Which Are You? Professor, Lecturer, Instructor or Teacher?

Google, “commonly misused words” and you’ll find some interesting things.  Irony is often used as a representation of funny instead of its proper usage as contrary to what was expected.  Travesty is typically used as a tragedy whereas it actually refers to a mockery or parody.  I personally have used Peruse incorrectly, saying it when browsing when I should have saved it for when I was observing something in depth. 

I remember my favorite high school English teacher (thank you Mrs. Starkey!) telling us that language, including spelling, grammar, and even meaning, is a living thing.  Language evolves every year, forcing dictionary makers to revise, add, or delete some parts of their reference materials.  (Remember when Word didn't correct advisor to adviser?)  This got me to wondering if we need to rethink how we refer to Teachers?

About a year ago, I gave a keynote to an audience of (mostly) faculty.  It was a large room of 700 people and the message seemed to resonate.  Everyone laughed at the right spots, a lot of people took notes, and I got follow up messages from a handful of people asking great, poignant, practical questions.  But as is almost always the case, especially if a message has any degree of controversy, I had two people march up to the dais to let me know that I had gotten something wrong. 

(I want to note, I love these interactions.  I seek out contradictory or contrarian positions with almost every search I perform.  It’s crucial to know both sides of an argument or creating a genuine solution is largely impossible.  So having someone walk up with oppositional thinking saves me some time!  And the debates, while not always civilized, are always interesting.) 

After the first person scolded me for down-grading the value of a lecture (based solely on his own teaching style…nothing like an n=1 to prove a point), another faculty member approached me.  She was likely about my age and taught at a very distinguished institution I guarantee you have heard of.  I’ll paraphrase, but she basically said the following:

Instructor doesn't even make the cut, let alone teacher...

Instructor doesn't even make the cut, let alone teacher...

I don’t appreciate how interchangeably you used professor, lecturer, instructor, and worst of all, teacher.  I am not working with children, so please do not downgrade me to a common teacher.  Nor am I an adjunct faculty member, so using the term instructor is also offensive.  I worked incredibly hard to become a tenured professor and my university gives me the distinction of lecturer, researcher, or professor, but never teacher! 

I defended myself to a degree, saying the audience included full professors as well as adjunct instructors, university lecturers, etc.  But she had me on teacher.  Teacher is not used much in higher education.  I’m not entirely sure if that is because of a need to distinguish level or not, but in my entire career, I cannot recall hearing a single college or university faculty member introduce themselves as a teacher.  And while I meant absolutely no disrespect (as I think you’ll see moving forward), it was seen as a “downgrade” to her current role. 

When I think of the terms professor, instructor, lecturer, and teacher, I have to admit that my bias is toward teacher.  Why?  When I looked these words up, it reinforced my thinking.  Professor is (a bit oddly in my mind) defined by role.  One dictionary claims a professor is a, “teacher of the highest rank in a college or university.”  I suppose because teacher is in the definition, but minus rank, it was offensive to my audience member.  Similarly, instructor includes the word teacher in the definition, although it’s definition does not seem to worry about role or rank, unless you look at the third level definition when it says, “a college teacher ranking below assistant professor.”  The most interesting search for me was lecturer.  Again, not the primary definition, but the secondary was, “a member of a college or university faculty, especially one without tenure or one that ranks below assistant professor.” 

But juxtapose all three of those definitions against a teacher.  The first definition is extremely simple: “one who teaches, especially in a school.”  That’s straight forward enough.  Notice there is no rank or status associated with the term.  It assumes that a person is doing something – namely teaching. 

So back to my original bias…yes, it is a bias, and I know it.  I hate the first three terms higher education has chosen to “outweigh” teacher.  I know I can’t change it, but I hate it.  Why?  Because status (in my opinion) is not terribly healthy when it comes to actual learning but mostly because of the root words these terms derive from.

A lecturer produces a lecture, or a, “long, serious speech, especially one given as a scolding or reprimand.”  Ok, hopefully the last part applies rarely, but a lecture is typically a long, serious speech to be sure.  It’s also quite often a very boring, disengaging, unhelpful event.

Instructors obviously instruct.  This root suggests directing or commanding, often associated with a skill (vs a theory).  As I have blogged about for years, more and more learning science shows us the need for context (why), mechanics tied to frames, etc.  Instructions from an instructor does not imply that is happening at all.

The term Professor may be the least intuitive from my perspective.  If looking at the word profess, you must get through the first few definitions which are not really flattering: “claim openly but often falsely that one has a feeling”; “affirm one’s faith in or allegiance to…”; “have or claim knowledge or skill in”.   Finally, you arrive at the simplistic, “to teach a subject as a professor.” 

I guess, simply put, I don’t want my students to say that I lecture, instruct, or profess.  Those are all so unidirectional, it makes me lament.  This is one of the major problems with education today – the person at the front of the classroom (and it’s almost always at the front), spewing information upon students with an expectation that they will simply soak it all up and then somehow learn.  They often talk instead of listening.  They seem to inform far more than creating shared meaning (leading to understanding). 

While a person can abuse the label of teacher, pushing content in a unidirectional fashion, the true definition goes wider than that.  The definition indeed starts with, “explain, instruct, and inform,” but goes on to include words like, “encouragement, understanding, and learning.”  In fact, the word learning is not directly stated in professor, instructor, or lecturer, relying on applying a second degree of separation by use of the word “teacher” held within each word’s definition.   Also ironic to me (and using 'ironic' correctly), how is it that teaching is so much harder than lecturing or instructing, yet is subordinate to both?  In summary, professor, instructor, and lecturer seem to have a primary objective of pushing out, whereas teacher directly speaks to pushing and pulling. 

All of this may seem like verbal gymnastics.  Maybe none of this matters.  My personal bias, nor one professor’s offense constitutes a problem, per se.  But I wonder if it matters not due to respect or offense or semantics, but for another reason?  As much as I believe nonverbals are generally more communicative, words do matter.  In fact, I also teach my students that words often set our nonverbals direction. 

In other words, when our words seem aimed squarely at unidirectional communication worrying less about the receiver as the sender, problems will likely follow.  Problems like the ones we face in higher education today.  We end up with a lot of talking and not much learning.  We end up with passive vs active learning.  We end up with a lot of professing, but not much understanding.  And to me, that is a problem.

Is this earth-shattering in the grand scheme of things?  No.  But maybe it’s worth a brief discussion.  Maybe some higher ed practitioners will start to find that while the monikers don’t matter, the supporting words behind it do.  And maybe “teacher” will stop differentiating levels of education and sit back in the place I think it should, because a teacher, at any level and by the truest sense of the definition, is not an easy person to find…

Good luck and good learning.