Tuesday, March 17, 2015

"Trust Me! I'm a Doctor" (Titles and Respect) [30 Jan. 2015]

  My very senior, senior associate in the movie biz — senior in experience, not in age — usually gives me a movie-related gift for the Solstice holidays, my favorite in this genre being Scarface boxer shorts. This last winter, though, he gave me a T-shirt saying, "Trust Me! I'm a Doctor," with the second "O" replaced by a head-and-hat shot of The Cat in the Hat, and a "Dr. Seuss" trademark.
            There's a backstory here.
            The first time that very senior senior associate — call him Gabe —introduced me in a filmmaking context as his associate and colleague, I was very happy. He called me "Professor Erlich," though, and I later asked him not to use the "Professor."
            Like my friend "Rob," who declines to use his military rank since he retired, I feel pretty strongly that titles should mostly indicate functions, and when one ceases performing the function, one should cease using the title.
            Ditto for serious interruptions in one's profession, especially if one has latched onto a political position of some power: people should use their new titles, and that only, not the old.
            E.g., in 1970 or so, I had a bit of a run-in with the receptionist for the Superintendent of Public Instruction of the State of Illinois whom she referred to as "Dr. ______" and I called "The Superintendent" and "Mr. ______." When she pointedly said "Doctor," I said, "No, it's Mister. 'Superintendent ______' in third-person reference, 'Mr. Superintendent' to his face. We call senators with doctorates 'Senator,' not 'Doctor' — and that rule holds across the board."
            Still, thinking about it a bit, I told Gabe, "Well, I guess I'm still, 'Dr. Erlich'; the Ph.D. title goes with you unless you're defrocked, or whatever." (This can happen: a guy I went to grad school with had his degree revoked for fraud.)
            So, "Trust Me! I'm a Doctor" still — like the once-famous line, "I am Duchess of Malfi still," meaning she's the Duchess "even so" + "always" (4.2.101).
            But I didn't use the "Dr." when professor-ing, sometimes smiling and telling people who called me Doctor, "Recite two sonnets and call me in the morning."
            Much of that decision on declining the title was sheer snobbery.
            My first academic day on a university campus, in 1961, I saw my adviser for Specialized Chemistry, and at the end of our conversation I asked, "What do you call people around here?" Without missing a beat he replied, "'Mister.' In a department such as this" — Chemistry at the U of Illinois — "everyone has a doctorate."
            Later increases in the number of women on college faculties complicated matters, but the true-snob feeling at a Midwestern Big Ten/Big Time university like the U of IL, and later at Cornell, was that a hot-shit Ph.D. didn't need the title.
            Rules were different in the South and with Doctors of Education and some clinical psychologists, but that only reinforced the point up in "The Land of Lincoln" and in departments like Chemistry or even English.
            We don't harp on the Civil War in Union country, but we haven't forgotten it either; and "The Hierarchy of the Majors," Michael Moffatt found among undergrads at Rutgers continues up the academic food chain: Ed docs, such as the Superintendent of Public Instruction of the State of Illinois ca. 1970 may need the title. And — unjustly — women in some departments, at least until recently, could find the title useful and even necessary.
            Still, a major scholar of XX genotype and female gendering in my department at Miami University (Oxford, OH) could usually go by "Ms." or her first name and use that as a sign of her arrival.
            Of course, few of us were above using the "Dr." when trying to get a restaurant reservation: we might be thought an M.D., hence, relatively rich, hence, might get a decent table.
            And, maybe also "of course," in retirement I've come to miss, a little bit, telling people "Oh, 'Mr. Erlich' is fine, or call me 'Rich.'"
            As Professor Erlich I occasionally ran into contempt — and still do in on-line forums when I get dismissed as a pointy-headed intellectual — but there was more of a kind of base-line respect.
            I still won't use "Dr.," but that base-line respect I kind of miss.
            I am nobody special and with the possible exception of one semester in high school have never been. Still, Herr Professor Doktor Erlich at least had some minimal status, and Rich Erlich — outside of being a male in the US who can pass for White — film script analyst and Associate Producer Rich Erlich does not have that safety-net guarantee. (The quotes in the movie Argo include a laugh-line on associate producer status.)
            This lack of occasional trivial deference is not a big deal since I was able to put money away for retirement, and the time of any significant — as in monetary — height discrimination is behind me. Still, it's a tad diminishing to be merely me, and I really like that T-shirt "Gabe" gave me.

            "Trust me! I'm a Doctor," and, maybe, until other people show themselves contemptible, let us all offer what respect we can for people just for being human. I want some, even if the doctorate were only in Seuss. 

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