Monday, October 13, 2008


Random person: What is your position at the university? Lecturer? Instructor?

FSP: Professor.

Random person: No, no, I'm not asking if you teach at the university. I know that you do. I mean what is your *actual* title.

FSP: Professor.

Random person (sighing): I'm sure you do the same things as the professors and work really hard, but aren't there other titles for people who aren't professors but who teach?

FSP: Yes.

Random person: So what is yours?

FSP: Professor.

So, all you 30-something FSP's out there, I hope you have better luck than this 40-something FSP does appearing convincingly professorial.


Notorious Ph.D. said...

Good god. What a dolt.

I'm in the midst of trying to convince my students that their well-meaning e-mail salutations to "Ms. Notorious" are a bit incorrect. I'd like to say, "I'm not your tenth-grade English teacher," but am loath to do so, because I hate disrespecting those working in the K-12 trenches.

Still. Your story totally wins.

The_Myth said...

If this is anything close to the actual "conversation," I think you should have ripped Random a new sphincter.

What an ignoramus!

Anonymous said...

This is so hard to believe. Assuming that you are just extremely hot, you would still have to be walking around in bikini and stilettos with tattoos all around the "coin slot" to render such a conversation believable. I do not accuse you of a lie, but I just cannot believe this.

Although, I am always amazed and frustrated by the stupidity of random people. I somehow want to know more about Random person.

Fernando Pereira said...

I know it would sound a bit snide, but what about "I am a *tenured* *full* professor.It doesn't get any better than that." I know, I know...

Anonymous said...

To notorious ph.d.: I had the opposite problem. They addressed me as "Professor ..." while I was a lecturer (who was not even a candidate yet). Even one student told me later "I thought that you were a real professor."

So many people on campus and at conferences ask me if I am a professor. I must look old and distressed.

Female Science Professor said...

I should say that I used to have this kind of conversation all the time and now it is rare that I encounter this kind of thing.

Anonymous said...

I think you should of maybe explained it to "random" better.

I think what they were looking for is (from highest to lowest ranked):

1. endowed professor
2. professor
3. associate professor
4. assistant professor
5. senior lecturer (" ")
6. lecturer (PhDs, no research)
7 instructor (generally grad students or with MS)

At least those are the classification at my university.

Anonymous said...

Is there such a thing as depth to ignorance? Apparently so.

barbara said...

When I started my current job as full professor, at the youthful age of 36, everybody I met in the administrative offices assumed I must be a new postdoctoral fellow. No, I don't look younger than my age. And yes, it doesn't happen so often anymore now that I'm in my forties.
When I was in my 20s and early 30s, people typically assumed I was a secretary, so I guess a postdoc isn't even so bad.

Nevertheless, I was impressed. I also vigorously second fernando pereira's suggestion.

Unknown said...

How did the conversation go from there? I'd like it to involve grovelling apologies, but knowing this kind of person I'm not optimistic.

Anonymous said...

Never underestimate the stupidity of random people, be especially careful when their wit is as short as your temper...

What notorious and myth said!

My boss insists on calling me "Doctor", should I be asking for a raise?

Anonymous said...

So that's an actual recent conversation? Who was asking you--someone who hasn't left the house in the past 20 years?

I am now trying to guess where you work based on the fact that you've had that conversation multiple times.

Anonymous said...

At least you can take comfort in the fact that you're not too professorial!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for being out there to put a different face on what a "Professor" looks like for the "Randoms"

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the random person was expecting assistant/associate/full in front of the professor title? That expectation may be incorrect, since "full" usually isn't part of the official title, but it is nevertheless a common belief. Then just saying "professor" may have sounded like you were trying to avoid the issue by using a generic term instead of giving your actual title. Of course, your questioner started with the assumption that you were a lecturer or instructor, which is itself upsetting. However, after the first question, I suspect it sounded like you were dodging the question. (It's still ignorance on the part of your questioner, but at least maybe it is more understandable.)

alh said...

I look forward to the day I can have this conversation. Right now I'm still fighting the "Oh are you a new student" kind of conversation!

Kristin said...

