Why Do the US and the Commonwealth View “Lecturers” Differently?

by Kevin Jon Heller

There has been an interesting debate going on at Slate.com about whether Obama is padding his resume by referring to himself as a “law professor,” even though he was formally a “senior lecturer” at the University of Chicago law school. I think the debate is rather silly myself, for the reasons Tim Wu discusses here. Nevertheless, the debate rekindled my curiousity about why the title “lecturer” has such a different meaning in the US than it does in the commonwealth. In the US, a lecturer is someone who does not have a permanent tenure-track position and thus primarily (if not exclusively) teaches. In the commonwealth, by contrast, that person would normally be called a “tutor,” while a person who has a permanent tenure-track position would be called a “lecturer” and a person who has the commonwealth equivalent of tenure would be called a “senior lecturer.” In other words, a lecturer generally equals an assistant professor, while a senior lecturer generally equals a tenured associate professor.

Here is what I would like to know: when and why did US law schools reduce the status of lecturers and senior lecturers? I’m very curious — and not just because, as a senior lecturer, I hate having to explain what the rank means to US law professors…



4 Responses

  1. Maybe it’s about the kind of false egalitarianism you sometimes see in countries like the US (or Australia, my native country, for that matter). In Australia, law academics will progress through lecturer, senior lecturer, associate professor, professor. Professor usually means ‘has at least some grey hair and has worked in the field for years’. That is, it’s a very senior position – the highest you get to.

    In the US you have that collapse of the categories – tenured people are professors, aren’t they? But then that ends up being not quite enough of a differentiation (titles are important means to make people feel like they’re progressing). So you reintroduce some of the titles, but now they definitely have a lower status.

    Just speculation.

  2. Kimberlee,

    I think you’re right, at least to an extent. The only bad thing about moving from Georgia to Auckland is that no one calls me “professor” any more — and won’t for a long time…

  3. Although outside the legal profession, I have the opposite problem: I get called “professor” and I’m not one (although my beard is predominantly grey, and the hair on the top of my head is aspiring to same), nor am I a “lecturer,” rather, I’m an “adjunct instructor.” I ask my students to call me “Mr. O’Donnell,” which is much better than “Bro” or “Dude” or even “Patrick.” And I happen to be in a permanent state of denial or delusion, believing in a presumptive egalitarianism, for I don’t give a shit if someone is a professor, lecturer, teacher, what have you: what matters is competence, integrity, self-respect, dedication, the embodiment of values, a connection between word and deed, a sense of compassion, a love of the common good, and so on.

  4. Kevin, you ask for readers’ comments. Well, I am a reader, which in the UK fits between senior lecturer and professor (although readers are on the same pay scale as SLs). Does it matter that no-one outside UK academia knows what a reader is? Not to me. I’d rather be judged by other criteria. More signifcant, however, is that the various titles in different national systems are only roughly equivalent. Tenure, for example, doesn’t exist in the UK.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. There are no trackbacks or pingbacks associated with this post at this time.