Friday, April 24, 2015

The Glory of the Honorary Doctorate

I've always wanted an honorary doctorate. It's not a major item on my bucket list. In fact, I don't even have a bucket list. But if I did, this wouldn't be on there.

The desire for an honorary doctorate pops up this time each year, as famous and not-so-famous people in the arts, science, and humanities are asked to give thoughtful university commencement speeches around the country.

As an added enticement, the people often have an honorary doctorate conferred upon them.

That just sounds so cool: to have an honorary doctorate conferred upon you.

It sounds so regal.

"What, this old thing? It was conferred upon me a few years ago."

They don't just slip it to you like a street corner drug deal, or mail it to you in a large enveloped marked "Do Not Bend" which your letter carrier takes as a personal insult and irons a crease into it.

There are Doctors of Literature, Humane Letters (academic distinction), Laws, Science, Fine Arts, Humanities, and Divinity. Most writers receive a Doctor of Literature, although I've heard of them receiving a Doctor of Letters degree.

Ball State University Commencement, December 2014
Still, I'm not picky. I'd take whatever a university would care to confer upon me.

(I can't stop saying it!)

Most honorary doctorates are given to people for work in their field that makes a notable contribution to society., which puts me out of the running, since writing fart jokes on the Internet is neither notable nor contributes to society.

Meanwhile, Canadian folk singer Gordon Lightfoot will receive an honorary doctorate of music from Lakehead University in Ontario this year. Other past honorary degree conferrees include Dolly Parton, Jane Pauley, Clint Eastwood, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

If you have an honorary doctorate, you can even use the title professionally, and have people call you Doctor.

Which is quite pretentious; I won't even call real professors "doctor."

I grew up in an academic family. My father, mother, and stepfather were not only the first in their family to go to college, they all got advanced degrees, and all worked at a university. My father went so far as to get a real Ph.D. in Psychological Science.

So, I've never put Ph.D.s on a pedestal or held them in exaggerated esteem. They're regular people with weird quirks and annoying personalities. (In some cases, they go above and beyond normal people.)

Many of them were our family friends, and at some dinner parties, you couldn't swing a dead cat without whacking a Ph.D. in their giant noggin.

Because of our parents' commitment to higher education, all of us kids went to college. My brother and I even earned Master's degrees in the same field as our mother, and we both work at universities ourselves. (I'm an adjunct faculty member, he's a financial aid counselor.)

I've been around college professors for so long, I refuse to call them "doctor," and only call them by their first name.

"You're not a doctor," I said to one once. "You have a doctorate."

Years ago, another guy I knew insisted I call him "Dr. Steve" (not his real name).

"Why?" I said. I had recently finished graduate school, I was out of academia, and I refused to genuflect to anyone with letters after their name. "Why do I need to call you Dr. Steve?"

"Because I have a Ph.D."

I pulled myself up to my full height, puffed out my chest, and growled, "I have a Master's degree. What do you think you should call me?"

He thought about this for a moment. "Steve will be fine."

I had actually turned down attending my own Ph.D. program just months before. I applied to several schools, was accepted to a couple, and chose none.

My then-fiancee said she was so sick of college that she didn't even want to live in a university town, and that I was free to go by myself and come find her afterward.

I decided love was more important than four years of grad school debt and a job that paid only slightly more than a high school teacher, so I said "no," and became a businessman instead.

The days are longer, I work more hours in a week than professors do all month, and I don't get summers off. But I also don't have to go to interminable departmental meetings where we talk about issues no one actually cares about using words no one understands.

Which, when you get down to it, is the best reason of all to get an honorary doctorate: all the privileges, none of the responsibilities, and the joy of telling your honorary department chair where he or she can do with their departmental meeting agenda.

Photo credit: Ball State University, Office of the President (Marked for reuse)

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