That's so weird. I'm 34, and I've been a professor (assistant professor, but still...) for 8 years, and I've never had that problem. And I know I look quite young for my age. In fact, the two most common responses to "I'm a physics professor at ___ College" are either "Wow, physics, you must be smart!" or "Wow, you look so young!" No one has ever questioned my title and/or position. Perhaps it's a regional thing? I'm in Massachusetts, where there are colleges all over the place.

PhizzleDizzle said...

This makes my blood boil. I am now walking around totally annoyed!! who are these people??

I'm with Fernando on appropriate response, put that dimwit in his place.

Anonymous said...

Too funny. I'm finding myself in somewhat the same position. I get told a lot when I'm carded for buying booze that I do not look my age. I was told twice last week that I looked like I just graduated from high school. Which leads to some interesting questions/looks/blank stares when people ask if I'm a student and I say, "No, I'm a professor" Long pause, blank stare.
"You're a professor?"


"Of what?"


Longer pause, blanker stare


This is sometimes followed by: "If you were my chemistry professor, I probably would have gone to class a lot more often."

Anonymous said...

First, even when I was an adjunct, or lecturer, or whatever the title was (I did this at a few different places) students called me "Professor." If you're the one giving the lectures and grading the tests, in their eyes you're a professor.

Second, it's kind of surprising to me that people outside the university would even know about the difference between professors, adjuncts, lecturers, etc. My students barely know the difference, and people I meet on the outside seem completely unaware of it.

Third, my favorite "You're a professor? Really?" story is that I was at the airport, and I was wearing a t-shirt with the 4th amendment written on it. This is my preferred airport attire (but that's a topic for another time). Some guy saw my shirt and decided to start an argument about civil liberties issues. He claimed to be a professor of law at a famous place (but based on stuff that came out in the conversation I suspect he's an adjunct). At the end of the conversation he said to me "Are you a student?" to which I replied "No, I'm an assistant professor of theoretical physics at [name redacted]."

He didn't know what to make of that, so he made a few remarks about how awful tenure is, and then our flights boarded (thankfully, we were on separate flights).

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I'm going to comment again, because I can't seem to stop thinking about this, and it has to do with some commenters' reactions (which were the same as my first one): "It must be because you look so young! They can't believe someone who looks so young as you can possibly be a professor."


As I said, this was my first reaction, too, and usually is when I get something similar. But think about it: when was the last time that any of you heard (or even heard of) a similar "you're a professor?!?" being addressed to a male professor, even a very young-looking one? I've heard of honest mistakes being made in this regard, but once the interlocutor realizes their mistake, they tend to retreat, usually with apologies. Women like FSP, on the other hand, tend to be met with incredulity. I don't think it's because of any ill will on the part of the interlocutor, but rather a whole set of underlying assumptions about what a professor looks like.

and @ chris: if you go back and read FSP's post, you'll see that Random had a good grasp on the ranking within universities; he just couldn't believe that FSP was at the top of that ranking.

Anonymous said...

Okay, maybe it isn't the age. Maybe it has to do with attractiveness. Maybe the assumption is that you can't be somewhat young looking and hot and socially competent and female and be an academic.

The whole hot women can't be smart?

AsstFemaleProf said...

Well, I'm one of the 30-somethings, and I'm still trying to explain to everyone why I go to work everyday when I'm not teaching this semester. And what exactly it is I do since I'm not teaching this semester... After all, isn't that all Professors do?

Shriram Krishnamurthi said...

Notorious Ph.D.:

Not to defend the bozo MSP had to deal with; just responding directly to your remark.

I'm a MSP, and I was mis-identified a lot when I started out. I was routinely mistaken for a student. When I corrected people, the standard response was not the apology you suggest, but rather something closer to incredulity and amusement. I took to following up with, “Well, you know, standards are falling around here...they'll take just anyone these days!” Only then did people realize that their remarks might be a little off.

MSP, there's a strategy to consider. It requires a certain degree of smirkiness, but you seem to have that in spades (and, as a fan of this blog, I mean that in the best possible way). Though, dolts like the one you ran into might just say, “Yes, you're right, I never thought of that explanation”.

So, I long ago realized I don't fit the stereotype of what a prof should look like, either. Maybe that's changing now that I'm getting old and grey (as opposed to old and wise).

chemcat said...

