Doctors, Professors, and (North) American Exceptionalism
There is a friendly debate going on at Prawfsblawg about whether people who have PhDs or JSDs in law are entitled to refer to themselves as “Dr. so-and-so.” Skepticism seems to be the order of the day; here are quotes from Paul Horwitz and Jeff Yates, respectively:
Although I think there’s a good deal to be said for obtaining JSDs or Ph.D’s in law, we might think about whether that trend represents a similar claim to authority and respect for law as an academic discipline; and if those folks start demanding to be called “Doctor,” we’ll know something’s up.
[I]s it appropriate to refer to yourself as “doctor” if you have a Juris Doctorate? A Ph.D.? This seems to bring up a number of concerns — Who “earned” it? Is it misleading? Why do people need such titles anyway?
This debate is indicative of the insularity of American and Canadian legal academia. Outside of the U.S. and Canada (and I’m not even sure about Canada), no one would ever question the right of someone who has PhD in law to call himself or herself “Dr.”. Nor would anyone outside of the U.S. or Canada ever question whether law is an academic discipline. If anything, the debate speaks to a certain professional insecurity in North America, where law school is professionalized in a way that it is not in most other countries, including English-speaking ones like the UK and Australia. Not that I in any way blame North American legal academics, especially those in the U.S.: insecurity about whether law is an academic discipline is natural in a legal environment in which there is constant pressure on academics to produce “useful” — i.e., “non-academic” — scholarship. If I felt disciplinary pressure to produce pedantic scholarship of immediate practical use to lawyers and judges, I’d probably begin to question whether law was an academic discipline, as well. Fortunately, there are hundreds of American and Canadian legal scholars who resist that pressure and produce superb “academic” legal scholarship that not only increases our understanding of law as an intellectual discipline, but enriches legal practice, as well. (You don’t have to be Derrida to know that the academic/practical binary is an unstable one.)
I also fail to see why JSDs should not call themselves “Dr.”, assuming that they have produced a dissertation that is equivalent to the one required by traditional PhD programs in law (80,000-120,000 words, the size of an average book). I suppose it’s possible that JSD requirements are lower at some U.S. law schools, but that is certainly not true across the board. My colleague Kirsty Gover — “Dr. Kirsty Gover,” according to her Melbourne name-plate — completed her JSD at NYU, and her brilliant dissertation on tribal constitutionalism was recently published by Oxford University Press. She is every bit the doctor of law that a PhD in law is.
Finally, I’d like to turn the “Dr.” debate around and ask why Assistant Professors and Associate Professors in the U.S. and Canada (to say nothing of adjuncts and non-tenure-track legal instructors) should be entitled to call themselves “Professor.” That is, of course, a uniquely North American phenomenon — in most other countries, particularly in the common-law world, “Professor” is a title reserved for scholars who have reached the pinnacle of legal academia, normally after years if not decades of work. In such countries, it would be the height of arrogance for a lecturer in law to call himself “Professor” — something I’ve learned the hard way as I’ve had to adjust to being called “Dr. Heller,” “Mr. Heller” (before I obtained my PhD), or simply “Kevin” instead of “Professor Heller,” my title as a brand-new Assistant Professor at the University of Georgia. At Melbourne, not even Associate Professors, a title that itself indicates substantial distinction in the field, call themselves “Professor.” Unless you are a full professor, you’re a lecturer. So isn’t the American and Canadian practice of title inflation simply questionable North American exceptionalism?
Readers — North American and non-North American?