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That’s DR. Biden to you

Vice President Joe Biden’s biography became a campaign tool when he joined the Obama ticket this past summer. Then-Senator Biden’s no-bull attitude meshed well with the story of the father who took the train home from Washington, D.C. every night to be with his kids after the death of his wife and daughter.

Biden’s second and current wife, Dr. Jill Biden, got less attention at first. While Michelle Obama was occasionally controversial (for such pseudo-issues as making more money than her husband), Jill Biden was rarely mentioned. A Vogue story profiled her, along with the rest of the women in the close-knit Biden clan, and Steve Clemons wrote enthusiastically about her when Joe Biden was announced as Obama’s running mate.

I admit to having a bit of a fascination with Jill Biden after I heard that she was a Ph.D. One of the best personal recommendations for Joe Biden (as well as Barack Obama) was that he was married to a woman who was smart, successful, and independent–and he wasn’t threatened by it.

Not so, says the Los Angeles Times.

Early Monday morning, I read an article on Dr. Biden in the LA Times titled, at the time, “Hi, I’m Jill. Jill Biden. But please, call me Dr. Biden.”

The subhead was “The vice president’s wife holds a doctorate in English — but she likes to use the prefix that most people reserve for medical doctors.”

Not only was it factually inaccurate–as a later edit of the story, now available on the site, explains–but it was condescending, sexist, and unnecessary.

The article was edited, not only to reflect the reporter’s mistake in Biden’s degree, but to include a less confrontational headline and tagline. At press time, the article was titled “Jill Biden, doctor of education, is back in class.”

The tagline now reads, “The vice president’s wife, who holds a doctorate in education and has been teased for going by “Dr. Biden,” is teaching two college classes. Biden is thought to be the first second lady to hold a paying job while her husband is in office.”

The article focuses, not on Jill Biden’s various accomplishments or her personal life, but on quoting various “experts” on whether it is appropriate for Biden to use the term “Dr.” to refer to herself.

As a graduate student and teaching assistant, I’m used to questions about what one calls one’s professor. My students call me by my first name, but I’m not even an MA, yet. However, if I go on to a PhD, I will certainly expect to be referred to as Dr. Jaffe.

The degree I’m currently working on is in journalism, so despite my lacking in an honorific-worthy title, perhaps I can explain a few things to the Los Angeles Times.

Using “some” as a source is inappropriate in a news story. As in, “. . . in campaign news releases and now in White House announcements, she is “Dr. Jill Biden.” This strikes some people as perfectly appropriate and others as slightly pompous, a quality often ascribed to her voluble husband.”

“Some people” is inaccurate and vague. Which some people? Where? The reporter’s Aunt Sally? The guy muttering under his breath on the bus?

The reporter goes on to end a paragraph about other accomplished “second ladies” with the notation that Lynne Cheney, also a PhD, went by “Mrs. Cheney.” This is irrelevant, and implies that Lynne Cheney is doing the correct thing while Biden is overreaching her place.

Women academics are used to this lack of respect. I spoke to my own “some people” on the subject, specifically, Dr. Carolyn Kitch, head of the PhD program in Mass Media and Communications at Philadelphia’s Temple University.

“Students (at all levels) commonly refer to the male faculty as ‘Dr.’ (even those who are not PhD’s) and to the female faculty either by first name or ‘Mrs.’ I’m the director of our school’s doctoral program–so wouldn’t it stand to reason that I myself hold the degree? Yet I routinely receive queries about the program (from potential applicants) addressing me as ‘Mrs. Kitch,’ or by my first name.”

Kitch continues,

“A couple of years ago I asked one (female) doctoral student why she always called me Carolyn but called her advisor, another faculty member, Dr. Maynard. She said, ‘Oh, I could never call him anything else! But, you know, you’re just like a regular person.'”

Regular person or no, a PhD is a title that requires years of hard work, even if that hard work is put in studying communications, English, or education, as Dr. Biden did. Yet the LA Times seems to think that one’s doctorate (yes, that’s the title of the degree) is only worthwhile if one is a medical doctor.

