"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: 2010

Saturday, December 25, 2010

WikiLeaks and “White Privilege”

By Farooq A. Kperogi
Twitter: @farooqkperogi 

The muckraking, whistle-blowing, secret-spewing WiliLeaks that has unnerved Western governments in unheard-of ways has also dramatized the reality of what has been called “white privilege” in critical race theory.

In plain language, white privilege is racialized social privilege that normalizes and renders invisible the often unfair and unearned advantages that “white” people habitually enjoy because of the accident of their racial identity, which has enjoyed symbolic and cultural dominance over the last few centuries.

It is “white privilege,” for instance, that accounts for why Timothy McVeigh’s terrorism didn’t cause white American Catholics of Irish descent to be labeled terrorists—or cause people who shared his primordial identity to apologize for his crime. It also explains why the crime of a white anti-government Texas man who crashed his plane into a U.S. federal government building killing two workers and himself wasn’t called terrorism or “suicide bombing.”

Imagine for a second that Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, was a black man, a Muslim, an Arab—or anything but a white male Anglo-Saxon Protestant Australian. The conversation would certainly have been different from what it is now.

Even with all of the privileges that his incidental attributes have automatically conferred on him, prominent Western leaders have openly called for his extra-judicial murder. The United States government, which always prides itself on being the patron saint of “free speech,” is considering filing espionage charges against Assange, has blocked WikiLeaks site from being viewed in some government offices, and has instructed that university students seeking future employment with the American government should neither read nor share the damning revelations contained in the leaks.

Given the magnitude of discomfiture he has subjected the American government and other Western powers to, it’s certain that something really dramatic would happen to Assange soon. But the power of white privilege has ensured that no other white person—in fact, no Australian— has to vicariously suffer the consequences of Assange’s choices. If Assange were anything other than what he is, his compatriots would have been all worried. His native country, and all the countries he has visited, would have been on some watch list.

But the greater curiosity, for me, is the source of WikiLeaks’ leaks. Assange didn’t deploy any investigative reportorial skills to unearth the troves of embarrassing information he has been regaling us with; he exploits the anger or conscientious objections of people in sensitive places to get the leaks. According to many accounts, the “mole” in the U.S. Army who gave all that embarrassingly enervating information to WikiLeaks that is causing so much discomfort in government circles is a 23-year-old American soldier by the name of Bradley E. Manning.
Julian Assange and Bradley Manning
Manning, who has been arrested, put in solitary confinement since May 2010, and awaiting court-martial next year, has an interesting demographic profile. He is a blue-eyed, blond-haired white male homosexual whose mother hails from Wales in the United Kingdom. After his parents’ divorce, he followed his mother to Wales where he lived and went to school for some time before returning to the United States to enlist in the U.S. Army. It is said that he spilled several troves of sensitive information about American intelligence to WikiLeaks to protest the so-called “don't ask, don't tell” policy in the U.S. military that prohibited homosexuals from serving openly.

Interestingly, the U.S. media hasn’t been talking a lot about this high-school dropout who has betrayed his fatherland in ways that have no parallel in U.S. history. But, more significantly, whenever he is mentioned in the media at all, he is often talked of as one lone, disgruntled soldier who let down his country out of righteous angst and frustration or, as the New York Times sympathetically put it, out of “desperation for acceptance.”

Can you conceive of that kind of excuse being made for a non-white person in a similar situation? If Manning was black or Muslim or of non-European descent, his non-American maternal roots—and especially his sojourn in his mom’s country— would have been ruthlessly scrutinized. An Al-Qaida connection would have been established by now. Osama Ben Laden—or his countless “deputies”—would have released a video affirming that Manning was indeed an Al-Qaida mole in the U.S. military and that there are many more of his kind there.

And then there would have been a massive public outrage over the patriotism of blacks or Muslims. The case would be made that the loyalty of racial or religious minorities has always been suspect and that the government should henceforth be careful in recruiting minorities into the U.S. military.

Of course, all people who share any attributes with the “minority” offender would issue statements denouncing or dissociating themselves from him, but American conservatives would be inconsolable. They would be asking for blood through their Fox News channel. There would certainly be hate attacks against many innocent people. People who share any incidental primordial attributes with the “traitor” would be worried both for their safety and for the public perception of them as inherently untrustworthy.

This is what always happens. To give just one example, go to the archives and check what happened when a demented Arab-American military man fatally shot several of his colleagues at a military base in Forth Worth, Texas.

Now, no one in Wales is losing sleep over Manning. Nor are American homosexuals on whose behalf he supposedly did what he did apologizing to their government. In fact, this week American gays were rewarded with a repeal of the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy. Interestingly, Manning was invoked in many instances to illustrate the danger of keeping the policy: it was argued that gay people who felt discriminated against by the policy would always be tempted to subvert their country. Interesting, isn’t it?

