Doing politics through language, EAP and language teaching –meandering thoughts

This blog post was written by my colleague Yolanda Cerdá. Yolanda was recently appointed Executive Director of the University of Leeds Language Centre

I am a newcomer to blog posting, but Alex kindly invited me recently to use this blog as a way in to some writing I’ve been working on with two colleagues. Our project aims to report on a qualitative case study and narrative analysis we undertook seeking to explore the impact of Brexit on a group of language teachers and practitioners working at a language centre in a UK HE institution. I’ll come back to the project later, but having read Alex’s recent post on Bourdieu and Passeron’s (1994) oft-cited epithet on academic language being no-one’s mother tongue, what struck me was that its use and ‘misuse’ is, arguably, almost always a political statement on the part of the practitioners, researchers and scholars who invoke it. Regardless of whether you fall on Hyland (2016) or Flowerdew’s (2019) side of the fence, (perhaps you fall on the fence itself) the arguments could be distilled into questions about equalities of access, the effects and (re)production of power (through knowledge) structures and ultimately who is ‘allowed’ to create new knowledge in academia and the disciplines, and how. Bourdieu’s background as a philosopher and academic from a working-class background and his contributions to our understandings of social inequalities in education, among other areas, should be borne in mind even when applying his theories to very different contexts. What I’m saying, I think, is that his work is political and when we invoke it, we are also being political, albeit unknowingly at times.

This reminds me of other current issues and debates in EAP and indeed in language teaching which can lead to discomforting identity and status struggles, and might underpin some of the more or less accepted dichotomies internalised by many language and EAP practitioners including the distinctions between language and content, the private and the professional self and the emotional as opposed to the cognitive, the rational or the academic. If one accepts Foucauldian perspectives on the nature of power, the order of things, and in particular his view that discourse(s) involve language and ‘practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak’ (Foucault 1972, p.49) , then many of these dichotomies become rather artificial and, at best, questionable. Perhaps this is stating the obvious, but it still echoes through conversations in University corridors, meetings, staffrooms and our own scholarship and classrooms, that language is viewed as often devoid of and certainly distinct from ‘content’. The relationship, if we separate them, then, is one of unequal power whereby content is effectively superior to language. It seems a bizarre pulling apart, but this perception is reproduced and enacted institutionally by the lower academic status afforded to many language practitioners. This chimes with some of the ‘butler’ or ‘handmaiden’ metaphors used to conceptualise EAP practitioner identities (as in the work of Ding and Bruce and see conference papers at the Baleap 2019 Conference in Leeds, for examples of such metaphors in action). To labour the point, content sits comfortably upstairs, and language is still very much downstairs; at least it is when it sits outside schools or departments of (applied) linguistics, education, English, or communication.

That is why I feel uncomfortable when associations and colleagues see their own activities as a-political; even when impartiality is coherently and ethically espoused. This is not necessarily because I particularly want to (over)politicise a profession or academic field, but because political issues seem necessarily to underpin much of what we do, how it is seen, our working conditions and how students understand and engage with our activities. And, in Bourdieu’s terms, language teaching is still somewhat beleaguered, particularly in terms of its cultural and social capital. By activating and interrogating the political, we (and I mean language teachers, EAP practitioners, and language centres) might become more able to forge educational communities and impinge on the institutional forces that govern so many aspects of language education and EAP. And in doing so, our roles can certainly also extend beyond this to other areas of education and education policy particularly given the proliferation of the concept of the ‘international(ised)’ university in the current dominant discourses of UK higher education.

So to come back to our Brexit project, the initial difficulty we encountered on sitting down to write together recently was remembering why we had conducted our study in the first place and why it might be of interest or relevant to anyone. Our tentative conclusion was that we belong to a community of language teachers and this was an opportunity to examine a political event in the world which was and is still predicted to have a profound impact on UK cultural identities and affiliations. Brexit (we assumed) would be of fairly obvious concern to teachers of English and other modern languages, not least because we often regard ourselves as intercultural facilitators and experts in the cultural agility required to effectively teach, interact and work with students and colleagues from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Aside from personal responses and corridor conversations, we wondered too whether private (and often extremely emotional) reactions might influence pedagogy and professional identities. The writing up of this project is a work in progress, but our data has certainly generated a series of genuine questions and lines of enquiry.

