What’s disciplinary epistemology got to do with EAP?

The blog post for this week was written by a colleague of ours – Julio Gimenez. Julio has two main research interests; academic literacies and communication in the workplace.

In a recent article in Studies in Higher Education, Kerri-Lee Krause (2012) has offered yet another chapter of the debate on disciplines and generic skills in higher education which in the UK started in the mid 90s with the adoption of ‘transferable skills’ recommended by the Dearing Report. Based on interviews with twenty-two academic staff in history and mathematics, Krause concludes, inter alia, that debates on “the merits, or otherwise, of embedding generic skills and graduate attributes into curricula” (p.16) are very much determined by the views of academics on epistemological issues that are central to curriculum design.  See also recent debates on this blog.

One of the logical fallacies of the debate on disciplines and skills and attributes it seems to me to be the dichotomous view on generic vs discipline-specific skills that lies at the heart of it.  Supporters of generic skills have always claimed that once learnt students are able to use them in a variety of contexts and for a range of needs, whilst advocates of discipline-specific skills maintain that skills are highly context-sensitive rather than context-flexible and therefore they don’t transfer that easily (as supporters of generic skills want us to believe). Seeing them as dichotomous entities has not only prevented to bring the debate to a new level but it’s also created a number of misconceptions. It’d be more productive to place skills on a continuum that goes from generic to discipline-specific, which would, I believe, be useful not only to move the debate forward but also to clarify misconceptions.

Let me illustrate this by using ‘referencing’ as a case in point. As many other skills or graduate attributes, referencing requires students to be able to do it correctly and appropriately. As many readers of this blog would agree, knowing how to “reference correctly” has to do with the mechanics of referencing, whether the university, discipline or department where the students are based claim[1] they follow Harvard, APA, or Vancouver. This is the ‘generic aspect’ of referencing:

  • how to quote text,
  • how to paraphrase ideas,
  • how to produce a list of references, etc.

which, if followed correctly by all the users of a given system, should easily transfer from context to context. The generic aspects of referencing have actually formed the basis for the development of bibliographic software such as EndNote and RefWorks.

But not all disciplines ‘evaluate’ and ‘use’ references in the same way. For example, there is considerable variation not only across different disciplines (e.g. philosophy, biology and applied linguistics) but also across disciplines that have long been perceived to be very similar (e.g. nursing and midwifery). I don’t intend to rehearse here previously made arguments about the use of referencing across disciplines (see, for instance, Ken Hyland’s extensive research on the topic), but just to point to the fact that if the density, type and purposes of citation across disciplines vary, then this is one of the aspects of academic discourse that contributes to disciplinary specificity. And specificity in a discipline is largely determined by its epistemology. It is here then where referencing becomes discipline-specific and requires students to know how to “reference appropriately”.

At this point, many of you may be wondering so ‘what’s disciplinary epistemology got to do with EAP?’ Well, I think that unless we are aware of how the epistemologies of the disciplines our students will be part of conceptualise these attributes, we will only be able to safely teach them how to deploy skills such as referencing ‘correctly’.

We could very well argue that as EAP practitioners our responsibility is to teach generic skills and leave the discipline-specific stuff to the academics in the departments[2]. Fair enough. But it could also be the case that we want to teach ‘referencing’, rather than ‘generic referencing’ and for that our pedagogic practices will have to be informed by the disciplinary epistemologies that shape the conceptualisations of attributes such as those I have mentioned in this posting.

By the same token, informing our EAP practices in this way could be a window of opportunity for us to be seen as more central to the disciplines and less peripheral to the education of students in higher education, as main contributors to the literacy experiences of university students rather than as English language problem-fixers.

Perhaps then as a community of EAP practitioners and researchers we could ask ourselves: where along the generic/discipline-specific continuum would we like our professional practices to fall?


Krause, K-L. D. (2012): Challenging perspectives on learning and teaching in the disciplines: the academic voice, Studies in Higher Education, DOI:10.1080/03075079.2012.690730


[1] I use ‘claim’ here to refer to the variation that there usually exists within institutions in terms of the system of referencing they follow or believe to follow. This variation seems to cut across institutions, disciplines, departments and staff, representing another source of confusion and even frustration for students.

[2] Mind you, that’s exactly what the academics in the departments I know and work with think; that teaching referencing, criticality and writer voice is not part of their job. And that’s how things fall through the cracks.


Academic Discourse and Literacies and the Teaching of Academic Writing

It is interesting to see that one of the recurring key themes in the Journal of English for Academic Purposes (2010-11) as well as BALEAP PIMs (November 2000 and November 2011) has been academic discourse and literacies and EAP discipline-specific teaching methods.  If we also look at the summary of competency statements in the BALEAP Competency Framework for Teaching of English for Academic Purposes, we can see that an EAP practitioner is expected:

To be able to recognize and explore disciplinary differences and how they influence the way knowledge is expanded and communicated, and have a high level of systemic language knowledge including knowledge of discourse analysis. (BALEAP, 2008)

