Two weeks ago I was at a bar with a pair of other American graduate students. A fake british pub or something. The kind of parisian establishment that gets away with serving bad food by cloaking it in an “anglo-saxon” theme. The kind of place with cheap low couches and cramped tables and a superficial shine and a tin charm. Periodically a noise rang out as an overworked server let a glass slip and crash behind the bar.
At some point a ways into the conversation, one of my friends wanted to tell us something about gender in academia. It was a mixed gender conversation, I hasten to add: a woman to my left and a man to my right. (I pick these gender category terms out of resignation, feeling that all available lexical options disappoint, wanting to signal social types without endorsing them, not wanting the essentialism of “woman” and “man,” not wanting the diminutives of “boy” and “girl,” not wanting to hint at biology with “female” and “male,” wanting the informality of “guy” and “gal” but “gal” is too contrived.) Anyway, my friend said she’d noticed that, when academics talk about other academics, they are likely to use the first and last name when referring to a woman academic, while men academics often get mentioned by last name only. This to her was entirely part of everyday life, undesirable but obvious.
But I was taken somewhat aback by this claim, and I think the other guy there was too. I realized afterwards, to my shame, that our common reaction was one of doubt. We wanted to think of counterexamples. Exceptions that would disprove the rule. Isn’t Judith Butler pretty reliably called Judith Butler? we were asked. But isn’t Butler a pretty common name? Well, but there aren’t any other famous academics called Butler, now are there? Or take Simone de Beauvoir. Pretty much always Simone de Beauvoir, isn’t she? Well, yes. Who could deny that? While on the other hand Sartre, it came to my mind, is indeed pretty much always just Sartre. Or take Hannah Arendt. Is Hannah Arendt always Hannah Arendt? Well, yes, pretty often, though I think maybe at the philosophy department in Paris-8 she may occasionally become just Arendt. But other mid-century German male philosophers seem to go by their last names far more often. Marcuse is just Marcuse. And “Adorno” also seems to travel pretty well by itself, as a practically self-contained sign of pessimistic dialectical prose convolution. Or take Eve Sedgwick. She’s pretty often called Eve Sedgwick, no? But not really Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, that’s a mouthful. We didn’t reach agreement about that.
It came to mind that this sort of disparity in naming is pretty well known in American politics, where last year Hillary was often Hillary but Barack Obama pretty quickly became plain old Obama. But I hadn’t ever thought about it in an academic context. I wanted to know, is this the same in writing? No, said my friend, you hear it more in spoken contexts, while in writing there are slightly more formal protocols about when you mention the first name. What about in personal contexts? Like with first-naming your advisors? Yes, she conceded, things change when it’s someone you know. If you were going to do a research project about this, how would it go? We weren’t sure about that.
It was a conversation that was partly inconclusive, a conversation torn by the din of other conversations elsewhere in the bar, a conversation as full of social and emotional static as of audible interference. But at any rate, our doubt, our skepticism, our resistance to the claim at hand, I mean mine and the other male’s resistance, as I concluded later after we’d all gone home, was not laudable. Our doubt, I felt, was only accidentally about expressing scholarly skepticism about an unfamiliar claim. A lot of our defensive response seemed in hindsight to have been saying tacitly: what, who me? Me, possibly uneven in my treatment of others? Me, uneven according to an unconscious and institutionalized principle according to which academic males would be allowed to claim the privilege of impersonality, according to which men could be coded objective and scholarly by being tacitly depersonalized through the everyday effacement of their first names, while women would remain the marked category, marked as having gender, marked as women, through a logic of association whereby first names would invoke a more personalized relationship to strangers who are thus marked feminine? What, me, maybe casually sexist? Who, me?
That moment of undesired interpellation, of nonlinear listening, of gender revealing itself as at once object of discussion and structure of interaction, that moment of asymmetrical vulnerabilities and reception of unwelcome truths, of scholarly discourse become a means of delaying the unwelcome, that moment of intensely personal impersonality where one discovers that one’s conduct is gendered and pre-scripted in ways that are just typical, that moment where one finds out (again, but each time it’s a surprise) that unfortunately we are not in control of ourselves and that we do things without knowing them — all these moments are minor, themselves typical. But there is something important, to my mind, about thinking through those everyday moments where we discover that we were objects all along, determined by structures we haven’t mastered.
