That Op-Ed About Jill Biden Was Sexist. But the Real Problem Lies DeeperRoundup
tags: academia, sexism, academic culture
Allison Miller is associate editor of the online magazine JSTOR Daily.
No matter how many words one muted on Twitter this past weekend — “Epstein,” “Ph.D.,” “doctor,” “Jill Biden” — the outrage kept coming. Joseph Epstein, longtime editor of The American Scholar and an essayist whose fair prominence belies Twitter’s evident lack of familiarity with his work, published an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal belittling Jill Biden’s scholarly accomplishments using repulsive, demeaning language.
Biden is an accomplished professor with a doctorate in education. For many academics, especially women, her career path is particularly inspiring: She didn’t go straight to graduate school from college, and she didn’t receive her doctorate until she was 55. For many women, this is relatable; women often defer graduate-school ambitions until family needs stabilize. It only enhances Biden’s standing that she teaches at the community-college level, since these institutions have arguably done more to welcome women and people of color into the world of higher education than four-year schools.
So academic Twitter’s outrage, especially among women, is understandable. Some of us have had “Dr.” or “Professor” in our bios or handles since the last time this disrespect went around. But even though I have a doctorate in history (Rutgers–New Brunswick, 2012) and note it in my Twitter bio, I don’t use “doctor” or “Ph.D.” professionally. You have my permission to show me respect without referring to my credential.
Epstein writes, in an attempt at wry humor, about the decline of the Ph.D. from the days when secretaries held glasses of water at the ready outside of oral-exam rooms, just in case someone fainted. You don’t need a Ph.D. in literature to detect the condescension to women and university staff here. But the fetishization of hazing hasn’t disappeared from inside academe. Epstein wants the fairyland of open hierarchy back, explicitly; he notes in frustration that grad students now call their professors by their first names.
Having taken two giant steps away from academe, I can now see that this hierarchy is alive and fierce as ever, and only reinforced by the beguiling informality that (for example) lets grad students and professors call each other by their first names. Once you have a Ph.D., though, you learn the lessons of academic hierarchy all over again. What’s called “collegiality” is actually deference, a willingness to get along by going along, to put up with corridor microaggressions, to smile through Professor X’s department-meeting BS — but like a whack-a-mole, there’s always another Professor X. The rules of deference are unwritten because most of them would probably be illegal. “Wait until you get tenure” is not in the faculty handbook.
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