I have a tough time holding back my feelings of rage whenever a student addresses me as “Ms. Vague.” Even worse are the times when they call me “Miss” or “Mrs.” It’s not just because I have a doctorate and want to be acknowledged accordingly and it’s not just because “Ms.,” “Miss,” and “Mrs.” sound like a divorcée, a debutante, and a woman married to one of my male relatives, respectively. In my opinion, knowing how to address your college instructors/professors is about knowing where you are.
Let me explain. When I started college back before the earth’s crust cooled, when I had to walk to campus every day uphill both ways, I knew immediately to call all my professors “Dr. So-and-so.” I’m not sure how I got the message, but it was immediate and it was total. No one was immune from being called “Dr.,” not even the art and creative writing professors who, with their MFAs, actually should have been called “Mr.” or “Ms.” (I did eventually figure that out and address them correctly, it was just that at first I felt somehow wrong not calling them “Dr.”) In my mind, their title differentiated them from my high school teachers. I was entering a new and different world and this form of address was an integral part of it.
I don’t think I ever thought of it consciously back then as a way to show respect, but I certainly see it that way now. I occasionally feel silly or vain for caring about this — like, who am I to be so full of myself? Who am I to demand that my students acknowledge my degree? Why should they care? But then I remember that, in fact, they really SHOULD care. My education is directly relevant to their education. The time I spent earning that degree makes me a better teacher. It does. I’m in no way arguing that it makes me a better teacher than my colleagues who have earned their MAs or MFAs and who go by Mr. and Ms., but I do believe that my having completed my PhD makes me a better teacher than I would be if I had stopped earlier with an MA.
The letters behind my name are important to me. I had to go through a lot to earn them and I’m proud of that. I don’t think it’s silly or vain to care, especially because addressing faculty by their proper titles is the common convention at every university in the United States. It is just what’s done, period.
But I still wonder why so many students fail to get the message that I received so clearly when I started college — somehow I just picked up on the fact that everyone was called “Dr.” I don’t remember if someone told me that directly (Maybe in orientation? Maybe my dad, a PhD himself, told me?) or if I just echoed what I heard other people saying. I mean, it’s not really the students’ fault if no one tells them this, right? Which is why I tell them. I introduce myself as Dr. Vague on the first day; I put it at the top of my syllabus and at the bottom of every email. They know — or they should. But some of them still like to call me “Ms.”
I suspect that this is something that happens to women more often than men. None of my male colleagues have ever really complained about being erroneously addressed as “Mr.,” and, in fact, more than one older male colleague has been guilty of calling me “Miss” in front of my students. Being called “Miss” by older male colleagues and “Mrs.” by younger male students makes me think that these forms of address reveal something about the gender-based assumptions being made. Older men see younger women as children while younger men see older women as someone’s wife. Pardon me while I go vomit. It’s true, though, that the way we speak is a clear outward sign of the value system(s) underpinning our beliefs. In this case, it is ever clearer to me that I live in a place where career women are an anomaly. Hopefully soon I’ll be able to take my freakish, unmarried, degree-having self elsewhere. Until then, call me Doctor, bitches!