I would like to see more passionate, more personal and more risky public thinking about gender in the academic worlds I live in. Yet without being publicly autobiographical in a way that would be compromising or ostentatious. Yet without retreating into the anaesthesia of theory and pure abstraction. Yet without retreating solely into research or into a generalizing discourse — as urgent as the overall statistics remain — that would remind us how flawed the system is as a system but that would fail to think through the inescapably personal surface where that system is lived out.
We have, of course, plenty of existing discourses on gender in academia, but I’m not convinced that our collective faculties are fully engaged in them. (Especially when it comes to men.) There are so many ways to evade, so many ways to cope, so many ways to make critical discourse into a condition of inaction. Sometimes our discourse on gender is privatized, relegated to the bar or cafe or hallway, a matter for personal frustration or conundrum or amusement more than collective engagement. Sometimes gender is specialized, turned over to statisticians who will tell us that, yes, women earn several or many percent less than men on average, or to semioticians who can explain to us, rigorously, just how gender difference is encoded in names, or to anthropologists who teach us about how gender is culturally configured elsewhere. And sometimes discourse about gender is itself (for lack of a better word) feminized: in my corner of the academic world, at any rate, women are much more likely than men to be thoughtful about gender relations in their work environment, which certainly is not coincidental. Needless to say, there is nothing inherently wrong with an expert investigation of gender that makes it a research object, or with private conversations that temporarily offer liberty and intimacy, or with modes of perception that are especially acute among certain groups. But this division of discursive labor is a clumsy one, promoting compartmentalization and pockets of disengagement, and tolerating crude if not entirely prereflective analyses.
One way forward is perhaps to try to conceptualize the minor moments in academic life where gender comes into our own field of ordinary vision. (Regardless of our status as specialists in the topic.) And just what was gender in the moment I’m describing here? A structure of social difference, certainly; a structure of phenomenological perception, a way of objectifying things in the world, that too; but above all a structure of resistance, a principle of disagreement, as if gender was what authorized one’s experience or authorized the dismissal of another’s experience, as if gender were a principle of mutual unintelligibility, temporary at the very least, that made conversation especially incoherent and desperate for at least phantasmatic resolutions, like those of our academic debate over the claim at hand. It was as if gender were the signal of a banal acknowledgement (it’s not news that people of different genders are treated differently in academia) but simultaneously of a curious anger or bewilderment or scorn that seemed to be lurking, waiting, like the little red line of a burst vein on the sea of an otherwise placid eye, a negative dialectic of cynicism and vulnerability. When our presumed egalitarian universalism was thwarted (“there’s no gender difference here,” we began the conversation by presupposing), it was as if there was nothing left to do but retreat defensively into gender asymmetries (our views are pre-scripted by our genders, I eventually felt). But if a presumed universalism is a false utopia from the start, what more livable kinds of utopian gender negotiation remain practically available? What kinds of optimism are available in a scene of self-betrayal and compromise?
But maybe there’s something dangerous, too, in overthinking a moment like the one at hand. If gender were already a major determinant of the academic will to power, wouldn’t that mean it would be suspect to reduce gender to an object of thought or reflection? If the flight into academic disembodiment is something that is itself radically asymmetrically available to academic males, does that mean that a disembodied contemplation of gender would already be a display of gender privilege? Or a better question: what can one do with those parts of a social scene that are meaningless, those moments of conflict and disagreement that in hindsight seem so avoidable, those moments of blockage and stupidity that inherently cannot be thought through because by definition they consist in making situations impossible to think through? This kind of irreducible frustration can also be the scene that gender offers us.
At any rate, these are the kinds of nonconcepts that this scene makes me think about. But I warn you, nothing here should be taken as a general claim or a fixed position. This text claims no authority. On the contrary, it wants to try to acknowledge the reality of situations where claims to & struggles over authority are symptomatic of contradictions that can never be resolved textually.
Come to think of it, the very topic in question in the situation at hand, that is the question of gender disparities in academic naming practices, is in itself a question about ways that gender codes authority. As my friend said at the bar, it isn’t obvious that it’s a bad thing to mention someone’s first name when talking about them. Perhaps the effacement of first names is only an academic mechanism for pretending objectivity while actually withdrawing into the name of one’s father (for most Western academics inherit their “family” names patrilineally). But at the same time, the marking of a false familiarity with strangers that’s implicit in mentioning an academic’s first name is not, itself, an unqualified virtue. Which would one prefer, the authority of false objectivity or the illusions of exaggerated subjectivity?