In the current political landscape seemingly so dominated by identity politics, is it not important for us (language tutors, practitioners, university language tutors and lecturers…) to explore, reveal and understand our own espoused and ascribed positions and identities? (With contingent caveats around the slippery academic definitions of identity and the current ‘identity turn’ in many fields including sociolinguistics, intercultural studies and language teaching and learning, among others – see for example the work of Bonny Norton, Norton and Toohey (2011) Phillip Riley (2007), Holliday et al (2010)) Should we seek to remain on the margins of the political or steer clear of difficult ‘content’? Should what we feel about issues really be hidden in the language classroom because it is a language classroom, and if not, are there ways to do this which are sensitive to the imbalances of power and authority implicit even within an educational context which badges itself as democratic, Socratic and dialogic? If we are educators in and of these intercultural spaces, should we take heed of arguments in favour of critical pedagogies (drawing on Freire, for example) and based on assumptions that ‘language teaching as foreign language education cannot and should not avoid educational and political duties and responsibilities’ (Byram, 2001, p. 102), Byram (2008, 2014)? In short, are we not ‘doing politics’ in teaching any language and adopting particular stances to what we do, whether we like it or not?

I’m not sure I know quite what I think about this; the questions aren’t rhetorical. But in thinking about definitions of academic language and how we position and categorise ourselves and our own practices, I really liked the humour and insight in the following extract from the preface to Foucault’s Order of Things (1970):

“This book first arose out of a passage in [Jorge Luis] Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought […].This passage quotes a ‘certain Chinese encyclopaedia’ in which it is written that ‘animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) suckling pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies’.

Bourdieu, P., Passeron, J-C., and Saint Martin, M. (1994) Academic discourse: Linguistic misunderstanding and professorial power. Polity
Byram, M. (2001). Language teaching as a political action. In Bax, M., Zwart, J. (Eds.), Reflections on language and language learning. In honour of Arthur van Essen (pp. 91–104) Amsterdam / Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins.
Byram, M. (2008). From foreign language education to education for intercultural citizenship. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
Byram, M. (2014). Twenty-five years on: From cultural studies to intercultural citizenship. Language, Culture and Curriculum, 27, 209–225.
Flowerdew, J. (2019). The linguistic disadvantage of scholars who write in English as an additional language: Myth or reality. Language Teaching, 52(2), 249-260.
Foucault, M. (1972) The archaeology of knowledge and the discourse on language. Pantheon.
Holliday, A., Hyde, M. and Kullman, J. (2010). Intercultural Communication: an advanced resource book for students. 1st ed. Routledge.
Hyland, K. (2016) Academic publishing and the myth of linguistic injustice. Journal of Second Language Writing (31) pp. 58-69
Norton, B., & Toohey, K. (2011). Identity, language learning, and social change. Language Teaching, 44(4), 412-446

‘Academic language is … no one’s mother tongue’: Misusing Bourdieu and a ‘morally questionable’ Hyland.

‘Academic language is … no one’s mother tongue’
Bourdieu, P. and Passeron, J-C., 1995: 8.

This familiar ellipsis taken from Bourdieu and Passeron (often Passeron is forgotten) frequently adorns PowerPoint slides at EAP (English for Academic Purposes) conferences, is often summoned in discussions, and occasionally features on EAP websites as a strapline. Every time I come across this ellipsis; I feel uneasy. When evoked in various fora, media and contexts it functions as shorthand for a set of axioms. It suggests that academic language development (writing in particular) shouldn’t be seen as deficit and remedial indicating a lack or deficiency but rather something all students and academics struggle with. It suggests EAP not as an ‘ivory ghetto of remediation’ (Swales, 1990:6) but democratises and extends to all the benefits of EAP while disabusing the notion that EAP classes ‘entail a few hours of fixing up grammar in the language centre’ (Hyland & Hamp-Lyons, 2002: 6).

