Nursing EAP

This blog post is by Julia Molinari. Julia is a colleague at Nottingham. She has been heavily involved in designing our new presessional programme

The reference to ‘nursing’ here is metaphoric, a gerund to signify action, not a descriptive classifier. There has been a lot of EAP probing, prodding, deconstruction, analysis and reflection on this blog so far, and, as an EAP practitioner, I am starting to feel bruised. My EAP identity is suffering so I am going to try and nurse a little TLC back into the debate and see what happens…

Let me start with some rigorous academic (mal)practice. I will cherry-pick a sample of quotes that support my claim that EAP needs nursing so that my subsequent argument will be at best coherent, at worst unfounded:

– EAP can’t do its job because it is “beyond the capability of most teachers to teach [critical thinking]” (in Objections to critical thinking posted 31/08/2012)

yet:

– EAP should teach “critical discourse analysis” and therefore critical thinking about language (in Academic discourse and literacies and the teaching of academic writing posted 06/07/2012

Moreover:

– EGAP is potentially “vacuous of content” (in Curriculum as knowledge practice posted 17/08/2012)

yet:

– EAP is the object of “dichotomous views” and “misconceptions” because of the generic vs specific skills debate (in What’s disciplinary epistemology got to do with EAP? posted 20/07/2012)

therefore:

– EAP leads to existential confusion because “I have no idea as to what I do and say in my EAP context” (in How to become a usefully ignorant teacher posted 02/08/12)

This identity crisis has been brewing for at least 15 years. It is already reflected historically between 1997 (when Jordan’s ‘English for Academic Purposes’ was published) and 2012 (when the ‘Journal of English for Academic Purposes’ dedicated an issue to Academic Literacies and Systemic Functional Linguistics). For example, while Jordan identifies EAP with ‘study skills’ and ‘academic language’, ‘critical thinking’ does not get a mention in either the Contents page or Index of his influential book. This contrasts starkly with our most recent post on this blog which documents how clued-up and concerned we are with developing criticality in our classrooms (31/08/12). Alexander, Argent and Spencer’s ‘EAP Essentials’, 11 years after Jordan, dedicates a whole chapter to Critical Thinking and lists the lamentations of university lectures who feel that students “should give their own opinions more” (2008: 252)

The idea that students need to develop a stance is also supported by Uzuner:

“it is the stylistic differences, not so much the linguistic barriers, that lead to rhetoricalweaknesses in multilingual scholars’ writings” (2010:250)

In referring to ‘stylistic’ rather than ‘linguistic’ features of discourse, Uzuner echoes what Thomson (2001) calls ‘interactional’ and ‘interactive’ features, respectively: the former are features of language that allow writers to enter into an intertextual dialogue with readers whereas the latter are mere organizational signposts. Typically, it is the discussion section of an academic paper that requires the writer to persuade the reader by selecting and synthesising various strands of an argument. In other words, this is where the writer explicitly enters into a dialogue with the reader. It is in the discussion section that the writer’s stance (identity) is most manifest because this is where a scholar needs to position themselves within their research community. However, as Uzuner shows, this is also the section that multilingual scholars have most difficulty writing. We could extend this by claiming that it is also the one that readers have most difficulty understanding.

Recently, Coffin and Donohue (2012) have made a strong case for how systemic functional linguistics and academic literacies have been influencing EAP practice (cf. Michael Halliday’s 1994 sociological framework and Brian Street’s and Mary Lea’s 1998 anthropological framework for understanding how language works). They paint a very different EAP landscape to that of Jordan in which discourse analysis and multiple literacies and identities are brought into the classroom and managed with students rather than for them and in which EAP teachers work alongside subject specialists (Donahue 2012). This is a significantly different shift in how we see EAP compared to 1997 (see also Hocking and Toh 2010).

So, we have gone from a study skills definition of EAP in 1997 to a dynamic social model in 2012. This dynamic social model, in my view, sits comfortably within a school of education and the social sciences more broadly because I think EAP does indeed have a transformative social purpose especially in the context of widening participation. The internationalisation of the HE community leads to cultural, linguistic and educational challenges and opportunities – not least how we assess and standardise achievements – that require an awareness of social implications and engagement on both the part of teachers and students. I don’t see how we can teach EAP and not address this.

When Julie King ponders over our roles as EAP practitioners in ‘Credentials, credibility and the EAP practitioner’ (this blog on June 7), she is drawing our attention to this historical erosion and reconstruction of our identities, from study skills and language transmitters to meddling, engaged critical social transformers who are contributing to the broader educational aims of a university. At Nottingham University, this ‘educational identity’ has been bestowed (or imposed?) on us and we are now part of the School of Education in which EAP students are classified as undergraduates. Are we therefore happy to be classified as ‘educators’ and see ‘education’ as being our academic purpose? Can we ‘nurse ourselves back to school’, so to speak, by understanding our EAP identities in terms of an educational commitment to facilitating linguistic competence where by education I mean giving students a sense of purpose to search for and understand meanings, to create new meanings and dialogically question assumptions and conclusions?