In a widely cited essay titled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, Peggy McIntosh, a white antiracist scholar, wrote, among other things, that  white privilege is being able to do objectionable things “without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.”

That is precisely why Assange and Manning aren’t stereotyped as representatives of their race or of their religion. They are simply individuals who made their own choices, who have chosen to deviate from the norm.

Such a privilege is never extended to “others.” Here in America, for instance, people expect me to know and explain why Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to blow an airline last year, or why some Nigerians engage in 419 scams. In fact, I am somehow expected to prove that I am different from them. Such an unfair world.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Neologisms and Ebonics in American English

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Americans have a robust imagination for coinages, what grammarians call neologisms. As you can imagine, their repertoire of coinages is inexhaustible, and I can never do justice to them in a column.

Most of the new coinages in American English result from Americans’ obsession with the short forms of words. Over time, these short forms take a life of their own and get weaned from the longer versions of the words from which they were originally derived.

The most prominent example of this is “gas,” the American word for “petrol.” At first, I thought it was singularly illogical to use gas as an alternative name for petrol because while gas is air, petrol is liquid. But I soon found out that gas is actually the shortened form of gasoline, which is a scarcely used alternative word for petrol in British English.

Now, Americans go to “gas stations” instead of petrol stations to fill their tanks, which we sell to them as “petrol” from Nigeria!

Another common culinary neologism, especially in the American South, is “combo,” which simply means the full complement of a meal. Koko, doya da dankali, (i.e. pap, fried yam, and fried sweet potato) for instance, will qualify as a combo. I was surprised to find out that the word is actually only a shortened form of “combination.” When I was an undergraduate at Bayero University Kano, we used to jocularly call that kind of food “combined honors.”

Other popular shortened forms of words that have grown into full words are “peds” for pedestrians, “condo” for condominium (a huge building that consists of several self-contained apartments that are individually owned), “legit” for legitimate or walk (the latter sense derived from “leg it), “max” for maximum, and so on. In fact, “max” is now often used in a verb form. It is not unusual to hear Americans say, “I've maxed out the gas in my car,” meaning I have used up all the petrol in my car.

Because Americans are such incredibly busy people, they have contempt for elaborate and long forms in their conversational language. Many years ago, one of my American professors called me and said, “Hey, Farooq, your recs are on my table. Go pick them up.” Well, I found out after a day that he was telling me to pick up the “recommendation” letters he wrote for me.

There are, of course, regional variations in American English. Louisiana English, for instance, has heavy tinctures of French and African influences. The word “lagniappe,” for instance, is an exclusively Louisiana invention, even though it is now usual to hear many people in the South use it. (It is pronounced LANYAP).

It means a small gift, especially one given by a merchant to a customer who makes a purchase. But this definition does not adequately capture the cultural meaning of the word. Its exact socio-linguistic equivalent is “jaara” in Hausa (now incorporated into Nigerian Pidgin English).

It is also used to indicate any kind of addition or extras. While the word sounds and looks French, its semantic content is decidedly African. I once wrote about the intriguing convergence of French, Spanish, and African influences in Louisiana’s racial, cultural, and gastronomic landscape. This convergence also manifests in the socio-linguistic experience of the people in many ways. It is conceivable that the “jaara” culture was brought to Louisiana by former African slaves.

Ebonics is another kettle of fish altogether. I also once wrote that I am usually incapable of getting even the faintest tenor of a conversation with Black Americans when they speak in Ebonics. Originally called Negro Nonstandard English (NNE), Ebonics emerged as a result of the deliberate policy if white slave owners to deny Blacks access to education. So an impoverished form of English sprouted in the absence of access to the socially prestigious form. Ebonics sounds to me like a hotchpotch of mutilated English syntax, garbled and ungainly English structure, African-inflected pronunciational forms, and an unnaturally fast speech pattern.

However, many people have said that Ebonics is a legitimate, semantically self-sufficient language that does not need the approval of Standard English to exist. And I agree. But what I detest about Ebonics, especially of the ghetto variety, is its proneness to profanity and vulgarity. It is usually riddled with many swearwords and sexually explicit expressions. The men call themselves “nigga” (not a spelling error), a differently spelled version of the racially denigrating epithet that white racists reserve for blacks. Black women are called or call themselves “bitches.” Of course, these are broad strokes that ignore many subtleties.

Well, because Black Americans now dominate the American cultural scene and are therefore the cultural icons for many young people, including young white people, many expressions that were exclusive to Ebonics have now crept into demotic American speech.

For instance, when Americans say something is “bad” with a stress that makes the word sound like baaad, it means it’s really very good! It’s Ebonics’ contribution to American English. Inflections like badder and baddest, instead of the standard worse and worst, are also common in colloquial American English—another influence of Ebonics. And the American English expression “my bad!” to mean “I’m sorry; it was my fault” owes its roots to Ebonics.