In short, it acts as a consensual professional strapline reflecting implicit orthodoxy on attempting to normalise everyone’s struggles – regardless of academic status and more importantly first language – to develop academic communication. It equalises/flattens this struggle to communicate and erases all differences between individuals and groups. It also badly misrepresents Bourdieu and Passeron. Here is the full context of the quote:

‘Academic language is a dead language for the great majority of French people, and is no one’s mother tongue, not even that of children of the cultivated classes. As such, it is very unequally distant from the languages actually spoken by the different social classes. To decline to offer a rational pedagogy is, in this context, to declare that all students are equal in respect of the demands made by academic language’
Bourdieu, P. and Passeron, J-C., 1995: 8.

I think the full quote reveals a substantially different meaning – perhaps the opposite of the much-quoted ellipsis and goes against the whole purpose of their book (and indeed the ethos of Bourdieu’s work generally). Ellipsis is supposed to maintain the original meaning, in this case it doesn’t (although interestingly the Greek etymology of ellipsis is ‘omission’ or ‘falling short’ which seems apt here).

Beyond making what is perhaps a very pedantic point, does it matter if Bourdieu and Passeron are misused? I will come back to this via an illustration of what can be at stake by discussing Hyland’s provocative article Academic publishing and the myth of linguistic injustice (Journal of Second Language Writing, 2016 (31) pp. 58-69) as well as Flowerdew’s response (The linguistic disadvantage of scholars who write in English as an additional language, published in Language Teaching (52) in 2019.

I won’t summarise Hyland’s article but simply highlight some salient points he makes. His intention is to:

‘argue that framing publication problems as a crude Native vs Non-Native polarization functions to demoralize EAL [English as an Additional Language] writers and ignores the very real writing problems experienced by many L1 [first language] English scholars’

He cites numerous studies that seem to support the idea that EAL authors ‘report a sense of inequality compared to NES [Native English Speakers] scholars when writing in English’ (p.60). He then mentions other studies that suggest a more complex picture where other factors may be at play (e.g. support and resources available, educational background and experience). Attitudes (to publishing) ‘are cross cut by proficiency, first language, discipline and publishing experience, and, of course, many EAL authors successfully publish their papers’ (p.60). He argues that self-reports of EAL writers claiming greater difficulty are ‘largely speculative’ (p.61). Interestingly, Hyland implicitly evokes Bourdieu and Passeron when he claims that ‘academic English is no one’s first language’ (p.61).

More pertinent for Hyland is that ‘arcane conventions of academic discourses are perhaps equally daunting to Native speakers who also struggle to produce polished texts’ (p.62). What is more significant is apprenticeship for both NES and NNES [Non-Native English Speakers] is ‘often a painful and protracted experience’, where experts have the edge over novices in publishing (citing Swales (2004) for support). Importantly, he also draws on other factors that impact on publishing success; isolation (those on the periphery, unable to consult with peers and lacking familiarity with the ‘rules of the game’) and significant differences in rejection rates between high- and low-income countries (also the higher the impact factor the lower the acceptance rate).

He concludes with this statement:

‘By focussing on language shortcomings it perpetuates a myth of L2 [Second Language] deficiency, which discourages EAL authors and tells them to look for prejudice rather than revision.’

Unsurprisingly, this article has generated some discussion and disagreement. I will focus only on Flowerdew’s lengthy response. Referring to Hyland’s argument:

‘This is a Panglossian approach, however, according to which everything is for the best; there is no problem, so we don’t need to address it. Sweeping the issues under the carpet in this way, however, strikes me as morally questionable’.

