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.


12 Comments on “EAP as Pharmakon: are we all neoliberals now? ”

  1. Sam Talbot says:

    Alex, thanks for this. My initial response is one of ‘why has there been no response?’ to the follow-up post of a post that generated 61 comments. And I’d like to invite a response on that. I rather suspect that this post, with its interesting yet unusual heuristic and foregrounding, demands something other from the reader which is perhaps more difficult to identify and thus respond to (which is interesting in itself apropos EAP practitioners acting upon the periphery etc).

    The following extract struck me: “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.”

    In response, I would be inclined to say that it is not ‘including’ but largely for financial gain but I entirely agree with the following principal. As someone who has worked for both HE and private/partnership models though (and for those who haven’t experienced this distinction, they are a completely different ball game), I would hazard a guess that such (also) ideological imperatives are not likely to be at the forefront of your average tutor – or should I say, in the words of a commenter on your previous post: “middle of the road EAPer” – working in the latter framework often on insecure contracts, which brings us back to your last post and to the onus of both resisting and transforming the conditions within which we operate, to the extent that we can transform them.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Dr Alex Ding says:

      Thanks Sam for being the first to comment! The ‘big’ philosphical questions – which I try to touch on here – about what we do and why (and the conditions which support what we do) are really difficult ones. And if, as you say, more urgent, pressing questions are present and pressing then the big questions seem a bit of a luxury. The way our practice is constructed does not appear to allow much time for this sort of thinking and we may not even be inclinded to do so anyway. But the questions don’t go away even if we choose to ignore them.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Like, you, Sam, I was sorta waiting to see what happened … I did tweet at the time this was posted, though, asking to what extent EAP was actually one of the conditions ‘hindering intellectual capital’:

    “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” (and the end of this post).

    The elephant in the room, for me, in all of these discussions, is ‘what is the purpose of EAP?’ (as Alex also mentions in Pharmakon). And any answer any of us give to this question will determine whether we see EAP as a poison and/or as a remedy.

    It’s a tough, cumbersome, elephant to deal with. The superficial answer is:

    “EAP exists to give students what they need to succeed in Higher Ed”.

    But the problem with this answer is that it begs so many other questions, including:

    1) ”students’: this is not a homogeneous, stable entity (cf the literature on Academic Literacies, including the paradigms of mobility and superdiversity);

    2) ‘succeed’: what is our assessment benchmark / rationale here? Multiple choice assessment? Exams vs coursework (see recent decision by Exeter University’s philosophy department to do away with exams, but there are other examples)?; traditional report genres vs reflective or multimodal assemblages?; re-genring and developing metaphoric literacies for public engagement? Getting through an IELTS test? ‘Succeed’ at what? At our EAP exams, I suspect;

    3) ‘Higher Education’: this is a hornet’s nest (cf the Green Paper and all the responses to it from senior academics). What is the purpose of a Higher Education? This is a moral, social, and vexed question, and if we are serious about the ‘academic’ bit of our EAP acronym, we cannot simply refuse to engage with what ‘academic’ means ….. In my rant at the Green Paper, I noticed that in the first 30 pages of this document (the blueprint for the future of Higher Ed.) the word ‘education’ does not feature ONCE:


    There are loads more begging questions, but trying to define 1-3 above is a challenging start.

    This is why Alex’s post is so uncomfortable: by doing EAP, are we adding insult to injury or are we bettering ‘things’? I honestly don’t know, but it is a question that troubles me, constantly.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Dr Alex Ding says:

      Thanks Julia for your comment! And, like you, I don’t really know the answer. Your questions flesh out many of the things I had in mind when writing this and the previous post. When I post here it really is a genuine invitation to work through some of these questions together as I don’t think there are simple answers. My main worry is that it is all too easy simply to put them to one side and carry on. Imagining that we might just possibly be doing more harm than good (for example in how we design curricula or assess students or…) at least alerts us to that possibility. I do think that in EAP we often leave the structures, economics and politics of what we do in the vague hinterland of our discussions, papers and articles as if they simply form a backdrop – whereas I think we should devote more discussion to this and a greater focus on these forces and how they shape what we can and can’t do (and what we should and shouldnt do!).

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Steve says:

    Hello Alex

    “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.”

