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.
Our ‘professional’ literature prefers not to deal with the ‘unprofessional’.
[T]he core values of professional communities revolve around the expectation that we do not keep secrets, whether of discovery or of grounded doubt.
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.
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 Bruce, Nigel 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:
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)
Academic and author Paul Breen writes a guest blog on the growing importance that universities are attaching to the notion of real world impact, without a clear definition of what this means.
WINNING the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature has placed Bob Dylan firmly in the analytical spotlight this past couple of days. It has also opened up a debate centred around the fact that this prize, historically, has been awarded as much for the realisation of idealism (in the original Swedish sense of the word) as it has been for the mastery of language, at which Dylan undoubtedly excels. There is rarely a day that passes without one of his phrases or lyrics cropping up in everyday thought and conversation.
For some, Bob Dylan is the 20th century Shakespeare. There is little doubt that the impact of his music has been a major determining factor in this noble, for some, break with tradition. Others see this as further evidence of the gradual dumbing down of society, where depth of knowledge is replaced by breadth of popular appeal. We only have to look at the content of the current American Presidential campaign and debates to garner evidence for such claims about the dumbing down of public debate.
Yet the reality is that Bob Dylan and many other musicians will have far broader impact in their lifetime than many academics could ever hope to even get within touching distance of. Indeed some would argue that academia has been pushed further out of touch with real world impact because of slowness to adjust to the speed and immediacy of the digital age. Despite that, impact is seen as a critical element of REF 2020, the great guiding light and set of goalposts for all our activities over the next couple of years.
This new emphasis on impact though is not simply talking about our impact in the academic or specific disciplinary context. It is suggesting that we have impact in the real world, which suggests that we as academics are to be measured not just on our professional achievements within work but on our personal achievements outside of it. Does this mean that the university can lay claim to those things we achieve in our spare time that help to boost our profile? For example, shaping political policy at national level can be seen as part of our impact. Thus if we are members of political parties in our spare time and we are invited to join committees that shape or challenge government policy, our unpaid work could have an impact of benefit and relevance to the REF.
In the same way, articles that we write outside of the work context can also be drawn upon in terms of real-world impact, which again asks questions of where the boundaries lie in terms of the professional and the personal. For me this is totally acceptable by the very nature of the jobs we do and the communities of practice in which we operate, but there seems to be a contradiction in this, and the increasingly corporate direction in which universities are moving. Many of us find our time being strictly measured and quantified in workload allocation models, which very often bear little resemblance to the actuality of what we do. Similarly, in theory, any work that we produce in a professional capacity belongs to the institution that we work for, though only technically if done within work time. In theory that should then mean we keep possession of those lessons and materials we produce on Saturday mornings of coffee and a hangover, but you may also find contractual clauses that define our work allocation more qualitatively as being the time it takes us to fulfil the duties of our roles. Therefore the Saturday morning shift still belongs to the university courtesy of the fact that we were not quite able to meet all the demands of our role in our regular Monday to Friday slot.
Similarly too, in some workplaces, there is a ban on use of personal email or on using the university postal service for personal purposes. So let’s say I am a member of the Green Party (hypothetically) and I use the university’s mailing service to distribute some promotional material to a newspaper. The folks in the post room may see this as personal, nothing to do with my job if I am a lecturer in English Language for example. Yet, let’s say I climb up the ranks of the party in terms of reputation as a consequence of my promotional efforts and end up becoming invited to join a government focus group on sustainability in higher education. My contribution to this group could count as impact.
Impact though remains a difficult phenomenon to measure, which brings me back to Bob Dylan. A lot has been written about the impact of his music upon culture and the changes to attitudes he has brought, particularly in his highlighting of social injustice. It is these changes to attitudes that satisfy the idealism criteria required by the Nobel judging panel. But did he really chronicle the fate of the African-American community in the manner of Toni Morrison or James Baldwin, the man she credits as one of the inspirations for her writing? Has he devoted his life to championing minority causes in the same manner as Ken Saro-Wiwa the Nigerian writer and environmental activist executed in Nigeria in the 1990s? Neither Baldwin nor Saro-Wiwa won Nobel Prizes, and nor have countless other minority voices, particularly those further inhibited by being female. Bob Dylan holds the cultural capital of being from a global superpower and presents his message through the highly commercialised and commodified medium of the music industry.
