Friday, November 4, 2011

Transitions: Part One


I remember when I was a graduate student (oh so long ago) struggling with the vexed issue of whether or not to use the title “Dr.” when addressing my professors; if I didn’t know the professor, then of course they were Dr. whomever. The issue became sticky, though, if I knew them from the coffee shop where I worked and called customers by their first name. Would it be weird to say “Hi Joe” when he bought his coffee at 10 in the morning and then 4 hours later say “Hi Dr. Smith” when I was in his class? It was even a sticky issue when a professor directly said “you can just call me Susie.” Even with express permission, it made me uncomfortable to call my profs by their first name. Now I am the one telling students “Please just call me Kristen” knowing full well this might actually make them more uncomfortable than insisting they call me Dr. Pond.

Lest I appear as though I am some kind of saint who has no power ambitions whatsoever, let me clear the record and acknowledge that, sure, it’s nice to have people acknowledge you as “Dr.” in a field where that is the highest honor. I still to this day get a kick out of saying, “take out a piece of paper,” and then watching all my students do just that.

But the emphasis on titles in our field more than anything makes me uncomfortable. I think I get most uncomfortable when I realize that, in my experience, the people who insist on the importance of the title are either 1) male 2) white 3) older, or in some cases all three (but not always all three). I’ve been told that it is best that students, and in particular graduate students, call me doctor. This was the same sort of spiel I got when I first started teaching and was the same age as some of my students. The effort to distinguish myself at that point was through dress code, now it seems I’m to do so through my title.

What, exactly, is my title of Dr. proclaiming? If it has something to do with my knowledge base, then shouldn’t that become apparent through my interactions? If it has to do with my commitment to the field, then shouldn’t that become apparent through my service and research activities? If it is to announce that I have somehow arrived, well, I’m reminded at least once a week (okay, maybe more like once a day) through horrendous mistakes I make that this is simply not true.

So far I have found that it doesn’t matter if I tell students to just call me Kristen, at my current institution they will still call me Dr. Pond. So I’ve stopped making an issue of it; I simply introduce myself as Kristen and let them have it. I passed a graduate student on the four-floor winding staircase today (where, consequentially you’ll have your most important conversations. Stairwells and hallways are the make-it-or-break-it moments). The student flashed me a huge smile and said “Hi Kristen” and continued on his way. He was one of the students I met my first week here, back when I was still using my “call me Kristen” pitch. It has been nearly 10 weeks (so long I know) of consistently hearing “Dr. Pond” that I must admit I actually experienced a jolt and a strange disorientation. I glanced back over my shoulder; yes, in fact, that was a student!

Earlier that day in my 20th of about 50 student conferences this week, a student walked into my office after glancing at the nameplate on the door and said: “I had no idea you were a doctor.” Like the double rainbow guy, I inwardly threw up my hands in an existential crisis moment and wondered “what does this mean!?!” What was I not doing that led this student to think I wasn’t worthy of the title doctor??

These two instances, with their accumulative force of occurring on the same day, was an unwelcome awakening. How, in the space of just a couple months, had I shifted from being anxious about people calling me a doctor, to being anxious, or at least startled, when they didn’t?

There are a lot of insecurities with starting your first tenure-track job, and I think for me the quandary over my official title is emblematic of the perhaps less-glamorous side of landing your first tenure-track job. Matt has been gracious enough to invite me to share my experience, and in this short series on transitioning from graduate student to tenure-track professor I hope to offer some small tidbits of advice from someone way over her head in that very transition. But I also hope to open some topics for discussion that will challenge myself and students and professors of all rank. Because as I’m finding out, when you’ve crossed that strangely powerful line from graduate student to professor, it gets harder and harder to conjure the creative energy and prophetic vision that are so necessary for “constructing the academy” around thoughtful and self-aware practices.

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Kristen Pond specializes in Victorian studies with an emphasis on the novel. Her current project examines forms of telling in the Victorian novel and their influence on the rhetoric of sympathy. Learn more about her transition from graduate student to tenure-track at http://lumiacompositions.blogspot.com

2 comments:

  1. Perhaps you can think of the incident with the student who didn't know you were a doctor as one in which he/she didn't think you were a doctor because you don't flaunt your power and act like those male/white/old people? You could see it as a moment of triumph rather than failure in which you've successfully constructed a different kind of professorial persona. Go Kristen! I mean, Dr. Pond!

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  2. now there is a thought. and I assumed it had to do with being inept in the classroom. silly me :-)

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