Bulletin, April/May 2007

International Column

Academic Life of Information Scholars: 
Cross-Cultural Comparisons of the United States and England

by Kendra S. Albright and Robert A. Petrulis

Kendra S. Albright is with the Department of Information Studies, University of Sheffield; she can be reached at kallbright<at>sheffield.ac.uk. Robert A. Petrulis is with the Centre for Inquiry-based Learning in the Arts and Social Sciences (CILASS), University of Sheffield; he can be reached at rpetrulis<at>sheffield.ac.uk.

One of the most obvious differences between U.S. and English university programs is the terminology in use. In this paper we have attempted to standardize our language, using terms that are representative of both countries. For example, the term educators will be used in this paper to represent both the American notion of faculty and the English concept of academic staff; course will be used to represent both courses (U.S.) and course modules (England). We have further listed some of the corresponding terms in use in the two systems in Table 1. 

   Table 1      Comparative Terms
 United States  England
 Course  Course module (or simply,
 Syllabus  Module outline
 Grades  Marks
 Master's student  Postgraduate taught student
 Ph.D. student  MPhil/PhD student (also
 called a Research Student)
 Faculty  Academic staff
 A college within the university  Faculty
 Service  Administration
 Advisor  Tutor
 Advising  Pastoral Care

Academic Life. Academic life, for the purposes of this discussion, refers to the activities and tasks involved in teaching, research and service/administration, as well as the general working conditions involved in the university professoriate. Some of the issues related to academic life include teaching workload and the balance of teaching with both research and service, the balance of personal and professional life, support (for example, research, travel), increasing use of technology (for example, distance learning, collaboration with colleagues at a distance and so forth), academic policies, external perceptions of the discipline, academic freedom and the teacher/student relationship.

The standard workweek in the United States is 40 hours; in England, it is 35. In practice, however, academic schedules are similar. Educators have a great deal of flexibility about when and where they work, particularly to do research. The English academy often has formal policies that stipulate a work-life balance that addresses and allows flexible work schedules, particularly for working parents. While comparable policies exist for flex time in the United States, the phrase work-life balance in England reflects the actual culture and practice of guarding personal time.

The Culture of Student Learning. In the United States, while the legal age of majority is 18, the general social perception is that full rights and responsibilities of adulthood (for example, consumption of alcohol) are not assumed until age 21. In England, it is 18, which means that almost all university students are of age for purposes of everything from signing contracts to drinking. This difference is mirrored in the university culture in terms of what is expected of students regarding their own learning. English students are typically given much more freedom and responsibility for managing their own learning processes and much less direction and supervision than their American counterparts.

American educators structure their courses to allow for flexibility and interpretation, often going over the expectations of assignments in class to make certain that everyone understands. English educators expect students to follow the instructions as stated on the module outline and often do not explicitly discuss expectations for studying and assignments. 

Further, the American approach to teaching and learning rests on frequent and timely feedback about performance, with students often receiving grades on several assignments long before their final grade report at the end of term. English university students typically receive less performance feedback. Students typically receive their first formal marks of any kind well into their second semester of study.

There are advantages and disadvantages to each of these approaches. The American approach involves more classroom-based explanation as to what is expected. The syllabus is often viewed as a contract between teacher and student. By contrast, the English approach assumes that students are self-motivated and self-directed. Those students who fail to work out their own successful strategies for academic work simply do not survive in the university.

The Curriculum. One of the most striking differences between U.S. and English higher education relates to the way teaching work is organized. The strong American tradition of academic freedom and independence is very different from the collective approach to teaching taken by educators in England. Course content is more closely managed at the departmental level. 

Subjects covered by curriculum in both countries are similar and are shaped by the particular research strengths in individual departments. The way in which students demonstrate proficiency of understanding differs, however. American students have a variety of experiences through which to demonstrate successful completion of their programs, such as a thesis option, comprehensive exams or portfolios. English Masterís students, however, must demonstrate proficiency in research and are typically required to write a dissertation. 

The approach to doctoral education in England is substantially different from the United States. American students typically begin their studies with coursework, resulting in the development of a dissertation proposal and the final stage of dissertation research and defense. Doctoral students in England submit their proposals in order to be considered for admission and are assumed to already have a substantial grounding in research due to their previous completion of a masterís dissertation. They spend three years working on their dissertation research and take only a few structured courses along the way.