The reporter didn’t take the time to find “some people” like Dr. Kitch to quote on the issue, instead, quoting Estela Bensimon, a professor at the University of Southern California, as saying that she didn’t care about the title.

“Also, just think if you were on an airplane and you called yourself doctor and there was an emergency,” the paper quoted Bensimon saying.

This ridiculous suggestion, that a person with a PhD in education might be stuck trying to revive a person with a heart attack because there might be some confusion about their title, only serves to overprivilege the medical doctor at the expense of degrees in the humanities.

The reporter goes even further, though, dredging up the fact that apparently people have been investigated for “title fraud” in Germany and the EU for using the honorific “Dr.” However, the reporter doesn’t see the contradiction in the fact that the title fraud was not for non-medical doctors using the honorific, but for people who have earned their doctorate outside of the EU.

The article also snidely digs at Biden’s community college teaching experience, after discussing her new position at the Northern Virginia Community College, ending the discussion once again with a question about what Dr. Biden wishes to be called in the classroom, and focusing on what she will be paid rather than what kind of work she will be doing.

I have to wonder, if we were discussing a male academic who taught at a prestigious Ivy League university, the reporter would feel the need to spend the entire piece debating whether he deserved the prefix “Dr.”

The article’s dismissive tone is symptomatic of the way the media treats women, particularly accomplished women in the public eye. Jill Biden has several advanced degrees, and yet chooses to teach in a community college, helping students who often cannot afford to attend school full-time. This is worthy of respect, not a quibble over whether she deserves the title as much as someone who stitches up wounds, treats skin conditions, or performs nose jobs.

But it also underlines the problems with much of newspaper reporting today: it relies on “experts” rather than information, it presents multiple opinions within a narrow range and purports them to be representative of the culture as a whole, and it focuses on ginned-up controversy instead of the actual story. It took me two minutes to find an “expert” who outlined the other side of the story. The Times could’ve done its research.

Instead, they went to press at first with a story that was not only offensive, but contained factual errors. No wonder newspapers are dying.


Sarah Jaffe

Sarah Jaffe is former deputy editor of GlobalComment. She's interested in politics and pop culture, and has a special place in her heart for comics.

22 thoughts on “That’s DR. Biden to you

  1. That’s an interesting analysis. The genderizing of doctoral degrees and titles, interestingly enough, does not seem to happen in science. PhDs in science – as opposed to medical doctors who do seem to have a different sort of higher claim to the title, but I won’t go into that – are almost always referred to as Dr. so-and-so, regardless of gender.

    In fact, it appears to be the most neutral, noncontroversial title in use, so much so that people don’t even care to find out if one is a PhD, as long as one works in a science lab. Even with regard to students/staff addressing professors, a person’s disposition seems to dictate it more than gender does.

    I certainly don’t approve of this divide along the lines of area of specialization, but it’s a little heartening to find that this particular gender divide doesn’t seem to exist in science.

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  3. Excellent post! I would love to see the phrase “some say…” banned from journalism. It seems to be a device for allowing the anonymous “some” to be offensive without fear of retribution, but I wonder how frequently it simply reflects the bias of the reporter and/or the news organization. Please, “some”, just shut up already.

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  6. KarthikaM: Really? I’m in biology myself, and I cannot remember the last time I called anyone, male or female, “Dr. _____”; it’s first-names all around. I’ve had this experience at both a state school and an Ivy, with faculty of all ages, and at all the national meetings I’ve been to.

  7. thanks for this. it’s been a few years since i was in college, but it made me think about how i addressed my professors. i recall calling at least a few women by “dr”, but they were generally very specific about how they preferred to be addressed. it’s a shame to see dr. biden’s accomplishments treated so dismissively simply because she’s the wife of an important man.

  8. Unbelievable. It is completely appropriate for a female or male to use the honorific in a relevant situation, e.g., when teaching within their subject of expertise at the college level, or in referring to said profession. One can make a case that formal manners deem it incorrect to use one’s title in a SOCIAL situation, such as a potluck at one’s church, regardless of one’s sex, but that’s not what this twerp is talking about.

    Anyone who thinks “Dr.” is reserved only for medical doctors has probably never attended a college.