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7 Comments on “Nursing EAP”

  1. Partha says:

    Thank you Julia for your thought-provoking comments. As a teacher of EAP in a non-native context I am worried too.
    1. I fully agree with you when you say that \’it is the discussion section of an academic paper that requires the writers to persuade the reader by selecting and synthesising various strands of an argument.\’ How can we help the the students in synthesizing various strands of an argument? How do we help them to manifest their \’stance\’ or \’identity\’?
    2. It is not merely a question of \’facilitating linguistic competence\’, it\’s a question of developing and sharpening a new perspective.
    3. I will be happy if you could elaborate your observation \’EAP does indeed have a transformative social purpose\’. It has far reaching social and cultural implications for the students who are taught EAP in a non-native context.

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    • Hello Partha,

      thank you! I am very pleased and relieved that you have picked up on Uzuner’s quote (I have all the references to this blog which I will post later so you can follow up Uzuner’s article in particular).

      What do I mean by the ‘transformative purpose’ of EAP? Good question! Well, I will try to answer by way of an example. I once had a student at Padua University in Italy who was doing an MA in EU Policies. Part of this MA had an EAP component. He was Mexican and on the first day of class he came to me to excuse himself. He said that he was ideologically opposed to learning English and that he wouldn’t be attending my classes. He said it was ‘nothing personal’, it was political. I thanked him (inside, I also agreed with him!), but my reply was simply that he needed to pass my module in order to get MA credits. He was young, we were both 24, and English was still colonial superpower that could make or break his future. At that stage, I still hadn’t read any Fairclough or Ivanic, but I understood.

      Recently, I gave a paper at a conference in Palestine. The audience had similar issues with learning English: why should we? What kind of English should we be learning? Whose English is it anyway (I think Graddol said this)? How much culture slips through the net of ‘just teaching language’? On one level, the answer is obvious: you need English to communicate with the rest of the world and use it to change that world if that is what you wish to do.

      On an another level, the answer is more subtle, I think, and is linked to how we deal with language, uncertainty and ideas in the classroom. In EAP, if I am exploring 1st or 3rd person usage, or the use of metaphor as a way to define, there are 2 things I can do (off the top of my head):

      a) I can prescribe established pedagogical norms BOTTOM UP (eg. ‘scientists use the 3rd person’; ‘expert writers use the 1st’; typical metaphors used in science, etc.)

      or

      b) I can explore genres in disciplines and help students notice TOP DOWN the langauge others actually use to give definitions or instructions. I can then guide them to make inferences, judgements about stance, sound argumentation and writer choices and let them make their own choices by discussing the consequences these choices have on the meaning they end up conveying. They are then free to express any meaning they wish and learn from the consequences of doing so (if they want to be rude and offend, who am I to tell them not to be?). They also need to take responsibility for what they do with what they learn.

      This is all a bit crudely put, but I am clearly in the b) camp. It gets messy in the class sometimes because I don’t always know the answer. But our students are adults with expert knowledge in areas we generally know little about and with life experiences that can’t be harnessed unless we provide them with linguistic opportunities to do so. And the language we expose them to traditionally falls within our remit, not theirs ….

      So, the transformative purpose of EAP, for me, means that by analysing the actual discourse of knowledge (which is the ‘academic’ bit and which is language the student can also bring to class, not just the language I have planned for that lesson), we engage in understanding ourselves and others and in doing so, we transform that understanding to build knowledge …. knowledge of how language works and of it possibilities.

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      • Partha says:

        Hello Julia
        Thank you for elaborating your point of view so nicely. I find that you adopt a constructivist approach when you “guide them to make inferences, judgements about stance, sound argumentation and writer choice.” I believe that by exploring genres in disciplines and helping students ‘notice TOP DOWN the language’, you prompt them to interrogate received knowledge and reconstruct it through the writing process.(Canagarajah,2002:20).
        Your reference to the reaction of a student of Padua University in Italy is quite interesting. Academic writing is a social and political practice (Casanave,2012:182) and is conditioned by ideological orientation. You have referred to ‘the actual discourse of knowledge’, but can we define ‘knowledge’ in absolute terms?

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  2. Alex says:

    Thanks for the post Julia. One aspect of identity which is particularly difficult to manage or change is the perception of us from outside, especially from those who have a significant say in what we do and how we do it. It is a constant struggle to articulate and inform others of what we could achieve with sympathetic understanding. We need to work on our own identities and to fight for what we think are the best interests of students and education. This is one aspect of our work which we are not always successful and it is, in part, partly because of our own struggles to create an identity, and also because of the identities and roles we have to assume. We have to find more successful strategies to change perceptions of who we are, which is not easy… Try we must though.
    Alex

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    • Hi Alex,

      ‘lead by example’ is all that comes to mind right now! Oh, and ‘you can’t please all of the people all of the time’! Not a very academic response, I know, but then neither is using wikipedia (sic!).

      Julia

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      • Alex says:

        It’s a topic worth exploring I think and whilst I agree that leading my example is crucial it doesn’t necessarily have much weight with those who lead us. So, the answer to me partly involves research. Often we are confronted by changes in rules, policies and frameworks which go against what we consider to be in the best interests of education and the students’ interests. Useful empirical data must help us argue our case at times, such as maximum class size, appropraite forms of assessment… Unfortunately, quite often, the type of research which would be useful simply isn’t available, suggesting that we need to come up with a list of research projects that help us defend and protect EAP teaching. That would serve a useful practical and political agenda.

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      • I agree – let the research proposals roll in!

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