He goes on to say:

‘it is demeaning for EAL writers to be told by someone writing from the privileged position of an L1 writer that they are misguided if they believe that it is more difficult for them to write for publication than for a L1 writer’.

Flowerdew lists the many features of academic writing that he considers specifically challenging for L2 writers, including: language functions (e.g. hedging, metadiscourse, stance, identity..); lexis; register; collocation; colligation; lexical bundles; cohesion; ellipsis and lexical cohesion, and discourse features of theme and rheme, as well as issues of L1 transfer to L2 (grammar and connected discourse but also aspects of rhetoric and functions). He also argues that simply because L2 writers do publish it doesn’t mean it isn’t less difficult, nor that academic language isn’t a problem and indeed it does enter into consideration in publishing (citing work by Lillis and Curry, 2015 as well as arguments about implicit bias of reviewers/editors). There is a sense of incredulity when he states:

‘Anyone who has spent any time learning an L2 will realize immediately that it will be more difficult to write in the L2 than the L1, even after many years of practice and study’.
(p. 251).

Returning to Bourdieu and Passeron, I hope it is now clear why my questioning of the widescale use of the ellipsis ‘academic language is … no one’s mother tongue’ is problematic.

Hyland (Language myths and publishing mysteries: A response to Politzer-Ahles et al.), in a response to Politzer-Ahles et al. article (‘Is linguistic injustice a myth? A response to Hyland (2016)’) cites Adrian Holliday and his notion of neo-racist native speakerism to reject lumping ‘ together individuals … on the basis of whether their first language is English or not’ (p.9).

What are we, EAP practitioners, to make of this debate? One conclusion I have drawn is that ‘Academic language is … no one’s mother tongue’ is misleading and that it would be better to invest time and energy in exploring Bourdieu ( and his sometime co-writers) more deeply, to read about, for example, his ideas in ‘Science of Science and Reflexivity’. Most of all, my reaction to this debate is that we need a much more sophisticated social theory or theories to inform EAP and shed light on the complexities, the material worldly complexities especially (not just linguistic complexities), that shape academic practices and ideas about practice and therefore shape EAP.

Slogans and misappropriated ellipsis don’t help much.

Bourdieu, P., Passeron, J-C., and Saint Martin, M. (1994) Academic discourse : Linguistic misunderstanding and professorial power. Polity

The Discursive Construction of EAP: Affirming Key Concepts and Values

This blog post was written by my collaborator and co-author Ian Bruce. I am sure you’ll find plenty to think about and comment on.

EAP has often been subject to reductive and potentially misleading definitions from cognate fields despite its own growing body of scholarship, research, innovative pedagogies and frequent academic events. The usual oppositional trope claims that EAP has a narrow, technical focus on text, and that it is not concerned with the context or writer of the text. Recently I again encountered these ideas being ventriloquated uncritically in the work of novice researchers. These encounters have motivated this post. Here I wish to revisit the issue of defining EAP and its scope with a particular focus on considering what is central to teaching and learning in EAP courses. Following that, I will express my thoughts on some current structural issues that may act as constraints upon EAP.

In supporting EAL students’ pathways into, or current trajectory within English-medium university education, I propose that EAP is concerned with the development of two areas of knowledge that are closely related although I see one as subsidiary to the other. These are: academic discourse competence and academic processes and values. My position is that the first area should be at the centre of what we do in EAP.

The core knowledge area of developing academic discourse competence may involve subject epistemologies, assignment genres, processing and creating extended texts, textual grammar (including key elements that relate to cohesion and coherence), metadiscourse devices and academic lexis. Development of academic discourse competence knowledge is achieved through the implementation of an analytic (top-down) syllabus with holistic objectives, based around genres or text types. Most EAP practitioners are familiar with genre-based pedagogy as a means for developing discourse competence.