Lastly, many of the expressions that starry-eyed linguistic idealists in Nigeria label as “Nigerian English” are actually American English expressions by way of Ebonics. Expressions like “senior brother” instead of the standard “elder brother,” “junior brother” instead of younger brother (it is often said that the adjectives “senior” and “junior” indicate social relationships while “elder” and “younger” indicate biological relationships), and many others too numerous to mention here, are as common in informal American English as they are in Nigerian English. So are expressions like “often times,” “of recent” (instead of “of late”), and so on, which British and Nigerian grammarians dismiss as solecisms.


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On "Metaphors" and "Puns" in Nigerian English
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Common Errors of Pluralization in Nigerian English
16. Q & A About Common Grammatical Problems
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Saturday, November 27, 2010

Gabriel Oyibo and Philip Emeagwali: A Clarification

By Farooq A. Kperogi

My article titled “Intellectual 419: Philip Emeagwali and Gabriel Oyibo Compared” which compares and contrasts the tendency for Dr. Oyibo and Mr. Emeagwali to romanticize and hyperbolize their contributions to knowledge—to put it mildly—attracted quite a buzz on the Internet. I have been told that the hate-filled, barely literate commenters that swarm Sahara Reporters like fetid maggots hurled vile and vicious personal insults at me for exposing the intellectual fraud of these swellheaded, egotistical imposters.

 I have stopped reading comments on my articles on such Nigerian Internet sites as Sahara Reporters and the Nigerian Village Square; they are too sadly familiar and too predictably malicious and ignorant to deserve being read by any serious person. So I didn’t get to read the insults thrown at me.

But two article-length responses were written to my write-up by two respected Nigerians. The first was by Mr. Sonala Olumhense, the cerebral Guardian columnist whose exceedingly well-written essay I had the pleasure to read in my secondary school Practical English class several years ago. (I had no idea that he was still alive until I rediscovered him in the Guardian in the 1990s). That he wrote such a kind and flattering defense of me is at once humbling and inebriating.

The second article-length response to my article was written by a certain Dr. Dare Afolabi, a mechanical engineer who teaches at the Indiana University- Purdue University Indianapolis, which I thought was a fair and thoughtful, if misguided, rejoinder. The substance of the rejoinder was that although Oyibo may be “crazy,” he did make substantial contributions to knowledge in his field, and that it is not impossible that the Guardian was right in speculating that he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physics.

He then brought the example of a certain Arthur Clarke whom the New York Times reported to have been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1994. “The whole world knew, in 1994, not fifty years later, the same way Arthur Clarke knew that he was a nominee for the Peace Prize in 1994: someone leaked it. Leak? In journalism? How in the world is that possible?” he wrote.

Well, these are valid points. Recall, though, that I admitted that Oyibo did, in fact, make original contributions to scholarship through his many peer-reviewed, scholarly publications. Not being a scientist, I am, of course, in no position to sit in judgment over the quality of these contributions, but I am persuaded by the fact that he did lots of work that went through the crucible of peer review.

My point—which Dr. Afolabi seemed to agree with when he said "More recently, however, I must confess that Gabriel has lost me when he started speculating on Atum, Atom, God, and so on”—is that Oyibo's GAGUT theory, which is at best an unpersuasive conflation of science and metaphysics, on which he stakes his claim to genius and Nobel Prize nomination, has never been peer-reviewed, hasn’t been published by an academic press, is pooh-poohed by his peers, and therefore can’t be anything but the vapors of a once brilliant but disturbed mind.

So, that leaves us with the question: on the strength of what contribution to knowledge was Oyibo nominated for the Nobel Prize? His routine academic articles as a university professor which, by the way, his colleagues didn't find worthy enough to grant him tenure at two separate U.S. universities? If that were the case, every intellectually productive scholar should be a Nobel Prize nominee. And as I said earlier, he couldn’t have been nominated on the strength of GAGUT when, in fact, the "theory" has never gone through the rigors of peer review, which is crucial for the circulation and acceptance of ideas in the scientific community.

Afolabi’s point that Oyibo may indeed have been nominated for the Nobel is well taken. But the fact is: thousands of people get recommended--or, if you like, nominated-- for Nobel Prizes by several different organizations and people, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. Since I haven't read of any groundbreaking, earth-shattering work that Oyibo has done in his field to deserve a serious consideration for the Nobel, I am inclined to think that his nomination, if there ever was one, falls in the region of the ridiculous.

 But the impression often created when Oyibo’s putative Nobel Prize nomination is mentioned in the Nigerian press and in the black diaspora is that he was on the shortlist of people being seriously considered for the Prize, and not that he was merely recommended by some person or organization.

