Harvey H. Jackson: Is there a doctor in the house?
Mar 20, 2013 | 2667 views |  0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
I read in the New York Times the other day that the German education minister was forced to resign because her doctoral dissertation did not meet the academic standards of the university that had granted the degree more than three decades before.

Yessir, someone went back into that 32-year-old dissertation, found improper citations in the footnotes and pointed them out to the University of Dusseldorf, which had granted the degree, and Dusseldorf took it back. So she resigned.

Now why, you may well ask, would someone want to read a dusty, 350-plus-page tome, much less go over it with a fine-toothed, academic comb, to verify its research?

And why would a politician whose career had been praised by many feel she could no longer function effectively because she had not properly documented her research back when she was a graduate student?

Because they are German, that’s why, and Germans are obsessed with academic titles. So it follows that if you claim to be a doctor, the footnotes better be right.

Professor Dr. (note the titles) Volker Rieble, of Ludwig Maximillan University of Munich, calls the obsession “title arousal,” which, he added, is the direct result of “title envy.” I am glad the Times did not question him farther, for there is no telling where he would have gone if the newspaper had let him.

However, I know what he means. I encountered this obsession myself when I was in Germany some years ago. We were staying at a small bed-and-breakfast presided over by a large, rosy cheeked Frau with a commanding presence. The first morning when we went down to breakfast she ushered us to our table, which was over near the kitchen. Not the best seat in the house, but who was I to make a fuss?

That afternoon, I had an opportunity to talk with our hostess and she asked me what I did back in the States.

“I teach in a college there,” I replied.

“Professor?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“Doctor?”

“Yes.”

“Ah.”

The next morning when we arrived at breakfast, our hostess greeted us in a voice that rang across the room — “Professor, Doctor Jackson.” Then she proceeded to take us to the best table in the house.

Though I accepted the attention with all the grace I could muster, I felt uncomfortable.

You see, I had never put much stock in titles. Well, maybe I did right after I got mine and was full of myself, but I was quickly brought back to reality. Shortly after my degree was conferred, my daddy took family and friends out to celebrate at Bobby’s Fish Camp on the Tombigbee. The waitress came up and Daddy, gregarious as usual, proceeded to tell her why we were there and introduced me as Dr. Jackson.

“What kind of doctor are you?” she asked, apparently hoping that I might advise her on how to get rid of her baby’s colic or her dog’s worms.

“I teach history,” I sheepishly replied.

She paused, then asked, “Can you get in out of the rain?”

The table erupted.

But she had a point. Where I come from, a doctor should cure illnesses in man or beast. The fact that I only cured ignorance (or at least tried to) did not recommend me for much.

In America, when people outside of academics think of doctors, they think of physicians or dentists or even (or maybe especially) veterinarians. A history doctor does not register on their Richter Scale, which is why I don’t stick “Dr.” or “Professor” before my name or “Ph.D.” after it. At times I do add “Eminent Scholar” in hopes that it will give me some credibility — see below — knowing all the while that most folks don’t give a rip. Even some of my colleagues have suggested the title should be “Imminent” to indicate that one day, with a little luck, I might become a scholar. Others have less charitably observed that the word should be “enema” to relieve the creative blockage that has prevented me from becoming “eminent.”

I just can’t get any respect.

These folks seem to agree with the editor of one of the most prestigious journals in my profession who, when asked why all of the authors he published were addressed as Mr. or Ms., replied, “Anyone can earn a doctorate.”

I consider myself living proof of that.

I sorta like the response to the question of title a noted British historian gave when asked to submit a brief bio sketch to an editor. “I do not hold a doctorate, either earned or honorary,” he replied. “I am not sure if I should apologize for this or take pride in it.”

Good answer, but it won’t get him far in Germany.

Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is, aw, you know. Email: hjackson@jsu.edu.
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