The second, closely-related knowledge area of academic processes and values involves becoming familiar with the university’s organisation, hierarchies, methods of communication, course documents, modes of course delivery, academic integrity, accessing and processing information and the development of student autonomy. This area of cultural and dispositional knowledge is developed on an ongoing basis through the tasks and routines of EAP courses. For example, this could involve exposure to lectures and tutorials along with requirements to undertake larger, assessed academic tasks that integrate the desired skills and values. Such tasks provide a vehicle for the scaffolded development of skills related to accessing, reporting and synthesising knowledge, and expressing analytical (critical?) thinking.

One of the problems in EAP is that some tend to define the field in terms of only one of these two areas. A few years ago, I was confidently told by a colleague that our in-sessional EAP programme was solely about study skills development, and that it had nothing to do with language. In response, I would argue that language is at the absolute core of what we do. However, it is language that is used to achieve discursive academic purposes, which is what differentiates EAP from other types of general English language teaching.

Structural issues that can mitigate against EAP courses developing these two core knowledge areas may relate to materials, course organisation, teacher knowledge and experience and the institutional commercial imperatives placed on EAP units.

Materials (textbooks) can be branded as EAP, but if they employ a synthetic syllabus and are benchmarked to CEFR proficiency levels, it is likely that they are based on a TESOL materials model, and that they are not framed in ways that support pedagogy that develops discourse competence. This type of proficiency benchmarking of materials also obviates the need to undertake needs analysis, an activity that has always been at the heart of EAP. As we know, needs analysis may potentially involve understanding the culture, identities, expectations, educational experiences and prior cognitive training of our students. It also involves investigating the academic contexts which students are preparing to enter, or are already participating in, in terms of their epistemologies, genres, processes and academic values. Undertaking ongoing needs analyses utterly refutes the fallacious argument that EAP is only focused on the text and not the writer of the text.

Course organisation can be another structural feature that undermines EAP. For example, EAP courses can be organised in much the same way as traditional language courses with no requirement to attend a lecture or participate in a tutorial or undertake larger course assignments. Therefore, thought needs to be given to how EAP courses are structured so that they better reflect the modes of course delivery that students are preparing to (or already) participate in.

Much has been written recently about teacher knowledge and EAP teacher development. For a long time, there has been a growing level of scholarship of teaching and learning, research and community involvement by EAP practitioners. This willingness to engage with the literature, participate in debates and online discussions, attend events and undertake scholarship and research are essential for ongoing teacher knowledge development. Gemma Campion (2016), when reflecting on her case studies of practitioners making the transition from general English teaching into EAP, notes that a TESOL background and training provides a basis for building EAP teacher knowledge, but ongoing mentoring and development are needed as part of the transition.

Finally, there is the issue of the creeping commercialisation and commodification of EAP programmes and universities, which may have a profound effect on the content and modes of delivery of EAP courses. Greg Hadley (2015) and Alex and I (Ding & Bruce, 2017) have attempted to address these issues in previous book publications. We have argued that within the field, the practitioner response should include an active scholarship of teaching and learning. However, there are also larger educational policy and political issues here. Advocacy concerning these issues needs to come from practitioner organisations as well as individuals.

EAP is a developed field of academic activity and academic inquiry, and as such, requires practitioners to participate in scholarship and research as well as contribute to the academic and political debates that relate to our field. Occasionally, it also requires us to offer a refutation to those who attempt to define the fields as something quite different from what it actually is.

Campion, G. C. (2016). The learning never ends: Exploring teachers views on the transition from General English to EAP. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 23, 59-70.
Ding, A., & Bruce, I (2017). The English for academic purposes practitioner: Operating on the edge of academia. Cham, Switzerland: Springer
Hadley, G. (2015). English for academic purposes in neoliberal universities: A critical grounded theory, Heidelberg, Germany, Springer International Publishing.

