By MOHANALAKSHMI RAJAKUMAR, Staff Writer
DOHA, QATAR — After a five year hiatus, I’m back in the classroom as a faculty member and full Ph.D. holder.
Being an adjunct is better than the limbo of being an All But Dissertation (ABD) graduate student or teaching assistant. Yet, everyone from the kitchen staff to other professors who didn’t already know me, wonder if I am a student: I can see the hesitation in their speech, the question in their eyes as I lurk in the hallway for a meeting. In the classroom things weren’t much different. Despite being ten years older than most of the students, there was this unshakeable feeling they thought I was one of them.
The good genes could be partially to blame for why students keep calling me variations of “Miss” (Ma’am being the favorite alternative). Like many South Asian, or even all Asian women in general, I am a young-looking thirtysomething, and unless I told you (which I find myself having to do more and more), you wouldn’t know that I have a husband and one-year-old son. Or a Ph.D.
Even after I mention all of these factors in a covert attempt to add gravitas, and hand out syllabi with the Ph.D. on the top of the page, the “Miss” or “Ma’am” persists.
Five years ago, when I was in a senior position at a university, I let everyone — faculty, staff, and students — call me by first name. Mohana, they said, while calling other people the designate of their titles: Doctor or Dean. That’s not my leadership style, I consoled myself, and carried on. I never could shake the feeling that even in the minds of the staff, I was somehow lesser because I was just me, no suffixes.
I eventually left that position to pursue other things. But now, more than five years later, I’m faced with the same question: does it matter what people call you? In the context of the Middle East, yes. And if you are a woman of small stature, with fashion sense, and youthful skin, maybe it does anywhere. Because all the people on that former leadership team, years ago, were all men — white men.
When I was at a publishing company working alongside other people who had Doctorates, they were addressed as “Dr.” and yet, I was never more than the sum of my first name. Now, I’m not pulling the race or gender card: I’m telling you the facts as I lived them. A name has power; it identifies you as either being part of a system that deserves respect or a person on the loose.
Having done the egalitarian thing, I’m doing it the other way.
During the second class session I explained that I felt “Miss” was more appropriate for elementary school, not the university setting where we found ourselves.
“What do you want us to call you?” Someone asked.
“Dr. will be fine,” I said.
“Ouch,” another student murmured.
“Ma’am,” I enunciated on yet another day, “is what my nanny calls me. Are you and my nanny the same?”
Now that we are three weeks into the semester, “professor” comes more readily to their lips. I’m done with those days of pretending not to be a scholar, as I did during undergrad and then graduate school because I was the only one of our friends who kept on studying. I used to treat my academic pursuits as a hobby, isolated from what I did the rest of the day and from who I am as a person.
But nowadays, you’ll find me in a classroom on most days of the week, or grading papers in order to be prepared for the next session. And instead of hiding it, I find people’s eyebrows rise in surprise and admiration when I answer the question “What do you do?”
And that’s my giving a damn.
Dr. Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar is a well-traveled scholar of literature and a freelance writer based in Qatar. She is a co-founder of the Maktaba project, a Children’s Library concept starting up in Doha. Follow her on Twitter @moha_doha.
More from Mohana: