I told my friend The Poet about the RateMyProfessors.com site and its complement, the blog RateYourStudents. Some days later, she e-mailed me to say that she'd found RateMyTutor.com, but didn't think it did what I said it did. What had happened, you see, was that she unconsciously translated the American name of the site into something that made more sense for a BrE speaker--then found that it didn't mean the same thing in AmE.

While RateMyProfessors is used in the UK, the name doesn't quite work, since at most UK universities, only a small proportion of the faculty is/are professors. The full range of academic ranks varies some from university to university, but typically the entry-level position for an academic on a permanent teaching/research contract is Lecturer, and Professor is the highest rank. In between my university has Senior Lecturer and Reader. But whoever takes the teaching role for a course is the course's tutor. Another role one can take is that of personal tutor, a term which is being replaced at my university by academic advisor, and which at my US undergraduate university was simply called advisor: the role in which one gives guidance (and pastoral care) to a student with respect to their overall academic development, rather than just for a particular course/class/module (whatever you want to call it).

In most American universities, the entry level for academics is Assistant Professor, then there's Associate Professor, then full Professor. All of these people are called Professor. So, in the US, I was Professor Lynneguist, but in the UK, I'm just Doctor Lynneguist. In the US, a student might ask another Who's your biology professor? But in the UK, one would ask Who's your tutor for biology?

In AmE, a tutor is generally understood to provide private tuition. (That sounds ambiguous in AmE, since tuition in America usually refers to (BrE) school/university fees. Tutors provide tutoring or tutelage--not fees!) When I was a (BrE) postgrad/(AmE) grad student, I was a logic tutor for student athletes--meaning I helped them understand the lectures that had gone over their heads. In the UK I am a tutor in that I am the person getting paid and doing most of the talking in the classroom--the one whose lectures might go over the students' heads. The (American) RateMyTutor site is about people who provide private lessons to school children.

That reminds me of another thing... Lesson in AmE most often refers to the kind of thing that a private tutor might do. One has piano lessons and flying lessons, etc. School teachers make lesson plans, and may refer to the mathematical part of the day as the math(s) lesson, but once the (AmE) students/(BrE) pupils are old enough to have different teachers for different lessons, the lessons tend not to be referred to as lessons in AmE, but instead are called classes. (This ends up being ambiguous, as the class could be the activity or the group of students.) I thus find it strange when my BrE-speaking students refer to my lectures or seminars as lessons (as in: Could you send me the notes from yesterday's lesson? I had to miss it because my housemate was having her poodle dyed and the bath flooded and ruined my bus ticket so I had to stay at home and watch Countdown instead.). It sounds oddly childish to my ear.

As of this moment, no one has bothered to rate me on that professor-rating site. I simultaneously consider myself lucky and feel a little hurt.

P.S. A second-hand addition to the Canadian count: someone else wondered to Better Half whether I was Canadian. We're now into double-digit Canadian count.


  1. The closest match for BrE tutor seems to me to be AmE instructor, as that is not a rank but a functional description. Not one much used by students, though; it appears on course listings.

  2. Having moved from a New Zealand university to a US one, these are exactly the kinds of terms that I find hardest to consistently use American English for. To be extra confusing, it sounds like the word "tutor" is used in a different way in NZ to how it is used in either US or UK English. In NZ, a tutor is a graduate student / postgrad who provides some kind of supplemental teaching to that given by the lecturer. In psychology at least, this is not a role that seems to exist in the US. NZ tutors take the students for a tutorial (in the arts) or a lab (in the sciences), usually once per week that includes some kind of practical exercise or discussion of course material. There is then a teaching assistant (TA) who is the kind of head tutor and organizes the tutors and does some admin stuff for the course.

    What in the US would be called an advisor, being the person who oversees your NZ English = thesis, US English = dissertation research, we call a supervisor in NZ, I have never learnt to refer to my NZ supervisor as my "advisor"... an advisor sounds like someone a king has that tells them whether to invade or not.

    I would never call a lecture a "lesson"... here they call them classes, which is kind of ambiguous because it is used to refer to both the entire semester-long undertaking, and to an individual meeting of the students and lecturer. I guess they are me discussion-based than lecturers in the strict sense, so that word isn't all that appropriate.

  3. With all this education stuff, I am reminded that I say, "When I finished school (AmE), I moved to Amsterdam." What I mean is university, but for a long long time I said college (AmE).

  4. Tasmansea--the role that you're referring to as supervisor would be called supervisor in the British and American universities I've attended too, though advisor might be used as well in AmE universities. The role that I'm referring to as advisor has nothing to do with theses/dissertations--it's for undergraduate students only, and it's the person who helps the student choose elective courses, discuss career opportunities, and such like. What you're calling a tutor would be a demonstrator at my current university, but a teaching assistant at most US universities.

    Steph, we covered the school issue back here, if you're interested.