For me, there is perhaps no greater proof that his nomination—again, if there ever was one—was of the flippant kind than the fact that Oyibo has been fired by the two low-end universities he worked for, is presently unemployed, and wrote a Wikipedia profile on himself that betrays flashes of incipient insanity—to put it nicely. Anybody who can describe himself as “closer to GOD (intellectually and in other ways), than any other human being because of the GAGUT discovery,” “the Greatest Genius and the Most Intelligent Human Being ever created by GOD,” and “the Greatest Mathematical Genius of all time” can’t be anything but demented.

Lastly, the Nobel Peace Prize, with which Afolabi contrasted the politics of Oyibo’s nomination, is intensely political, isn't anchored on knowledge production, and is therefore amenable to wild newspaper speculations. The Physics Prize, on the other hand, isn't. It's a specialist prize. I don't recall reading newspaper speculations about Nobel prizes in physics, medicine, and economics before and after the prize winners are announced. Only the Nobel Peace Prize is subject to newspaper speculations. So the contrast is flawed.

 I call Oyibo a 419er because he owes his popularity to the falsehood he promoted in the Nigerian media that he was seriously considered for the Nobel Prize in Physics three or four times in a row supposedly on the basis of his farcically harebrained GAGUT.

Well, if he had merely been popular as a result of these speculative indulgences and ridiculously wild exaggerations I wouldn't have had a problem with him. But he was put on the national postage stamp, was celebrated by the Nigerian state, and gets invited to speak to different groups and organizations in gullible sections of the black diaspora on the strength of claims that are at best speculative and at worst intentionally fraudulent. That puts him in the same intellectual 419 boat as Philip Emeagwali.

Related Articles:

Intellectual 419: Philip Emeagwali and Gabriel Oyibo Compared

Our Image as a Nation of Scammers

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Re: Intellectual 419: Philip Emeagwali and Gabriel Oyibo Compared

I have received torrents of emails from readers on the above subject. I have reproduced only a representative sample below. I will comment one more time on this topic next week and then move on. Happy Sallah in arrears!

My good friend Prof Wolf Lepenies—you can google him (we got our GCE together 50 years ago)—who has taught at Princeton University and other places, and who has founded the Berlin and Budapest scholarly fora, is also a member of the Swedish Academy, which mails those proposals, as he just informed me, after sending him your piece on intellectual 419-ers.

"I now know what I have to do!" he wrote to me textually. But I DO think that giving Nobels to the two Os is 'too small': Nigeria should be ranked number OBE on the UN performance list, for not only performing marvelously well with her LOOOTOCRAZY but also by entertaining us with such clowns as the two Os.!!! THANK you for informing me - and I keep laffin'

 Gerd Meuer, Germany (GerdMeuer@t-online.de)

I just read your article about the intellectual fraud of Philip Emeagwali and Gabriel Oyibo. It is a good write up. I happened to be one of the first people who brought the intellectual fraud of Dr. Oyibo to limelight when it was unpopular in Nigeria to do so. I was asked to review his GAGUT documentary that I was invited to see at his producer's house in New York in 2005 for the Guardian newspaper.

 I wrote a review that was critical and they wanted to change it but I resisted it. Nevertheless, I published the review in Nigeriaworld.com, and I passed it along to my friend Sowore who published it on Elendureports, and Nigeriavillagesquare as well. Surprisingly, I suspect,  Laolu Akande whom I have known for a long time asked Dr. Oyibo's documentary producer to write a rejoinder to criticize my review. It was titled "Rebuttal to Ademola Bello's Critical Review of GAGUT's Documentary' by Clemson Brown. It was published in Nigeriavillagesquare, Nigeriaworld, and Laolu Akande's website.

Although, I was also threatened and also wanted to be bribed at the same time, to change the bad review and write a positive one but I refused to compromise. The good news that came out of this silly thing is that Sowore and I were able to stop then President Obasanjo and Nigerian Senate from rewarding Dr. Gabriel Oyibo with undeserved $1million prize. Can you imagine? Nigerian Senate passed a resolution sponsored by Jibril Aminu and co that Federal government should create Africa's Nobel Prize valued at more than one million dollars and Dr. Oyibo should be the first recipient of the award for his GAGUT theorem?  And his intention was to distribute copies of the review of GAGUT documentary that he thought was going to be positive to Nigerian Senators who will help make his case-but things didn't work out for him.

Sincerely,
Ademola Bello (ademola.bello@gmail.com)

I am indeed very happy for the good work done by Farooq especially the true statement of fact that Emeagwali has done more harm than good to the image of Nigeria. I published a story sometime ago on Phillip Emeagwali in a page on our online magazine tagged "Nigerians In Diaspora" and the searchlight was beamed on Emeagwali.

