Professor Emerit (Not a Typo)

Jennifer J. Freyd, PhD

Jennifer Freyd is Professor Emerit, Psychology, University of Oregon

Freyd is also a Faculty Affiliate, Women's Leadership Lab at Stanford University
and
Founder and President, Center for Institutional Courage, Inc.

awp
March 2021
Starting a Movement!
Winter 2021 AWP Newsletter, p 25

 

Professor Emerit

Following my retirement on 15 March 2021 from my position as Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon, I was granted Professor Emeritus status at the University of Oregon.

I use the title Professor Emerit when a title is called for, and I request others use that title when referring to me by title.  I choose to use Professor Emerit instead of the typically-used titles for retired faculty in academia: Professor Emeritus and Professor Emerita.  The titles Professor Emeritus and Professor Emerita are used to communicate professional status and an ongoing relationship with the university.  The titles mean that the individual was, in the past, a (presumably tenured) professor and continues to have certain rights and responsibilities at the institution granting the new title.  However, in contrast to the title Professor, the titles Professor Emeritus and Professor Emerita are used in explicitly gendered ways.  I intend Professor Emerit to be no more associated with gender than the title Professor.

There are at least two somewhat separate problems with the standard usage. One problem (the gender intrusion problem) relates to the importation of gender into a professional title in which the job itself is not based on gender -- or at least it should not be. Importing gender also imports status. The common usage makes gender salient in situations where it need not be made salient. Women are very often devalued, including in academia, and making gender salient is likely to exact a status cost for women (see for instance, Ridgeway & Correll, 2004) and cognitive cost for women (see for instance, Steele, 1997.) I also note that employers sometimes try to subvert equal pay and other gender discrimination laws by claiming people of different genders are doing different jobs. Lets not make that easier for them by importing gender into the titlles of professors upon retirement. The second problem (the binary problem) with the common terms is that they force a binary distinction that may be particularly oppressive to some individuals.  This is discussed further below in the section, What is the Binary Categorization Problem? 

Frequently Asked Questions

I have been discussing the term emerit for some time and have had the opportunity to ponder some frequently asked questions. 

Why not Retired?

Professors designated as having the Emeritus/Emerita/Emerit status are retired from the unversity providing that status. However not all retired faculty have Emeritus/Emerita/Emerit status. As mentioned above, the Emerit- titles are used to communicate formal professional status and an ongoing relationship with the university. The titles mean that the individual was, in the past, a (presumably tenured) professor and continues to have certain rights and responsibilities at the institution granting the new title. 

Why not Professor Emerita?

In current American academic settings the term Professor Emerita is used only for retired professors who are identified as female.  I see no reason my professional title should be gendered in this way.  Furthermore, there is reason to believe that bringing gender into the title risks doing damage. As noted above, the common usage makes gender salient in situations where it need not be made salient. Women are very often devalued, including in academia, and making gender salient is likely to exact a status cost for women (see for instance, Ridgeway & Correll, 2004) and cognitive cost for women (see for instance, Steele, 1997.)  The common terms also force a binary distinction that may be particularly oppressive to some individuals.  

Why not Professor Emeritus?

Although some advocate that a way around this is to use Professor Emeritus for any gender, that term currently carries gendered meaning.  To the extent emeritus can be used to mean either just men or both men and women, it is what is known as a marked term; other similar examples (many of which people have recently moved away from) include chairman, alumnus, fireman, stewardess, and even just “man” to mean human.  Research indicates marked gender terms can be disadvantageous to girls and women (e.g.: McConnell & Fazio, 1996).

Why not Professor Emeritum?

Neuter gender (such as emeritum) in Latin means neither masculine nor feminine, which is different from not actively denoting a gender by avoiding unnecessary grammatical gender.  Personally I would not want the neuter term for myself because I am not neither masculine nor feminine; I am some combination of both.

Why not Professor Emeritx?

Professor Emeritx addresses one of the two problems mentioned above and discussed in more detail below; it corrects the binary categorization problem. I'm not as sure it is as effective at correcting the gender importation problem as the "x" inherently refers back to gender. While it might be valuable to use x when acknowledging the existence of intersectional identities in which gender matters, I believe the professional title of professor is not or should not be one of those identities. In addition, as a usage matter, emeritx currently seems to be primarily used by others as a plural (as an alternative to the more commonly used emeriti), leaving it unclear what the singular version of the term should be. Emerit is easy to use with English grammar. One emerit; two or more emerits.

