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A Comparison of Everyday University Vocabularies in Nigeria, America, and Britain (I)

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Twitter: @farooqkperogi In the past few weeks, I have received hundreds of questions from readers of thi...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

In the past few weeks, I have received hundreds of questions from readers of this column about the meanings of common university terminologies. Why do Americans call every university teacher a “professor”?  What do the terms “adjunct professor,” “assistant professor,” “associate professor,” “full professor,” “Reader,” etc. mean, and how can a Nigerian make sense of them?

To answer these questions, I have decided to rework an article I wrote more than 5 years ago titled “Comparing the Vernaculars of American and British Universities.” So here goes.

1. Professor: 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.

 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.

2. Lecturer: While the generic term for a university teacher in the British and Nigerian 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 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. A colleague of mine last week wondered aloud why a recent news report in a Nigerian newspaper referred to me as a “lecturer”; she thought it was insulting. I explained to her that “lecturer” is a generic term for university teacher in Nigeria and Britain, and has no semantic connection with the meaning of lecturer in America.

3. Tenure-Track: A tenure-track appointment is basically an appointment that promises life-time employment to an aspiring academic, usually within five 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 refereed articles in reputable journals or books, evidence of teaching excellence, and service to the university and the community. In some disciplines, a book is not a requirement for tenure.

In teaching-heavy schools where the focus is undergraduate education, to earn tenure you only have to demonstrate evidence of teaching excellence. Having one or two publications, academic conference presentations, and service to the university will redound the case for tenure.

Lecturers are never on the tenure track; they are employed usually on a two-year contract that is subject to periodic review and renewal. The most important 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/Nigerian English understanding of the term, as I will show shortly. In other words, lecturers never get to become "full professors."

As I said earlier, 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, usually because their teaching has been evaluated as unsatisfactory by their students. It’s a precarious position to be in. I know of no one who willingly chooses the lecturer track in American universities. You can now understand why my American colleague was shocked that I was referred to as a “lecturer.”

4. Assistant/Associate/Full Professors. In the American system, fresh Ph.D.’s start their careers as “Assistant Professors.” Then they get promoted to “Associate Professors,” and finally to “Full Professors” if they meet the requirements for promotion. These positions may be tenure-track or non-tenure-track, which I will explain shortly.

In the past, only people who had the rank of “assistant professor,” “associate professor,” or “full professor” were called “professor” in America. In fact, in their Guide to English Usage, British grammarians Sidney Greenbaum and Janet Whitcut insist that the term professor “should be applied only to those (assistant, associate, or full professors) who have the title professor” (p. 567). But this is no longer the convention. Even lecturers and teaching assistants are called “professors” in American universities—at least informally.

5. Adjunct/Visiting Professors. An adjunct professor is a type of university teacher we would call a “part-time lecturer” in the Nigerian 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.

 “Adjunct professors” 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.

So 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.

6. Senior Lecturer. As I said earlier, a “senior lecturer” in American universities is completely different from a senior lecturer in British and Nigerian universities. I admit that comparing academic titles in the British and American systems is tricky. But it is customary to state that “senior lecturer” in the British and Nigerian systems is equivalent to “assistant professor” in the American system, “reader” (which is rarely used these days) in the British and Nigerian systems is the equivalent of the American “associate professor,” and “professor” in the British and Nigerian systems is the equivalent of “full professor” in the American system.

 In reality, however, this is a false equivalence, as I will show next week. But it’s interesting that most people who attain the rank of “reader” in the British and Nigerian systems 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.

To be continued

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