Credentials, credibility and the EAP practitioner

I was asked to do the plenary talk at the BALEAP PIM meeting which is taking place on Saturday 9th June at the University of Durham: http://www.baleap.org.uk/media/uploads/pim/The_EAP_Practitioner_PIM_Durham_Overview.pdf

What follows is an attempt to bring together some of the things I’ll be talking about and have been thinking about for some time.

I decided to talk about credentials, credibility and the EAP practitioner because I think these areas are worthwhile exploring, particularly in relation to our collective and individual identity as EAP practitioners and our sense of self. Identity is related to a person’s individuality but this can only be discovered and expressed as the result of our interactions with others, our social relations, and our participation in and membership of different communities and groups in different contexts.  We therefore shape and are shaped by the different contexts we operate in and the way that we relate to others in those contexts.

For EAP practitioners, in order to develop and enhance our sense of self and self esteem we need to explore our relationships with others in our own community of practice (Wenger, 2006) and the communities that we are most closely associated with, namely the English language teaching community and the academic community.

In attempts to define who we are and what we do through publications such as the BALEAP Competency Framework for Teachers of EAP, (http://www.baleap.org.uk/media/uploads/pdfs/teap-competency-framework.pdf) we have  had to draw out the differences and distinctions between our work and the work of our ELT colleagues. Has this also led to some distance being placed between ourselves and the rest of the ELT community?  And is this apparent distancing an issue particularly when we are so reliant on the wider ELT community not only to staff our summer Presessionals but to form, to a large extent, the next generation of EAP professionals?

In the ELT world, a perception does exist that what we do is dry, dull and boring, that our teaching practice is anti-communicative and that we spend too much time focusing on the micro details of academic discourse.  At one level, it is clear that there are those ELT practitioners who are keen to dispel the myth and to show how EAP can be ‘cool’ (Barry, 2012) and can fit in with general communicative practices (Guse, 2011).  At the other extreme, there are also those who wish to promote the myth and reinforce the apparent aridity of EAP (see Alex Case’s ‘TEFL-tastic’ website as an example).  Are both stances in fact equally unhelpful to the EAP community, and to what extent have we consciously or unconsciously helped create this myth and, if so, through what actions?

In terms of our relationship with the academic community, our sense of self and expression of our identity is equally complex.  We are an ‘essential’ part of university life in the sense that what we do is a necessary activity, but we are not ‘essential’ in the sense that we ‘contain the essence of’ or ‘are necessary to the existence of’ a university (as my Chambers English dictionary defines it).  Perhaps this is why EAP units have no logical home and can be anything from independent centres, to a part of an academic School or belonging to professional services, and why practitioners can be called lecturers, instructors, tutors or teaching assistants.  Does it make a difference as to how our academic colleagues and our students view us and our credibility if, on the one hand, we can be lecturers in an academic school and, on the other hand, we are tutors in a service unit?  Does it matter that almost no EAP unit, in the UK at least, has the word ‘academic’ in its name?  To what extent, if at all, has all of this eased the commodification of EAP and the subsequent outsourcing of EAP to private providers?  And so does the paucity of EAP-specific qualifications and EAP trained staff undermine our claims that what we do is rather different from general English language teaching?

Hyland and Hamp-Lyons (2002:3) wrote that EAP, despite its many assets, had inherited some of ESP’s limitations – a tendency to work for rather than with subject specialists, a reluctance to critically engage with the values of institutional goals and practices, and ignoring students’ cultures.  Ten years on, how far has this situation changed?  Are we seen and do we present ourselves as humble servants of the disciplines, or are our interactions truly on an equal footing as academic colleagues?  If we are in a more servile position, does this then exclude us or allow us to opt out of critically engaging with the values and practices of the institution?  How many of us truly participate in university life in all its various facets?  How many of us do or can engage in scholarly activity beyond preparing our lessons? And how does this activity (or possible lack of it) affect our credibility in contexts where research often seems to be valued over teaching?

I explore all of these questions in more detail in my plenary at the conference tomorrow, but it would be really interesting to hear your own thoughts, explorations, experiences and comments on this, as what’s written here can only scratch the surface.

