Herr Professor

20 November 2020

As a first-generation faculty entering the academic world, one of the biggest challenges for me was to learn the subtle nuances of the academic hierarchy. Full Professor outranks Assistant Professor, sure, but an Assistant Professor with an esteemed Ivy degree can outrank an Associate Professor with a degree from a measly cow college. But some state schools are almost as good as a lesser Ivy, depending on the academic field. It’s like trying to memorize the Peerage of England.

Most academics understand the hierarchy intuitively because, like nobles of rank, most are born into it. If you are a Professor, it is extremely likely that your parents and grandparents were also academics. It’s so common that unless you publicly identify as a first-generation student they assume you are part of the dynasty. They presume you are a child of privilege like them unless you tell them otherwise. Hence the reason one of my RIT colleagues once felt comfortable telling me that non-degreed rural red-staters are “inbred hillbillies who shouldn’t be allowed to reproduce,” confident that I wasn’t one of those people. Or why RIT’s former Provost thought it was a good idea in a presentation to represent lecturers as children on the wrong side of the tracks, holding their little lunchboxes while the Tenure Train left them behind.

Because the ranking of professors is so natural to most faculty, they assume if you screw up you’re doing it intentionally, to offend them. It really really matters to some of them. As a result, you become hyper-aware of the nuances. You also become very aware of the way many use titles as a way to signal that certain kinds of people don’t belong.

The most common trick is to drop the title from professors who are women or people of color. More than once I’ve seen an introduction where “Jane Smith and her colleague Professor William Jones” will present their research. Or referring to POC faculty by their first name in front of students, but white colleagues as Doctor. Of course, the people who do this also tend to be those most offended if you mistitle them.

To most people, the whole issue of titles might seem like a petty thing to complain about. Who cares what your title is? Most people don’t go around demanding they be addressed in some formal fashion. And generally, I would agree. Though I have a doctorate and have been a professor, I don’t go around signing my name with Ph.D. or introduce myself as Doctor. Personally, I don’t really care.

But recently I had an interaction with an academic where they referred to me as Mr. Koberlein, so I corrected them. Mr. Koberlein is my father. My name is Dr. Koberlein. Rather than acknowledging my title, they replied with “Oh, I didn’t know we were using titles. Then refer to me as Professor.” And there it was, the point being that they outrank me, and I should know my place. I didn’t belong in their lofty academic world.

These kinds of “title games” are part of a broad behavior known as microaggressions. Misgendering someone, racist slights, and so on. Small offenses we might not even notice, and we’re all guilty of. Go ahead and roll your eyes. I get it. It sounds silly to complain about microaggressions in a world of much bigger problems.

All fair points, but here is what makes them so insidious. They aren’t just done by assholes. The examples I listed above were done intentionally. Those folks intended to “other” certain people. They were being assholes. That’s on them. But many of the microaggressions I’ve seen in my life were done by people I liked, and who wanted to be kind to others. That didn’t stop them from laughing when I mispronounced a word I had only seen in a book, or from making banjo jokes when driving along rural highways. But their slights hit harder because they are kind. It signaled just how much of an outsider I was, and how I would never truly be one of them. There’s a reason why almost all of my friends were first-generation students. It’s hard to be friends with someone who will never really get you.

In many ways, we all play the title games. It’s deeply human to divide people into insiders and outsiders. It’s easy to see the microaggressions against us, and nearly impossible to see those we impose upon others. But it’s worth trying to be better because no matter what our title, we are all worthy of a bit more understanding.