a Doctorate myself – Masters is the highest ed degree I have) – I do know heaps of people with various PhDs and Medical Doctorates – of both sexes. In no case, would I (or they) ever think to call them ‘Doctor’ outside their speciality (e.g. at a neighbourhood barbecue, or school prizegiving, or church function).

    There is the odd politician here in NZ who parades his ‘Doctor’ title (not a Medical Doctor) in his political career – and they are rather ridiculed (the most recent example was Dr David Clark – Minister of Health – who’s degree is in Theology)

    Perhaps it’s a cultural difference here in NZ – where we’re an egalitarian lot!
    I do know that it’s really different in Germany, where people are Herr Doktor this, or Frau Doktor that – regardless of whether it’s a professional or social interaction.


  15. And, just dropping this in here….
    An article on the Ministry of Education analysis of school attendance here in NZ – noting that, after lockdown stopped – rich white kids came back to in-person-school at a far greater rate and numbers than poor brown kids.

    [For those interested, schools in NZ are classed using a decile rating – 1 = poorest communites, 10 = richest communities – and lower decile schools have greater state funding than higher ones]

    I wouldn’t read too much into the ECE (early childhood education) rates – a lot of that is one parent out of work, so keeping the pre-schoolers at home and not spending the money on ECE. But school is free (and the kids are legally required to be there) – so the difference is a lot more meaningful.


  16. I started my teaching career at a university where everyone went by Dr. and became totally used to being Dr. A to my students. It has been a weird transition now that I’m teaching high school and there isn’t a general custom to call PhD holders Dr. I find I have no sense of whether I should be Ms. A or Mrs. A (I don’t share the last name of my husband so I’m not used to that) and sometimes am just referred to by my last name with no title since one of the other teachers I work with goes by just his last name. I stumble over what I would like to be called and really don’t know. It’s just strange and I’m hoping eventually I will settle into something.


    1. In all three of the schools where I’ve experienced K-12 teachers with PhDs, it was the convention to call them Dr. unless they specifically didn’t desire it. But, these were all private schools.


  17. As I think further on the use of Dr. I realize that part of my personal thinking is that it means almost nothing to me as an achievement. I am proud of my thesis and I did work hard to produce the work in it. But, I grew up surrounded with people with PhDs — I saw it as ordinary. And, when I started towards the path, I never thought I would not succeed. I thought I’d get into graduate school, that I’d find an advisor, that I would be funded, that my project would work out, that it would be published, . . . . And I traversed that path with no hiccups. And, no one expected me to fail. The meaning of the degree as an achievement and honorific means something different for someone who is a first generation student who worked their way to the unexpected. I wouldn’t begrudge someone else the joy of acknowledging their achievement.


    1. I no longer work in higher ed, so if I used the “dr,” it would happen in the community. People do know that Steve and I are over educated, but we don’t go around talking about it and never use it among the community. Even we I talk at school board meetings, I never use the title, because I feel like it’s punching down.


      1. Laura said: “Even we I talk at school board meetings, I never use the title, because I feel like it’s punching down. ”

        However, it would be a great gun to pull out if/when you’re being talked down to by ‘professionals’ in the education sphere….


  18. A couple more things on this. Someone else wrote an article called “The Joy of Low-Stakes Outrage” that talks about l’affaire Dr. Jill, and I think that captures it precisely. God, low-stakes outrage is such a luxury.

    A lot of my friends and family address my Christmas cards Dr. AF, and I think they do that because they think it’s nice or fun for me to have a title, not because I’ll be deeply offended if they use Ms. I have to select a title when writing to my superconservative congressman, and I use Ms. because I’m sure he hates professors, and would especially hate professors who use Dr. Other than that, I can’t think of any times when I use a title at all.

    It is very important to many Black faculty at my university to use their titles, to the point where when talking to or referring to each other, even without students around, they say Dr. Smith and Dr. Johnson. I think it’s important to them and important to their students. So this is something to keep in mind if you’re dealing with people in the future who insist on using Dr.; it doesn’t occur in a cultural vacuum.


  19. Edmund Morgan notes (Inventing the People (1988), p. 170) that during the late colonial and early republican periods, most men of even modest local stature held militia commissions, to which they were absolutely devoted. So when attending a party, a guest would be introduced to an endless procession of Major This and Captain That. European visitors found this behavior laughably pretentious.


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