Neither, I suppose. Neither.
I still don’t know how gendered disparities in naming practices would look on some grand statistical level; I have no large-scale data, though maybe one day I will have enough recordings of academic events to make it worthwhile to sort through them and see how the numbers look. The Sartre-Simone de Beauvoir comparison seems pretty convincing in itself, to be honest. (And, as a matter of fact, I did a bit of research on google.fr and found out that Sartre (1.39 million hits) is used 2.75 times more often than Jean-Paul Sartre (505,000), whereas de Beauvoir (828,000) is only used 1.34 times more often than Simone de Beauvoir (619,000). It thus appears that, as predicted, ‘Sartre’ frequently passes as a name by itself, while ‘Simone’ is a much more obligatory addition to ‘de Beauvoir.’ Statistically speaking, I mean.)
But I guess in the end this post is less about gender in academic naming than about trying to figure out how to name gender in ways that might make accessible new ways of living with it.
21 thoughts on “the gender of the academic name”
My four committee members were Sahlins, Silverstein, Manuela, and Danilyn. I quite welcomed the respite from mandatory enactments of masculine competence.
Thanks! Nothing like a little demonstration to drive the point home. (For non-uchicago people, just to be quite clear, the former are both male and are of course being last-named here.) Rex, though, do you want to say something more interpretive about this?
Thorkelson, having read your post, I find the basic claim about the more common use of women’s first names (or should we say the more common use of solely men’s last names) to be very plausible. This is not something I had thought about before either, and I agree that we should prefer that we had already observed and considered this issue without someone else bringing it to our attention.
That said, I don’t think you should chastise yourself for some skepticism. When someone makes a claim, we should ALWAYS be skeptical. Yes, we should be on the lookout for motivated skepticism. But I’d prefer that we increase skepticism of claims that justify our high status rather than decrease skepticism of claims that we benefit from unearned privilege.
As a quantitative sociologist, I think we could learn a great deal with a statistical approach. I can think of a lot of things I’d want to consider, but one of them would be to account for the prominence of the professor. More prominent professors are probably more likely to be referred to by last name only. More prominent professors are more likely to be men. What happens to the pattern when google hits and citations are accounted for? Perhaps naming is also related to behaviors/personality and behaviors/personality differ across gender.
At the risk of being pedantic I’ll give a very simple explanation of how we’d approach this problem using regression. First we identify our outcome of interest, e.g. the percentage of the time someone is referred to by last name only, first name only, or full name. Then we identify things that might predict this outcome, e.g. gender, citations, field, popularity of name, personality, etc. We run our data through the machinery of regression (important details omitted) and this gives us an equation for predicting the outcome. The “Last-Naming-Gap” is equal to the coefficient on the gender predictor. This will vary depending on which other predictors we include. If we include the right variables, the coefficient may go to zero, in which case we might say to we “explained” the “last-naming-gap”? Note this would NOT disprove discrimination. For example, it is quite possible that the gender differences in citations that we are using to “explain” the last-naming-gap, are themselves partially the result of gender bias. And a bias that results in citation differences would be more obviously consequential than a bias that results in a different use of language. Anyway, thanks for the interesting post Eli. (cross posted at my blog, I encourage commenters to respond to it at both places).
Thanks for your interesting comments, Mike. As you know, I have nothing a priori against skepticism; my point, which I think you basically agree with, is just that it’s worth asking whether our skeptical urges are innocent. This isn’t a critique of skepticism; it’s more like a metaskepticism (second-order skepticism of first-order skepticism of a given claim).
I’m also glad to have the brief illustration of what you would do with a more serious quantitative analysis of this question. I encourage you to experiment! (though wouldn’t it require a textual analysis program that could recognize first and last names and identify their genders? and you’d need a fairly large corpus of texts — and all this would probably be harder to arrange than the statistical analysis per se.)
Yeah, its often the case that the data collection is more challenging than the data analysis. I doubt I would have explained the stats approach if I wasn’t cross-posting it. Even when I’m solely posting to my own blog, I feel funny thinking about the diverse audience that might read what I’m writing.
