I’m Nobody! Who are you?

Emily Dickinson

Several years ago I was on a panel for a public forum held on my university’s campus. At the Q&A ending the panel talk, a colleague from another discipline asked a detailed question grounded in their discipline.

I watched their face and eyes as I navigated not only the arcane and somewhat navel-gazing elements of the question (we academics love to hold forth with questions that are thinly veiled opportunities to hear ourselves talk) but also that this conversation between the two of us was almost entirely alienating for 75% of the audience, which included several of my students.

Referencing key scholars from my colleague’s field, I did a bit better than hold my own—although I just have an EdD from a state university.

Because of the lingering Jill Biden controversy—using “Dr.” with people holding doctorates and working as professors—the public has been exposed to the ugliness surrounding and within the academy that includes classism (one detractor of Jill Biden clearly also disrespects community college students), sexism (the original swipe at Jill Biden that isn’t even thinly veiled misogyny), and degree stigmas (even in this excellent rebuttal of all the nonsense tossed at Jill Biden, the EdD is framed as a lesser degree).

My journey to academia and an advanced, terminal degree (EdD in Curriculum and Instruction) began in junior college after I left high school an avid math/science student set on majoring in physics (one of the most prestigious disciplines in academia).

However, while in junior college where I spent an inordinate amount of time playing pick-up basketball and drinking, I was approached by a Dean who taught my British lit intro course. Dean Carter asked me to tutor English in the college’s academic assistance office.

A bit disoriented, I asked why, and he said I was the best student in the class. At that point, a first-year student who had made almost all his As in high school in math and science (although my favorite teacher was Mr. Harrill, my English teacher), I never considered myself a literary person—and certainly had never entertained any proclivity for teaching (I laughed in high school, in fact, when Mr. Harrill one day suggested I consider teaching).

That moment with Dean Carter changed my life.

I soon fell in love with tutoring, and by the spring of my first year of college, I had fallen in love with poetry (thanks to my speech class taught by Mr. Steve Brannon) and discovered that I am a writer (having written my first “real” poems that spring after immersing myself in the poetry of e.e. cummings).

From 1983 until 1998, I completed three (shitty, in seems) degrees in education—a BA in secondary English education, an MEd in secondary English education, and an EdD in Curriculum and Instruction—all from (shitty, it seems) the state system where I live.

I am well aware that K-12 teaching isn’t very highly regarded, that many people see teachers as academically weak themselves (the Urban Legend about education majors having the lowest SATs, GPAs, etc.). I am also well aware that my education degrees are viewed as pre-professional and not academically rigorous.

As I noted above, even an impassioned and detailed defense of Jill Biden using “Dr.” included a swipe at the EdD degree:

Jill Biden does not have a PhD. She has an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership. It’s an applied doctorate, designed to certify rising administrators in the field of education….

At the outset I mentioned that Biden has “an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership” and not a PhD. The Department’s website provides a handy summary of the difference at Delaware.

Dan Nexon

That “handy summary,” however, is not a definition of EdDs, but of that particular degree and program, but even as there is an emphasis on being a practitioner, the summary ends with this: “The Doctor of Education represents the highest level of scholarly attainment in the professional field of education.”

Now honestly, there is a lot of coded language here that links “scholarly” with “professional field” and speaks into a cultural and disciplinary marginalizing of education as a pre-professional and not academic field.

Here is a significant distinction that many do not acknowledge about education as a discipline. Much of education in the academy is grounded in teacher certification (an area in which I work and strongly criticize), but education as a discipline is a social science, a cousin to psychology.

My graduate degrees (MEd and EdD) included many advanced courses in statistics and qualitative/quantitative research, educational philosophy, and educational psychology. I am willing to concede that education as a field is a hybrid of other disciplines, but I can hold my own among researchers regardless of the field, among complex discussions of philosophy and psychology (not just education), and among debates about the challenges of realizing theory/philosophy in day-to-day practice.

But many have also criticized Jill Biden for her dissertation, again the implication being that EdDs are less academically rigorous:

Some critics have honed in on the fact that Biden’s dissertation is not a PhD thesis but an “Executive Position Paper.”…

For that matter, we can argue, as Volokh does, that a PhD thesis “is generally a dissertation that constitutes a substantial original work of scholarship,” but it should be pretty clear that “generally” is doing a lot of work here. This is why writing a crappy thesis doesn’t mean that Gorka can’t call himself “Dr. Gorka.” It means his PhD doesn’t certify him as an expert on terrorism or in political science. Biden isn’t trying to pass herself off as a leading expert on educational reform or whatever….

For that matter, we can argue, as Volokh does, that a PhD thesis “is generally a dissertation that constitutes a substantial original work of scholarship,” but it should be pretty clear that “generally” is doing a lot of work here. This is why writing a crappy thesis doesn’t mean that Gorka can’t call himself “Dr. Gorka.” It means his PhD doesn’t certify him as an expert on terrorism or in political science. Biden isn’t trying to pass herself off as a leading expert on educational reform or whatever.

Dan Nexon

This defense, you see, of Jill Biden is grounded in the argument that she did in fact meet the requirements of her EdD, which is a doctoral degree, and therefore, assigning “Dr.” to her name while she is a professor is entirely reasonable.

This defense glides right past making any concession that EdD programs may in fact have rigorous dissertation requirements that result in a “a substantial original work of scholarship.”

My own experience with graduate school was not like my colleagues’ programs since I completed my MEd at a satellite campus (degree was based in the main campus, however) and then completed the EdD with very lenient residency requirements (I did not quit my teaching job or live on campus, meeting residency by taking a certain number of main-campus listed courses over several consecutive semesters).

And my dissertation does meet the threshold of being “a substantial original work of scholarship,” but it is an educational biography—a qualitative research paradigm and a sub-genre of history, both of which are stigmatized in academia (once again, shitty and shitty).

Tracing the life and career of Lou LaBrant through much of the twentieth century required my completing a literature review of biography/educational biography grounded in feminism and critical pedagogy (that grounding, you guessed it, shitty and shitty), reading dozens of works by LaBrant and about LaBrant that form the skeleton of my field of literacy and English education, and then writing a book-length biography (which has since been published).

I was well equipped during my years in graduate education to have written a traditional dissertation driven by a quantitative study (I found none of that compelling and chose my program specifically because it included a key figure in education biography, Craig Kridel, and because I could write a biography).

My work on LaBrant, as Kridel declared at my dissertation defense, is a unique contribution to the field of education (as a social science), rich in history as well as robust debates about philosophy, theory, and practice.

My challenge is that I wonder how many economists, political scientists, psychologists, and almost all the other disciplines awash in PhDs could have done the type of work I did, academically advanced writing (not to a dissertation temple) that grounded a prominent figure over almost a century of thought in that field.

I suspect few of the academic snobs pontificating on Jill Biden could have done the work I did, and part of their condescension is a way to avoid that fact.

It’s not, then, that my terminal degree is just an EdD from a state university; it’s all the layers of shitty I have trafficked in along the way—just the field of education, just a biography.

The Jill Biden debate is mostly about sexism and misogyny; it is unwarranted and petty.

I know from first-hand witnessing that there are plenty of charlatans in all the disciplines—small-minded and weak thinkers about even mundane topics. I have to stand in proximity to their PhDs as if I don’t count because of the simple difference in letters.

We call them “Dr.” and don’t bat an eye.

These hierarchies and professional/personal pettiness are embarrassing among people who are supposed to be well educated.

But there is no place for any of that in our public debates either. I know that despite my shitty degree.