But to conclude I do think Bob Dylan deserves the prize because he is a master of language whose voice and lyrics cycle through our popular consciousness on a daily basis, and who reminds us all that writing belongs to those who poeticise, rather than prophesise. It would be wrong to deny the greatest lyricist of our age this prize on the basis of those who might also have deserved it either in the past or the present, but did not get it. This award has been a powerful statement on a contemporary redefinition of literature in an age when people are reading less and less, and on the importance of real-world impact.
That seems to be the buzz word/phrase of our era, though impact can be such a subjective factor, and the measurement of it raises as many questions as it offers answers. That’s no less true in the university environment than it is on the judging panel for literary prizes. The times they truly are a changing, as higher education redefines its own sense of impact.
The question of EAP practitioner identity is one that has proved to be a leitmotif (if often tackled obliquely) to many of the posts on this blog. I have already noted Belcher’s (2012:544) recent observation that the ‘community that ESP professionals know the least about is their own’ (https://teachingeap.wordpress.com/2015/02/23/eap-teacher-education-and-development-some-thoughts/) and it would be interesting to speculate as to why this is the case. However, the purpose of this post is to point a way away from how identity has been theorised and why this is important work.
Given that the EAP practitioner is largely invisible in the EAP literature an obvious way to begin would be to turn to the research in teacher identity in TESOL, of which there is an abundance of articles and books examining teacher identity, for theoretical and methodological guidance. However, in this post I suggest that this leads to an impoverished understanding of the self and a very particular and very partial understanding of the politics of identity.
Varghese et al. (2005) claim that interest in TESOL teacher identity arose from two perspectives; the first is that teacher identity is crucial to understanding the language classroom, and the second, sociocultural and socio-political dimensions of language teaching (the so-called sociocultural turn in applied linguistics) came to the fore with a particular focus on identity as a key interest in language education. These claims made by Varghese et al. are, at best, myopic and reveal fundamental problems in theorising teacher identity (which I believe we in EAP would do well to avoid).
Identity theory in TESOL is largely parasitical on existent (and past) debates and frameworks in, inter alia, philosophy, politics and social theory. However, rather than suggesting a plethora of theoretical inspiration taken from elsewhere two associated theories dominate research in TESOL: poststructuralism and postmodernism. TESOL research is largely a reworking, repetition and reiteration of poststructural and postmodern theories of identities and, to use a poststructual expression, operates as theoretical hegemony in discourse on teacher identity in TESOL foreclosing other more promising avenues of research.
Perhaps the defining characteristics of postmodernism can be distilled as follows: an antagonism to any meta-theory (particularly Marxism); promotion of ethical, ideological and epistemological relativism; sensitivity to and celebration of identities, difference and diversity; a focus on context, discourse and practices; a lack of belief in social progress; an anthropomorphic understanding of knowledge and, most importantly, a deconstruction and dissolving of the self.
[Postmodernism] stressed the fragmentary, heterogeneous and plural character of reality, denied human thought the ability to arrive at any objective account of that reality and reduced the bearer of this thought, the subject, to an incoherent welter of sub- and trans-individual drives and desires.
TESOL research on teacher identity parrots (almost to the point of parody) many of the concerns of poststructuralism and postmodernism:
… the concept of multiple subjectivities as dynamic, shifting, often conflicting and situated in particular sociohistorical contexts
[identity is} multiple, shifting, negotiated and contingent on external factors and protagonists
Cheng et al. 2015: xvi
Identity is not a fixed, stable, unitary and internally coherent phenomenon but is multiple, shifting and in conflict
Verghese et al 2005: 22-23.
Whether by ‘asphyxiation by social forces’ (Archer, 2000:18) or dissolution in discourse there seems to be only remnants of the self; an ontological self lacking both in coherence and initiative (Callinicos, 1989:6). This is what TESOL research, by and large, offers as a model for identity.
A second point to make here is that TESOL research on identity in general repeatedly focusses specific features of identity notably race, gender and sexual orientation, but almost never on social class. This means that the sociocultural turn in applied linguistics has, as David Block (2014) has noted ‘erased’ social class from applied linguistics (again following trends in the social sciences). Why? Block’s speculative answer to this is interesting (but incomplete) adopting Bourdieu’s notions of intellectualcentricism or scholastic fallacy to suggest:
An important aspect of researcher’s life stories and trajectories is their middle class condition, it is not surprising that there is often a tendency to impose on a view of the world that emanates from and reflects middle class position… This means that when focusing on identity, as a lot of applied linguists have done in recent years, there is a strong tendency focus on issues around gender, race, religion, and sexuality because these are dimensions of identity that are most salient to applied linguists in their daily lives and middle class people in multicultural societies.