I think the naming convention (which is reflected across the culture, not just in academia) is actually fairly benign. What would be of more interest to me, is an investigation of how rank is or is not acknowledged, men vs. women, in academia. In other words, is there an irregularity concerning the use of “Dr.” or “Professor” when naming male and female academics?
Really, “fairly benign”??
Sure. I can’t really think of a way in which it’s destructive, insulting, or whatever else. It’s a difference, and one worth acknowledging certainly, but then again, it wasn’t birthed in academia, and it’s not exclusive to academia either.
Perhaps I’m missing something. Can you explain why this difference in address might be a substantial problem? I’m straining to do so myself. The best I can come up with is that referring to somebody by last name only may indicate a more intimate level of familiarity, or imply that the audience is expected be more familiar with the person being addressed. It feels like a stretch to find offense here, but then again, maybe I’m shopping for justifications. Who knows?
I think that this quibble is emblematic of an identity politics perhaps splintered-too-far, in which taking offense, finding a new basis for conflict, becomes the ever-necessary “next step.” I wonder, for example, if Judith Butler minds that she is often referred to as “Judith Butler,” or if I should feel offended for her without regard to the question’s answer. I can’t see an end to this dilemma that doesn’t result in the unnecessary alienation of allies.
On a close topic:
Thanks very much for the link, Pablo. There are a lot of really interesting comments there and elsewhere on the blog — this post for instance.
Max, you know I generally respect your opinions, but I think that here you are very much on the wrong track. First of all, the question of naming has nothing to do with identity politics and I never said there was any “political” issue here. The phenomenon — though the extent of its occurrence does remain an open question — is better understood a form of academic workplace discrimination. And a preliminary thought is that it’s just a priori objectionable to be constantly marking women as women (by the very act of mentioning their first names and also by the fact that first names generally encode & reveal gender) when this marking is completely irrelevant to academic conversation. The philosophical question here is whether gratuitously marking a particular group of people is wrong even if this has no immediate further effects. I think it is.
But there are, in any event, further effects that go beyond abstract questions of unequal marking and labeling. The major issue, as I see it (this was also examined for the Hillary Clinton case on Jezebel) has to do with presumptive familiarity. There’s a kind of sexism that consists in taking the liberty to presume (unearned) intimacy with women that one would not presume with men. That may not have directly negative impacts on, say, average salaries. But it can obviously affect how women academics perceive themselves and are perceived by their colleagues, and yes, there are people who care about this sort of thing, even if you aren’t (yet) one of them. More broadly, the whole ideological system that equates femininity with intimacy probably indirectly affects women’s roles in the university, as Hogan (whose first name I had to restrain myself from typing) has commented in a very interesting essay on women’s service work in academia.
My broader thought about this, at any rate, is that academic men have a lot to learn from their women colleagues about the entwinements of gender, power and respect in academic life. It would be a pity if the responses to this post ended up repeating the masculine skepticism that the post is supposed to be putting in question.
Also, Max, one last thing — contrary to what you say in your post, I think first names are almost uniformly taken to indicate a greater level of intimacy. Last names only, on the contrary, tend to connote respect and authority. Now, as I already indicated in the post, neither first-names or last-names seem entirely satisfactory, but again, I see no justification for using different practices to name women academics than are used for men academics. Look, again, I’m not advocating some kind of huge campaign about this issue, but if the current practices are unjustified, I see no reason to continue them.
“The philosophical question here is whether gratuitously marking a particular group of people is wrong even if this has no immediate further effects.”
I’m happy to err on the side of not unnecessarly marking a group of people because the consequences of marking are uncertain I can do so at low cost. If I knew the consequences of marking were negligible, I wouldn’t really care.
But at minimum, we already know that some people have noticed and care. Perhaps people would care less if they knew that the marking did not result in further disadvantage, but this is not something we can assure them.
But Is gendered naming generally wrong? Should we campaign all children be given androgynous names?
I’m still puzzled as to how the marking offends, or whether it can even adequately be termed a “marking,” in the sense that it constitutes a conscious or unconscious undermining of womens’ roles in academia (or whatever one believes the suggested fallout of the naming convention to be). Even if the marking functions to set male and female academics as “different,” I don’t get the feeling that it diminishes one or the other. Since when must being “different” instantly decode as inferior?
