Vocal article: #drjillbiden

A repost here of a piece I wrote last month for Vocal Media about Dr. Jill Biden and my reactions to Epstein’s article about it. Please click here to read the original article in its entirety, as what follows below is only a highlight.

Why #drjillbiden Means so Much

Bryana Fern


Educators push back against Epstein’s disrespectful rhetoric

Here’s the problem with assumptions. They work both ways. And while, historically, men are always assumed to be Dr.s in academia (even if they aren’t), women are just as frequently assumed to be Ms. or Mrs. in the same institution. I earned my Ph.D. in English, and the number of female colleagues (both graduate students and professors) whose titles were ignored was astronomical.

I had male colleagues in the graduate program who wore jeans and t-shirts to teach their Composition I and World Literature undergraduate courses, and were not only respected the moment they walked in the door because they were male, but were called Dr. despite the fact they were only M.A. or PhD candidates at the time. On the flip side, I and my female colleagues wore secondhand mismatched professional attire we bought at thrift stores with our below-poverty level stipends, and we were called Mrs. while they treated us like the grade school teachers they saw us as.

At one point, I raised my left hand, palm inward, and displayed my fingers wide like show and tell. “Do you see a ring on my third finger? Why do you write Mrs. on your papers to me?” I waited until I got an answer from one shy student who said, “I guess we’re taught it’s a sign of respect.” The rest of the day in Technical Writing turned into a lesson on assumptions and the vital necessity of paying attention to names in writing cover letters and resumes.

But there’s also the issue of where a title like mine comes into play outside the world of academia. Friends not in the university joke about calling me up now when they have health issues and ask what insurance I take. I can do nothing but smile. It reminds me of the Friends episode where Ross and Rachel are at a hospital and Ross introduces himself as Dr. Geller, to which Rachel chides, “Ross, please, this is a hospital, ok? That actually means something here.” We are not living in an episode of Friends (even if it sometimes feels like it in 2020). None of us are going to jump up if something happens in a crowd of people and the question “Is anyone here a doctor?” sounds out.

We are more aware than ever of what our degrees allow us to do and not do. Academia is in trouble–something COVID-19 has only made more apparent. I, and many of my recently graduated colleagues, am facing the real possibility of having to find employment outside the job market of community colleges and universities. Am I still Dr. Fern if I’m scanning groceries at Publix? Do I keep “Bryana Fern, Ph.D.” as my email signature in my formal account, or leave it only to a university account that I have no real reason to use once I leave the institution?

The answer is yes for a fairly simple reason. I didn’t put myself through ten years of higher academia for a dream job or for anyone else. I did it for me. You could even say I did it for fun. I love English. I love writing. I love literature. Do I know what I want to do with it yet? No. Is that the point? Of course not. I still earned it. It’s something no one can take away from me and no one can deny me. I am Dr. Fern now. I survived the world of “grace under pressure,” a world of toxic environments and cohorts of dismal disillusionment and free student counseling services being overrun with grad students from the humanities. So if I want to keep the title I was resilient enough to earn, Mr. Epstein, I don’t need your permission or anyone else’s.

2 thoughts on “Vocal article: #drjillbiden

  1. Congratulations on earning your doctorate. I appreciate the questions you have about when it is appropriate to employ the title, for which you worked so hard.

    It’s always nice when others use it, acknowledging your accomplishment. But discerning when to personally include it in non-professional contexts is a dilemma. No one wants to sound pretentious.

    I recall a conversation back in the 80s with two PhDs who taught on a military base in Korea. They acted scandalized that MDs were called “doctors” when they hadn’t earned “real doctorates.”

    I hadn’t considered the gender considerations you describe. I have always striven to use people’s proper titles, so I find this disappointing.

    Once again, congratulations and blessings in your future, Dr. Fern.


    1. Thank you! Yes, it’s definitely an interesting discussion and I think it’s fine for people to have their own opinions if they want to use their title or not—but if they have it, it’s something that deserves to be recognized for sure.


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