  9. “PhDs in science – as opposed to medical doctors who do seem to have a different sort of higher claim to the title,”

    Is a ridiculous claim! An MD or DO makes no intellectual offer to a field, and thus has a lesser claim to the Dr. prefix than those of us “lesser PhDs” do. Overall, its seems crazy to me that someone would assume that she has less right to the title based on degree, gender, or to whom she is married.

  10. umm… can we have a reality check here? Institutional cultures vary as to whether professors with PhDs are called “Professor” as they were at my undergraduate institution, or “Dr.” as they are at the institution where I am now a professor. Many professors are comfortable with undergraduates calling them by their first names, but they tend (as a giant generalization) to be white men who are old enough not to be mistaken for a student. Many of the rest of us use our professional titles to remind the students that we are not their friends and that we need respectful boundaries in the classroom.

  11. Heh… It appears that Mokele, Karthika and I all have different experiences in the sciences. In mine, the default is to refer to strangers and new acquaintances in the academy as “Dr.”, although pretty much everyone uses first names after formal introductions. However, I do see a gender gap in whether people assume one has a doctorate. I’ve had female friends who have regularly receive correspondence addressed to “Ms.”, where as I’m not sure it’s as common for male faculty.

  12. I think you’re absolutely spot-on in your analysis. Blech.

    What’s interesting to me is how this varies by field. In my field, no one I know goes by “Dr.” They all prefer to be addressed by either “Professor” or their first name (at least with graduate students). I heard one joke that “all professors are doctors, but not all doctors are professors,” suggesting it was the more exclusive/prestigious degree. Either one, obviously, connotes respect for one’s education and professional achievements in a way that “Mrs.” or first name do not.

    Also, for me, what I call a prof is determined by what they invite me to call them or by how they sign their emails. If they sign their emails “JWS” (initials), then I address them as Professor. If they sign “Jane” I take that as an invitation to use their first name. Interestingly, almost all the faculty who have kept using their intials with me long after I first met them are male, and most of the faculty who invite the use of their first names are female. Don’t know what that says, but that’s my anecdotal experience.

  13. Here’s my email to the author, followed by her reply:

    “Ms. Abcarian,

    Dr. Kissinger, Dr. Rice, Dr. King. If you find these titles
    appropriate, please explain why you insinuate that Dr. Biden is somehow
    pompous or disingenous when addressed by her proper academic title. An
    earned doctorate, regardless of the field, is an immense achievement
    worthy of respect. Your cheap shots reveal a bias unbecoming of someone
    at least nominally filling the position of journalist. Most egresgious
    is the insinuation that somehow, because the European Union may have
    rules to differentiate their degrees from ours, that her degree and
    title are frauds. You should apologize.
    You really should not be taking your marching orders from Media Matters,
    who are a bunch of blowhards. I never suggested Jill Biden is guilty of
    title abuse, and perhaps if you read the story, you would understand

  14. Perhaps it is because I go to a women’s college, but we always refer to our professors as “Dr.” regardless of gender. Though one professor has asked us to call her “Rachel,” most people feel so awkward about it we still call her “Dr. Last Name,” in class.

    And it is completely ridiculous to have an article that is pretty much solely about whether she should use the term “Dr.” I’m sure there is something more important that a journalist could be informing his/her readership about.

  15. I usually ask first. If they have in the syllabus “Dr. …” then I will call them that. If they are a Mr. or Mrs. but not a Dr. then I say “Professor …” because they’ve had to have some qualifications to teach the class even without a doctorate and we’re not on a first-name basis, so I play it safe and say “professor” unless another preference from the person is stated.

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  17. At my college everyone calls all the professors by their honorific. If you put the time and effort into getting the degree, you deserve to be called Dr. Soandso.

    I doubt the reporter spent years achieving his doctorate.

  18. This reporter, as an educated person, must clearly be aware of the common use of the term “Doctor” to refer to anyone who holds a doctorate (though not typically for J.D.s), so I wonder what her motivation is for writing a piece like this. I have sent her an email expressing my distaste with her article, and I’d urge you all to do the same!

  19. All over the world Phd’s are addressed as Dr.
    It should be left to the individual.I feel the discussion is unnecessary.

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