Honorifics, Pen-Names, Handles, and Zoom IDs
The Wall Street Journal published an editorial recently, criticizing the new First Lady for continuing to go by Dr. Jill Biden rather than just use her first name. Biden has an Ed.D. degree—the one most often conferred upon aspiring practitioners in her field of educational leadership, the Ph.D. in education usually training one for research or university teaching, although either suffices for either role. The Twitterverse jumped on the undeniably misogynist character of this criticism. Other Tweets focused on how central the identity as an educator is to her and her intention to remain in her full-time position as a community college instructor. No need to rehash any of this.
Instead, this post will delve into what we call ourselves and why. I was born Allan David Shapiro and also given the Hebrew name Avraham, after a relative I never knew. In my community's religious tradition, he had to be dead to bequeath his name. The Hebrew name never embedded itself in my consciousness—the year I lived mostly in Jerusalem, I stuck with Allan. I did sign my ketubah (wedding contract) in Hebrew with Avraham, and this piece of art is hung by our front door. And every time I'm called to participate in a child-relative's Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony, the rabbi will address me with that name. But that’s about it.
Upon marriage, my wife and I both hyphenated, taking each other's names, and I became Allan Dyen-Shapiro. It was a way of honoring both families and refusing to bow to the patriarchal aspects of Western tradition. To be honest, I hadn't expected to change my name at marriage because most women I knew weren't changing theirs. I was in grad school in the sciences, and not finding all of one's publications under one name might have meant losing an opportunity. So, professionally, like nearly all of these women, I stuck with my birth name. All 23 of my scientific papers (as well as myriad grant proposals and meeting presentations) were submitted under it.
One year post-marriage, both of my names picked up the honorific of Dr. when I successfully defended my Ph.D. thesis. Alternatively, when signing a letter or an email at work, I sometimes appended a comma and Ph.D. to the end of the name.
But either sounded pretentious for day-to-day communication. A note written to my kids' elementary school saying that one of them could go home with a friend that day didn’t need either Dr. or comma/Ph.D. appended.
When I assumed my first independent university faculty position, I got a new title, but only those semesters when I was teaching: Professor. Students in my classes would generally call me Professor. It conveyed even greater respect than Doctor did.
Graduate students in my lab (and post-docs, visiting professors, techs, etc.) would generally call me by my first name, but it was tough to get even undergraduates in my lab whom I saw every day to do this. With them, Dr. In recent years, when I've been adjunct faculty at the local state college, I get Professor again, but no other time.
Thirteen years ago, my research career ended. At that point, knowing I'd never publish research again, I retired the last name with which I was born and used solely the hyphenate. I was Dr. Dyen-Shapiro for work-related matters and Allan Dyen-Shapiro privately.
However, when working with young people, they often called me Mister. No last name—just Mister. That felt odd. I wanted to tell them they should just use my first name, but I wasn't allowed. Then, I learned why they did this. I was working in a majority-Hispanic school with a lot of recent immigrants. To them, Mister was a direct translation of Señor, which is a term of respect in Latin American cultures.
So, if they wanted to use Mister, fine. Some of the white or Black kids preferred to call me Doc. I was okay with that, too, because it also seemed respectful.
And then came the decision as to whether or not to use a pen name for my fiction. The plus: I could hide. Nobody at my day job would ever know about my writing. That mattered to me when author was an aspirational term—I was afraid I would look ridiculous without the sales to back this Walter Mitty existence. The minus: what a pain! Too much identity confusion.
And could I be fired for what I put into print? Potentially, but I decided that what I write is probably safe. I have written sex scenes, but I'll only populate them with consenting adults. My stories with political content must be read in order to offend—I generally don't put the political leanings in the title. And most who would be offended are not the type who read.
So, no pen name. I do have a Twitter handle (@Allan_author_SF), but you can search Twitter by name to find me. The rest of my social media presence has some variant of my full name in it. I want to be found. I want to be published and read, and for that, you must be found.
Then came Zoom. I usually Zoom through my day-job email, as it gives me free access to the professional version. I have learned that I must rename myself for different occasions. It seems off-putting if I'm on a panel at a science fiction convention, and the name comes up Dr. Dyen-Shapiro. It's not a scientific conference! The default at work is Dyen-Shapiro, Dr. Allan, but I've learned I have to change that, too, because young people who weren't born in the US will assume my last name is Allan. When I host a Zoom meeting for my regional science fiction society, I'll routinely change the names for other meeting participants. Some can't figure out how to get rid of their D&D handle, include the name of their spouse who is also online, or opt out of being called iPad647.
Which leads to another idea: what if you want to be someone else online? I have one friend who has created an online identity under a name that sounds like a superhero. Why? Because he thinks it's sufficiently cool-sounding to attract subscribers. I dunno—I think it would be hard to lead them back to stuff under his legal name.
I know of at least one male writer, not ready to go public with an identity they are exploring, who has a traditionally female name on their social media presence. In my eyes, that sounds like a very safe way to do this initial exploration, and it is probably good for their mental health.
And, of course, the traditional reasons: most consumers of romance would pass on books by a cishet male author; many fans of military science fiction seek out cishet male authors. In these cases, name choice is about selling books.
The gender issue seems weirdest on formal invitations. Why should only a widow be addressed as Mrs./their first name/their husband's last name? When he was alive, she was Mrs. husband's first and last name. It seems like she gets greater respect only after he's dead. I'd imagine obituaries could get even weirder: Mrs. Candy Manson, nee Stevens, mourns the death of her beloved husband, Charles. And what about the women who kill their husbands—do they still get to be addressed as widows?
So, Dr. Jill Biden, Professor Jill Biden, First Lady Jill Biden, former Second Lady Jill Biden, with your lifetime of experience, expertise, and degrees every bit as worthy of your honorifics as any medical doctor's, I look forward to your entering the White House and potentially telling your non-Dr., non-Professor husband to ban high-stakes standardized testing and restore teacher tenure in states that have abolished it.
As for how to address that WSJ columnist with the appropriate level of respect and deference in rebuttal Tweets, emails, and letters?
How about "Dear asshole"?