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8 Comments on “Credentials, credibility and the EAP practitioner”

  1. martian94 says:

    “We are an ‘essential’ part of university life in the sense that what we do is a necessary activity, but we are not ‘essential’ in the sense that we ‘contain the essence of’ or ‘are necessary to the existence of’ a university [...]”

    I find the excerpt above confusing. Reading and writing are essential to what is, arguably, the primary task of the university (research). I think the problem with EAP is that it is often seen as providing ‘necessary’ language support for overseas students. Academic literacies, on the other hand, are ‘essential’.

  2. Dr Sara Hannam says:

    Dear Julie,

    What an interesting post. Sorry I couldn’t make the BALEAP PIM as your presentation puts forward some key questions about our profession and I would have liked to have heard the discussion. Can you let us know how it went?

    I think you have identified very astutely the ‘liminal’ or third space (concept developed by Bhaba -see below for full quote) occupied by EAP in relation to both the wider ELT community and also the academy. Identity is a complex area – on the one hand we get to choose our identities (as we all have many) but on the other hand we have identities imposed on us which we then have to justify to others (if we do not agree with their appraisal of who we ‘are’). EAP is potentially misinterpreted both by ELT as a wider profession and the academy (rock and hard place!) – it is in a liminal space.

    The “dryness” accusation that you refer to in relation to the attitudes sometimes expressed by colleagues from EFL in my view relates to a difficult relationship with the idea of ‘research’. I categorise self-consciously as I don’t want to stereotype – I come from an EFL background myself. EFL (as the largest wing of ELT) tends to promote itself as action orientated rather than research oriented and there is a false divide between classroom practice and research informed teaching. “Academics” (as a derogatory term) are criticised for making things too theoretical and there is a sense of “how is this relevant to me?” which to my mind is a misunderstanding of the reason for doing research and how it can be useful. Work needs to be done on this as a priority in ELT as the divide is growing. I have just written an article for IATEFL Voices following my observations at the recent conference in Glasgow that there seem to be two distinct audiences who wish to be ‘entertained’ in different ways. Audiences either seem to feel a presentation was too theoretical or there was no theoretical framework (from my post-talk(s) chat with people). In fact research needs practice and practice needs research and even those who claim they are not interested in research are still using classroom practice embedded in a world view and pedagogy – even it they are unaware of it. Likewise those who are doing research need to consider how their research can be explained and made relevant to those who will actually have to take it into the classroom.

    Perhaps more importantly, the ELT profession promotes this divide rather than attempts to unite the disparate ‘sides’ which have so much to learn from one another. This is evidenced in the promotion of a CELTA/DELTA over a Master’s and vice versa and the very different claims made about action versus thinking – rather than the fact that both are absolutely essential and inform one another. I think both the academy and CELTA/DELTA providers have a lot to answer for here as these differences are played upon in marketing strategies to ensure students for their courses. EAP professionals are perhaps characterised by the wider ELT community as being part of the academy – but this is counter-intuitive as this negativity partly comes (rightly) from a rejection of the ivory tower nature of parts of the academy. The mistake is in not realising what kind of work is being done, and that EAP (like all fields) has a vast array of approaches worthy of consideration.

    Paradoxically, within the academy, EAP is often treated as the poor cousin. Research done is not considered ‘proper’ research and what we do is often reduced to a service rather than teaching and learning. As someone who believes very much in the importance of scholarship I also want to be part of the process of research. But another question to be asked is what is the incentive for the average EAP ‘tutor’ (or whatever the person may be termed) to engage in that process or seek higher qualifications (a PhD or the like) if they are not part of the university research assessment facility? Are members of our profession empowered to do research which appears to be the key measurement of parity with other university colleagues?

    Perhaps we need to find a way to embrace this liminal space we occupy and find ways to turn it to our advantage.

    All food for thought.

