I have been thinking about academic titles this past semester (as is evident from my blog post at the beginning of the academic year and my Ph.D. student’s post yesterday about his experience of my experiment). How fitting, then that the semester should end with the twitter-stirring controversy sparked by an op-ed about the academic title of the forthcoming first-lady (see here for the source of the original kerfuffle).
I found it interesting how many of my Christian colleagues appeared to react to this controversy through political or gender lenses instead of a Christian one. Of course, I do not deny the importance of those other identities or identity lenses, but I think the reactions demonstrate how gender and political identity have become idolatrously primary for some Christians as of late.
My department had our own discussion about the use of titles this semester. One of my Anabaptist colleagues thought we should all go by our first names, but a colleague of color expressed a desire to continuing going by “Dr.” As my August post noted, I am asking students to call me “Brother Perry.” I bring this up not to call out colleagues for their opinions, but to highlight that even the committed Christians I respect in my community do not agree on the matter. Indeed, there are multiple Christian ways of approaching titles.
Titles in the Christian Narrative
As demonstrated by the diversity within my department, there is more than one way of thinking about this matter, and I invite further reflection on the topic. In this blog, I do want to propose one possible Christian way of thinking about academic titles.
I’m sure all would agree that, Biblically speaking, titles and names are very, very important. God’s titles and names are revealed at vitally important moments of revelation (e.g., Ex. 3:14; Mark 8:27-30). Similarly, the names and titles of people throughout scripture are also sources of revelation, whether it be the name of the person or the title of teacher, prophet, etc. As Christians, we should take titles seriously as part of God’s created world and a privileged piece of co-creation in which we as humans engage.
Yet, we should also recognize that in Christ, God gave up all of those titles to become a homeless human. Moreover, as Mark especially reveals, Jesus actually hid his titles from his followers (although the demons were in on the story) until a certain time (the climatic revelation of Mark 8). Yet, even then Peter and the disciples did not understand one of the most important of Christ’s titles—being a Suffering Servant (Mark 8:31-33). Oddly, it took a Roman Centurion to utter the climatic title of Christ while viewing him dying on the cross (“Surely, this man was the Son of God!” Mark 15:38). Paul understood the importance of Jesus’ suffering servanthood and adopted it as a title for himself. He continually called himself a “servant” or “bondservant” of Christ.
Christianity and Academic Titles
So, how should Christians think about academic and other titles in light of the Christian story? First, we should focus on the fact that our students and others are humans made in God’s image and if Christians, brothers and sisters in Christ. These are the two most important titles we recognize in others, and I sympathize with those in Anabaptist and Quaker academic institutions who emphasize this point (and emphasize the use of first names in the community).
Second, we should recognize that other titles can often be pursued for fallen reasons. According to a 2009 Los Angeles Times article, one reason Jill Biden pursued and then obtained her Ed.D. at age 55 was because she did not like the fact that mail came to Senator and Mrs. Biden. That’s not exactly the reason I want to hear from my Ph.D. candidates for why they’re pursuing a doctoral degree (to be fair, I find it unlikely that the article captured all of Dr. Biden’s reasons).
Redemptively speaking, the better way to think about academic titles in the Christian story is to view them instrumentally for the Kingdom. Just as virtues are neutral until animated by a telos (e.g. joining a gang of arsonists requires bravery but is still ill-advised due to their goal of destruction), so too are academic titles neutral until animated by a purpose. When we use titles to advance the Kingdom of God, their use is justified, but we should not use them simply exalt ourselves over others.
I’ve seen examples in my own life where my title both helped and hindered. I was able to serve as a Christian academic in Russia, because my Ph.D. opened academic doors. The same is true for my title as Professor (even though others without the title may know more about a particular area in higher education than I do). Yet, Christians should also be willing to give up our titles when they actually close doors or create barriers. One of my practices in social gatherings, particularly Sunday School, is to try and avoid stating my vocation early in the conversation. With some individuals, it may create barriers I do not want to create if I’m trying to show Christian hospitality to those intimidated by academic titles. I suspect those of you with similar titles have similar experiences.
Sometimes, however, the lines are not so clear, and additional Christian thinking is required. Is it okay to rely upon your title as a personal confidence booster when you are in front of a crowd or class and experiencing imposter syndrome? Should we encourage gender, racial, or cultural minorities to use titles in light historical of prejudice and oppression and their need to establish legitimacy in front of a biased audience? I’m sure many Christian academics could write another post about the wisdom of title usage in these various contexts.
Yet, I do want to make one final point. Relying on titles in these situations could be a way of trusting not in God but in yourself and your title. Power and prestige tend to be dangerous weapons often used for worldly ends. Furthermore, we should recognize that academic titles do not count for anything before the most important audiences (e.g., God, your brother and sisters in Christ, your spouse, and of course your teenagers who do not care at all what your title is). Overall, we need to make sure our thinking about academic titles proceeds from the Christian story.
Titles can also help us adjust to our place in a relationship. One of my wife’s friends is a top medical researcher, her MD was only the start of the letters after her name. Around the office first names are used. But, when she sees her physician she address him/her as “doctor” because she thinks it is good to acknowledge that she is placing herself under her physicians authority in matters related to her health. In a similar way at my college we have our students refer to their instructor as doctor or professor, which I think is good because it reminds both of us about our respective responsibilities. Being a student requires a certain amount of trust that I am doing my best for them. I should always remember that I acquire a certain amount of responsibility for my students. When they graduate I switch to a first name basis because we are now both adults.
Thank you for this thoughtful piece. As an ordained pastor teaching in a degree program preparing people for leadership within the church, this question relates to when a “Rev.” is appropriate within various academic settings. This article helps provide good food for thought. Again, thank you.