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.


20 Comments on “What’s disciplinary epistemology got to do with EAP?”

  1. Gary Riley-Jones says:

    I very much enjoyed reading Julio’s article and found it to be a very useful reminder of the comfortable ease of slipping into binary thinking even when one is claiming to be questioning such thinking.

    I also find it interesting that the academics that are mentioned in the second footnote of the article think that ‘teaching referencing, criticality and writer voice is not part of their job.’ This is not my experience where, for the academics in Fine Art and Visual Cultures, engaging students with, for example, ‘criticality’ is regarded as literally central to the students’ being. It is here I believe that difficulties arise i.e., in my teaching, the generic view of criticality is regarded as less relevant to students who are engaged with what I assume to be a very subject-specific understanding of criticality which operates at the level of ontology i.e., at the level of critical being or critical embodiment.

    Thus, in this context, there is very much a need for an understanding of disciplinary epistemology and a very clear argument for EAP tutors to form closer links with the subject specialists and thus, in Julio’s words, make EAP ‘more central to the disciplines and less peripheral to the education of students’.


    • Hello Gary, thank you for your reply. I think your experience of working with academics in Fine Art and Visual Cultures provides even further support for our discussion. Attributes such as ‘criticality’ mean different things and are valued differently across disciplines, and hence the importance of situating them within the present or future field of knowledge of our students. Perhaps the concepts (e.g. criticality, critical thinking) are generic in that they refer to a cognitive and sociocultural activity, but their application and the role they play in the construction and dissemination of knowledge are, in my experience, discipline-specific.


  2. Monika Sobejko says:

    Thank you for your thought-provoking post and the reference to Krause’s article. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get access to the article you’re referring to, so I’m relying entirely on your summary of its main points. I found the idea of the continuum of skills very interesting. Here’s why. I teach at a language center of a university in Poland, and we have academic writing courses for the PhD students studying at our university. I’ve been teaching such a course for three years now, trying to learn how to do it well along the way. Last year there were students from the department of physics, psychology, philosophy and a student of management in education, to name but a few, attending my course. I’m familiar with some of Hyland’s research, and I believe that Writing in the Disciplines will answer the needs of our students far better than the ‘generic skills’ approach I’ve chosen, out of practical necessity. Basically, I’ve designed my course somewhat along the lines suggested by the classic coursebook you must be familiar with – namely, Academic Writing for Graduate Students by Swales and Feak. On the other hand, familiarizing oneself with epistemologies of such a variety of disciplines is a daunting task for a teacher with a background in….methods of teaching and English Literature 🙂 We’re currently having a debate going on in our language center – whether to go in one direction (‘generic skills’) or the other (WiD). Practicality and my limitations as a teacher are here of paramount importance, I think. I’ll continue following your blog, as it seems that, via Twitter, I’ve stumbled on a great source.


    • Thank you for your reply, Monika. Yes, getting to know the values, beliefs and ways of doing things that disciplines other than ours have can be a daunting job, couldn’t agree more. And that’s why it is, as Gary says, central that we work with academics in the departments. This brings a number of mutual benefits that will make the academic experience of our students even more enriching. Julio

      PS: Have you tried ‘Challenging perspectives on learning and teaching in the disciplines’ on Google?


      • Monika Sobejko says:

        Julio, thank you – thanks to your advice I found the conference version of the article freeely available on the web. I didn’t think I would, so I hadn’t even tried! And our university library didn’t have it. But now I found it and I’m going to look now for some of the books and articles mentioned in the bibliography there.
        Yes, I think it’s crucial to work with academics in different departments. In the case of our university, the problem is that this culture of collaboration between our language centre and other departments practically doesn’t exist. Particularly if it were to involve senior academics. But I’m working on this. A colleague of mine interviewed a number of professors for her project concerning writing abstracts in different disciplines, and it seems the project was very suceessful. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. At the moment it’s really very practical to leverage what my students already know and what they can do – after all, they are working on their PhDs and are already familiar with many practices and conventions. Monika


      • workplacecommsJulio says:

        Great to hear it did the trick, Monika. I know, it’s never easy, especially when it comes to colleagues who are extremely busy. All the very best with building a culture of collaboration in your workplace, change doesn’t happen overnight but if you are determined enough things will change eventually! That’s my experience anyway.
        Yes, students should also be brought into the picture; they are a great source of ideas and experiences. Keep us posted! Julio


  3. Susie Cowley-Haselden says:

    I think that EAP suffers from too many boundaries and extremes so welcome this idea of a continuum. I am concerned though that it might simply be yet another line. Having said that, if debate doesn’t directly address reconciling these two binaries in some way then EAP teaching is in real danger of stagnating.


