As a young professor, I would walk into the classroom, settle in, greet students as they walked into class and begin by saying, “Hi. My name is JoAnne,” and then continue to introduce the course.
In the years after receiving my Ed.D. degree, I was hesitant to use the title, Dr. I would make self- effacing jokes about how it was only useful for getting airline tickets or dinner reservations. I subscribed to the reigning presumption that the only true doctors were medical and Ph.D. scientists; whose research focus was in the “hard sciences.” I felt that using the designation Dr. was like wearing a piece of clothing ill-tailored to my dimensions.
In the classroom, once I finished my opening remarks, the first question students asked was, “What should we call you?”
“JoAnne is fine.”
“OK, Dr. Jones.”
I was always Dr. Jones or Professor Jones. Always. I taught adults for 35 years, and was, and continue to be referred to, as Dr. Jones.
The students in my classes typically came from experiences that are referred to by language that signaled “watch for deficits”: disadvantaged, underprivileged, tracked, not college material, educationally challenged, financially marginalized, needy, indigent. They arrived in college with limited confidence in their academic abilities and often limited preparation for college. They also entered with a keen desire to learn, boundless curiosity, critical thinking skills and determination forged from going over and around countless hurdles.
It was important to these students that they were taught by a Dr. Jones, not a JoAnne. Calling someone with the status of age or social role by her or his first name, diminished that person. Titles conferred respect. When I was respected, they, in turn, were in an environment in which respect was present and palpable. I learned from them that for learning to happen, respect must infuse the classroom experience. I also learned that I was not the only arbiter of what constituted respect.
Increasingly, I also shared of some personal stories. I let students know that I, too, had been an adult student, working, raising a child as a single parent and engaged in full-time doctoral studies. I knew the struggles and self-doubts. I knew the thrill of completing something that had once seemed impossible; beyond the scope of my place in life as a woman from a working -class family. My story provided legitimization of their own particular histories and, to an extent, made what is a very uneven playing field, more level.
I taught many students whose skills were likely as strong as Mr. Epstein’s, who, in a recent essay in the Wall Street Journal, suggested that our soon-to-be first lady, Dr. Jill Biden, drop the honorific “Dr” from her name. He found the designation “fraudulent and “silly”. If given the privileges Mr. Epstein has enjoyed, the students I knew could also have begun careers with publications in well-known journals and newspapers. Over the years, so many of my former students have continued their education to earn doctoral degrees, law degrees, professorships and senior leadership positions.
I am thrilled that in a few weeks we will have a first lady who knows first- hand the educational needs and strengths of students; a first lady passionate and knowledgeable about education, who will bring her experience and wisdom to bear at the national level; a first lady who gives respect and expects respect.
Perhaps she can impact the climate our country so that respect can be tangibly felt by everyone.
Author of Headstrong: Surviving a traumatic brain injury. Read an excerpt on my website: joannejonesauthor.com
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