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). 

Penman No. 87: The Art of the Title (2)

Penman for Monday, February 24, 2014

SOMETIMES WE authors fall in love with titles, especially if they’re ours and they come to us in a dream or in a flash of insight, begging to be written into a story or a poem. This could work, if the inspiration they provide is powerful enough to generate a whole series of thoughts, associations, and narratives that become art. I’ve done a couple of stories myself this way, out of the three dozen or so that I published.

But as I often remind my writing students, every title is a working title until the work is actually finished. That’s when you take a step back and look at what you’ve done, and try to figure out what title might work best for the piece. In other words, the title is most often a matter of hindsight rather than foresight because—especially in fiction—you never really know what you’ve written and what it’s about until you’ve put in that final period. Writing fiction is a process of discovery, not merely the execution of a pre-planned idea.

It’s a good thing, too, that authors decide or can be persuaded to change their minds about titles. I’d like to thank my colleague and student, Thomas David Chaves, for pointing me to a website that listed down a number of these last-minute switches that left us with some of literature’s most familiar titles.

Ernest Hemingway’s With Due Respect became A Moveable Feast; William Faulkner’s Twilight (not a vampire story!) became The Sound and the Fury; Tennessee Williams’ Blanche’s Chair in the Moon (not a bad title in itself) became A Streetcar Named Desire; D. H. Lawrence’s Tenderness became Lady Chatterley’s Lover; George Orwell’s The Last Man in Europe became 1984; Carson McCullers’ The Mute became The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter; Alex Haley’s Before This Anger became Roots; Vladimir Nabokov’s The Kingdom by the Sea became Lolita; Herman Melville’s The Whale became Moby Dick; Stephen Crane’s Private Fleming, His Various Battles became The Red Badge of Courage; John Steinbeck’s Something That Happened became Of Mice and Men; Leo Tolstoy’s All’s Well that Ends Well became War and Peace; Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Sea-Cook became Treasure Island; and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s The Man That Was a Thing became Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

This looking-back and revising applies as well to first paragraphs—I’ll develop this subject at greater length in another column—which could be very clear to us at the inception of the story and drive it forward, but which, at the end of everything, may no longer be the best possible way to open the narrative, and may even be clunky and unnecessary. We call this “scaffolding,” the way builders put up a temporary exterior shell just to get a project off the ground, then discard it later when the structure can stand on its own and be completed from the inside.

That’s how it goes with titles—you find and use a good working title that your story, poem, or essay can hang on to while it’s being written, and then you think about whether it’s still good (not just good, but the best) for the work, and decide whether to keep it or to change it. I’ve often found that the best source for titles is the work itself—there has to be a memorable, resonant line or phrase in the work that can carry the whole weight of the piece on its shoulders.

Right now, for example, I’m editing a book of 27 travel essays written by an American friend who’s been fortunate enough to visit some of the most beautiful and spectacular and yet also the most desolate and squalid places on the planet, from Timbuktu and Andalusia to Bhutan and Namibia; she’s fortunate, because it costs a lot of money to get around the world this way, but more than money, it takes insight and compassion to become more than another snapshot-happy tourist mingling with the natives. To acknowledge that privilege—now a double-edged word—up front, I suggested a title phrase that my friend used in one of her essays, and the book will come out later this year in the US under the title Privileged Witness.

While we’re on the subject, how about titling works of art like paintings? It’s a whole other challenge, because the artist—typically more of a visual than verbal person—is expected to find words for an image or an idea that should be able to stand on its own. But how do you refer to a painting or a sculpture without a title? (I’ve always thought of the practice of some artists to use, say, Untitled XXIV as a not-even-clever copout.) We don’t know if Leonardo da Vinci himself gave the title La Gioconda to his famous painting which later came to be known as the Mona Lisa, but that ‘s how Leonardo’s assistant Salai recorded the painting, which he inherited (“Mona Lisa” itself is a shortening of “ma donna Lisa,” my lady Lisa, referring to Lisa del Giacondo, the presumed subject).

For our amusement more than anything, Mark Hudelson, a professor of Art History in Palomar College, came up with his own list of the art world’s most remarkable titles—and you’d have to look up the art works themselves to see how the visuals match the words:

1. I Love You with My Ford (James Rosenquist, 1961)

2. The Raft of the Medusa (Theodore Gericault, 1819)

3. Clear Flippers, Release Fire Gods (James Bell, 1984)

4. The Treachery of Images (This Is Not a Pipe) (Rene Magritte, 1929)

5. Are You Jealous? (Paul Gauguin, 1892)

6. Studio of a Painter: A Real Allegory Summarizing My Seven Years of Life as an Artist (Gustave Courbet, 1855)

7. Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate, a Second Before Waking Up (Salvador Dali, 1944–see the pic above)

8. High Voltage Sphincter-Winking Livewire Laxative (Robert Williams, 1990)

9. In Advance of the Broken Arm (Marcel Duchamp, 1915)

10. Through the Night Softly (Chris Burden, 1973)

I did say last week that I was going to deal with movie titles as well—an arena of atrocities some of which I, the former scriptwriter, feel personally responsible for—but we’re out of space, so I’ll save that delectable topic for another time.