To my utter dismay, a woman purported by Phillip Emeagwali to be his wife, which in fact I got the picture from Emeagwali`s website, wrote to me through my mail (publisher@onlinenigeriannews.com) and told me point blank that I should remove her picture from the magazine website and that she was never a wife of Phillip Emeagwali. I had a series of correspondence with the woman who indeed is a Professor of African Studies at Connecticut State University in America. Her name is Prof. Mrs Gloria Emeagwali. I have all the facts with me and am willing to give it out to any reasonable Nigerian who cares about the truth. When I contacted Seye Kehinde (City People Magazine Publisher) and he was not keen on the story, I took the story to Sun Newspapers office around Mile 2 area of Lagos State and I met with one of the editors for onward publication.

Further contacts were made with Phillip Emeagwali in USA and he could not refute the woman`s assertion. Till now, Sun Newspaper has not published the story. It all happened about a year ago and the Prof Mrs Gloria Emeagwali was really interested in having me publish the story in a Nigeria national paper. I published it in our online magazine then and the woman was very appreciative. She said Phillip Emeagwali has been a mischievous human being and that his misdemeanor is not known by many.


Thanks, Farooq, for the article. I don’t know you and I do not know if you are ethnically biased but I think your piece is the truth. We must not shy away from it notwithstanding whose ox is gored. I think it might also help to write about honest Nigerians who are really doing great work out there in the diaspora and celebrate them. When I was working on a project thesis, I came across these Nigerians and the link to the Howard University sites where the work is http://cancer.howard.edu/research/faculty.htm

All the best,
Ogechukwu Egini (ogechukwu.egini@yahoo.com)

Farooq, good work, nice column. I believe with people like you doing good job such as this one, the likes of Emeagwali will be exposed to the world. After doing some internet research about him, I found out that the man has penetrated almost everywhere with his intellectual fraud. If you have time, please checkout YouTube and you will come across quite a number of videos of him giving speeches and lectures at different locations globally.

 I also read that he was once described by former President Bill Clinton as one of the great minds of the information age. One question which I still can’t find an answer to is, why did it take so long for this guy to be exposed? The guy is not preaching about his claims of being "father of the internet,” professor of bla bla etc only in Nigeria/Africa where I believe the majority of the people don't care, but he is doing that almost everywhere in the world. How come he was never reported by either the IEEE or the ACM that his claims were wrong?

Moha M. Buhari (jerro_2009@yahoo.com)

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Saturday, November 20, 2010

Re: What Virtual Nigeria Says about Real Nigeria

This week I am sharing with you the comments I’ve received from readers on my article regarding the increasingly frightening vileness that characterizes most discussions on Nigerian Internet forums. I find the comments both interesting and insightful. I hope you do too. Enjoy:

Nigerian-based websites have become a nuisance where only hate and casting aspersions on a particular section of the country is now the norm. It is annoying that those people spreading hate against others are not morally better than them.

Dr. Abdullahi Dahiru, Kano (maikanodahiru@yahoo.com)

Please permit me to use Pidgin English on your page: THE THING TIRE ME NO BE SMALL! It's sad how low we've descended. Just about every discussion on Nigerian-based sites degenerates into an ethnic and/or religious battle, even if the subject is on how Mr A or Mrs B made a bold decision to start jogging every morning to stay fit. It's such a BIG SHAME. The biggest beneficiaries of this madness as always are the 'prominent stakeholders', 'chieftains' and the rest of them.

Onyemaechi Dike, Birmingham, UK (dike360@gmail.com)

Surely, a psychologist will appreciate this dramatic insight into the psyche of Nigerians. Distrust, cynicism, suspicion, stereotyping... the list goes on. I am a student of Psychology and I believe that someone can do a Ph.D. thesis that will provoke global interest on this apparent peculiarity that most of us never really observed.

Akinjide Babalola, Abuja (jidebabs2001@yahoo.com)

The reality in Nigeria is that public discussion, whether in the virtual or print media, has become that of hate and mutual suspicion and distrust and is now degenerating into vulgar and uncultured abuse. It is now taking a higher level when elders, statesmen, seasoned journalists engage in it. Just read any newspaper in Nigeria and you will have a full dose of it. But I have a strong belief that Nigeria will survive it, not because of patriotism but because those milking the cow will not let it die. Rather, they will find a way to settle at the expense of the blinded masses that follow them in the fight and get bloodied. Don't ever trust them. All they are doing, like my late friend said, is playing with "Ashana" matches.

Nuruddeen Tijani, Abuja (nooreedaura@yahoo.com)

You are my reason for reading Weekly Trust. Nice one there. I also read your article on the MENDacious president and about him having incompetent hands. His S.A. on media doesn’t even come out to talk like Remi Oyo and Segun Adeniyi. The newscasters are the ones reading his messages.