Keeping a Focus on the EAP Practitioner: Further Building the EAP Knowledge Base

A blog post written by Ian Bruce and Alex Ding

A discussion thread on the BALEAP list during the first few days in May raised concerns that BALEAP events related to CPD are often staged over weekends, during the practitioner’s own time rather than during their working hours. Some of this discussion also raised other issues relating to the academic status and workplace conditions of EAP practitioners. Liz Hamp-Lyons, as a former editor of JEAP, commented about “the failure of us as Editors to tackle the professional issues in the field” and suggested a special issue of JEAP as a way of focusing on some of these issues. Hilary Nesi, a current editor of JEAP, agreed to set up a link for proposals for a special issue. However, she offered the caveat “that issues surrounding the status of EAP within Higher Education, and all the attendant concerns might be better discussed in a journal read by those involved in administration and policy-making at university management level, so that managers can be made aware of, and take action to address, the plight of EAP practitioners in its various manifestations”. The link that Hilary provided was an Elsevier link (not specifically a JEAP link), so any proposals in this area may be directed to another higher education journal rather than be taken up by JEAP itself.

This list discussion is interesting as it raises the matter of the scope of the current range of research within EAP/ESP and, importantly, who disseminates research that examines the development, praxis and career trajectories of EAP practitioners. The advertised scope of JEAP includes the practitioner areas of ‘teaching methodology’ and ‘teacher education’, which one could argue includes initial teacher education and ongoing teacher development (including CPD). However, it does seem that the larger socio-economic and ideological contexts of EAP within higher education, contexts that frame the whole activity of EAP and influence its implementation, have largely remained outside of the perceived remit of JEAP. Our recent book focusing on the EAP practitioner was an attempt to address this situation. Also responding to the theme of the recent BALEAP conference in Leeds, there were a number of presentations that focused on the practitioner, their working life, their development, self-perceptions and their concerns.

We are hoping to continue this focus as part of our ‘New Perspectives for English for Academic Purposes (call for proposals flyer), recently contracted with Bloomsbury. Currently we are making plans to have around six edited titles, two of which will offer scope to address issues relating to EAP practitioners, their working lives and trajectories. One of these titles will address the area of politics and public policies as they impact on EAP (and on the practitioner); the other will deal with aspects of practitioner identity. We are hopeful that these two forthcoming edited volumes will offer opportunities for publication of research and theoretical contributions that address these areas from a broad range of contexts. At this stage, we wish to encourage practitioner-researchers working in this area to continue to collect your data, to do your analysis and proceed with your local presentations and publications, perhaps with the view of bringing your work together in a book chapter as the series unfolds.

In Chapter 3 of our 2017 book we acknowledged the rich depth of textual work that has contributed to the existing knowledge base of EAP, drawing as it does on a number of research and theoretical traditions. Much of this falls comfortably within the scope of JEAP. However, we would also argue that it is now time to broaden the focus of EAP theory and research to include the EAP practitioner as well as EAP curriculum, something that we are determined to include in our forthcoming series. Keep researching and writing, and keep watching this space.

Alex and Ian

PS If evidence was ever needed of the imperative to explore and communicate the socio-economic and ideological structures that shape (and distort) the development of EAP practitioners then readers need look no further than recent events at the University of Essex where senior management have make changes entailing:

  1. reducing the number of teaching staff despite growing student numbers,*
  2. removing scholarship and programme development from Tutor workload calculations,
  3. forcing full-time tutors to go part-time (shifting them from 1.0 FTE to 0.8 FTE) without reducing teaching loads,
  4. subsidising this loss with new staff on fixed-term contracts in a process of casualisation,
  5. reducing admin support,
  6. closing the TDC helpdesk–an important focal point for students seeking academic help.

Why this and other pressing material concerns that impact the teaching of EAP are not part of the research and scholarship landscape (which JEAP, for example, aims to capture) is more than regrettable: it ignores, distorts and obfuscates the practice(s) of EAP and hinders the collective discussion that may lead to improvements for all practitioners and students.

# If you wish to sign the petition against the proposed changes at the University of Essex click here.

The Language Educator as Practitioner: Examining agency, identity and knowledge

A few months ago I gave a talk at the University of York – ‘The Language Educator as Practitioner: Examining agency, identity and knowledge’ – and I have posted it here. It covers quite a lot of theoretical ground and might be of interest. It is broader in scope than the usual focus on this blog but the issues raised here are drawn from EAP.