  5. When UK university students talk of "lessons" (recte classes, lectures, seminars) they are using a term familiar to them from primary and secondary education. Most, I guess, know it's not quite right, and I've often heard students correct themselves over it.

  6. There's also the Oxbridge/Durham complication, where "tutor" means something else entirely, ie a person (usually a BrE professor) who leads a "tutorial" class of up to a dozen or so students. This is in addition to lecture courses.

    Ginger Yellow

  7. The use of tutor for other kinds of university instructors (particularly seminar instructors) is undoubtedly a hold-over from the old days when tutorials were how higher education worked throughout Britain. Now with more universities and more students, the tutorial is a rare beast.

    Incidentally, another difference to mention here is seminar to refer to small-group teaching (preferably with lots of student discussion). In the US this is often called a discussion section. Seminar is used in both countries to refer to other things that seminar refers to...

  8. Maxwheeler has it right for the UK I think ... "lessons" is a relatively new usage (10 yrs?) associated with a large increase in student numbers. See also "uni" (ugh).

  9. Perhaps it would not be out of place to mention the ambiguity that can surround the phrase "taking a class". In the US it seems to mean attending a class as a student - in the UK it could also mean teaching a class. I confused a teacher at an art school where I was doing (BrE)voluntary/(AmE)volunteer work, by asking him if he took many classes at the school.

  10. "lesson" at uni level is one I hadn't heard. Ugh. As you can see, I quite like "uni" - Australian experience. Most of the attempts I've seen to rationalise uni patois seem to me wrong. For example, I read an American account explaining how traditionally (where? when?) a University could give degrees but a College couldn't. But for the first couple of centuries of its existence the University of Edinburgh was also referred to as "The Tounis College". I believe that the two parts of the University of Aberdeen were originally separate degree-awarding Universities called King's College and Marischall College.

  11. The lesson thing reminds me of a time I was in high school, and friends of mine were in the school play. They referred to "play practice" but the drama teacher/director corrected them - they had rehearsal.

    I actually came over to tell you about today's Language Log, which features a political cartoon from Britain, and explains BrE pronunciation of various words beginning with "f" such as "fork", with the r not being pronounced.

  12. The terms that we use in Australia (or at least my part of Australia) are a bit different. The entire semester-long series of classes is referred to by the university admin people as a course but by everyone else as a subject, mainly because the Vice-Chancellors in this State wanted to make our terminology consistent with what they present as 'international' usage, but no-one else is actually inclined to.

    Actual classes are either lectures or tutorials (or sometimes labs, etc.) Lectures are exactly what they sound like and tutorials are group discussions varying between 10 to 30 students, in my experience. The person who teaches the lectures is always called the lecturer and only the people who teach tutorials are called tutors.

    I've never heard any uni classes described as lessons (that sounds like high school to me). I would be most likely to say, 'I have to go to a lecture' or 'I have to go to a tute' but 'I have to go to a class' would be OK, too.

  13. Troy, that sounds like the terminology that we used in South Africa--though we called them tuts rather than tutes.

  14. The NZ role of 'tutor' seems to be equivalent to what my (AmE) university called TAs -- for Teaching Assistants. Sort of a helper-to-the-course's-instructor post, reimbursed at a minimal kind of rate. TAs grade quizzes, often do paperwork, and if there is a 'discussion' section or a 'lab' section to the course (instead of just lectures, which are mostly done by the main instructor), the TA runs those.

  15. Lynne wrote:
    > It sounds oddly childish to my ear. [Calling lectures/seminars "lessons".]

    In a similar way the American habit of calling university "school" sounds oddly childish to British ears like my own.

    (While there are degree-giving places that in fact call themselves "School", such as the London School of Economics or the School of Oriental and African Studies, no-one actually refers to those august institutions as "school".)

  16. To add to the confusion, some UK universities, like Sussex are divided up into schools ...

  17. What I hate is "uni" as an abbreviation for "university". I concede it's an efficient abbreviation, saving three syllables, but the word is ugly and childish. In Ireland we used to say "college" as the Americans do, but the excrescence seems to have spread from Australia via the UK, probably through university students distancing themselves from the lesser ITs (institutes of technology).

    Regarding titles and roles, in Irish universities we have tutorials and tutors [postgrads] as well as lectures and lecturers [faculty]. The grades I think are junior lecturer - senior lecturer - associate professor - professor.

  18. Harvard College, probably affected by a sort of Anglophilism, offers undergraduate tutorials in fields of concentration (called majors in most other universities). Students meet individually or in small groups with tutors (graduate students), and are expected to be more outspoken or creative than in regular (discussion) sections. The sections, in turn, are led by what used to be called section men, but which are now called section persons.

    At most other universities, sections are led by teaching assistants or teaching fellows, and there are no turors or tutorials. At one university where I studied in the early 70s, we were all changed over the summer from teaching fellows to teaching assistants (or the other way around) so that the university could charge us higher fees without violating its written agreements.


The book!

View by topic



AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)