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Hobbes’s Leviathan, an organization composed of limbs and other functional elements working together to accomplish something. Like a faculty.

If you want to speak of someone who has a teaching appointment you might refer to her or him as a faculty member or a member of the faculty.

If it were only that simple.

Since the 12th century, the term faculty  has denoted a group, and not any group: a faculty  is an indispensable aggregation and organization, the heart of any institution of higher education. The New York Times Manual of Style confirms what we have all suspected, that the word  faculty  is a collective noun, like clergy.

Recently, however, I heard someone refer to an individual (let’s call her Regina) in an economical but confusing way. The speaker didn’t say that “Regina is a faculty member” or “Regina is faculty” but that “Regina is a faculty.” 

This is not — at least as of press time — an option.  

Faculty or faculty member? Is there a difference? Well, maybe.

Regina might refer to herself as faculty, in particular when she is distinguishing herself from persons who do not hold that title: students, noninstructional employees, and of course administrators.

When Regina, or her equally imaginary colleague Manfred, speaks of being faculty they do not mean that they constitute an entire faculty (though on certain days Regina or Manfred may feel as if they are shouldering more than one person’s share of departmental labor).

Alternatively, Regina might refer to herself as a faculty member. I’m thinking Hobbes’s Leviathan here, with all its early modern overtones of an organization composed of limbs and other functional elements working together to accomplish something.

Like most of us, however, Regina is not consistent in this. Maybe she’s faculty when she wants to distinguish herself from those outside that circle, and a faculty member when she wants to emphasize her active identification with a class of like persons. But Regina’s choice may not be your own.

By the way, The New York Times doesn’t like us to say that we’re “hiring faculty.” The paper of record would prefer that we say we’re “hiring faculty members,” but that’s fancy-dress discourse,  as if we’re explaining an action to people in another line of work.

The member  problem extends to many classes of campus persons who don’t teach. Secretarial, IT support people, buildings and grounds, administrative assistants at many levels — these individuals are likely to fall under the rubric staff.

I’m leaving aside the question of labor unions, which might identify and organize individuals as staff  or faculty. In those situations, the sense of member is quite specific, denoting a contractual participation in an agreement subject to collective bargaining. A union member is someone who belongs to a union. He or she is union where union  is a modifier, not a noun.

On campus, a  staff member is likely to be a person who is on the staff of a unit within the college, differentiated from someone in an altogether separate unit. A staff member can’t be a staff, either.

As to alternatives to staff member, we do have the almost naturalized form staffer, which sounds collegial and peppy, though we might hear it more frequently in relation to political campaigns than around the development office.  

To some ears, staffers sound like professionals whose work involves staffs. Think shepherds.

Today’s historical note: The original staffers, the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, came into English usage in 1949, when the new term described reporters following a college football contest between Penn and Princeton.

I would be untrue to my code not to point out that in the 17th century a staffer could be a kind of pea-shooter. I leave it to Lingua Franca readers to dot the lines between 17C hijinks and modern gridiron rivalries.

Staff, union, faculty — all are collective nouns that get conscripted into functioning as modifiers. Each is made up of members.

There are many impulses that compel us to find gentler, less formal ways of identifying individuals who belong to particular classes of persons.

But no man or woman is a faculty.

Pace John Donne, every faculty member is an island. But a faculty? That’s an archipelago.



You can follow me on Twitter @WmGermano.


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