EAP as Pharmakon: are we all neoliberals now? 

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.