Abdullahi Musa, Gusau (abdum900@yahoo.com)

Of course netiquette should prevail on our fora. When elephant egos collide—or rather when two elephants fight— it’s said that it’s the grass that suffers.

You have a point there about baseless hatred (Sinat Chinam) which is a very potent and destructive force. It should not be encouraged – and the recent news about arms shipments to Nigeria does not bode well for peace and harmony and the ideal of a United Nigeria which the enemies of Nigeria and the enemies of the nation state would like to split into many pieces…

Cornelius Hamelberg, Sweden (corneliushamelberg@gmail.com)

You have summed it up nicely. Wow! I couldn't have expressed it any better!!! It is a sad state of affairs. Thanks for giving voice and clarity to the opinion and observation some of us hold, about the chaotic state of Nigerian Internet Etiquette and Conduct. Nice one.

Graham Ogunleye (bode_boluz@hotmail.co.uk)

Your piece gave me academic delight and a professional satisfaction. It is a lucid piece and timely. It is more timely for me because I am currently writing a thesis on the rise of citizen journalism in Nigeria taking a look at Sahara reporters, NVS and others and investigating to what extent they have enhanced the deliberative process of democracy.

As a professional journalist with 20-something years of experience, I share some of the concerns you raised. Can we entrust news reporting and opinion writing and the gate-keeping role of editors to ordinary citizens who are often unable to remain objective? How can we create a regime of vetting and editing content and comments in a world where everyone is suddenly a journalist? Your piece is most inspiring.

I am currently a research fellow at Oxford University in the UK. I will draw insights from your piece, but more importantly, I was wondering if I could send you a few questions, some kind of interview to get your direct comments about other aspects of this subject matter. Sahara Reporters is my case study. I am interested in finding out to what extent Sahara reporters in particular and others like it have succeeded in stimulating political participation and deliberative democracy. How has SR impacted the system in specific situations of forcing the hand of change? How many Nigerians in the Diaspora get their news first from SR and why? This and many more.

Let me stop here and wait for your reply. I contribute opinion pieces from time to time to Sahara reporters. My name is Sunday Dare. And like you, when I write, I no longer read the comments about my piece.

Best Wishes,
Sunday Dare, Oxford, UK

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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Comparing the Vernaculars of American and British Universities

 By Farooq A. Kperogi

In times past, when the world hadn’t become as intricately integrated as it has now become thanks to the inexorable march of globalization, it was easy to understand what the other person meant when they communicated in the lingo of the academia, especially if you shared the same English dialect with them. No longer. American and British English have become so meshed over the years that terms whose significations we had taken for granted have now been suffused with different meanings and usage conventions.

For instance, when someone addresses herself as a “professor of geography” at a university, what should we understand her as saying? Should we understand her as saying that she has reached the highest possible point attainable in the hierarchy of university teaching and research? Or is she an entry-level assistant professor, “lecturer,” or even a graduate teaching assistant who just wants to say that she teaches geography at a university? 

The first sense is chiefly British while the second is decidedly American. But, increasingly, the American usage is being adopted in British universities. In what follows, I have identified the vernaculars of the academe in the two dominant dialects of the English language while laying bare the ways in which these vernaculars sometimes interweave in fascinating ways. I use the term vernacular NOT in the way it’s generally understood in Nigeria, that is, native Nigerian languages in contradistinction to the English language; I use it to mean the everyday speech codes of particular groups of people.

Terms for university teaching ranks

In American English, “professor” is a generic term for anybody who teaches in a university (Brits prefer the preposition “at” in reference to universities and other kinds of schools). That is why the term “professoriate” refers to the university teaching profession collectively. In British English, however, “professor” is a title used exclusively for people who have reached the pinnacle of university teaching and research, what Americans call “full professor.” 

But the American usage of “professor” is more faithful to the Latin etymology of the term which, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, literally means a “person who professes to be an expert in some art or science….” In the Romance languages ( that is, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, Italian, etc.), which are the surviving linguistic children of Latin, professor is used to denote teacher at any level of education.

While the generic term for a university teacher in the British system is “lecturer,” in the American system lecturer means something slightly different. There are two dominant senses of the term in America. The first is a public speaker at certain universities. The second sense is an inferior-rank university teacher who either does not possess a Ph.D. or who has a Ph.D. but doesn’t have a tenure-track job. (I will explain what “tenure-track” means shortly).

 Lecturers are despised and looked down upon with contempt in the American academe. They are overworked and underpaid, only teach undergraduates, are not expected to be researchers, and are often abandoned to vegetate on the fringes of academic departments in American universities.

In the American system, fresh Ph.D.’s start their careers as Assistant Professors. These positions may be tenure-track or non-tenure-track. A tenure-track appointment is basically an appointment that promises life-employment to an aspiring academic, usually within six to seven years from the start of employment. In research-intensive schools, the conditions for tenure is at least a peer-reviewed book published by a reputable academic publishing house, a couple of referred academic journal articles in reputable journals, some evidence of teaching excellence, and service to the university and the community.

