Hey, Kiddo!

Madame First Lady—Mrs. Biden—Jill—kiddo: a bit of advice on what may seem like a small but I think is a not unimportant matter. Any chance you might drop the “Dr.” before your name? “Dr. Jill Biden” sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic. Your degree is, I believe, an Ed.D., a doctor of education, earned at the University of Delaware through a dissertation with the unpromising title “Student Retention at the Community College Level: Meeting Students’ Needs.” A wise man once said that no one should call himself “Dr.” unless he has delivered a child. Think about it, Dr. Jill, and forthwith drop the doc. (Joseph Epstein WSJ Op Ed Piece)

Some guy named Joseph Epstien published an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal yesterday essentially saying that Dr. Biden shouldn’t refer to herself as “doctor” because she isn’t a doctor. There is so much wrong with his point of view that the diatribe I would write (am writing?) here might earn me a PhD. But the essential fallacy of his argument hinges on the fact that a medical doctor has a different degree. She or he would have an MD, Medical Doctor, following her/his name. The PhD has always been called “doctor,” a term that has been historically reserved for teachers.

The second point in the diatribe I WOULD write is Epstein’s diminution of Dr. Biden’s status as an individual by calling her “kiddo” and mocking her dissertation topic. Good god. She’s an elderly woman with a long career as a community college teacher. Somehow that identity resonates with me.

The author of this opinion piece taught at Northwestern for many years with a BA. His nasty little point was that if a BA is good enough for NW, it’s good enough for community college, which, as we all know, is vastly inferior to NW. The reality is that anyone admitted to NW already knows how to go to college and probably always has had the support of her/his community. People going to community college — most of which have open enrollment — can be anyone from an extremely bright high school kid on an accelerated program to a 40 year old mom who had no chance at school until her kids grew up. I taught lots of young women whose culture was strongly biased against women getting an education; some of these girls had to move out of their parents’ homes in order to attend college! Many community college kids come from immigrant groups whose parents do not speak ANY of the “normal” language of the dominant culture(s). Helping those students remain in school long enough to have a shot at fulfilling their potential is a big job. By demeaning Dr. Biden and her dissertation, he insults every aspiring community college student.

Looks to me like Epstein’s just a bitter old guy. One of his big claims is that with a “only” a BA he taught at NW. I don’t know how old the guy is, but I’m guessing in his 80s. “I have only a B.A. in absentia from the University of Chicago—in absentia because I took my final examination on a pool table at Headquarters Company, Fort Hood, Texas, while serving in the peacetime Army in the late 1950s.” What he doesn’t seem to understand is that there were a few changes in academia between his time and this one. While they may not have been changes for the better, but they happened, good or bad.

In Epstein’s day, most people didn’t go to college. There were no community colleges. High school was a high-powered institution of learning that prepared people for work. That hasn’t been the case since the 1970s. Community colleges emerged in the 70s offering open enrollment, GEDs and various other gap-filling opportunities for students who had missed out on their chance to get on a college track. Courses and training that could have (IMO should have) stayed in high school — auto shop, business/office practices, etc.) moved to community college. Community college became a way for a student to get into a university without having had the grades in high school, the argument being that a lot of kids don’t know what they want until they’re in their early 20s — or later. This, however, is the ONE and ONLY point on which I agree with 45: I think high schools should go back to training kids for work. It’s absurd to go to college to learn office practices, to take out a ginormous student loan. I taught a lot of students at university who graduated to work in an office at Enterprise Car Rental. Nothing wrong with the job, but to be in debt to their eyeballs to have it? I have a problem with that.

The first time I realized the difference between university degrees back in Epstein’s day and the one in which I was teaching (early 2000s) was in the library at San Diego State. My students were working on a project, and I was wandering around. I happened on the shelves that held SDSU university dissertations through all time. Until the 90s there were only a handful every year. After that? They began doubling in number every few years. More students had access to higher education. More PhDs were offered across more disciplines. Back in Epstein’s day, PhDs were rare and BAs were valuable degrees. Here in 2020, as I’m sitting here writing this, the BA is a way to get at job in a car rental agency. I think it’s a pity that students can no longer get many jobs without a BA is, but I’m not in charge of the world. There are way too many problems and issues in academia for me to go into here and I don’t work there any more. I’m past that stage. (waaa-HOOO).

Another point about the PhD is privilege. Those suckers are expensive. You read about, hear about, the work that goes into one and I’m not here to dispute that, but… At one point in my career I decided that a PhD would help me professionally and might be fun academically. I applied at the only university in driving distance offering them, University of California San Diego, and took the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) as required. I’d taken it years before to get my MA, but too may years to count for the PhD application. I showed up at 8 am, took my seat, got my materials, commenced the test and then the proctor said to all of us, “You don’t think an objective test on literature is kind of stupid?” Well, yeah, I did, but? What was his angle? Throughout the exam he made similar remarks. Maybe he was an adjunct prof somewhere and didn’t want more competition? No idea, but the problem was, I agreed with everything he said. Not long before I finished the math section (yeah, right?) I thought, “Do I really want to sit in a bunch of seminars and discuss deconstructiveism?” I didn’t. I got up, turned in my exam and walked out without finishing it. I still passed. UCSD admitted me but with no financial aid, I couldn’t possibly go.