Block, 2014: 170.
Whilst Block gives a highly plausible (and damning) explanation of the erasure of social class from applied linguistics and Varghese et al. (2005) give an equally plausible (but very narrow) explanation for the growing interest in teacher identity in TESOL, what has not been explained is why identity has become so indispensable in politics and social theory in recent years.
Izenberg (2016) and Moran (2015) offer complimentary accounts of the historical emergence of identity. Moran argues that identity is an ideological keyword – a cultural materialist concept developed by Raymond Williams (1985) – and the core premise is that ‘words change their meaning over time in relation to changing social, economic and political pressures’ (Holborow, 2015:71) and the ‘problems of its meanings [are] inextricably bound up with the problems it [is] used to discuss’ (Williams, 1983:15). Put simply, identity now carries meanings and effects that it didn’t have even 70 years ago. Identity came to mean what it does today at that precise moment in history when questions of the self and group became problematic. Identity is an articulation of threats to the self and group. Moran (idem: 25) relates the emergence of new meanings attached to identity to three key changes:
- Emergence of new social movements around race and gender
- Intensified consumption in contexts of contemporary capitalism
- Popularisation of psychology and the self help industry
Identity has been largely appropriated by the cultural postmodern left (rather than the economic Marxist left) and has generally refused to base identity in the material and social conditions of capitalist societies. However, because of theoretical commitments to anti-essentialism (or anything foundational) postmodernism is unable to conceive of identity as anything other than fragmentary, partial, contingent, and fluid. It is more a paralogical understanding of identity: a theory against identity. It is a theory that denies that there is anything essential to an identity of a person or group. Ever finer demarcations of identity are sought to counteract claims of essentialism to capture the experience of a given group leading to ever decreasing group affiliations and ever increasing incommensurate identities and voice. This has the effect of atomising groups to individuals and weakening social ties and solidarity: poststructuralism and postmodernism are highly congruent with neoliberalism and individualism and it is no historical accident that both have flourished at the same moment. Postmodernism and poststructuralism identity politics is all about recognition of difference and nothing about redistribution which is one reason why it sits so well with neoliberalism:
Recognition at the level of discourse and attitudes is of course important, but it is not enough, and at worst may be tokenistic. It is easy for the dominant to grant discursive recognition and civility to the dominated or socially excluded; giving up some of their money and other advantages to them another matter.
The purpose of this blog post has been to lay the groundwork for a positive theory of identity that could be applied to EAP practitioner identity without succumbing to the weaknesses of theoretical frameworks that have shaped discourse of teacher identity in TESOL. As there has been no research (to my knowledge) specifically on EAP practitioner identity we have no theoretical legacies to follow, no established frameworks to respect, and no discourses which have erased or promoted specific aspects of identity. I believe it important not to follow the lead given by research in TESOL because, in the end, it can only offer a very partial account of our identity and a very emaciated one at that.
My positive theory of identity discusses the following elements:
- Provide a link from identity to agency
- Have explanatory powers to articulate the relationship between structure and agency and, specifically account for morphostatis and morphogenesis i.e to account for how agents are shaped by structural forces and how agents change structure over time.
- Account for, at least theoretically, how professional identity is shaped. What are the discourses, knowledge bases, practices, and social material contexts and forces that intersect to influence professional identity?
- How does personal identity relate to social identity (or which one aspect is professional identity)? How do our personal concerns and commitments manifest themselves in the social sphere?
- What connects or affiliates one practitioner to another? Is there such thing as a profession? Is there an essence to EAP? Something that binds all practitioners?
- How do we account for recognition, distinction, social stratification and boundaries in defining a practitioner? Who makes these distinctions? And how do we change them?
- How do neoliberal values impose themselves in universities and how do these values transform practitioner identity?
The framework for identity coming in the following post is inspired by many of the fundamental premises of critical realism especially in the works of Margaret Archer and Dave Elder-Vass.
Archer, M. S. (2000) Being Human: The Problem of Agency. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Belcher, D. (2012) ‘The future of ESP research: Resources and access and choice’ in B. Paltridge and S. Starfield (eds). Handbook of English for Specific Purposes. Boston: Blackwell, pp.535-552.
Block, D. (2014) Social Class in Applied Linguistics. London Routledge.