The authors of a recent publication, based on the British Academic Written English (BAWE) Corpus, point out that the starting point of their research study into student writing across disciplines was not the texts themselves but their disciplinary contexts (Nesi and Gardner 2012).  This enabled them to subsequently classify and analyse 13 genre families in terms of features which were shared across genres but also those which were discipline specific. Similarly, Bhatia (2004) stresses the importance of developing an awareness of the use of genre theory to identify discourse across generic boundaries as well as disciplinary variation. As an advocate of discipline-specific approaches to the teaching of academic writing, Hyland (2004: 11) points out that:

While all academic discourse is distinguished by certain common practices, such as acknowledging sources, rigorous testing, intellectual honesty, and so on, there are differences which are likely to be more significant than such broad similarities. The ways that writers chose to represent themselves, their readers and their world, how they seek to advance knowledge, how they maintain the authority of their discipline and the processes whereby they establish what is to be accepted as substantiated truth, a useful contribution and a valid argument are all culturally-influenced practical actions and matters for community agreement.

He goes on to claim that:

Writing cannot be understood solely in terms of either immediate situations of writing or from individual texts; rather, it reflects, and in turn constitutes, social and institutional practices derived from contexts which are principally disciplinary. This means that while academic knowledge is frequently represented in style guides, ESP materials and University ‘enhancement courses’ as attending to transferable writing skills, students actually have to readjust to each discipline they encounter. Paraphrasing, citing, reviewing the literature, and other standard features of EAP courses are not uniform practices reducible to generic advice. (ibid: 145)

It is therefore important for EAP practitioners to think of a variety of appropriate methods to analyse academic discourse in different disciplines and then develop materials which will help EAP learners acquire some of the genres which they will be required to understand and eventually produce themselves as part of their academic studies or research. 

We could argue that If EAP/ESP learners are to be accepted as members of their discourse community, first of all, they need to become aware of ways in which knowledge is constructed and the agreed conventions used to discuss issues in their discipline. Awareness-raising approaches are usually the starting point to enable students to identify similarities and differences between different written academic genres such as essays, textbooks, PhD theses, research articles, lab reports case studies, among others, in terms of the communicative purpose of the genres, the target audience(s), (e.g. experts to experts or experts to novices), the structure of the genres at the macro level, (e.g. move structure of abstracts, introductions, discussion sections) and, at the micro level, the linguistic devices which can be used by the writers to construct their own identity, take a particular stance and establish a close or distant relationship with their readers.  Genre Analysis would be a possible analytical framework which EAP practitioners could use to identify genre features. Based on this analysis, they could design EAP teaching materials which would enable students to use certain linguistic and stylistic strategies they could use to become accepted members of their discourse community.  This means that in order to achieve academic success, they may need to adopt certain academic discourses which are recognisable, well established and valued by their discipline.

However, this type of approach may not take into account EAP learners’ previous writing experiences, their identities and preferred discursive practices. If, for the sake of getting good marks in their assignments, they have to sacrifice their own identities and voice and blindly adhere to very strict academic conventions imposed by the academic institution, it would be wrong to allow this to happen.  The academic literacies perspective, according to Street (1995: 114), rejects:

… the way language is treated as though it were a thing, distanced from both teacher and learner and imposing on them external rules and requirements as though they were but passive recipients.

Representatives of Critical Discourse Analysis (e.g. Fairclough 1989) and Critical Language Awareness (e.g. Clark and Ivanič 1991; Fairclough 1992; Ivanič 1997) argue that it is important to show learners how language positions them and suggest what they can do to find ways of challenging positions with which they do not wish  to identify. Through exposure to different types of written genres in the classroom displaying varying degrees of objectivity and subjectivity, EAP practitioners could present alternative ways of writing available to students.

Another important issue to bear in mind is that whilst Genre Analysis offers a number of ways to identify the functions and linguistic conventions of discipline-specific genres, we should take care not to present models of genre as static or neutral, as it seems to be the case with many EAP programmes.   Genres are fluid and can evolve and change over time.  We should also be conscious of the fact that the way writers write will depend, to a large extent, on their own views of knowledge construction in their discipline, the epistemology of their discipline and the identities they wish to adopt.


BALEAP (2008) BALEAP Competency Framework for Teaching of English for Academic Purposes.

Bhatia, V. K. (2004) Worlds of Written Discourse: A Genre-Based View. London: Continuum.

Clark, R. and Ivanič, R. (1991) Consciousness-Raising about the Writing Process. In Garret, P. and James, C. (eds.) Language Awareness in the Classroom. London: Longman.

Fairclough, N. (1989) Language and Power. London: Longman.

Fairclough, N. (ed.) (1992) Critical Language Awareness. London: Longman.

Hyland, K. (2004) Disciplinary Discourses: Social Interactions in Academic Writing. Michigan: The University of Michigan Press.

Ivanič, R. (1998) Writing and identity: The discoursal construction of identity in academic writing. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Nesi, H. and Gardner, S. (2012) Genres across the Disciplines: Student writing in higher education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Street, B. V. (1995) Social Literacies: Critical Approaches to Literacy in Development, Ethnography and Education. New York: Longman.

Should EAP practitioners conduct analyses of written genres within specific disciplines and across disciplines?  If so, how can this help them to decide what EAP methods and materials they should use in the classroom to teach academic writing?