Professor, Dr, Mrs, Miss?

My biology teacher in high school introduced herself to the class as ‘Frau Dr G.’ That was how she was to be addressed. She was by no means the only teacher in our school with a doctorate, but the only one who insisted that we use her title. If we missed out the ‘Dr’ she would simply not react and, after a few failed attempts to get her attention, she would correct us with ‘ich heiße Frau Dr G.’ We were bemused, but obliged, seeing it as one of the quirks of an older teacher. And yet, she taught us an important lesson.

Frau Dr G. made a point of teaching us gently and, as time went on and some of us still didn’t get it, not so gently, that to really see a person means to take care about how one addresses them. Failing to do so is at best thoughtlessness and at worst an intentional insult. And depending on context there is always something at stake when we do not call them by their proper name and title. Frau Dr G. chose to use her title in all contexts and asked that this be respected. Many of us reserve the title Dr or Professor for professional settings in which these qualifications matter. In either case, we all clarify on first meeting how we wish to be addressed.

Why, then, do academic women find themselves often in the position of being addressed by students and peers as Mrs or Miss? And why is it so hard for our students and peers to call us by our professional titles?  The stakes in using an inappropriate form of address are highest in the forum of public peer-to-peer interaction, and yet because lecturer-student contact is an important area of communication which is enacted on a daily basis we may see that as holding a particular significance too. Let’s consider these contexts separately, starting with lecturer-student interaction.

Undergraduates in the UK come to university from a school context in which male teachers are addressed as Sir and female teachers as Mrs or Miss (apparently Ms has not made a sufficient impact). Problematic as these conventions are, students may therefore assume that this form of address is quite proper in their new educational context. It is easy to set them right and, by and large, the form of address communicated to them on the first meeting will be respected. I now have a sign on my office door which reiterates the information I send to my students, stating how I would like to be addressed: Dr Holtschneider or Hannah. Undergraduate and graduate students make their choice and that’s that. Or is it?

American students steadfastly use Dr or Professor (depending on the ease of transition from the American convention of calling all instructors professor regardless of their position in the academy). As I get older, I find myself now at an age where I can easily be the same age as the parents of my first year students. They seem to find it easier to categorise me as Mrs, and perhaps this may simply seem to them to be an age-appropriate address. So getting across that this is not appropriate in a professional context is a repetitive task which is difficult to do elegantly: signing off an email with my title, stating that Mrs would apply to my mother rather than me, etc. Students from European countries appear to find it hardest to use my title, something they do not appear to find challenging with my male colleagues (this observation is admittedly based on anecdotal evidence). This is troubling as, in my experience, continental Europeans are a lot more conscientious in acknowledging status and rank in addressing a person. Hence, the inappropriate form of address is also an implicit put-down. Evidence gathered from my FB feed – which, unsurprisingly, includes many academic women – confirms my experience and offers suggestions as to how to deal with inappropriate forms of address in professional settings. We owe it to students, who, after all, are the next generation of scholars, to educate them well. Thus it is appropriate to introduce the correct form of address as necessary – and without embarrassing the student – not least because at undergraduate level, in my experience a least, choosing an inappropriate address for a female scholar is common for male and female students alike.

One’s peers are quite another matter. In daily contact in one’s own university most academic and professional staff will call each other by their first names, signalling familiarity and a shared work environment to which we all contribute. This works for most colleagues as long as interaction is based on mutual respect. But there are settings when this informal form of address is not appropriate. When I arrived in Edinburgh in 2005, first names were dropped in all formal meetings and we addressed each other formally as Dr and Professor. This has changed in recent years and we now appear to be comfortable with first names in these settings, only addressing guests, such as external examiners, with their full titles, but we continue to expect student representatives to use our titles and will address them as Mr or Ms.

Conferences are significant public settings for professional academic interaction. They are key contexts in which we exchange ideas and further our scholarly work, look for collaboration and critique, support and professional affirmation. This is significant as we often work in departments where our colleagues work in fields not directly related to our own. Conferences are therefore the places in which we (re-)connect with scholars whose work is intimately bound to our own and on whom we rely in our professional development. A conference is a place for intellectual and personal exchange, contest, support, and friendship. While at some level scholars working in the humanities  may perhaps be seen as professional loners and individualists – we must like our own company as our research demands long solitary stretches of time spent in silence in libraries and at our desks – we are also relying on the scholarly community for our professional (and often also personal) well-being. Conferences recharge our professional batteries, and good debates – face-to-face at a panel, in the discussion following, in conversations which spin off from these discussions, in email exchanges and Skype calls thereafter – are vital for developing our research. Conferences also initiate the next generation of academics into the scholarly community. PhD students give their first presentations, take their fledgeling steps into the wider field, and venture out into their own academic future. Most of us have made vital connections with senior scholars at conferences which influenced our scholarly development and our careers. This is to say that conferences are part of the life-blood of our existence as scholars, the meetings are precious. But it is equally normal for us to have made the experience of being personally put down by a senior male colleague, disrespected by a peer, and even talked down to by a research student, all on grounds which had nothing to do with the quality of the scholarship we presented and everything to do with how we were perceived as women. To this we also need to add the experience of sexual harassment by male colleagues which many of us have suffered. Where does that leave us with regard to the use of titles as a form of professional respect and recognition?

How we choose to address a female scholar in a public professional setting is a sure indication of how we perceive her presence in the academy. If our male peers even have to think about whether to include our title in contexts in which they would insist on this for other, male colleagues, even if they  brush this off as a sign of forgetfulness, it really is an indication of how little they value us and how alien they find our presence in the academy.