In teaching-heavy schools where the focus is on undergraduate education, to earn tenure you have to show evidence of teaching excellence, have a couple of peer-reviewed journal articles, some academic conference presentations, and service to the university. When an assistant professor meets the requirements for tenure, she will be promoted to the rank of “associate professor,” and then finally to “full professor.”

Academic positions in the less prestigious non-tenure-track option are “lecturer,” “visiting professor,” and “adjunct professor.” An adjunct professor is a type of university teacher we would call a “part-time lecturer” in the British system. Some people are “adjuncts” by choice, perhaps because they have full-time jobs elsewhere and can’t take a full-time employment in the university; many, however, take the position because they can’t find tenure-track jobs.

 Lecturers, on the other hand, are employed usually on a two-year contract that is subject to periodic review and renewal. The condition for the renewal of the contract is evidence of teaching effectiveness. There is no expectation of research productivity. The highest rank you can attain in the lecturer track is "senior lecturer," which is completely different from the British understanding of the term, as I will show shortly. In other words, lecturers never get to be "full professors."

In the American system, lecturers are paid less, teach more courses, and have far less privileges and benefits than tenure-track or tenured professors. They have no guarantee of life-time employment; they can be fired from their jobs at any time for any reason. In most departments, they are excluded from departmental meetings. They are similar in some respects to “visiting” professors (i.e., visiting assistant professor, visiting associate professor and visiting professor), except that a visiting professorship is usually a terminal, non-renewable appointment that lasts no longer than two years.

 Lecturers, adjuncts, and visiting professors are the intellectual slave laborers of the American academe. Don’t call an American academic a “lecturer” if you’re not sure that’s really their designation. Use the more generic “professor” if unsure.

Comparing academic titles in the British and American systems

Now, it’s really difficult to match the academic titles across the American and British systems. But it is customary to state that “senior lecturer” in the British system is equivalent to “assistant professor” in the American system, “reader” (which is rarely used these days) in the British system is the equivalent of the American “associate professor,” and “professor” in the British system is the equivalent of “full professor” in the American system.

In reality, however, this is a false equivalence, as I will soon show. But it’s interesting that most people who attain the rank of “reader” in the British system prefer to be addressed as “associate professor”; however, “senior lecturers” in the British system don’t call themselves “assistant professors.” My sense is that the term “associate professor” is popular in non-American contexts because it indicates that the person associated with the title is only a step away from being a professor in the British sense of the term, while the term “assistant professor” may give the impression that the bearer of the title is merely an assistant to a professor, which he is not.

In the British system, fresh Ph.D.’s with no publication (especially in the humanities and in the social sciences) begin their careers as Lecturer II, move up to Lecturer I, to Senior Lecturer, Reader, and finally to Professor. (People with a master’s degree start their university teaching careers as “assistant lecturers” and those with a bachelor’s degree start as “graduate assistants.”)

 That’s a far longer route than the American system. But, then, the American system is way more rigorous than the British system. The American system is structured in such a way that many Ph.D. candidates leave their programs with substantial conference paper and publication record--often enough to earn the position of "Senior Lecturer" in the British system. Plus, the publish-or-perish (some say it’s actually publish-and-perish) environment of the American academia makes American academics way more productive than their counterparts in the British system.

There also exists an interesting terminological difference in the way university workers are collectively addressed. In the British system, university teachers are collectively called “academic staff.” That is why the name of the trade union for Nigerian university teachers is Academic Staff Union of Universities.

But in American English the collective term for university teachers is “faculty,” which in British English means a division of a university that houses cognate subject areas, such as “Faculty of Arts,” “Faculty of Science,” etc. “Professors” and “faculty” are interchangeable terms in American English. That’s why the American equivalent of the Nigerian Academic Staff Union of Universities is called the Association of American University Professors, which is open to all people who teach in the university—be they lecturers, adjuncts, visiting professors, tenure-track or tenured professors.

In the American system, the term “staff” is used only for people who don’t teach or research in the university, what we call “non-academic staff” in the British system. So where the British would say “academic and non-academic staff” Americans would say “faculty and staff.”

Lastly, the American academe has some professional titles that, to my knowledge, are absent in the British system. For instance, there is in the American system what is called “professor of the practice,” or “clinical professor,” which refers to people who are awarded a professorial title because of their extensive immersion in and knowledge of a field, although they may not have more than a bachelor’s degree. The practice is intended to draw people with extensive industry experience to the academe and to bridge the gap between the "town" and the “gown.” This is especially common in such vocational and skill-based courses as journalism, engineering, business, etc. 

