What is a Professor Versus an Educator?

What is a professor versus an educator? In a recent conversation with colleagues at my University, we had a wonderful (at least from my perspective) conversation about a single statement in a text, “A professor is an educator.” While several in the group had thoughts about this statement, I simply posed the question. “To what extent do you think this statement is true?” One colleague noted that, in some Universities, professors strive to teach as little as possible. From that perspective, the role of a professor is certainly not synonymous with that of an educator.

When discussing a single statement like this, there are many ways to frame our thoughts and perspectives. For better or worse, my formal training often draws me first to the etymology, second to the modern day usage of the terms, and third to the dominant discourses associated with each word. Let’s briefly consider these two words from at least two of those three categories.

Professor

It doesn’t take much to see the root of “profess” in the word, and while I’m not a Latin scholar, that certainly appears to be a fundamental aspect of its meaning. A professor is indeed a person who professes, namely one who either professes to be an expert in a given domain or professes a given body of knowledge. The word is one that draws our attention to the action of that professor. At least etymologically, it includes a limited allusion to a student or learner, although a study of the usage in context throughout history certainly assumes that the professor is, at least in many contexts, professing to students. Yet, the action is on that which is spoken or written by the professor. What happens after the fact is not included in the word’s origin.

And it is this very concept that allows us to find the humor in the words of W.H. Auden when he writes, “A professor is someone who talks in someone else’s sleep.” Being a professor is independent of what happens as a result of the professing. A class of sleeping students? You are still a professor. As such, for some today, the word professor still conjures images of one who lectures. Even among faculty, I’ve heard their work sometimes described as “delivering content” to the students, a postal worker for ideas.

Of course, there is more to the word. The discourse around professor entails one who works as a faculty member in a University setting. They might teach classes (or students in classes). They might engage in service on committees and sometimes service beyond the University. They assess student work. They mentor. They advise. They curate content and guide students toward growing levels of mastery. Yet, not all of these have equal weight among those who hold the title “professor.” Depending upon the University where you are a professor, the community has different values and priorities among the items in the list.

Educator (and educate)

This has an altogether different etymology and discourse associated with it. Consider the following from Etymology.com.

educator (n.) 1560s, “one who nourishes or rears;” 1670s, “one who trains or instructs,” from Latin educator (in classical Latin, “a foster father,” then also “a tutor”), agent noun from past participle stem of educare (see educate). Latin educatrix meant “a nurse.”

educate (v.) mid-15c., “bring up (children), to train,” from Latin educatus, past participle of educare “bring up, rear, educate” (source also of Italian educare, Spanisheducar, French éduquer), which is a frequentative of or otherwise related to educere “bring out, lead forth,” from ex- “out” (see ex-) + ducere “to lead” (seeduke (n.)). Meaning “provide schooling” is first attested 1580s. Related: Educated; educating.

Notice the metaphors associated with child-rearing, nurturing, as well as the concept of “leading out.” In other words, where the etymology of the word “professor” has no strong connection with the learner or student, there is a relationship that is inherent in the etymology of the word “educator.” I suppose that, technically, one could be a professor without students (and that is indeed the case for some professors who are focused exclusively on research), but the etymology of the word “educator” leaves little space for such a possibility. It is a word that draws our attention to what one does with, for or to another.

This might seem like esoteric musings to some people, but I share it because these distinctions point to modern debates and confusion. From the perspective of some, the role of a professor has lost value while that of educator tends to be spoken of with greater admiration. They parallel debates about professors who focus mostly on the content versus those who give greater attention what students do or do not learn. They parallel debates about teaching versus learning. They parallel complaints by some professors about the modern focus upon “spoon-feeding” students or even on the heavy focus on student learning outcomes. They parallel disagreements about how the quality and contribution of a professor should be assessed.

In short, the distinction between these two words illustrates the modern conflict in the public about the role and value of the modern University. As such (and I know that I persistently return to this theme in my writing), we will not make significant gains in the public discourse unless we acknowledge these differences; collectively develop a much deeper knowledge of their roles, distinctions, affordances, and limitations; and then have a broad and candid debate about our priorities…although I tend to think that this is mostly important to address on the University level, not mandated by some accrediting body or government agency.