    • Gary Riley-Jones says:

      Hi Susie

      I was thinking the same thing! If one places oneself on a continuum one places oneself between two points which, I would argue, encourages and reinforces binary thinking. Would a better metaphor be a point in space, a part of a constellation where the binary is not given conceptual space to exist and where the EAP tutor can respond to local circumstances?



    • Hello, Susie. Thank you for your reply. Absolutely agree! There’s a lot to be done but it’s absolutely essential that we find ways of resolving the tensions existing within EAP so that we can help advance our profession. All fields of knowledge go through periods of questioning, revision and consolidation but that’s how they change and evolve. In the uncertain climate we are living in HE-at least in the UK, I think it’s important that we find ways of making our profession more central to the academic activity of universities and the experience of our students. Julio


  4. Being from one discipline myself (humanities), I’ve often wondered why different disciplines reference differently or perhaps more succinct, how they choose which referencing system to employ. I probably could research this a bit more myself, but due to time constraints, I’ve always just accepted what I’ve been told to teach students, depending on the relevant discipline at the time. I do get asked this by students from time to time and tend to answer that it just varies.

    Do you know of an article online or clear explanation somewhere?


    • Hello Tyson. In my experience referencing reflects the views on knowledge construction that different disciplines hold, and that’s why they probably vary in their approach. If you compare engineering (Harvard), medicine (Vancouver) and psychology (APA), for example, you can see that not only the ‘mechanics of referencing’ is different, but their purposes for using references also vary. Hyland (2005, 2009) and, more recently, Nesi and Gardner (2012) offer many examples of variation in citation across disciplines. Julio

      Hyland, K. (2005). Teaching and Researching Writing. London: Longman
      Hyland, K. (2009). Metadiscourse. London: Continuum.
      Nesi, H. & Gardner, S. (2012). Genres across the Disciplines: Student Writing in Higher Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


      • Good to know. Thanks, Julio. I actually have to teach/use Chicago for the History course my EAP course supports. First time I’d ever heard of it.


      • Julio Gimenez says:

        Hi Tyson,
        The Chicago Style has 2 basic formats: notes-bibliography and author-date, and choosing between the two would normally depend on the discipline. As far as I know, history prefers the notes and bibliography format, that is, notes in the main text and a bibliography at the end of the essay. You may want to have a look at the Manual at http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/home.html. Hope this helps, Julio


      • Thanks again. I’ve taught Chicago style for 3 years now, so I am very familiar with it. I just meant that I’d never heard of it before teaching it. It’s all seems so redundant.


  5. Richard Clay says:

    Interesting and important point regarding disciplinary epistemologies, but how do you study them systematically and not just giving descriptions of differences? I’ve just read Gina Roach’s blog on here. The approach she works with shows how different disciplines or approaches work, their ways of working, their bases. There’s lots of work on this at the website: http://www.legitimationcodetheory.com/index.php


    • Julio Gimenez says:

      Dear Richard,
      Thank you for your reply and for sharing the link to the website with us. Interesting question. I think to be able to do a systematic study of ‘the epistemologies of the disciplines’, which goes beyond just pointing out differences, we need time and a team of colleagues (at the same and from different institutions) who can work longitudinally with content lecturers and share their views and findings in a variety of scholarly activities (e.g. conference presentations, publications, etc.). As I’m sure you are aware, there are institutional, departmental and even individual takes on what the epistemology of a discipline is all about- that’s why I prefer the plural form- and that I believe can only be ‘captured’ as a collective endeavour. I have been working with colleagues in business (10 years at one university), health care (6 years at three different universities) and more recently engineering (2 years at Nottingham), and I feel I have a better understanding of the epistemologies of the health sciences possibly because I have taught and researched them in a wider range of settings. Julio


  6. Richard Clay says:

    Thanks for the reply. It is analysing the principles underlying those differences you mention that the approach allows. Having worked in subjects is interesting but is not a substitute for concepts that can explore those principles. Indeed, it is can be a disadvantage – we often believe one thing about what we do and actually do another. Having worked in a subject is not enough. Moreover, ‘epistemologies’ espoused and taught and described by subjects may have little to do with what they actually do.


  7. Julio Gimenez says:

    Hi Richard, I agree. One can take different approaches to the study of the epistemologies of the disciplines. I have always tried to keep a balance between the emic/etic views. When I said ‘work’, I meant more than just talked to subject-specific colleagues. Apart from the obvious interviews, I have co-taught sessions with many of them, attended some of their meetings, developed materials together, attended a few of their presentations, and given and received feedback on manuscripts we have written for publication. I have tried to take an ethnographic position which would allow me to develop an understanding of what (they say) the concept means to them, how they apply it, and how it underlies what and how they write, speak, and so on. But I’m probably still far from it…


  8. […] it in either (especially on a generic EAP course – see an excellent discussion on this here). Perhaps the ability to be authoritative, confident of and accountable for one’s ideas are […]


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