Years later, one of my good bosses read a paper I’d written for a conference and said, “Why in the world don’t you have a doctorate?” I explained I just hadn’t had the money. I imagine if I’d had $100k lying around I would have pursued it. “Yeah,” said my boss. “We don’t think of that, you know? That a lot of talented people stop their education because it’s too expensive.” An aspect of ANY PhD is that somehow the person found the money to do it. Yeah, there is privilege based on skin color — but there is also privilege based on $$$. So what ARE my creds? MA, English, 1979, University of Denver, 35 years teaching college and university writing (University of Denver; South China Teachers University, Guangzhou; Southwestern College, Cuyamaca College, San Diego State), all levels, critical thinking, intro to Lit and business communication — lower and upper division.

And finally, kiddo, there’s that “kiddo.” I’m still trying to figure out an equivalently demeaning term to casually toss at a well-educated professional who happens to be a man. If there’s one thing a lot of old guys hate it’s a woman with skills, abilities and a degree they don’t have. I know this from my own life. For my own part? I voted for Dr. Biden when I cast my vote for her husband. I still get a little teary thinking there’s a community college teacher about to live in the White House.




Long long ago I was accused of having a hot temper. I was told that it wasn’t charming and would get me in trouble as I got older. I guess as a little girl, I was quickly infuriated by things. I don’t remember it that way, but I do remember being in trouble — and receiving a lot of lectures — for getting angry. My dad was a model for a short temper, but everyone just said that the “got his Irish up easily.” It wasn’t, as my mom said, such a big problem for a man, but for a woman?

I don’t know about this double standard of temper, but somewhere in all that modeling and lecturing something might have sunk in. It’s been years since I’ve lost my temper. I think what buffered it was teaching. When you are obliged to be the adult in a room filled with post-adolescents you learn patience and how to keep your emotional distance. From that distance you can see that often the stuff that pisses you off is funny.

The last time I was infuriated I got very sick. My students (some of them) posted a sign on my classroom door saying my class was cancelled. When I headed to the classroom I saw some of my students going down the steps away from the building. “What?” I said.

“Professor?” they said, “we thought class was cancelled.”

“It isn’t,” I said. In the classroom, a few students. were sitting around looking bewildered, not believing it (I always posted on BlackBoard and emailed my students if I were going to be absent). One of my student picked up his phone to text some of his classmates, a message I knew later said, “Get back here. She’s pissed.”

I was angry at them but not profoundly. It was more a matter of needing to remind them why they were there, what the policy of absences was (I didn’t care). And there was a big rock concert in the desert that weekend, and class was on a Thursday, I expected absences anyway. Their stragedy was unnecessary. I didn’t count absences against students. I figured they were adults and could make their own decisions about their lives including attending class.

I was angry at whomever had posted the sign, however. That was just WRONG because it could hurt other students, but even then I would get over it. I wanted to find those students so I could tell them they had every right to miss class, but no right to affect the decisions of their classmates. If they didn’t want to go to class, great, that was their decision but cancelling class and pretending to be me? No.

I told my boss (who, from this episode I learned was a piece of work beyond description) who asked me who did it. I said I had suspicions and told him who. They WERE on their way to the rock concert I learned from their Facebook page. He called them into his office the following week. Afterward he said to me that I had had no right to look at their Facebook page and said, “They’re good kids,” and some other stuff. He then proceeded to accuse me of all kinds of things that these students had said, all of which were untrue — that I was often late for class (NEVER), that my lessons were disorganized (NEVER) and that I didn’t know the subject I was teaching (had taught for 10 years, had published juried articles about, etc.).

I was, obviously, furious and trapped. He’d criticized me to my students and had taken their side. A good boss should have the backs of his teachers. I have never been more angry or felt more impotent.

In the middle of that night, I had my first ever asthma attack. It was so bad — and completely unfamiliar — that I was terrified. I could not breathe. These episodes didn’t stop. They went on every night for weeks. One night I really thought I was going to die. I finally went to my (incompetent) doc who threw steroid inhalers at me and then complained when I didn’t get well. More than a year later. I was diagnosed by two specialists (working as a team) with a rare pseudo-allergy called Samter’s Triad or Aspirin Exacerbated Respiratory Disease, given a bunch of meds and was finally able to breathe and taste food again.

The thing is… I don’t seem to have it any more.