Qwertyman No. 32: This Business of Titles

Qwertyman for Monday, March 13, 2023

THERE’S BEEN a lot of buzz online recently about the use of titles like “Doctor” and “PhD,” a topic of inflammatory interest to Pinoys for many of whom those extra letters before and after one’s name can mean everything between abject inconsequence on the one hand and celestial esteem on the other.

While nobody seems to question why public officials from the president down to the barangay kagawad use their titles with gleeful abandon, academic degrees—which are arguably harder to earn honestly than votes—provoke much hand-wringing, notably among academics themselves who like to worry about things that would make ordinary people happy.

To put it simply, some people like using their titles, and others don’t. Those who do believe that they deserve it, having worked their posteriors off to gain them. Those who don’t apparently think that it’s unseemly to earn an exalted degree like a PhD and then to wear it on your T-shirt so nobody forgets to address you by your honorific, “Doctor.” The only “PhDs” I know who are above all this are those who got them for being, say, a generous taipan, and who feel elated to be called “Dr.” for the rest of their lives.

As it happens, I have a PhD in English, which I got more than thirty years ago from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, after my Master of Fine Arts from the University of Michigan. As soon as I say that, I feel like I’m boasting, which I suppose I am. But I only brought it up to make the point that, well, I hardly ever bring it up. Nobody ever calls me “Dr. Dalisay” or “Prof. Dalisay” except in an academic or professional context (they do call me “the Prof” at my favorite poker hangout, where I play with guys going by monikers like Daga, Todas, Hot Sauce, and Paos). I pull it out now and then when I suspect it will enhance my credibility and maybe even my paycheck by 200 percent. But most of the time I’m quite happy to be just “Butch” or “Sir Butch” (or “Ho-zay” when I’m in the US, to save myself the long explanation for why my father Jose Sr. chose to call his first-born “Butch”). 

So for me, it’s entirely situational, and no one should be made to feel immodest if he or she insists on being called “Doctor,” as Dr. Jill Biden does. The only caveat I’ll make is that, among writers, nobody seriously gives a hoot about academic degrees, unless you plan on teaching, which is really what the PhD is for, practically speaking. In UP these days, particularly in the sciences, you can’t teach for long without a PhD—the idea being that going through a doctoral program pushes you beyond your practical experience and innate talent toward some appreciation of theory and into research. 

In the Philippines, for many reasons, it’s still easier for teachers in many universities to become professors before finishing their PhDs, and so there’s a tendency to value the “Dr.” above the “Prof.”—which is not the case in UP and in most foreign universities, where the title “Professor” (meaning a full professor and not an assistant or associate professor) remains one’s ultimate career goal. The presumption is that a PhD should be an entry-level qualification for higher teaching, an early step in one’s ascent to full professorship. (Which reminds me to say that there’s no such degree as “PhD cand.” or “MA units”, as I’ve seen on some CVs—you’ve either done it or you haven’t.)

Why do we fuss over these titles? Because, in a society that offers few material rewards and consolations for academics, they can assume inordinate importance, and invest their holders with an intellectual and moral authority that demands or at least deserves respect—never mind that academia, like the rest of our institutions, is home to any number of crackpots and charlatans in togas, as corruptible as every other traffic cop. Let’s not forget that Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, had a PhD in Drama from the University of Heidelberg, and that PhDs from Stanford and Harvard, among others, greased the wheels of Marcos’ martial law.

But lest we think we’re the only ones seemingly obsessed by the trappings of imagined power, there’s at least one other country more retentive down there when it comes to academic titles, perhaps for the opposite reason—not because they’re rare, but because they’re part of such a long and prolific tradition that an elaborate hierarchy has to be put in place. 

That place is Germany—where, until 2008, and thanks to a Nazi-era law, you couldn’t call yourself “Dr.” unless you secured your PhD in Germany itself or was the kind who could fix broken bones. Ian Baldwin, a molecular ecologist from Cornell, found himself charged with “title abuse” when he put “Dr.” before his name on his card, as were at least six other American PhDs working in Germany. The law was later relaxed, but you get the point—when it comes to degrees, Deutschland still thinks of itself as being über alles.

The Germans make one more formal distinction—the precedence of the professor over the PhD, again on the assumption that while PhDs can be had for a dime a dozen, professorship is a career-capping accomplishment achieved only by exemplary research, publication, and mentorship. And thus, if you were teaching at, say, Humboldt University of Berlin (which as of 2020 had 57 Nobel laureates and almost 3,000 PhD students), your full title would be “Prof. Dr. XXX.” And because some people can’t find happiness and fulfillment with just one PhD, they would be called “Prof. Dr. Dr. XXX.” (I kid you not—go ahead and Google it. The Guinness record stands at 33 PhDs for a guy from Hyderabad, whom I don’t even want to begin to address.) Some titles would include variants like “ir” for “ingeneur” or engineer, and “hc” for honoris causa (often conveniently forgotten by hc recipients). The Austrians, I’m told, can be even more particular than the Germans, and can legally use their titles on their passports. The Dutch, by the way, have a “Drs.” degree which can be a bit confusing—it’s short for doctorandus, which means you’re studying for your PhD.

But who cares, other than the title-holder? Certainly not the Quakers, who value equality between people to the point of eschewing all titles, including (until recently, and only in America) “Mr.” and “Mrs.” If you’re familiar enough with each other, you can use first names. If not, then full names will do. When I visited the Quaker HQ in Philadelphia many years ago, I was “Jose Dalisay.” British Quakers were said to have referred to the late Queen as “Betty Windsor.” 

But something tells me that notion of equality won’t work here, where calling people “Digong,” “Bongbong,” and “Sara” won’t bring you any closer to the kingdom of heaven (or some such dominion). 

1 thought on “Qwertyman No. 32: This Business of Titles

  1. In chess nowadays, chessbots like Stockfish 15.1 should give Magnus a whipping any time. But in letters, it’s still NI light years ahead of AI: this Qwertyman post is case in point.

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