Grading/Marking. In the United States, faculty have primary responsibility for grading the work of their students Ė in fact, this is a basic tenet of the doctrine of academic freedom. Feedback to students often takes the form of either handwritten or electronic comments put directly onto student papers by their instructors. In England, anonymous reviewers use standardized forms to provide feedback regarding the overall quality of studentsí work. These narrative comments accompany a numeric score sheet that highlights the category of studentsí scores. Two markers review each paper independently and if there is a large discrepancy between scores, an elaborate process of reconciling the scores is set in motion. The basic contrast is that, in England, assessing student work and assigning course grades is a departmental responsibility, while in America, this responsibility rests squarely on the shoulders of the instructor.

Assessment. In England, the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), which will conclude in 2008, will determine to a large extent the stature of the countryís research-intensive institutions. Perhaps more importantly, much university funding is tied to results of the RAE, and institutions that do not have strong research traditions are now trying to establish or strengthen their research programs. In most disciplines teaching-related research and scholarship is not considered to be valuable in terms of the RAE, although some educators in LIS programs do research in areas such as educational informatics or school librarianship which is considered to be valid in this field.

Travel Support. Support for professional travel varies among departments. Departmental funding for travel is more common in the United States. In England, travel funds are typically built into grant applications. University support for conference attendance in England is often limited and involves requests for funding through centralized offices. 

Service. In both the United States and England, the center of academic life at research-intensive universities is, obviously, research. The U.S. concept of service is similar to administration in England. Because there are fewer national professional organizations, English universitiesí conception of service/administration places greater emphasis on community-based outreach and international organizations.

Departmental Organization
Program Evaluation. The status of teaching in American institutions is typically higher than in England, where institutional funding is largely dependent on a government-mandated national assessment of research quality. In England, the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) evaluates the research quality of all academic disciplines. Each discipline, including LIS, establishes its own standards against which the research output of each relevant department is measured. The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) accredits LIS programs throughout the United Kingdom as well as providing a qualifying scheme for chartership and advanced certification of individual practitioners. Accreditation of LIS programs in the United States is voluntary and is a function of the American Library Association, with a particular emphasis on the assessment of professional preparation. 

Educator Workload. The workload in U.S. LIS programs varies by institution as well as with the individual level of involvement of educators in their research. In the United States, for example, a typical teaching load consists of 2-4 courses per semester unless the faculty member is conducting funded research, in which case the teaching load is adjusted. In England, the workload also varies with the amount of funded research being conducted. In addition, academic staff may share teaching across courses to lighten the responsibility of managing an entire course alone. The advantage of this approach is that it allows students to hear from speakers who are truly experts in their fields, while freeing up teaching time for research. Often what is lost, however, is a depth of relationship between teacher and student.

Rank, Tenure and Promotion. Unlike in the United States, tenure is not part of academic life in England. For new academic staff there is a three-year probationary period, after which there is an assumption that staff are permanent and are treated much the same as tenured faculty in the United States. Since there is no tenure system in England, however, promotion to senior lecturer (roughly equivalent to associate professor) involves an application process, similar in some respects to the tenure application process, but independent of completion of the probationary period.

Hiring Graduates. It is a common practice in England for LIS programs to hire their own doctoral graduates as academic staff. In addition, while there is a trend to hire those who already hold a Ph.D., it is not uncommon to find academic staff with masterís degrees. In the United States, it is rare for LIS faculty to hold only masterís degrees unless they are nearing completion of their Ph.Ds. 

Some of the contrasts between English and U.S. LIS programs can be explained by examining differences in university life overall. These can be explained by the historical development of higher education in the two countries. America has a long thread of decentralism and populist tradition in its higher education system, whereas the UKís system has evolved within a national framework and much more elitist conception and has come relatively recently to providing university education to the masses. In LIS, each countryís approach offers unique strengths and weaknesses. There is much to be learned from each other with opportunities for opening dialog about our particular experiences. There are possibilities for adopting and integrating elements of each othersí programs into our own in order to improve research, teaching and service in LIS programs worldwide.