Callinicos, A. (1989) Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Cheng, Y. L., Said, S. B., and Park, K.’ Expanding the Horizon of Research in Language Teacher Identity’ in Cheng et al. (eds) Advances and Current Trends in Language Teacher Identity Research. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. xv-xxi.
Glodjo, T. (2016) ‘Deconstructing Social Class Identity and Teacher Privilege in the Second Language Classroom’. TESOL Journal .
Holborow, M. (2015) Language and Neoliberalism. London: Routledge.
Izenberg, G. (2016) Identity: The Necessity of a Modern Idea. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Moran, M. (2015) Identity and Capitalism. London: Sage.
Sayer, A. (2005) The Moral Significance of Class. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Varghese, M., Morgan, B., Johnston, B, and Johnson, K, A. (2005) ‘Theorizing Language Teacher Identity: Three Perspectives and Beyond’, 4(1), Journal of Language Identity and Education, 21-44.
Williams, R. (1983) Keywords: A Vocabulary of Society and Society. New York: Oxford University Press.
This post is a response to my previous post ‘Neoliberal EAP: are we all neoliberals now?’ (https://teachingeap.wordpress.com/2016/01/25/neo-liberal-eap-are-we-all-neoliberals-now/) and is a continuation of a dialogue started by Julie King ‘Credentials, credibility and the EAP practitioner’ (https://teachingeap.wordpress.com/2012/06/07/credentials-credibility-and-the-eap-practitioner-6/) as well as a contribution by Gemma Campion ‘What is required to teach EAP?’(https://teachingeap.wordpress.com/2015/05/30/what-is-required-to-teach-eap/).
Pharmakon means remedy, cure and poison (it can also mean charm, drug, medicine …). It has an indeterminate meaning in which the opposite meaning is contained within it. Pharmakon reflects an intrinsic ambivalence inherent in EAP suggesting that EAP is capable of being a remedy and poison. There is a third meaning to pharmakon -scapegoat – which also fits neatly with perceptions of EAP. I have chosen pharmakon as a heuristic to respond to ‘Neoliberal EAP: are we all neoliberals now?’ because pharmakon captures the complexity, ambivalence and ambiguity of the praxis of EAP within neoliberal universities.
It is axiomatic that EAP, in the UK and elsewhere, has flourished due to governments and universities aggressively competing to capture increasingly large numbers of international students for reasons including financial gain. However, it does not follow logically that we need to succumb – either with enthusiasm, indifference or resignation – to an ideology of neoliberalism within EAP. Simply because EAP exists largely (but not wholly) as a consequence of neoliberalism does not entail that we must frame, justify and, most importantly, shrink our activities (teaching, scholarship, …) to a reductive commercial enterprise and philosophy. If and when we do this EAP becomes more poison than remedy.
It is also axiomatic that education is transformative. By that, I mean something rather banal: education necessarily entails some kind of transformation (of students, teachers, the institution, knowledge ..) whenever teaching (and not just teaching) takes place. Lessons, seminars, lectures, modules, syllabi and curriculum all explicitly and implicitly aim at some notion of change, development or progress. The key question here is to examine what sorts of transformations – within admittedly unfavourable structural/ideological conditions – do we wish to aim for when we design and teach a multitude of EAP courses. What are our purposes when we speak of EAP? The purposes of universities (and of disciplines) involve considering the values that are invested in knowledge and universities. Whilst (UK and many other countries too) government policy is dominated by neoliberal directives and discourse, limiting not only the autonomy and functioning of universities but also public debate and understandings of the purposes of education, this is not necessarily reflected in the values of those who inhabit the university and give it its identity. There are competing purposes for the university – many of which are as instrumental as the neoliberal ideal of education as a means to advancing personal wealth – such as social transformation and nation building. There is also the important but often now considered quaint, politically naive or perhaps even elitist idea that there is intrinsic epistemic value in knowledge i.e. knowledge (and building and accessing knowledge) is a good in itself. These, and other, ideals compete and co-exist within the university. So, when we think of the purpose in EAP it is important to consider other values and idea(l)s of the university – and to consider where our values reside and should reside. It is the critical exploration of these and other values and focusing on praxis that EAP can avoid slipping into being/becoming a simple commodity. By transforming curricula where knowledge and intellectual engagement (of students and practitioners) are central and opening up discussions of the purposes of university to students counteracts instrumental visions of education. This has to be done in a way that is not demagogic (a perhaps reasonable accusation sometimes directed at Critical EAP and AcLits) but more an invitation to consider values and ideals in universities. An irony that the metaphor of a marketplace of ideas is a good thing.
