Sunday, 23 November 2014

Two countries (still) separated by a common language

Donley Studlar considers the differences of language within the British and American academies. 

'England and America are two countries separated by a common language’ is a quote widely attributed to the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw. Unfortunately, like many ‘well known’ quotes, its origins are suspect, and no original source as ever been identified.  But his compatriot Oscar Wilde did write, ‘We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language’ (The Canterville Ghost 1887). 

My first year of teaching in the UK has reconfirmed the validity of these adages. With almost 40 years of experience in the US, I was faced with the task of trying to understand the academic curriculum at Strathclyde. But that entailed discerning what the various written and spoken messages actually meant.  Despite having studied British politics for over 40 years and claiming to speak ‘transatlantic English’, I found myself inadequately prepared.  British and US higher education do speak different languages (AmerEnglish and BritEnglish, or AmE/BrE), which I am still trying to master.  Thus, consider this an introduction/induction to the differences.

Here is an introduction (induction) to the main language discrepancies I have discovered, with the AmE listed first:

1: The academic hierarchy:

a) president/principal (chief administrator of the University)

b) college/faculty

c) faculty/academic and research staff (there is also the administrative staff)

d) full professor/professor

e)                        /reader (a rare rank for which there is no US equivalent)

f) associate professor/senior Lecturer

g) assistant professor/lecturer

h) lecturer (teaching professor, adjunct faculty)/teaching fellow, a rank of varying seniority with primarily teaching duties.

Of course, the generic title for all faculty/teaching staff in the US is ‘professor’; in the UK it is ‘lecturer’.  

2: discussion Groups/tutorials (‘tutors’ refers to those leading tutorials but also to the supervisors--first readers--of Honours, MSc and PhD dissertations)

4) degree program/course of study

5) graduate/postgraduate

6) undergraduate senior/Honours (final year) (junior/3rd year); (sophomore/2nd year); (freshman/1st year).

7) academic Year/session

8) courses/modules

9) syllabus/handout (handbook, guide)

10) term papers/essays

11) review session/revision

12) monitoring (proctoring)/invigilating (my favo(u)rite)

13) thesis/dissertation (requirement for BA and MSc students, plus PhDs)

14) grading/marking (There is ‘second marking’ for some assignments, especially term papers/essays, by another internal instructor. If the two markers disagree, there may be a 3rd marker called in to adjudicate.

There is no US equivalent in my experience to the ‘pre-boards’ and ‘boards’ for both undergraduate and postgraduate MSc students, in which the ‘teaching staff’ (faculty) of the School come together to discuss the overall status of each student.

The grading/marking system in the UK also is somewhat different from that in the US although as one of my colleagues says, ‘take the US mark and knock off 20 points’.  The overall marking system is First Class/A (70 and above), 2(1)/B+ (60-70), 2(2)/B (50-60), Third Class (Ordinary)/C (40-50), and Failure/F (below 40).

But not all is mutual incomprehension.  Deans are still Deans although Associate and Assistant Deans are ‘Vice Deans’. Exams are, well, still exams, although in the UK this usually means the one exam of the course/module, what in the US would be called ‘the final exam’.

Most grades/marks (BA and MSc) are based on two written pieces of work, the term paper/essay and the one exam. Some courses of study/degree program(me)s elsewhere in the University do have ‘continuous assessment’, which means US-style teaching of courses/modules, with more frequent required assignments/exams.  And PhD dissertations are still PhD dissertations, although the ones in the UK remain longer than their US counterparts, with the latter getting shorter in some institutions (the equivalent of three publishable articles is this new standard).  

Alas, after passing through these different academic nomenclatures, the overall degree standing/GPA of undergraduate students in the UK is reported to be 2.1 and the mean grade overall in the US is the same, B+, according to some sources. So as another famous British author said, ‘All’s well that ends well’.

Armed with this knowledge, I can now attend US conferences and, during unexpected interregnums such as the ‘Long Night at the Marriott’, respond to the second-most frequent question posed to me at the 2014 APSA, ‘what’s it like to teach in the UK’?

For more on AmE/BrE language differences, see the useful blog maintained by a US-trained linguist, now a Reader in the UK:

Donley (T.) Studlar, School of Government and Public Policy, University of Strathclyde


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