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Tweets, Titles, & Immodest Women

Last night I spent much more time than planned on Twitter following up on a post that I’d tweeted. In the post (technically, two linked posts), I had used the #ImmodestWomen movement (wherein women with PhDs are encouraging each other to add the “Dr” title to their social media names to encourage broader recognition of women’s achievements in professional settings) to reflect on a recent incident where I had been forced to entitle myself, and specifically, to reflect on why I had rejected the title ‘Dr.’

In the past, I probably would have put this reflection on a blogpost. But, well, blogs are seeming so 2016. Plus, I was writing about a “social media” movement so Twitter seemed like the right arena. As an efficiency innovation, the decision to post on Twitter was a total failure: After spending half the night on Twitter I’m now still spending the morning writing a lengthy blogpost. But in retrospect, I am glad I started this on Twitter – posting on Twitter has led to much more interactivity and feedback, and that has impacted my thinking. (And a big thanks to all of you who did engage me…..I really mean that, including to those of you who were critical).

So, first the tweets:

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Rather than rehash every sub-debate (which are there to read in the Twitter threads – and confusingly there seem to be several threads, probably a result of me starting things with a two-part post), I want to reflect on some of my own take-away thoughts:

  1. Twitter might not be the best medium for thinking out loud and engaging in self-reflection. OK, that’s probably obvious, and Twitter certainly isn’t the worst media platform when it comes to this. But still, it’s interesting that my intention was a) me reflecting on a decision that I had recently made that happened to go in the opposite direction of the trend suggested by the #ImmodestWomen movement, b) rethinking the thought process that led me to make that decision, and c) concluding with a reflection about the sad state of society when some people (perhaps correctly, because of very real prejudices, but that makes it no less sad) feel that use of an earned title is required for them to be taken seriously. And yet because of the media context, as well as, I admit, some poor wording on my part, this reflection got taken by some as an attack on the movement and a declaration that its supporters were making the ‘wrong’ decision
  2. Titles suck. Their purpose is to take one aspect of a person’s identity (whether earned or inherited) and write it on to them so that it becomes visible when it otherwise might not be. This is the case whether the title refers to the fact that one is someone’s property (the formal meaning of ‘misses’), or that one is of a certain gender (‘mister’), or that one holds a certain profession (‘reverend’), or that one has obtained a certain level of education (‘doctor’). So whether you’re an anti-elitist, or someone who opposes binary identity categories, or just someone who enjoys the fluidity and creativity that is the human condition, you should be striving for a title-free world. Personally, as a migrant from the US to the UK, I have found the British tendency to always use titles fascinating (and disturbing). This fascinated me (and amused me) even before moving to Britain; I can recall sitting in Florida ordering books from Routledge and choosing ‘Viscount’ from the drop-down menu, just for the hell of it. And I still don’t get why Brits list all of their qualifications after their name and not just their terminal degree; I assume the goal is to intimidate the uninitiated with a blizzard of inscrutable letters. Of course, the British penchant for titles is what initiated this discussion last night: The UK citizenship application that I had recently filled out required a title and the instructions said that my name should match the name on my current passport. However, my US passport lists me with no title….and it was this that threw me into a “who am I and how do I signify it by my title” moment. So, the ensuing discussion has had a fascinating subplot reflecting on the nature of titles. For my part, I have increased my resolve not just to avoid titles (including ‘Mr’) whenever possible and to avoid ‘Dr’ when my PhD is not relevant, but also to avoid ‘Prof’ when, even though my PhD is relevant, my specific position in the university hierarchy is not. #NoTitles.
  3. There’s lots of bad gender shit, out there, even in academia. OK, that’s another no-brainer, but it’s worth repeating, and it neither stops nor starts at not recognising women’s doctorates. Of course writing with the generic “he” is a classic bit of literary sexism, and I think most of our students know that they’re not supposed to do it (although some still do). One that really bothers me that I still see a lot is calling women by their first names but not doing the same for men (e.g. “Early geopolitical thinkers like Ratzel, Mackinder, and Ellen Churchill Semple…” or “In science studies, scholars like Latour and Donna Harraway…”). Another is the use of “they” when gender is unknown, instead of “he or she” or “she or he.” Besides being grammatically incorrect, I’ve always felt that “they” encourages defaulting to an assumed (white) male. The list could go on, and it’s something about which we should all be vigilant, as teachers, editors (including of oneself), collaborators, etc.
  4. At some level, we’re back to the old “should you use the master’s tool to take down the master’s house” question. There’s genuine room for debate about this: Even though ‘doctor’ is a term that signifies that some people are “better” than others (albeit, because they have earned that difference), can one use “doctor” in semi-professional settings in order to upend the very power differentials that the term reproduces? To be clear, I think this is a significantly different argument than the one for reappropriating negative terms like ‘dyke’ or the ‘(((‘ symbol. In those cases, because the term originated as a negative one, the reappropriation implicitly includes an element of critique. With ‘Dr’, however, that critique element is absent (or at least much less evident). This, for me, makes the case more problematic.
