One of my earliest cultural lessons was in due deference. Some people call it “home-training.” Some people call it comportment. Some people call it “reading the room.” Other people call it “code-switching”, a process described by the Harvard Business Review as making adjustments in speech, appearance, behavior and self-expression “in ways that will optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service, and employment opportunities.” For many people of color, people from socioeconomically vulnerable backgrounds and/or other traditionally excluded social groups, these behavioral practices have long histories.
To this point, I long believed that using specific titles for specific people demonstrated respect for these people, reflected well on my familial upbringing and helped reinforce important interpersonal boundaries.
Writing and/or stating these titles can also tacitly acknowledge and affirm the hard work that people complete in order to earn their credentials.
As a Black, Millennial woman from coastal North Florida, I learned a specific form of manners and deference. I learned early and often to call people “ma’am” and “sir.” I learned to append honorifics including Dr., Mrs., Ms., Mr. and Professor before people’s last names. In general, these lessons tended to apply to people with additional lived experience, in a workplace seniority context and for people whose hard work yielded recognition in their respective fields — overall, of course, but especially if the people happened to be women, people of color or both.
Last year, a related, broader national discourse arose. Across various academies, scholars explored the necessity and/or propriety of addressing First Lady Jill Biden, as Dr. Biden. Dr. Biden, a longtime community college professor, earned her doctorate degree in education.
While Dr. Biden happens to be a white woman, many educated women of color bristled at arguments against calling Dr. Biden “Dr. Biden.” In my own professional circles, I recall Black women, Latinas and Jewish women taking particular exception to writers addressing Dr. Biden as “Mrs. Biden” or merely Jill Biden.
This recent debate reminded me of wisdom from my undergraduate newspaper advisor, Professor Wanda Peters. When I studied at Grambling State University (2007–2011), Professor Peters had long been the advisor for the university and city newspaper, The Gramblinite. While Professor Peters taught students many scholarly and life lessons, I remember that she advised the mass communication students to include “Dr.” in news articles about people who earned doctoral degrees. For context, Grambling is a historically Black university and most of the people journalists cover in the newspaper are also Black.
Professor Peters shared that many people in the community tended to perceive the exclusion of a “Dr.” in an article about a Black person with a doctorate as disrespect for the person’s professional training. Given the reality that the Associated Press Stylebook advises journalism students and communications professionals to include “Dr.” in news articles referencing medical doctors, she shared a communication compromise that helped me navigate similar dynamics. She taught us to address these experts as Dr. in news articles while also explaining in writing what kind of doctoral degree the person had earned. This meant that both factual accuracy and professional reverence could coincide in our work.
I learned more about this during one of my teaching jobs. For context, a student who I will call “Ana” and I had previously connected on social media. While I taught Ana at the University of Florida last fall, we had e-connected as fellow Latin American Studies students in the same hip-hop and social change course. We took this mixed-level and interdisciplinary course, which included upper-level undergraduates and graduate students from scholarly backgrounds including communications, law, anthropology, ethno-musicology and political science. Our professor, a non-binary person of color, brought a robust course offering and interesting perspectives to the class. We wrote a lot of papers and debated diverse historical understandings during our class time.
Since I had always appreciated my then-classmate’s remarks, I was pleasantly surprised when she signed up for my class as a student.
Candidly, this also presented another range of scholarly considerations.
When teaching, I decided to engage the social media platform less and to abstain more from meme-humor and other personal posts during the semester. I also decided to use a more formal approach in university-related communications, including signing off on e-mails as “Professor Jackson.”
Personally, I appreciate the human desire for egalitarianism. However, I also know and appreciate that many people operate in different worlds with different expectations and that it is important to help prepare students for a world where many people with power want their position to be explicitly acknowledged.
Finding an appropriate balance
In certain spaces, many people address each other by their first names. To some degree, this also holds true at the University of Florida, an institution that happens to be predominantly white. Yet, I have also heard and seen the way that certain elder African-American professionals take profound offense after someone half their age called them by their first name. To the extent that my students will encounter and interact with these professionals, I hope that they will be ready to defer if/when appropriate.
Of course, debates about substance and style have long histories in the academy. At the same time though, contemporary scholars (myself included) also work in a newer landscape. The COVID-19 pandemic helped hasten a scholarly shift to more cyber-work, interaction and engagement. Much like modern workers negotiate home-life balance, many e-workers also negotiate interpersonal norms for the Internet-based workplace. All of these dynamics contribute to ongoing conversations about how and whether people should code-switch online.
For those of us who choose to continue our educational journeys together online, we will constantly learn, study, interrogate, enforce and help negotiate boundaries for our shared digital domain.