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Some thoughts for young surgeons

Emeritus, Emerita

When I retired from the regular faculty of the University of Iowa, I became a member of the Emeritus Faculty. That much is clear. What is not totally clear is whether I am now a Professor Emeritus, a Professor Emerita, or even – it's been suggested – a Professora Emerita. 


It turns out, it's up to me.


I first considered this question a couple of months before retirement, when my department put through the necessary paperwork in support of my new position. Once granted, I would become a Professor Emeritus. If I wanted to use the title Professor Emerita, there was another application process – a minor hassle, but if I did the paperwork, the University would so list me.  


The most immediate problem was what to put on my new business cards. After years in male-dominated fields of first engineering and then surgery, the female adjective was very appealing. Then, too, a close friend, also a surgeon, had chosen Professor Emerita. Inertia won out and I took the easy route, remaining (by default) a Professor Emeritus. Reversing the order, Emeritus Professor, seems to give it more gravitas and I must admit that I sometimes sign e-mails this way when communicating with similarly pompous individuals at other institutions – particularly those in the medical Ivy League.


The question surfaced again from an unexpected quarter. The University of Iowa has an Emeritus association, and I had agreed to give an Emeritus Lecture. The organizer sent me a mock-up of the poster he planned to electronically circulate and asked what title I wanted to use. He introduced a third possibility, Professora Emerita, explaining that some women used that form.


English took root from Latin and German, among other influences. Well, I studied Latin for three years in high school, and taught myself enough German to get through my PhD, so maybe I could figure this all out. From Latin, I grasped the difference between Emerita and Emeritus. From German, I (barely) grasped the principle that some languages assign to every noun a gender which may or may not make sense to the uninitiated. Das Madchen (the young woman) is the example frequently cited for German. To quote Mark Twain, "In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl."


Unable to resolve the issue from personal knowledge, I went to the source of all knowledge – the Internet and ultimately the Wikipaedia – with my specific concerns about Professor Emeritus. It turns out that the two key concepts to consider are inflection and concord. Inflection occurs when a noun is modified (in this case reflecting the gender of the object to which it refers). Thus, chicken is a generic term which is inflected for gender as hen and cock. Human being, woman, man. But…professor, professor, professor. Professor is not inflected for gender in English.


Concord means that the modifier should agree with the noun. So, if professor were inflected, say into Professora and Professorus, then Emerita and Emeritus would be completely appropriate. But English just uses Professor. Professor is not inflected; thus Emeritus is considered appropriate for both men and women. Thus both men and women may correctly use the title Professor Emeritus. That would seem to settle it.


But should a woman consider it appropriate? For years, I've been "one of the guys" at work. Was it time to reassert my difference? 


I considered the lowly crossword puzzle, that mirror of current culture. It seems like for the past ten years, maybe longer, the correct answer for a woman who appears in the movies is "actor," rather than "actress," the term in common usage during my childhood. Similarly, a woman who writes poetry is a "poet," not a "poetess." A woman who is voted into a position of city leadership is a "mayor," not a "mayoress." Social norms seem to be avoiding modifiers. The gender-inflected forms of these nouns are dying out of popular usage, much like riding side-saddle in long skirts has.


So, I asked myself - does reverting to a gender-specific modifier help the cause of women in surgery by emphasizing my difference? Or does it diminish me (and by extension other women) by emphasizing that difference? Beats me.


In the end, I stuck with Professor Emeritus. It was just easier. Besides, I earned it.

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