  5. Where does this all fit in with calls for academics to have a reasonable work-life balance? As I noted in one of my Twitter responses, at the abstract level at least, there is a potential conflict between, on the one hand, the #ImmodestWomen movement, which urges that professional women celebrate their qualifications as they interact with broader communities (e.g. through Twitter) so that their accomplishments are taken seriously and, on the other hand, the slow scholarship movement, which argues that the expectation that our work lives and work identities shape our everyday lives is a pernicious example of neoliberal governmentality that often is particularly detrimental to the status of women. In practice, we each may be able to find a place where those two imperatives do not intersect, but it will require each of us to draw careful (and, I think, for each of us, unique) lines between our ‘professional’ and ‘non-professional’ lives. From my personal experience, I have found both of the UK academic strikes in which I’ve participated very stressful because they’ve forced me confront directly what is and what is not work (as well as the question of what it means, as an academic, to temporarily not work) – see this reflection from 2013 and this one from 2018. Drawing these lines is a never-ending process, and their locations will change as one develops families, managerial responsibilities, etc. But I do believe that as we talk about extending professional status beyond the most obvious places (e.g. one’s listing on a university webpage or the nameplate on one’s door) it is incumbent upon us to also have the discussion about where that title, and the associated expectations and privileges, should not extend.
  6. And what exactly is Twitter? This question flows from point 5 above. I genuinely think that Twitter users with doctorates differ greatly among themselves in the extent to which they see (or use) the platform as a professional arena. If it truly is the equivalent of a university webpage (i.e. a place where outsiders and colleagues come as they search for people with appropriate professional expertise) then it certainly is appropriate for users to self-identify with their titles. In fact, then we should all have links to our CVs (or at least to our university webpages that link to our CVs) in our Twitter profiles as well. But, following the current debate in the US on whether Facebook should be regulated as a news service or a user-run community, I think there’s a similar lack of consensus regarding what Twitter is vis-à-vis more ‘formal’ modes of academic communication (websites, conference presentations, articles, books, etc., or even explicitly professionally-orientated social media platforms like LinkedIn). Additionally, we all present ourselves different ways in different places, with great variation in the extent to which we juggle multiple identities. BUT, and this point was appropriately driven home in some of last night’s comments and, more broadly, its been made by the #ImmodestWomen movement as a whole, our ability to project multiple (or complex) identities does differ based on our seniority, gender, race, native language, and all the other things that allow some of us to be seen as “naturals” for our professional standing while reducing others to “exceptions” who must continually provide reminders of their stature. Thus, a remark by Bruno Latour about his fondness for wine from the vineyard operated by the (unrelated) Latour family is seen as an endearing and humanising anecdote by a stellar intellectual who is letting you in as he “lets his hair down”. But a cat video on the website of a female junior scholar makes one wonder whether she is really a serious thinker. [As an aside, though, I don’t think that it is essential for aspiring academics to have active professional social media profiles. It’s certainly one route – social media activity leads to invitations to panel presentations which lead to publications in edited volumes which lead to entries on a c.v. which leads to a job which leads to networking with local non-academic entities which leads to an impact agenda which leads to a research grant which leads to publications which leads to MBE and lots of other inscrutable letters after your name yadda yadda yadda – but that’s not the only route. And given the time commitment required if one is going to be a really effective blogger and the stresses from having one’s work seep into so much of one’s life if one is to become a power-tweeter, I have my doubts that it’s the best route for all people. Plus, overuse can backfire, leading to accusations that one is either all ego or all fluff (accusations that themselves may have interesting gender correlations).]
  7. And finally, yes, it is different for women. Partly, as I noted in last night’s dialogue, I was not aware that ‘Ms.’ had mutated over time and space from being a North American 1970s title designed for its marriage neutrality as an explicit statement that a woman was not the ‘property’ of ‘her man’ to it being a 2010s shunned British code word for a divorced woman. (Incidentally, the discussion led me to do a bit of further research on this; for a fascinating history, see the entry on ‘Ms.’ in The Reader’s Companion to U.S. Women’s History – the first page of which (p. 385) is available for free viewing on Google Books.) But that’s not the whole issue, because even if there were an accepted marriage-neutral title for women there would still be the problem that the term “Mister” implies a degree of authority that would not be implied by the (imaginary) equivalent female title, or by a woman using no title at all. And that of course, gets back to a key argument for #ImmodestWomen – that because the default for ‘woman’ is so often understood as the opposite of ‘doctor’ it is advisable for women who have earned the ‘doctor’ title to use it in all situations and media arenas that are at least quasi-professional in order to dispel that default assumption. So, yes, I get that difference and, reflecting back to the citizenship application that was the subject of my tweets, I do appreciate that the situations are not strictly analogous. As I noted in one my tweet responses, I was reflecting on an apparent irony, and using that reflection to dig deeper because, well, that’s what I do.

So where do I stand on this in the end? Probably not that different than where I started. I certainly appreciate the sentiment and the underlying problem (the sad state of society referred to in the original tweet), and I don’t criticise the strategy as misguided. But I also can’t wholeheartedly support a movement that is dependent on reproducing elite distinctions; the notion of fixed, singular identities that all titles represent (even when they’re not associated with personal achievement); and the incursion of competitive work expectations and responsibilities into the times and spaces of everyday life. Ultimately, bolder solutions will be needed. But as the questions and consciousness raised by #ImmodestWomen seed discussion about those solutions, then the movement is giving us a very good start.

As for my own musings, I recognise that they are inconsequential as a whole: the point of the movement is for women to encourage women to empower themselves, not to garner men’s support. But if my musings have advanced anyone’s thought (besides my own), I hope I have helped  through engagement and (guarded) support. Regardless, the discussion has enlightened me and, while you may not celebrate that (or even care), I do. So thank you.

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