This is unnecessary in the (old) British system because people can attain the highest rank in their academic careers with just a bachelor's degree. Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, JP Clark, etc. became professors (or, if you will, "full professors") without having Ph.D.’s. The National Universities Commission has, however, now made it impossible for anybody without a Ph.D. to proceed beyond the rank of "Senior Lecturer." 

Americans also have what they call “research professors” who are hired only to conduct research; they don’t teach any courses.

Comparing everyday university terms

Then there is a whole world of difference in the vocabulary for everyday university activities. For instance, what we call “question papers” in British English are better known as “tests” in American English. When I first came here, I had occasion to instruct my students to not write on their "question papers" because I wanted to use the same papers for another class. The students all looked blankly at me.

 I initially thought they had problems with my Nigerian accent. So I not only enunciated it clearly and slowly, I also wrote it on the board. But they still said, “What’s that?” And when I pointed to their “question papers,” they exclaimed, “Oh, you mean we should not write on the test?” Write on the test? Test is an abstract noun. How the hell do you literally write on an idea? Anyway, I have since stopped calling question papers by their name; they are “tests.”

Again, American professors don’t “mark scripts”; they “grade papers.” And they don’t award or reduce students’ “marks”; they give or “take off” students’ “grades” or “points.” And there is this whole concept of “curve” or “curving” in the American academe that I don’t think has an equivalent in the Nigerian British-derived system.

Sometime in the early part of my stay here, about half of my students got really low scores in my first test. On the day I handed out their test grades, one female student stood up and asked if I would give her a “curve.”

I wondered silently what in Heaven’s name she meant by a “curve.” But I knew that the girl knew enough to know that only God could bring curves to her skinny, almost masculine, physique at that stage of her life. So she couldn’t possibly mean that she wanted me to do something about her lack of bodily endowments. Besides, there were also men in the class who should have no business with "curves" but who wanted a “curve” from me. So I asked, “What curve”?

Seeing my confusion—and its obvious implication, because I must have been unconsciously examining the lady’s body to observe the absence of curves on her!—somebody volunteered to change the structure of the sentence to, “Will you curve the grades?” It was then I got a hint that they were probably asking if I would add extra “points” across the board to move the class average up.

I couldn’t relate to it because it was a strange concept for me. In Nigeria, my teachers never gave me grades that I didn’t work for. Second, I just couldn’t associate the word “curve” with the arbitrary increase in the grades of students to raise the class average—perhaps because of my weak quantitative reasoning abilities. I don’t draw graphs; I only draw word pictures. A recent article I read from a retired, frustrated British academic called this “scaling.” So the Brits now have the American equivalent of "curving." I am not sure this practice-- and the corresponding terminology-- has percolated to Nigeria yet.

Again, "certificate" is not a generic word for paper qualifications, as it is in British English; when the word is used in an educational context in America, it usually implies a document certifying the completion of a short, crash course. “Diploma” is the generic word for all manner of certificates—secondary school certificate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees, etc.; it does not mean a sub-degree qualification, as it does in British English. And “college” is the generic word for university, although it technically means an institution that only awards four-year bachelor’s degrees. When somebody is described as “college-educated,” it often means he or she has at least a bachelor’s degree. “College professor” is also the generic term for what in British English we would call “university lecturer.” In British English, college can mean high school.

And then you have this fascinating semantic and lexical inversion of the names for the lengthy research papers students write at the end of their degree programs. In British English, people write “dissertations” at the end of their bachelor’s and master’s degree programs and “thesis” at the end of their Ph.D. study. In America, people write “honor’s thesis” at the end of their bachelor’s degree programs, a “thesis” at the end of their master’s programs, and a “dissertation” at the end of their Ph.D. programs.

Another expression in the American academic community that intrigues me greatly is “commencement exercise.” When I was first invited to a “commencement” at the end of my first semester at an American university I wondered what the hell anybody would be commencing at the end of a semester. I thought “commencement” was the American equivalent of the British “matriculation,” and couldn’t understand why students would be matriculating at the end of a semester.

I later learned that “commencement” is actually the American equivalent of the British “convocation” while “orientation” is the American equivalent of the British “matriculation.” My friends told me that the logic behind the word commencement is that it is when people graduate that they really "commence" the journey to the "real world." I later found out, though, that some American universities use “convocation” in the same way that it is used in British English.

Finally, Americans reserve the term “thesis” only for the final research projects that bachelor's and master's students write and use "dissertation" for the treatise that Ph.D. students write. In British English, on the other hand, “dissertation” is used only for the final research projects that undergraduates write (which Americans call “honors thesis” or “senior thesis”) and “thesis” for the capstone research by master’s and Ph.D. students

Whatever the case, the vernaculars of the academe in the British and American systems present fascinating examples of the vitality and diversity of the English language.

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