If you don’t feel like watching this (I fully understand!) I have included the PowerPoint slides: The Language Educator as Practitioner YORK 

As per usual your thoughts and comments most welcome.

The Micropolitics of EAP Centres: Opening Pandora’s Box

Our ‘professional’ literature prefers not to deal with the ‘unprofessional’.
Alderson, 2009:11.

[T]he core values of professional communities revolve around the expectation that we do not keep secrets, whether of discovery or of grounded doubt.
Shulman, 2000:50.

This blog post is an invitation to consider, critique and respond to what follows. And what follows is very speculative and tentative for reasons that will become clear.
The prompt for writing this blog entry are a series of questions:

What makes one EAP centre different from another?

How can we explain the culture, identity and ethos of an EAP centre?

Why do some EAP centres appear to flourish (despite often unfavourable structural forces) when some/many appear to struggle? Without wishing to suggest that ‘flourishing’ becomes yet another vague metric and opportunity to measure the unmeasurable, it does seem to me in my many conversations with colleagues in EAP in the UK and elsewhere over a number of years that some centres seem to thrive and others don’t. Some practitioners are happy others much less so.

I am not going to answer these questions as I don’t feel I am able do that but I am going to suggest that understanding the micropolitics of EAP centres might be helpful in providing part of a very complex response.
What EAP centres do share are the same structural forces that shape (but not wholly determine) EAP. I’ve blogged about the pernicious effects of neoliberalism already and won’t repeat the arguments here. EAP centres share the same contested and unstable knowledge-base (see this post for more information) and EAP practitioners across institutions often share similar educational backgrounds, aspirations, experience and transitions into EAP (although not as uniform as some commentators would have us believe). In other words, there is plenty that we do share, plenty that suggests we share similar social practices and plenty to suggest that our praxis is inspired from a shared and evolving understanding of theory, research and practice.
Where we do diverge is where we are located within the university: within a peripheral (from an academic perspective) service sector of the university, an independent profit-making unit, part of an academic school and ever more frequently in what is euphemistically called a ‘joint venture’ (rather than the more accurate ‘outsourcing’). Where EAP centres are housed will have some (and perhaps a great deal of) impact on the power, recognition, agency and perception of the centre (and those practitioners that work in them). The highly symbolic location of the EAP centre can only provide a partial explanation though of why EAP centres differ. Two comparable universities with EAP centres located in very similar university structures can nonetheless be and feel very different. Structural forces do not hammer down so hard that there is an undifferentiated mass of centres. Culture, context, history, people and micropolitics all contribute to shaping the ethos and identity of centres.
One way of beginning to unpack EAP centres is to account for the ethos, histories and practices of centres with the perceptions, beliefs and actions of those that work in them. Examining the micropolitics of EAP centres might help achieve this. Although we (with Ian Bruce) were largely interested in the effects of micropolitics on practitioner development and scholarship the following quote captures our understanding of micropolitics:

Micro-political studies are largely taboo within EAP and TESOL more widely (a notable exception being Alderson, 2009), and discussions are usually relegated to the margins of gossip at conferences and events. What is clear from our long experience in EAP is the significance of personal politics, the motivations of multiple actors and the complex and competing agendas and relationships that unfold and interact over time and contingently to shape a specific work environment and its response to structural forces. However, we know of this only experientially and anecdotally. Although controversial and not without risks, we would like to see more studies and expertise in understanding and exploring the culture and politics of centres. We know too little of how EAP centres function, why some centres are supportive of development and others not, why some thrive and others, many, struggle, why and how some managers and directors (and practitioners) embrace the market, why practitioners, at times, appear to reject or embrace scholarship.
Ding and Bruce, 2017:157.