Perhaps related?
in the last 6 years my dept has hired five women, including myself. One is a full prof, the others are junior. We all work in different fields, we look very different (blondes, brunettes, tall, short, slim, plump; ages between early 30's and late 40's), we even sound very different (one american, the rest from various european and south american countries). Yet, our senior colleagues keep confusing us, leading to surreal conversations in which it can take five minutes before one understands that the Chair is actually referring to the other YFP. This has happened so many times, and with so many variations with the players (e.g, the senior profs) or with whom we are mistaken for, that I am starting to think it's no coincidence....

Anonymous said...

I'm a female 20-something assistant prof, and I am forever having the conversation where I explain that teaching is not all I do. And no it's not a cushy job where I turn up to class twice a week and stay home watching Oprah the rest of the time. People are not usually incredulous when I say I'm a prof of engineering -- though it clearly surprises them. There's generally a moment of stunned silence. I do get a lot of random men saying they'd have been in class more if I'd been the professor -- and even a few requests to sit in on my classes (?!). These aren't even science-oriented men typically.

Silver Fox said...

Sad to hear those kind of remarks are *still* happening!

Anonymous said...

It doesn't just happen to FSPs. I am an MMP (male math prof., well, Reader actually) and also get this reaction occasionally. Yes, I am a very young Reader but, come on, Maths has a lot of scope for eccentricity. I just look too young and too unprofessional for some people to take me seriously in this profession. They assume I must be a grad student, pdf or what have you or that I am not really a 'professor' but some sort of instructor. I have great respect for the tutors in my college but I have a very different job.

Anonymous said...

I completely believe this conversation. I am also a FSP (junior). I had similar things happen to me. For example, immediately after arriving on campus to start my current position, I requested to meet with a MSP in a different department (I thought I could discuss a potential collaboration). When we met, after he greeted me, he immediately added:
"So, what are you doing here? Did your husband get a position here and you came with him?"
Me: "No, I got a position here"
MSP, incredulous: "Oh.."

unknown said...

This random conversation is analagous to the conversations that I and many people of colour encounter on a regular basis. The gist of it is as follows:

Random Person: Where are you from?
Me: Canada
Random Person: No, where are you really from?
Me: Canada
Random Person: No, I mean where were you born?
Me: Canada.
Random Person: NO, where were you really born?
Me: BigCity, Canada.
Random Person: Where did you grow up?
Me: BigCity, Canada
Random Person: Where are your parents from?
Me: Canada
Random Person: But what is your heritage?

So the real question they want to ask is, "why do you look different than I do?" This is at the heart of both random conversations. When our learned vision of the world is challenged, we belie our prejudices in the repeated question. Whoever random person was, they had a different question they wanted to ask.

Jackie M. said...

You know what this conversation is missing? The part where you rub their face in their mistake.

(also, the specification of gender. I'm waiting to find out it's some student's mother.)

Anonymous said...

you think the questions were motivated by your gender???

Female Science Professor said...

I don't know, but there is circumstantial evidence to suggest that this was the case:

1 - I have had this same conversation many times over the years. My husband (who looks younger than his age) and other male colleagues do not have these conversations.

2 - I was in a group with other colleagues (all male) during this particular conversation, yet I was the only one who was apparently assumed not to be a *real* professor.

Anonymous said...

When I started my first T-T job at an R1 various admin assistants and 2 faculty members tried to kick me out of the faculty lounge and/or challenged me when I was taking mail out of my mailbox. I assumed it was because I was an unfamiliar face. However, none of my male colleagues has ever had a similar experience.

Anonymous said...

Well, I am also one of the 30-something (not for long anymore) female academics, and this kind of situation has happened to me several times, inside as well as outside of the academic world.

My personal favorite (sort of) happened in South Africa some years ago. There, they use academic titles (Dr., Pr.) as often as they can, in place of Mr/Mrs./Miss. So, when I wanted to rent a car, I booked it in the name of Dr. Me.

When I wanted to get the car booked by Dr. Me, the immediate answer was"No, you can't have it, HE has to fetch it HIMself". Not walking around with a copy of my Ph.D. diploma, I had to negotiate my way around that, and convince the lady that it was, indeed, Me who also happened to be a doctor in social sciences.
BTW, I'm European (a necessary addition to a South African story: it was only a case of sexism, not of racism on top).

I now make a point of systematically using my academic title.