    Best regards

    Sara

    “Liminal space, in-between the designations of identity,
    becomes the process of symbolic interaction, the connective
    tissue that constructs the difference between upper and lower,
    black and white [...] the temporal movement and passage that
    it allows, prevents identities at either end of it from settling
    into primordial polarities. The interstitial passage between
    fixed identifications opens up the possibility of a cultural
    hybridity that entertains difference without an assumed or
    imposed hierarchy”
    Homi Bhabha The Location of Culture (1994: 4)

    • Julie says:

      Dear Sara
      Thanks for your interesting response and the Bhabha link. I think ‘liminal space’ pretty much describes for me where EAP is at the moment.
      At the BALEAP PIM on Saturday, colleagues from Leeds and Sheffield were talking about the low response from colleagues to professional development opportunities and I think this has to do with the issues you raise and the uncertainties and vulnerabilities around our identities and place in the communities we participate in.
      It would be interesting to know how many EAP tutors are ‘incentivised’ (I use this crass obfuscation deliberately) to do scholarly activity beyond their teaching and if so, how. And how many have an actual research requirement.

  3. Dear Julie,

    Your post was definitely a very interesting and worthwhile read into where EAP practitioners stand what what direction they should take.

    I was particularly interest in the last few lines of your post – “Hyland and Hamp-Lyons (2002:3) wrote that EAP, despite its many assets, had inherited some of ESP’s limitations – a tendency to work for rather than with subject specialists, a reluctance to critically engage with the values of institutional goals and practices, and ignoring students’ cultures. Ten years on, how far has this situation changed?”

    I think that you are correct in pointing out that EAP, at times, works for rather than with subject specialists. When this happens, EAP can end up attempting to instruct students in a relatively overgeneralized English for academic purposes, which I feel can completely overlook the specific needs of individual groups of students (e.g. a group of biology students won’t necessarily have the same needs of a group of physics students). EAP and subject-specific tutors must come together to collaborate on what should be included in an EAP course and what ought to be taught.

    From my own professional experience, I found it highly rewarding to collaborate with my fellow subject colleagues who teach biology and chemistry. This collaboration consisted of sitting down with the instructors and discussing with them what students are expected to achieve and do in the aforementioned subjects.

    Since part of my teaching included teaching English for biology and chemistry, I, as a professional EAP practitioner, needed a clear insight and understanding of what takes place in biology and chemistry. This entailed understanding the lectures that students attend, the assignments they are set, and the labs and subsequent lab reports that they must accomplish. To overcome this “gap” in the teaching/learning experiences of the EAP teachers, we were invited to attend at least one lecture, tutorial, and lab in each of the subjects so as to gain that clear insight and awareness of these subjects and the demands expected of students.

    By collaborating with our subject colleagues, we were able to gain a significant understanding of what students really need; for example, they did not need to learn and acquire long lists of vocabulary words or terms – this is something they can often do by themselves. However, what they did need was a clear awareness and practical understanding of, for example, the underlying structure of a lab report, its subsections, and what is expected. Our subject specialists and the EAP teachers worked together to achieve this goal, so that the students would better understand what to do and how to perform in their subjects. An EAP teacher, unless he/she is a subject specialist in a specific area, cannot do this alone without the collegial and collaborative support that a university inherently (I believe) offers.

    Thank you again for this post, and I hope you continue it.

    Best,

    Dustin

    • Julie says:

      Dear Dustin,
      Many thanks for your response and it is heartening to hear that such positive collaboration does go on out there in the EAP world.
      I’ve just been reading Erica McWilliam’s article on ‘Unlearning how to teach’ (2008) Innovations in Education and Teaching International Vol 45 (3) pp263-269 which is a wonderful challenge to the ‘transmission culture’ of teaching that EAP possibly promotes, including such collaborations with discipline specialists as you’ve outlined.
      I might write about that in another blog posting later on but it’s certainly food for thought….

  4. Andy Gillett says:

    Julie

    When you say “In attempts to define who we are and what we do … we have had to draw out the differences and distinctions between our work and the work of our ELT colleagues. Has this also led to some distance being placed between ourselves and the rest of the ELT community?” I think that you are comparing UK EAP teachers with native-speaker EFL tecahers in the UK and abroad. I do not think that is a good comparison. If you compared UK EAP teachers with professional well-qualified English Language tecahers in most countries of the world you would come to different conclusions. I do not think there is any distance between us.

    Andy

    • Fiona says:

      Dear Andy

      ‘I think that you are comparing UK EAP teachers with native-speaker EFL teachers in the UK and abroad. I do not think that is a good comparison. If you compared UK EAP teachers with professional well-qualified English Language teachers in most countries of the world you would come to different conclusions.’

      This is an intriguing comment -would you be able to expand on it?

      Fiona


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