Micropolitics is controversial and risky and opens up a potential Pandora’s box of partial insights, recriminations, libel, misunderstandings and damage to both institutions and people. Yet, there is a real imperative to understand how and why some centres can and do much more than survive and for this knowledge to be made available for scrutiny, critique and possibly used by others to influence or attempt change in their own institutions. Also we do need, collegially, with rigour and in good faith, to examine and understand poor practices and dysfunctional work cultures to change them and support those practitioners who are struggling with the micropolitics of work. And not just practitioners – it is too facile and unreflexive to assume that all cultural/political issues in EAP centres are not in part our own responsibility. We do have some agency and we also contribute to the ethos of where we work through our everyday interactions, conversations with others, our (mis) use of officious (contra official) power that we have, how we talk about what we do and each other, our everyday actions and how empathetically we try to understand those with different roles and perspectives. How we treat each other is significant in this respect.
There are ethical risks in undertaking this sort of research and there are methodological issues too – which is better emic or etic viewpoints? Are ethnographic/anthropological research methodologies the most helpful to uncover and analyse micropolitics? I don’t know the answers to this but I do feel that despite the serious risks attached to micropolitics we need to have the conceptual tools as well as the research to understand and improve where (and how) we work. It has got to be better than gossip and partial truths.

Knowledge and the EAP practitioner

This blog post is unlike others that have been posted. Next week (Saturday 28th of January) we (Bee Bond and I) are hosting a symposium on Knowledge and the EAP practitioner as part of a series of events for BALEAP ResTES.  The central question we shall be discussing is:

what knowledge do practitioners need to master to inform and direct not only their teaching but also, more broadly, their professional activities (including understandings of academia in both its epistemological and sociological dimensions)?

We asked three researchers in the field of EAP – Ian BruceNigel Harwood, and Jackie Tuck – to consider the relationship between knowledge and EAP and asked them to write up their thoughts in short papers prior to the event.

You can find their papers here:

Ian Bruce’s Paper

Nigel Harwood’s Paper

Jackie Tuck’s Paper

These papers form the basis of their presentations for the day. Each paper/presenter has a respondent to challenge and probe their views on the day. All participants on the day will also have the opportunity to question and discuss these papers.

In addition, we would like you to pose your questions and comments here before and after the event. We wanted to make their papers available to all whether you can attend or not. So please feel free to comment and discuss here


Our ResTES symposium poses a central question for EAP practitioners: what knowledge do practitioners need to master to inform and direct not only their teaching but also, more broadly, their professional activities (including understandings of academia in both its epistemological and sociological dimensions)?

Considering this key question leads to a further, fundamental questioning around the adequacy of orthodox and established research strands in EAP – which have defined EAP as a discipline – to act as influential sources for, inter alia, curriculum development, materials creation and pedagogic activity.

How do influential theories and research shape and/or constrain EAP praxis?

What are the limitations of established theories for practice?

What is gained and lost when theory is translated into pedagogy? What else is needed?

These questions highlight a disjunct between research(ers) and practitioners – a gap between on the one hand what we know and how we frame this knowledge, and on the other what is ‘teachable’, useful, effective and transformative.

As a contrast to more research-led, theory-based practice, one common alternative is to emphasise and rely on experiential and reflective practice as the source of socially constructed knowledge to direct practice. Yet, attractive as this might appear, there are limits to what knowledge can be generated in this way, the veracity and warranty of this knowledge, and the perspectivism and relativism that this disposition to knowledge generates.

The aim of the symposium is to explore these key questions and to assess the claims and limits of the mainstream theories and research that define EAP and its practitioners. What do we need to know?

Each speaker has been asked to write a 2,000 to 3,000- word discussion paper. The week before the symposium, we’ll send participants the papers. On the day, speakers will expand on their papers for about twenty minutes. A respondent will have the opportunity to question and critique each paper. There will be plenty of time for all to contribute and participate.

We are looking forward to a lively, engaging and thought-provoking day.

Sponsored by the Leeds Institute for Teaching Excellence (LITE)