In order for (the epistemic value of) knowledge to become a central value in the teaching of EAP entails practitioners’ education and knowledge-base (or as BALEAP labels it – competencies) expanding to incorporate a deep understanding of the values, socio-economic forces and politics that frame local, as well as global, enactments and embodiments of university education and research. We need to understand sociologically how knowledge is constructed without losing sight of the intrinsic value of knowledge. Through a thorough and critical understanding we can firstly, begin to question, reaffirm or modify our own values, actions and commitments and, secondly, assess the extent to which our values are dissonant with the values that prevail. How subversive can we be?
We also need to engage in developing a critical understanding and assessments of the range of ideologies, theories, pedagogies and research that have shaped the teaching of EAP and analyse the extent to which specific influences enable, distort or obscure an attempt to position EAP in less subservient, derivate and commodified ways. In other words, to move us beyond the often common perception of EAP practitioners as language fixers and working within an intellectually vacuous field.
By engage in scholarship, with a wide range of communities, we open our endeavours to public scrutiny and critique and use by communities, to make our presence felt and to influence and engage other important communities. It is important to have our own vibrant EAP scholarship community but it is equally important not to turn inward and navel gaze because we need to argue, collectively and individually, in a principled and informed way to exert pressure to change those values and structures that undermine what we wish to achieve – to find elbow-room within traditions (of EAP), university contexts and structures which are not always, or often, favourable. We need too to establish intellectual capital in the university – to participate fully in university life. There are a wide range of conditions that often hinder or obstruct the emergence, maintenance or development of intellectual capital – it is these conditions we need to transform.
Over* the past 40 years or so universities have undergone profound changes that call into question the values and purposes of universities, the roles they hold in civic society and nature of the knowledge that is produced there. Successive governments, driven by neoliberal ideology**, have imposed a raft of unending reforms, directives and legislation to force universities (quite willingly?) to become embodiments of free market dystopia (just one irony is that the neoliberal university requires so much more regulation, auditing, management, legislation and control to ensure that its functioning is congruent with neoliberal principles).
The nefarious and pernicious effects of neoliberal ideology on universities are damming and vast. One pernicious effect (among many) of this is the positioning of students as consumers and teachers as sellers of educational products. The ‘student is expected to serve as the personification of market forces’ (Furedi, 2011:3). This fuels consumer fantasy (Haywood et al. 2011) as to the lifestyle, economic wealth and social status that a qualification will entitle the holder to expect and demand. Education is a means to aspirational vocational and economic ends – indeed success governments attempt to transform universities into catalysts of economic wealth (the ‘knowledge economy’). Through a process of commodification students are encouraged to perceive education in terms of their access and entitlement to wealth and social capital, they tend to avoid experimentation, risk-taking, intellectual challenges and manifest conservative attitudes towards learning in order to maximise their chances of academic success (Nixon et al., 2011). The ‘student experience’ is just one of the many neoliberal euphemisms that litter university websites, documents and brochures (internationalisation – being another). A pernicious side effect of the neoliberal attempt to transform universities is the surely connected concurrent rise of therapeutic education alongside an increasingly illiberal, censorious and conformist university.
Employability and student satisfaction are now key metrics in determining how desirable a university is. Lecturers (and universities) are judged, ranked and promoted depending on a range of metrics (research output, income generation, public engagement, knowledge transfer, scores from students, workload, administration, managerial responsibilities…). It seems everything can and must be measured and ranked. There are gongs for these things too.
I could go on (and on) but I won’t. There is a growing and significant body of research and publications that set out the many effects of neoliberalism on universities and they make the case much more articulately than I can. What does EAP (through its publications) have to say about the neoliberal university? What are the impacts of neoliberalism on practitioners of EAP?
