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Q and A on American and Nigerian University Terminologies

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. This week, I answer questions on the meaning and uses of the term “professor” in American and Nigerian uni...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

This week, I answer questions on the meaning and uses of the term “professor” in American and Nigerian universities, whether or not “spillover” and “carryover” (terms widely used in Nigerian universities) have the same meaning elsewhere, and on subject-verb agreement. Enjoy.

What is the difference in the meaning of “professor” in American and British/ Nigerian English?

There are several differences. I’ve written about this in a previous article titled “Comparing the Vernaculars of American and British Universities.” 

The first difference is that anybody who teaches in an American university is informally addressed as a “professor.” Therefore, the term “professor” functions exactly the same way as “lecturer” does in Nigerian and British English, except that “lecturer” is never used as a title before the name of a person in Nigeria or Britain. In British/Nigerian English, “professor” is reserved only for an academic who has reached the highest professional rank in the university. Americans use the term “full professor” for that.

Second, while “professor” is a lifetime title in British/Nigerian English, it is not in American English. That is, in Britain and Nigeria, once you’ve attained the rank of professor, you’ve earned the privilege (perhaps the right) to have “professor” prefixed to your name for life; in America, you cease to be addressed as “professor” the moment you stop teaching in the university.

Third, in more formal settings, American university teachers and researchers are often addressed as “Dr.” (rather than “professor) if they have a Ph.D. It is usual to read something like “Dr. John Brown is a full/associate/assistant professor of geography.” In Britain and Nigeria, on the other hand, people cease to be addressed as “Dr.” once they’ve been appointed “professor.” For more on this, refer to my article referenced above.

Recently I was discussing the phrase "spill over" as used in Nigerian universities with an in-law and he told me that one of his lecturers (who is an Indian) said it's wrong to use it in that context. My questions are: Is the Indian right? If yes, what is the appropriate word to be used?

Yes, the Indian is right. As far as I know, only Nigerian universities use “spillover” in connection with spending an extra year in school, as in “spill-over students.” In all other varieties of English, “spill-over” is often used to mean a whole host of things, none of which has any connection with spending an extra year in a university.

Spillover can mean the unintended effect of something, as in “the spillover effect of the fight.” It is also often used to mean the spreading of something into another area. Example: There has been a spillover of America’s lax moral rules into the Nigerian society as a result of the popularity of American popular culture in Nigeria. Anything that spreads from another area is also called a spillover. For instance, we can say “Gwarimpa is a spillover from Abuja.” I guess it’s the last sense of the term that informs Nigerian universities’ decision to label students who can’t graduate with their cohort “spillover students,” except that the addition of “students” after “spillover” makes the phrase both ungrammatical and unidiomatic. When spillover is used as a modifier (that is, when it appears before a noun) it often means an unexpected repercussion, as in “spillover violence.” But it usually collocates with “effect,” as in “spillover effect.”

Similarly, Nigerian universities use “carry-over” in ways that no other English-speaking university in the world I know of does. In all the varieties of English I am familiar with, “carry-over” simply means “something transferred or extended from an earlier time or another place.” The term is also used in British English to mean “the accumulated and undivided profits of a corporation after provision has been made for dividends and reserves,” among other meanings.

Only Nigerian English uses “carry-over” to mean exams failed in a previous semester or year.
The appearance of “spillover” and “carry-over” in the lexicon of Nigerian universities is the consequence of our cohort-based system of education where people who start a program of study take almost identical courses at the same time and are expected to graduate at the same time, usually within a four-year period for most degrees in the humanities and the social sciences. That is not the way the educational system is structured elsewhere.

You asked what term you should use instead of “spillover” (or “carryover”). Well, I don’t know of any. Americans typically complete their bachelor’s degrees in four years, but several people take way longer than that to complete theirs, and no one considers such students as “spilling over” from anywhere. Most classes normally consist of second-, third- and fourth-year students because classes are not cohort-based. All you need to enroll in a class is pass the prerequisite for the class. If you’ve passed the prerequisite to for a final-year course while in your second year, no one will stop you from registering for the class.

 Similarly, failing a course carries no implication that the course is being “carried over” from anywhere. It is simply a “fail.” So American (and I guess British) universities have no lexical equivalents for Nigerian “spillover” and “carryover.”

The language people use is often a reflection of their material reality. Nigerian universities invented the terms “spillover” and “carryover” because of their peculiar instructional models. Those terms will continue to be useful, even indispensable, so long as the system that brought them forth remains. I think you should have no grammatical anxieties about using these terms as long as you’re in Nigeria. When you’re outside Nigeria, explain to your interlocutors what the terms mean. It’s as simple as that.

In formulating a research question I wrote 'What proportion of people living in Nasarawa State have been exposed to Lassa fever infection?' Microsoft Word suggested 'has' in place of 'have' and I complied. My supervisor changed it back to 'have'; please, who is correct?

Microsoft is right. Here is why. The verb "have" in your sentence agrees with "proportion," NOT "people living in Nasarawa State." Grammarians call the tendency to make verbs agree with the nouns closest to them (often called a "distracting predicate noun") rather than the subject of a sentence a "false attraction." So you and your supervisor are guilty of false attraction.

 In your sentence, the subject is "what proportion" and the distracting predicate noun is "people living in Nasarawa State." In subject-verb rules, the verb agrees with the subject, not the predicate noun. In both British and American English, nouns like "proportion," "percentage,” etc. usually take the singular verb in a sentence. Example: A proportion of the crops in the farm GOES to waste every year.

This is also true if the phrase "the proportion of" is used with either a plural countable noun or a singular noun that refers to a group of people. Example: The proportion of Nigerians who apply for the American Green Card Lottery IS increasing every year. The only instance when "proportion" can be used with a plural verb is when it is preceded by such phrases as "a large," "a small," "a high," etc. Example: A large proportion of medical doctors HAVE abandoned medical practice for politics in Nigeria.

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