Today was a bright point of light on the journey of life. I had the amazing experience of being present at the very successful dissertation defense of one of my doctoral students. I sometimes simply use the term “mentoring” as opposed to “directing” or “chairing” a dissertation, because it really is the role and expectation that the student directs her or his own process, while I have the privilege to mentor and support their journey towards independent scholarship and lifelong professional collegiality. Academia is a family (that statement is true on so many levels) and being present for this final act of emergence is unquestionably one of the most rewarding aspects of my academic career.
The day of my own dissertation defense, just over seven years ago now, is somewhat of a memorable blur overall, with a few stand out moments of clarity. I remember arriving early to set up the room and check my slides. I recall talking through my research study at the beginning of my defense; I have a vague recollection of my committee members asking me questions and my answers being reasonably on target (or at least it seemed to me that they were.) I remember one committee member spilling a can of soda onto her copy of my dissertation, which apparently broke the tension enough to allow that particular memory to stick. What I remember the most, though, were the things that happened at the end of the whole process. First, my dissertation chair for whom I did (and still do) have the highest professional respect called me “Dr. Kye Price” and my then 2 year old daughter (who had been well coached by her dad) reached out to give me a hug and called me, “Dr. MomMom!”
That was a truly transformative moment.
That moment represented the culmination of years of intellectual work, but also a transformation of spirit, the embrace of a new role. The rituals of this transformation mark the progression from student, to candidate, to the warm embrace as a full colleague. The rituals marking this penultimate academic transition include tangible signatures of approval, followed by the emotional exchange of hugs and handshakes (not to mention the history of ceremonial “hooding” in academic garb which occurs later now, during graduation). Rituals of celebration also involve effervescence…aka, bubbles…a celebratory sharing and toasting to success. At my defense, this was champagne….although today, local craft brewed beer was the celebratory beverage of choice. The communal sharing of bubbly immediately following the successful defense was a ritual from my own alma mater that I thoroughly endorse. The welcoming of the new doctor is marked through a common toast from the academic community at large to the newly transitioned person. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, there is the immediate taking on of a new title: Doctor.
The origins of the academic “doctor” title are from latin, licentia docendi, literally translated a license to teach. The granting of a doctorate (which incidentally occurred first in the Church and then later in the University) was the designation of someone ready to give back, to assume the role of teacher and mentor. It is a lifetime title, not one dependent upon where one is employed or in what field one specializes. “Doctor” is not synonymous with Physician, which is the way we may confuse the terms today. The doctor is a learned teacher, acknowledged by senior peers as ready to provide that learning to his or her own students. It is both an honor, and a responsibility.
Fully taking in this title can seem like an act of the ego, and it certainly can be that. But living up to the title of “Doctor” (including “Dr. MomMom”) has been more an act of grateful humility, marked by a dedication to lifelong learning and knowledge sharing. There was a transformation that occurred when that title was conferred. And, I took great delight in bestowing it today to a deserving, next generation scholar colleague who, I have no doubt, will carry out the role of teacher and mentor with deep commitment and unique personal style. That makes the academy itself a brighter place.
While I recognize the many associations of power and privilege that have become historically linked with the title of “Doctor,” I hope that a different perspective is emerging. Truly transitioning to Doctor illuminates a central commitment to learning and mentoring that has a lasting impact on future generations. Today has been filled with those reminders, and it has renewed my hope for the future.