In turning to discuss the first question one could turn to JEAP, the flagship publication in EAP, which claims in its editorial policy that ‘no worthy topic relevant to EAP is beyond the scope of the journal’. Apart from a special edition on Critical EAP in 2009, in which neoliberalism wasn’t properly or fully analysed in any case, JEAP has systematically failed to discuss the socio-economic structures that shape the praxis of teaching EAP. It is as if the structural conditions and ideologies that permeate our professional lives simply do not exist or are not worthy of investigation. Titles in the current edition of JEAP are fairly typical of its preoccupations e.g. ‘Learning academic formulaic sequences’, and ‘Nominal stance construction in L1 and L2 students’ writing’. Worthy and useful perhaps, but hardly indicative of a worldly stance to the teaching of EAP. In her final editorial piece Liz Hamp-Lyons sums it up well:
The socio-political and economic imperatives for the rise of EAP we described in 2002 are, if anything, more serious and indeed deeper issues than they were then; but they have barely appeared in the pages of JEAP in recent years. Sarah Benesch guest edited a Special Issue of JEAP in 2008 (8, 2) but there seems to have been little uptake, at least in this journal. The overt use of the international student ‘market’ by governments to shore up the finances of universities is an embarrassment to many of us, and is discussed in small fora and face to face among EAP teachers and programme managers, but is not found in the research literature.
The future of JEAP and EAP Volume 20, December 2015, Pages A1–A4
The problem is compounded in JEAP because it projects a disciplinary identity for EAP that includes neither the voices of practitioners nor their concerns. It is as if EAP exists in an ideological vacuum. Simply put, apart from the occasional presentation (a link to one I did) or paper there is little in JEAP or the literature more generally that tackles issues relating to neoliberalism, the university and the EAP practitioner.
Why this silence persists bemuses me and I find it difficult to account for. The rise of EAP (more than) coincides with the advent of neoliberal education and is perhaps a result of neoliberal policies. The existence of EAP (in terms of employing many teachers in universities) has been dependent on universities marketing and recruiting international students in greater and greater numbers. Attracting students paying large fees to benefit (financially) the university is unrelenting and EAP has emerged as a result of this. In an important sense EAP is a product of neoliberal policies and our existence (apart from perhaps as a somewhat esoteric discipline) depends on capturing international students.
That there is money to be made from EAP is quite evident. Study Group, which offers ‘partnerships’ with universities to provide EAP courses, is owned by Providence Equity (you can get a flavour of what they are like here). Other private providers (owned by shareholders, hedge funds et al.) also compete to seduce universities into profitable partnerships. EAP centres are also often expected to generate profits for the university. It is far from uncommon to hear papers talk about the EAP industry or to discuss EAP students in terms of customers. Not only is the academic field of EAP almost silent on neoliberalism but it seems practitioners perhaps have diverse views on the relationship between neoliberalism and EAP (or its significance to EAP). Why is there so little public discussion among practitioners about the economic structures that shape our work? Perhaps the (oppressive) dominance of neoliberal discourse more generally over a number of years has dulled the imagining of credible alternatives? It might be bad but what alternative is there? What can or should we do in any case? Perhaps we have profited from the rise in neoliberalism and have no wish to criticise? Perhaps discussions of this type seem abstract and far removed from the classroom? Whatever the reasons, and I’m sure there are a great many, it appears that the structural conditions which shape our lives are not discussed.
So, this post is an invitation to discuss this further. To continue to ignore discussing the structures that shape our lives will only limit our ability to understand them and to find ways to navigate them. Ignoring this also obscures the complexity of (and materiality of) teaching EAP in universities, it avoids questions of how best to prepare students for (neoliberal) university study and leaves unanalysed our (ideal) place, identity, autonomy and roles in universities.
Two more posts will follow shortly, one from me discussing some approaches we might take to navigate the neoliberal university and one from an ex-student and EAP practitioner.
* I’d like to think that previous posts on this blog (by others at least) have been thoughtful, carefully written, referenced and based on professional investments, interests and/or expertise. Not so this entry. I have no claims of any kind of authority to write about neoliberalism whatsoever. However, I feel compelled to write something about neoliberalism and EAP because I want to know what you think and because we (EAP Practitioners) rarely (at least in publications) debate the socio-ideological forces that shape our praxis, discourse, identity and purpose.
** “Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets and free trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices. The state has to guarantee, for example, the quality and integrity of money. It must also set up those military, defence, police and legal structures and functions required to secure private property rights and to guarantee, by force if need be, the proper functioning of markets. Furthermore, if markets do not exist (in areas such as land, water, education, health care, social security, or environmental pollution) then they must be created, by state action if necessary. But beyond these tasks the state should not venture. State interventions in markets (once created) must be kept to a bare minimum because, according to the theory, the state cannot possibly possess enough information to second-guess market signals (prices) and because powerful interest groups will inevitably distort and bias state interventions (particularly in democracies) for their own benefit”