What is the Binary Categorization Problem? 

My primary objection to the titles Emeritus and Emerita is that there is no reason to bring gender into academic professional titles, and reason to believe bringing gender into titles will result in harm, as noted above.

However, a secondary reason is that the gender categories imposed on living humans erases the complexity, nuance, and fluidity of gender in real life.  Pushing people into boxes that erase their own individuality can be suffocating and damaging to the individuals and it can reinforce gender inequities at a societal level (see Bem, 1996).

Our stereotypes, laws, and beliefs often implicitly conceptualize human gender as either a single spectrum anchored by masculine and feminine or simply as two ends of one dimension (as captured in the phrase “opposite sex”).  However, Bem (1974) demonstrated nearly half a centry ago that one dimension does not fit the data. Bem (1974) reported that the dimensions of masculinity and femininity captured by identification with stereotypical personality attributes (such as good leadership ability, nurturing, strong, empathic) are independent, both logically and empirically.

Bem 1974
Independent dimensions of gender attributes (figured based on Bem, 1974)

From the figure above (plotting masculinity and femininity as orthogonal dimensions), it is apparent that the choices of emeritus, emerita, and emeritum fail to work for those who understand themselves as largely androgenous.  (I note too that the graph above is also overly simplified. Masculinity and femininity are themselves the products of multiple dimensions of variation.  Furthermore, gender is arguably not just a thing one has but also a thing one does.) Personally, I do not want to be boxed into any gender category but especially one that does not align with my experience in the world. 

But is Professor Emerit grammatical?  Does that matter?

I appreciate correct grammar and I too sometimes cringe at what I perceive to be a grammatical error.  Yet I also know that English language is a shared and constantly evolving system and there will always be cringe-worthy moments in response to language change. We borrow words from other languages and over time make them our own.  English does not have grammatical gender in the sense that Latin has it and most of our borrowed Latin is used with English rules (as in professor and professors).  At the same time, words matter. Language can do political and cultural work; language can and does sometimes play a role in the maintenance of an oppressive status quo.  Alternatively, language can be liberatory.  While grammatical consistency and correctness are generally valuable for communicative precision, comfort, and efficiency, sometimes there are even more important values which may require language to change – values such as equity and liberation from oppression.

There is another point one could make about grammar in this case if one wanted to get really picky.  The word professor is from Latin, a dead language, and now used in English, a living language. In Latin the term professor was grammatically masculine. So if for some reason we need to use Latin rules, one could argue that Professor Emerita is grammatically incorrect.  It would perhaps need to be Professrix Emerita to be correct. 

What terms will I use for other retired faculty members?

Titles: I will do my best to honor the preference of the individual when known.  When unknown I will use the title Professor Emerit.

Non-titles:  For the adjective form I will use emerit as in “Chris is an emerit professor.”  For the noun form I will refer to one emerit and two or more emerits.  This is similar to the increasingly common usage for referring to graduates of an educational institution –one alum and two or more alums.   

Have others advocated this usage? What about other terms?

There have been numerous suggestions for non-gendered terms for retired professors including Professor Emerit.  However, as of this writing I see little evidence of wide-scale adoption of any of these alternatives.  I do hope for and expect that over time the preferred terminology will be non-gendered, just as has occurred in numerous other domains (flight attendants, firefighters, alums).  If a different term emerges as the standard non-gendered term, I likely will adopt that term myself.  For now, given no standardization, and a concern that the terms in usage do damage, I am selecting emerit as a straightforward, respectful, and liberatory term for retired faculty.

 

References

Bem, S.L. (1974) The measurement of psychological androgyny. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 42, 155-162. doi:10.1037/h0036215.

Bem, S.L. (1994) The Lenses of Gender: Transforming the Debate on Sexual Inequality. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

McConnell A.R. & Fazio R.H. (1996) Women as Men and People: Effects of Gender-Marked Language. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22, 1004-1013. doi: 10.1177/01461672962210003

Ridgeway C. L. & Correll S. J. (2004). Unpacking the gender system: a theoretical perspective on gender beliefs and social relations. Gender &. Society, 18, 510–531. doi: 10.1177/0891243204265269

Steele, C.M. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance, American Psychologist, 52, 613-629. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.52.6.613

 

Also See

 

Copyright Jennifer J. Freyd.