On “presumptive familiarity,” I don’t think that addressing somebody by first and last name, especially in an academic article, implies such a thing. If a writer referred to Judith Butler simply as “Judith,” throughout a piece of academic literature, I would find that highly suspect. But the full name? I just don’t see any kind of distortion going on there.
Another thing: what of the possibility that female academics tend to develop more friendly, positive relationships with, say, graduate students? Ones that more frequently allow students to address them by first name? I have no science here to back me up, of course. But the scheme of referring to a professor as “Professor” or “Dr” so-and-so feels, to me, to be not only an outdated standard, but one that is more likely to be demanded by (older) males in the academic profession. If this is the case, then it’s interesting that the first name/last name convention would be immediately assumed “wrong,” rather than just “different,” perhaps a sign not that women are being marginalized, trivialized, etc. but that things are changing in academia as a whole.
In any case, I’ve never met a single professor who wasn’t called exactly what he/she clearly demanded to be called, in his/her own presence. I especially don’t think graduate students (to refer to the page Pablo linked before) are normally in the habit of speaking on a first name basis with their professors unless they know, explicitly, that it’s okay to do so.
Also, I think we’re dealing with slightly different issues here.
1) How notable male and female academics/thinkers (Butler/Sartre) are referred to in academic texts.
2) How notable male and female academics/thinkers (Butler/Sartre) are referred to in conversations between academics.
3) How academics local to one’s intellectual community (a graduate department in a university, for example) are referred to in their presence (Mary or John, as opposed to Dr./Prof. So-and-So).
I don’t think these conventions are necessarily one in the same, and it would be worth delineating what convention, exacty, we’re talking about. I think it began as a mixture of 1 and 2, which bear a greater resemblance to one another, but 3 has popped up as well. And I think the issues underlying the phenomenon are probably far too complex for us to lose sight of what, exactly, we’re talking about.
Mike, again I agree with your comments. I also agree that the general question about gender marking (of kids’ names, for instance) does appear relevant here, but I think in this discussion I just want to think about gender marking in a specific professional world, namely ours. I find it very easy to make an argument against gender coding in a professional context where it’s obvious that our criteria of intellectual evaluation should be gender neutral, while I’m a bit more squeamish about being against gender coding in names altogether. For one thing, the latter is obviously deeply impracticable at present, while the former seems more possible.
Max, I agree with your most recent post a lot more than your second to last one. The basic topic here, at least the one I described in my post, is specifically (2); I quite agree that your (3) is a different issue. As for your continuing doubts about whether the underlying pattern is offensive, well, as Mike said, we do know that there are some people who are bothered by it. Myself included.
And again, I think the problem isn’t inherent in the use of a first name; rather, the problem has to do with the specific gender disparity in naming practices. In itself, reference by firstname+lastname seems benign, as you say. But when women academic writers are singled out to be first-named in a professional context of reference then that’s what becomes a matter of gender discrimination. The point is that someone like Judith Butler is called “Judith Butler” a lot more than an approximately similar academic like Foucault is called “Michel Foucault.” You still can’t see how that might be problematic?
I remind you all in passing that this post is about more than the way we name each other’s names; it is also about how we should think about gender in academic life. Let’s try not to let that get lost here either?
Okay, let me try this again.
1) I think the real issue here centers on the intial reaction of incredulity to the idea that there would be a pervasive difference regarding how male and female academics are referenced. The instant incredulity with which such things are met is unfortunate, and I think emblematic of how academics, and people in the culture at large, cope with problems of inequality. It’s well worth examining, and perhaps doing away with, these automatic responses. (My own responses, particularly my initial one, didn’t exactly buck this trend, and for that I apologize).
2) When I said that the problem seems “fairly benign,” I meant in comparison to other issues that might bear more directly on the rank, or perception of respect given, to a person of authority, whether in a workplace, or in a text, or a friendly conversation. For example, it would seem to me that, while most people in the humanities know Judith Butler as “Judith Butler,” she hasn’t exactly suffered for it. Perhaps there are female academics stalled out in the periphery owing, in part, to this phenomenon. I don’t know. It seems a likelihood. All I can say is that, personally, I’m worried far more about the audacious displays of sexism that I can clearly identify, without a doubt (say, an unsanctioned, assumed familiarity with female professors in one’s academic department, something which can clearly be understood as an undercutting of respect and rank) than I am about this particular issue, which it seems could be read in a number of ways that aren’t explicitly destructive.
