In Defense of the Ms.

The moment comes every semester: my back is turned.  A student has a question, or needs to tell me something, or wants to kindly let me know that I’m about to leave my cell phone and reading glasses in the classroom for the eighty bagillionth time, and I hear it: “Miss Bol — wait, what am I supposed to call you?”

It is at this point that I should say that I hate the word “miss.”  I loathe it.  I despite it.  The very sound of it alternately sends chills of terror and the burning white-hot rage of ten thousand suns up and down my spine.  The very hiss of the last three letters of the word bring to mind all that come with it: belittling, sexism, and the implication that a woman’s very identity is dependent upon whether or not she’s married, that women are “marked” by the very language itself (as beautifully described by Deborah Tannen in “Wears Jump Suit. Sensible Shoes. Uses Husband’s Last Name,” formerly titled “Marked Women, Unmarked Men.”) In short, when I hear the word “miss” coming from somewhere behind my back and it isn’t preceded by “I” and followed by “you,” this is what happens inside my mind:

From -- and please note that I am going against gender stereotypes here. AND TURTLE STEREOTYPES, TOO.

Before I turn around, though, the moment has passed.  My students are (generally — more about that later) benevolent creatures, and mean only to ask a question or say something or remind me to not lose my stuff again — and to do so politely, as they’ve been taught.  Plus, academic nomenclature can be more dizzyingly complex than the nomenclature one learns in chemistry, and no one knows that better than me.  I existed, for a long time, in the nameless academic no-man’s-land of graduate teaching assistant and instructor, and honestly didn’t know what they should call me myself — “GTA Bolden” makes no sense, and “Instructor Bolden” just sounded odd.  I also exist in another academic dead zone, as I have an MFA and not a PhD — “Master Bolden?”  Definitely not.  And I was confused myself: at Sarah Lawrence, we generally referred to our professors by their first names, and so I studied with Bob and Kate and Tom, rather than Doctors and Professors.  Moving from the student body to the faculty didn’t help me much, and I confess that — though I learned quickly — I wasn’t aware of the gradations in academia, and the sharp distinctions in naming between instructors and professors, when I started teaching.

When the “miss” moment appears, therefore, the rage within me is only a brief flash, and by the time I turn around, I’ve already said the solution my students eventually developed: “Just call me Bolden.”

And I like Bolden — it’s a name that is my name, and a name that strips away any implications of gender bias or the academic hierarchy.  It’s a name that shows respect and, at the same time, comfort, familiarity — which is exactly the kind of atmosphere I want to create in my classrooms, which is why it’s a name I kept, even when I became, officially, Professor Bolden.

The “Miss” moment bothers me less and less, the more that I teach.  After all, I was raised in the Deepest, Dirtiest Deep Dirty South, and am therefore aware that the implications of the word “Miss” aren’t as easy as a pure black-and-white gender issue.  “Miss” may be a belittling term, but, in the South, it can also be a term which implies a great deal of respect, admiration, and affection.  I call my mother’s closest friends “Miss Debbie,” “Miss Vickie,” and “Miss Doris,” and it’s a term almost interchangeable with “Aunt” — perhaps “You Are Such An Important Figure In My Life That I Consider You To Be My Aunt Even Though We Aren’t Related.”  Interestingly, in many ways, it’s also an unmarked term: Miss Debbie, Miss Vickie, and Miss Doris are all married, but I’d never dream of calling them “Mrs.”  It’s a term which denotes a level of trust, a level of closeness, rather than the person’s marital status.

But there’s something I’ve noticed, and noticed consistently, about the use of the word “Miss” in an academic setting.  This is the turning point in the blog entry where I’m feeling a bit uncomfortable, as if I’m going out on a limb — but yesterday, my students, who are (and I mean this in the most sincere and real way possible) my greatest teachers, reminded me that good writing, writing that moves us to emotion and action, is writing which goes out on a limb — and that in order to say what most needs to be said, we as writers need to learn to balance on that limb.

So, with my feet on the outer branches, I’ll say it: there are a few moments when I’ve been consistently called “Miss,” and when it has nothing to do with the Southern implications of the term — when students are angry.  I noticed it first when students got back papers and were not happy with their grades: “MISS Bolden,” I’d hear, with an extra stress and a hiss on the first word, “I want to talk to you about this.”  Then, I noticed it was a theme on negative evaluations, of which I have (and, I think, every GTA/instructor/lecturer/professor who spends the bulk of their time teaching required classes, especially Composition, has) a collection, my favorite being one which says “MISS Bolden (please note the all-caps there) is an ASS” followed by an expertly-rendered sketch of a donkey, and my second favorite being one which says, after every question, “More hawt chicks.”  In the more positive evaluations, I was referred to as Ms. Bolden, Bolden, Professor Bolden, or simply “the instructor.”  In the negative evaluations, it was always “Miss.”  For a while, I was intrigued but assumed it unintentional — until I received an evaluation which began with the following phrase: “MISS (caps in original) Bolden — please note I do not say Professor Bolden or Mrs. Bolden.”

I mentioned earlier that these kinds of evaluations pop up most in Composition classes, and perhaps this is the reason it bothered me so much.  In Comp, we spend a great deal of time covering the logical fallacies, including the ad hominem.  The example I typically give is this: “My opponent wants you to think that he will be true to you while representing you in Congress, but can you really trust someone who is divorced?”  The flaw here, of course, is that whether or not the politician is divorced really has nothing to do with his job performance — just as my marital status has absolutely nothing to do with my performance in the classroom.

Interestingly, there’s one semester where the “MISS” diss is absent from my negative evaluations: the semester when I followed the advice of a wise and wonderful mentor in the department and wore a fake engagement ring to class.

I often wonder if, if and when I do get married, I’ll be equally frustrated by the term “Mrs.”  I think so.  I’d be interested to know if the same themes appear on evaluations of faculty members who are married.  I also wonder how — or if — this translates to my male colleagues.  Regardless, there seems to be a dangerous cultural assumption just under the surface: that a woman’s marital status in some way affects their performance on the job.  It doesn’t.  Being unmarried or married has no effect on the way a woman leads a classroom, on what she teaches and writes, on what ideas she develops and studies, on all the millions of things she has to offer.  Ad Hominem?   Ad Feminae.

One thought on “In Defense of the Ms.

  1. The sort of thing that happens at 1:30am: I read the title as ‘In Defense of the M’s,’ and immediately thought, Oh, how m-Boldening.

    I should not be allowed to stay up this late.

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