By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
10. Instructor/Professor/Dr. In internal, official communication in American universities, every teacher, irrespective of rank, is generically referred to as an “instructor.” Sentences like “The instructor reserves the right to cancel classes,” “Instructors must submit their grades before December 3,” “Students are requested to evaluate their instructors,” etc. are common. But that’s about the only context where “instructor” is used. Students rarely use the term.
The term students use frequently to refer to their teachers, as I pointed out in the last two weeks, is “professor,” irrespective of rank. But there is another use of “professor” among university teachers and administrators that will puzzle many British and Nigerian English speakers: In formal contexts and occasions, the title “Professor” is prefixed only to the names of people who have no PhDs but teach in the university.
During formal occasions in American universities—and in formal contexts (such as in academic conferences, books, biographies, etc.)— it is traditional for university teachers to be addressed by their earned academic titles rather than by their academic ranks, thus a PhD who has reached the highest academic rank (which would be “professor” in British English and “full professor” in American English) would be addressed as “Dr. John Smith, professor of English,” not “Professor John Smith of the English Department.” If someone is addressed as “Professor John Smith” in a formal context, you can almost be sure that he has no PhD. So, in formal address in American universities, “Dr.” is the title of preference to prefix to the name of a university teacher who has a PhD. (Almost no one prefixes “Assistant Professor” or “Associate Professor” to anybody’s name, as it’s usually done in English-speaking Asian countries.)
This is quite the opposite in British and Nigerian universities where people drop the “Dr.” academic title once they are promoted to the rank of “professor”; they, in fact, take offense if “Dr.” is prefixed to their names in any circumstance.
Another important point is that in America people cease to be referred to as “professor” (both formally and informally) if they no longer teach in a university. In British (and Nigerian) English, however, “Professor” is a lifetime title. I once had reason to mention Professor Jerry Gana’s name to a colleague of mine here in the United States during a chat, and he asked where Professor Gana “teaches.” When I said Gana stopped teaching since the 1980s, he wondered why I still addressed him as “Professor Jerry Gana.” “It’s because ‘Professor’ is a lifelong title in Nigeria,” I said.
11. Question paper/Test. What Nigerian English speakers call “question paper” is better known as “test” 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.”
12. Mark script/grade paper. American professors don’t “mark scripts”; they “grade papers.” And they don’t award or reduce students’ “marks”; they give or “take off 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 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.
13. Certificate/Diploma. "Certificate" is not a generic word for paper qualifications, as it is in British and Nigerian 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 and Nigerian English. Here, when people earn their BA, MA, or PhD, they get their diploma, that is, the paper showing they have completed their degree.
14. College/University. In American English “college” is the generic word for university, although it technically means an institution that only awards four-year bachelor’s degrees. With a few exceptions (such as Dartmouth College, which is an Ivy League school), “colleges” don’t have graduate schools. 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 and Nigerian English we would call “university lecturer.”
In British and Nigerian English, “college” can mean high school. In Nigeria, “college” can also mean an institution that awards sub-degree qualifications, such as a “College of Education,” “College of Legal Studies,” etc.
15. Dissertation/Thesis. There is a 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, on the other hand, select undergraduates write an “honors thesis” (also called a “senior thesis”) at the end of their bachelor’s degree programs, a “thesis” at the end of their master’s degree programs, and a “dissertation” at the end of their Ph.D. programs.
16. Graduation/Commencement/Convocation. When I was first invited to a “commencement ceremony” (also called a “commencement exercise”) at the end of my first semester at an American university, I wondered what the heck anybody was “commencing” at the end of a semester. I thought “commencement” was the American equivalent of the British “matriculation,” and couldn’t understand why students were matriculating at the end of the 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,” although American university orientations aren’t always elaborate ceremonies with caps and gowns and formal address from the university president. There are exceptions, though. For instance, Stanford University’s orientation is pretty much like British and Nigerian matriculations, except that Stanford University calls it an “opening convocation.”
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 (such as the University of Chicago) use “convocation” in the same way that it is used in British English. Other American universities, such as the university where I currently teach, use “graduation ceremony/exercise” instead of “commencement ceremony/exercise.”
17. Vice-Chancellor/President. The Chief Executive Officer of a university is called a vice-chancellor in British and other Commonwealth universities but a “president” in American universities. Some American universities, such as the University of Illinois, have the position of “Vice-Chancellor,” but it doesn’t mean the same thing as the British/Commonwealth vice-chancellor.