3) What I seek here–though I clearly haven’t done a good job of expressing it, and have actually undermined that stance, since I’m working through these ideas myself–is the opposite of an automatic response, which again, I see as the core issue of Eli’s initial post. Upon reflection, I find the naming convention at hand “fairly benign,” and I think I’ll stick by that response. But this isn’t to say that I can’t see why people would find offense in it. What I reject is this notion that, when met with a difference like this, we must have the automatic response that it is a bad/wrong thing. Eli commented that, since there is no reason for male and female academics to be named differently in the context of conversation or texts (referring to, say, Butler or Sartre), that this difference is “wrong.” But if I can’t think of a single way in which this convention has bolstered Sartre and diminished Butler, I’m hardpressed to see it as anything other than a difference. One worth examinining, certainly, and one whose effects probably run the gamut from relative “neutrality” to raw trivialization, depending on the instance in question.
4) The problem with seepage of issues that I mentioned in my last post is, I think, muddying the issue a bit. In conversation, Eli said to me that this is, in part, an issue of treatment in the workplace, but I thought we were talking about how “notable thinkers,” people of a certain fame in academia, are referred to in professional conversation and texts. If this is about calling female professors by their first names and male professors by their titles and last names, then I think that (a) familiarity should not be assumed simply because a professor is female, but that (b) obviously if a professor, any professor, makes it clear that familiarity is okay, we shouldn’t be at pains to make sure that we steer clear of it merely for the sake of making our addresses equal, and that (c) there may be issues other than gender at play (age and changes in professional philosophy come explicitly to mind) in any disparity.
5) Automatically coming to the conclusion that difference is bad/wrong is just as incredulous a response as instantly concluding that there is no problem to begin with. Especially when, divorced from anecdotal context, the fact that there is a difference is really the only concrete thing we can seize upon.
While it’s possible that there is a casual tendency among some to name the way they do (along gender lines), I’m still not sure it’s as obvious as it seems in the post. Google Scholar gave a few numbers–something worth showing that there’s some warrant to skepticism.
Searching for “Beauvoir” yields 37,600 hits. Removing “Simone” returns 38% the number of hits. Yet doing the same for “Sartre” and “Jean-Paul” returns 49% the number of hits. In this case, then, in comparing these two authors, there is evidence towards saying that “Simone” and “Beauvoir” are paired more often than “Jean-Paul” and “Sartre.” But it’s certainly not the case that one is always referred to by full name, and the other nearly never.
Sedgwick, Spivak, and Butler, however, lose far fewer hits (<15% each, with Butler's change almost unnoticeable) when you remove the first names, suggesting that the first names don't play nearly as big a role as with Beauvoir (or even Sartre!).
Of course, the very initial issue (last name scarcity) makes these envelope calculations rather useless; I knew about Michael Spivak the mathematician far before Gayatri the critic. It's very possible that half of the hits on "Butler" have absolutely nothing to do with a specifically named person, seeing as Butler is not only a common last name (my diss quotes Robert more than Judith), but also an occupation.
This, of course, looks like more being defensive, but I'm just not totally convinced, considering my own gender-neutral rules for naming people in my writing. On the other hand, whether the problem is quantitatively demonstrable or not, the benefit of the conversation is that I'm aware of the *potential* problem, which has its own value. So If I have done it unconsciously in the past, now I'll consciously avoid doing it.
Two of my all-male dissertation committee never call me by any name (first or last). It’s been that way for years. One finally broke out and began his last email with my name (shock!). I realized that several male undergrad students I taught also never called me by anything. I wasn’t sure if that was about racism or sexism or just being awkward. The patterns have been quite consistent: white males at the University of Chicago–not all, but some.
Not the academia per se, but the SCOTUS :
Whether her name was pronounced Soda-may-er (Senator Jeff Sessions), Soto-my-ur (Senator Richard Durbin), Soto-my-air (Senator Al Franken), or Soto-may-ay-or (Senator Tom Coburn), she cut a relatable figure. The Bronx congressman Jose Serrano said that, after her nomination, “people on the street would come running up to me and talk about ‘Sonia,’ like she’s their cousin, or their niece.”
Comments are closed.