The following post first appeared in my weekly column in the print edition of Weekly Trust on April 15, 2006.
By Farooq A. Kperogi
One of the commonest misconceptions about American education, which I also nursed before coming here, is that it is narrow and insular. I have since found out that this is incorrect. On the contrary, American education is overly broad at all levels-- in more ways than any educational system I am familiar with.
From their secondary schools (which they call high school here), to the first two years of university (what they prefer to call college), students take an almost equal number of courses in the sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities.
The traditional distinction between “science students” and “art students” that we are accustomed to in Nigeria is non-existent here. Every student is at once an “art” student and a “science” student until the second year of study at the university. (Brown University is the only exception. It allows students to specialize from the first year of study).
This does not, however, mean that students are often directionless. Most students often have have a sense of what they want to study, and often apply for a specific course in a university.
However, because the first two years of university education involve taking courses in the sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities, students can often change their majors (that’s what Americans call courses of study) across a wide spectrum of the disciplinary landscape. I have a friend who had applied to study for pharmacy degree but ended up reading English. I also know somebody who was admitted to read history but ended up getting a degree in chemistry! And they didn’t lose any year as a result of the change in their majors.
This robust breadth in the educational exposure of Americans prepares them to have a more varied disciplinary orientation than their counterparts all over the world. The downside, however, is that they lack the depth that people from our kind of educational orientation have.
Even at the graduate level—or postgraduate level, if you will—there is a lot of emphasis on what they call “multi-disciplinarity,” which is a big word for taking electives in courses other than one’s main area of specialization.
The first year of study in the American university system is called the “freshman year,” the second is called the “sophomore year,” the third is called the “junior year,” and the final year is called the “senior year.” So a first-year university student is called a freshman (it doesn’t matter if the student is a woman), a second-year student is called a sophomore, a third-year student a junior, and a final-year student is called a senior.
In the freshman and sophomore years, as I pointed out earlier, students take a wide variety of courses, often in mutually exclusive disciplines. They begin taking specialized courses only in the junior and senior years, also called the upper division.
Ownership of universities
Unlike in Nigeria, in the United States, the federal government does not own universities; only state governments and private institutions do. Private universities are the earliest universities established in the United States. State universities, often called public universities, followed long after. Private universities are invariably more expensive than public universities.
Another major distinction I have found between American education and ours is in the relationship between students and teachers. I have been particularly intrigued by the democratic spirit of the education here reflected in the relationship between professors and students.
There is, for instance, what is called student evaluations of teachers. At the end of every semester, students are given the opportunity to evaluate their teachers. These evaluations can affect a teacher’s promotion.
Students also have a hugely popular Web site (www.rateMyProfessors.com) where they freely rate the effectiveness or otherwise of their teachers. This site is a nightmare for my university teachers here. It can contain slanderous information about hardworking professors who work hard to do their jobs. Interestingly, many professors visit the site periodically to view comments about them from anonymous students.
While the democratic spirit embodied in the idea of giving students the latitude to evaluate their professor is praiseworthy and useful, it is also open to abuse. Many good professors who are rigorous and who demand very high standards from their students can often get badly rated by students, while lazy ones who give easy grades get favorable evaluations.
However, there is a limit to which these evaluations affect professors here in research universities. There is what is called the tenure system in American universities, which basically gives professors job security and insulates them from dismissal from their jobs except on rare occasions where there is compelling evidence of the commission of a heinous crime by a professor.
Once a professor is tenured, student evaluation cease to have any effect on his standing. But tenure is not automatic. I will come to that shortly.
Tenure is often justified because it is said that the job security it guarantees professors disposes them to produce high-quality research, and frees them from the pressure to conform to the preset expectations of employers. In many ways, it is akin to “confirmation” of appointment in the Nigerian public service system, except that it takes a more rigorous standard to get tenured here.
In the United States, a fresh Ph.D. is usually hired as an assistant professor. This can either be an adjunct assistant professor position, which is just a cute name for a part-time university teacher; a visiting assistant professor, which is also another nice name for a professor hired for a specific period of time, usually one year, after which the contract is renewed or revoked; or a tenure-track assistant professor.
A tenure track assistant professor is one who bids for a permanent employment with a university. Typically, a professor employed in a tenure-eligible position works for approximately six years before a formal decision is made on whether or not he will be granted tenure.
The requirement for tenure in most universities is the publication of at least a book with a reputable academic press and a number of articles in peer-reviewed journals. This is often a difficult requirement, and conduces to the famous “publish-or- perish” environment in most American universities.
Many assistant professors never get tenure because they have been unable to publish a book and write scholarly journal articles in competitive peer-reviewed journals within the six-year grace period they are given. It is a tough world for academics here.
Being denied tenure is often a polite way of telling a professor that he has been dismissed. However, employment is often guaranteed for a year after tenure is denied, so that the professor denied tenure can conduct an extended search for new employment. Also, some prestigious universities and departments in the US award tenure so rarely that being denied it is scarcely an insult.
Those who are awarded tenure become associate professors (sometimes called tenured associates). At this stage, not publishing does not earn a professor dismissal; it merely stagnates him. The last stage in the professorial ladder is what they call here “full professor.”
Equivalents with Nigeria
An assistant professor would be the equivalent of a senior lecturer, an associate professor the equivalent of a reader, and a “full professor” the equivalent of a professor.
However, in Nigeria it is usual for people to prefer “associate professor” to “reader.” It is noteworthy, too, that in America every university teacher with a Ph.D. is called a professor. More on this next week.