    To try to understand what some of the hindrances and obstructions might be, I think it would perhaps help to begin to specify some tangible examples, e.g. when it comes to EAP. This may not be easy to do in an open forum, but do you have any particular suggestions or examples in mind?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dr Alex Ding says:

      Hi Steve,
      this is an awkward question to answer fully and frankly. As I mentioned in a previous post, if you look at JEAP (with a small number of exceptions) there is almost no discussion of the practitioner nor the contexts (political, economic and social) in which we work. It does not feature at all. This is significant I think as it suggests that EAP is exists in a historical vacuum.
      We devote a great deal of time to presenting on, for example, innovations in the classroom, syllabi and assessments (all of which are more often than not stimulating I should add) but it is quite rare to witness a talk than takes a broader perspective. Why is that? I think our knowledge base should be extended to consider epistemology, social epistemology especially, the sociology of knowledge and also critical discussions around work conditions, internationalisation, the changing nature of universities, our values, our future… I don’t think we do enough of that. We need to link our activities to wider educational and political issues in HE.
      We are liminal, on the margins of academia (depends on the institution perhaps) but what can we contribute to the university? How can we use our somewhat odd position fruitfully? How can we influence policy? What sort of education and background do we want from practitioners? What sort of scholarship can we do? Which discourse communities should we join? What expertise can we develop? How do we represent ourselves to colleagues in other disciplines? How do we influence (and answer back to) theoretical models that shape EAP (rather than consume them)? Why is the management structure of EAP centres sometimes modelled on private language schools rather than an academic department? What sort of career path is open to practitioners? Is there a glass ceiling?
      This isn’t really an answer to your question but really just some of the things that we need to consider if we are to begin to obtain greater intellectual capital within the university.
      I’m well aware that conditions are not uniform, some of us are luckier than others. I have worked at two Russell Group universities and conditions are very different. I have taught a large number of students on the MA TEAP and have learned a great deal through meeting them of working conditions… But as a profession and discipline I do think we need to focus SOME of our attention on these issues (and i know they have been in places and fitfully). I am not suggesting subsuming all of EAP to a reductive ideological analysis just broadening the debate a little and suggesting that a wider education and developmental focus that investigates some of these issues would be a good thing.
      The conditions which prevent this are also perhaps about how we see ourselves, our roles and, for some, the opportunities to think and talk about these sorts of things. EAP teaching is, if you are lucky enough to be in full-employment, quite relentless, an all year round activity with a focus on teaching (and possibily development or management). But we need to carve out space, somehow, to do this sort of thinking. Some of those I have encountered over the years are quite happy being ‘language teachers’ and really can’t see what all the fuss is about.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Sam Talbot says:

        Very salient points, Alex which need to be talked about more openly and I hope to see more comments here…


      • Steve says:

        Thank-you, Alex, for your reponse.

        Thinking about the connection between ‘dissent’ and ‘critical thinking’, for example, the latter is very often mentioned as being axiomatic to the explicit goals of large numbers of HEIs in regard to the kinds of students that they ‘turn out’, i.e. it’s not just for the teaching room or assessment. A google search along the lines of ‘graduate attributes and critical thinking’ will show many universities foregrounding ‘critical thinking’ or ‘critical thinkers’ as one of their graduate attribute goals (tending towards ‘promises’ to future employers).

        Leaving aside definitions of critical thinking, its identification via written or spoken expression, and the manner in which it is expressed – all sources of potential subjectivity, distortion and confusion – the notion and practice of ‘dissent’ from perceived wisdom, seems inherently to be one of its characteristics.

        Where do EAP narratives fit in, here, then, assuming that critical thinking and dissent are also axiomatic to EAP goals and identities, both in the teaching room and, perhaps more specific to your posts, outside? To what extent is the dissenting, critical thinking, narrative brought into staffroom conversations and meetings, for example, and, as you say, in the wider EAP community? Is this questioing narrative reaching all those that perhaps it should be? To what extent is dissent (or critical expression) thwarted or undermined by hierarchical or ‘new managerialist’ proclivities’ in EAP and in education in genral (see e.g. https://www.opendemocracy.net/kathleen-lynch/'new-managerialism'-in-education-organisational-form-of-neoliberalism)? Addressing these kinds of questions more often and more explictly in the public domain (e.g. at conferences) to try to encourage those in EAP who may find themselves subject to new managerialism, does seem vital.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Dr Alex Ding says:

    I enjoyed your comments Steve and thank you. I like the connection between dissent and criticality and, most of all, encouraging spaces and fora for dissenting or quizzical voices. There’s a need to extend conversations of this type beyond the staff room or kitchen to more public domains and especially ones where there is academic freedom to explore these and other issues. Being confronted with a range of views has got to be a good thing. I suspect there is always a dialectic at work somewhere …

    Liked by 2 people

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