One of my favorite parts of Marvel’s 2016 Dr. Strange is when, during their first encounter, hero Dr. Stephen Strange and villain Kaecilius share an awkward moment of confusion over what to call Strange. When Kaecilius attempts to call him “Mr.,” Strange corrects him with “Dr.” Kaecilius, confused, then thinks his name is Mr. Doctor.
I was reminded of this comic moment this week when the old academic debate about how professors should make their students address emerged again on social media.
Like most skirmishes in the expansive culture war that dominates our discourse, this particular debate neatly divides its combatants into two camps that argue over the appropriate use of power.
One one side, you will find those who argue that professional titles like “Doctor” or “Professor” empower teachers from marginalized groups. The use of their earned professional title offers them authority in the classroom that is often otherwise denied them because of factors like institutional racism and sexism. When other professors allow students to address them informally, it makes this former group appear stodgy and elitist.
The other camp consists of people who are suspicious of the power dynamic of the classroom and use informal interactions with students to interfere with that power discrepancy. To this group it is a way of democratizing the classroom.
Unlike most culture war debates, this one has less obvious heroes and villains. I have a position, but both arguments are compelling and have merit. The algorithms and reward structures of social media will, naturally, lead some to demonize the “others,” but in reality, both are principled positions and both hold inherent dangers.
I teach at a small, rural college and, unlike almost everyone in my community, I have a Ph.D. My education is both liberating and alienating. It's a problem, in other words.
My solution to this problem is largely contextual and based on Hospitality more than ideology (yes I’m sure that some scholars out there will — rightly — claim that what I call Hospitality is actually ideological. Fine.).
My students are overwhelmingly either first-generation or what we, from on high, call “non-traditional.” Academia is alien enough for this group (I know because I was one of them in my youth), so I simply introduce myself as “Danny Anderson” on the first day of class. In other interactions, I: refer to myself as “Dr. Danny Anderson” on my syllabi, say “hello this is Dr. Anderson” in instruction videos I send out, and sign emails with a “d.” I then allow students to call me whatever they feel comfortable calling me. Many will call me “Dr.” Many will call me “Mr. Anderson” or “Professor Anderson.” And some (particularly upperclassfolk) eventually get to “Danny.” I also had a cohort that collectively called me “Dr. Danny Phantom,” which I loved.
I don’t know what to say to those who insist on the solidarity of using formal titles. They are not entirely wrong — in fact they are largely right. It’s where they are wrong that is the problem I have.
The formal-titles crowd correctly identify abusive power structures in the world. I am in full agreement with them on this and I am ALWAYS supportive of those who ask to be called by their titles. The same principles of Hospitality that form my interactions with students lead me to respect my colleagues’ definitions of self.
My issue is with the fact that this position often ignores the way in which the profession of higher education PERPETUATES, legitimizes, and empowers most of those abusive power structures. (I’m surely not the first person to make this claim). Higher ed as an institution is not somehow magically transcendent of the world’s material conditions. From the standardized testing industry, through the admissions racket, through grading, and the social engineering that passes as “networking,” college is essential to the unjust institutions of the world. We who work in these spaces are part of the machinery of oppression and we need to be honest about that. We can be more than that (and I actually think we usually are), but we are never free of the burden.
Relying on the professional structures of authoritarian power to assert your “authority” over students going in debt to take your classes is not really solidarity; it is individual achievement and acquisition — a noble outcome in itself, but not the thing it is being sold as. To deny your colleagues who see resisting formal titles the social freedom to do so is to alienate them in favor of authoritarian institutions.
In the end, college is many things to many people. Many, if not most, students see it as a purchased professional credential. Many see it as a space of emotional, social, intellectual, or spiritual development, a time guided by inspirational mentors. Most probably see it as a combination of these. They are not mutually exclusive.
I accept the criticism that my deferential approach is “just avoiding the problem,” or shirking some form of ethical commitment. I have simply chosen to allow students, in this particular way, to choose the concept of education that suits them as individuals. There are dangers and injustices to this approach, but there is no avoiding that in the institution we work in.
To read more installments of Danny Anderson Writes Into The Abyss, and to keep up with the other writing and podcasting I do (over at The Sectarian Review). Click the link to subscribe to a free, weekly newsletter. And if you like this, tell a friend?