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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 inexor...

 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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