Professional titles: Do they matter?

Do professional titles matter? Given the increase in nontenure line faculty in academia, titles may matter more—or less—than ever.

Do professional titles really tell us about the person or the job? A fake nameplate with John Doe, CEO.

What do professional titles tell us about the job, or for that matter the person?

As a nontenureline faculty member at Texas State University, my title of “Lecturer” implies the focus of my employer’s expectations: I teach a lot of classes. My 4–4 course workload—plus the overload courses I need to stay financially afloat—keeps me busy and in the classroom.

The other day I saw this in my Twitter feed:

That made me think about my title and how we use titles throughout academia and other fields.

My first reaction was, of course, Saideman thinks we should go by “professor,” because in academia that’s the gold standard. The funny thing about that is in my department, we’ve reversed the rule: those with a Ph.D. go by “Dr.,” whereas those without go by “Prof.,” regardless of rank. This, of course, is ridiculous. On the other hand, I really don’t want to be called “Lecturer Wells” or anything like that.

Professional titles and actual work

As I thought about it, I also realized that lecturing is one of the least common things I do. Yes, i spend a lot of time in class meetings, but i try to lecture as little as possible.

I do lecture sometimes. My bread-and-butter course is introductory international politics, which includes quite a few theories, concepts, and key personnel of which my students have no familiarity, and there is no high school precursor to the course. Much of what my students learn in this course they’ve never engaged before, so I need to spend time laying the foundation of the field.

Even then, a forty-five minute lecture represents a substantial commitment to knowing my field, the result of evaluating not one but many different texts, along with my read of classical and current research in the field and analysis and coverage of current affairs. I aggregate, sift, distill, search, collect, and organize.

That said, I try not to lecture too much, even in that class, and especially not in my other classes. So where does that put me? I facilitate discussion, shepherd research projects, provide feedback, advise, mentor, and sometimes even counsel. Should I make one of those verbs a noun and by that? Honestly, I’d prefer “Faciltator Wells” or “Researcher Wells” over “Lecturer Wells” any day.

Better professional titles for academia?

That leads to the next question: do better titles for academics exist? Should we even use titles? Earlham College, a Quaker institution in Indiana, insists on all students, faculty, and staff addressing each other on a first-name basis. I also had some professors at my undergraduate institution that individually insisted on using first names or even nicknames.

This puts us in dicey territory though. In most cases, the relationship between professor and student requires some professional regard. This is especially true among female and underrepresented minority faculty.

Also, whether we use Prof. or Dr., the titles avoid the awkward and potentially insulting uses of Mr. and Ms., and we can all agree that we’d like to see less of that coming from our students.

Jeremy L. Wells

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