The Micropolitics of EAP Centres: Opening Pandora’s Box

Our ‘professional’ literature prefers not to deal with the ‘unprofessional’.
Alderson, 2009:11.

[T]he core values of professional communities revolve around the expectation that we do not keep secrets, whether of discovery or of grounded doubt.
Shulman, 2000:50.

This blog post is an invitation to consider, critique and respond to what follows. And what follows is very speculative and tentative for reasons that will become clear.
The prompt for writing this blog entry are a series of questions:

What makes one EAP centre different from another?

How can we explain the culture, identity and ethos of an EAP centre?

Why do some EAP centres appear to flourish (despite often unfavourable structural forces) when some/many appear to struggle? Without wishing to suggest that ‘flourishing’ becomes yet another vague metric and opportunity to measure the unmeasurable, it does seem to me in my many conversations with colleagues in EAP in the UK and elsewhere over a number of years that some centres seem to thrive and others don’t. Some practitioners are happy others much less so.

I am not going to answer these questions as I don’t feel I am able do that but I am going to suggest that understanding the micropolitics of EAP centres might be helpful in providing part of a very complex response.
What EAP centres do share are the same structural forces that shape (but not wholly determine) EAP. I’ve blogged about the pernicious effects of neoliberalism already and won’t repeat the arguments here. EAP centres share the same contested and unstable knowledge-base (see this post for more information) and EAP practitioners across institutions often share similar educational backgrounds, aspirations, experience and transitions into EAP (although not as uniform as some commentators would have us believe). In other words, there is plenty that we do share, plenty that suggests we share similar social practices and plenty to suggest that our praxis is inspired from a shared and evolving understanding of theory, research and practice.
Where we do diverge is where we are located within the university: within a peripheral (from an academic perspective) service sector of the university, an independent profit-making unit, part of an academic school and ever more frequently in what is euphemistically called a ‘joint venture’ (rather than the more accurate ‘outsourcing’). Where EAP centres are housed will have some (and perhaps a great deal of) impact on the power, recognition, agency and perception of the centre (and those practitioners that work in them). The highly symbolic location of the EAP centre can only provide a partial explanation though of why EAP centres differ. Two comparable universities with EAP centres located in very similar university structures can nonetheless be and feel very different. Structural forces do not hammer down so hard that there is an undifferentiated mass of centres. Culture, context, history, people and micropolitics all contribute to shaping the ethos and identity of centres.
One way of beginning to unpack EAP centres is to account for the ethos, histories and practices of centres with the perceptions, beliefs and actions of those that work in them. Examining the micropolitics of EAP centres might help achieve this. Although we (with Ian Bruce) were largely interested in the effects of micropolitics on practitioner development and scholarship the following quote captures our understanding of micropolitics:

Micro-political studies are largely taboo within EAP and TESOL more widely (a notable exception being Alderson, 2009), and discussions are usually relegated to the margins of gossip at conferences and events. What is clear from our long experience in EAP is the significance of personal politics, the motivations of multiple actors and the complex and competing agendas and relationships that unfold and interact over time and contingently to shape a specific work environment and its response to structural forces. However, we know of this only experientially and anecdotally. Although controversial and not without risks, we would like to see more studies and expertise in understanding and exploring the culture and politics of centres. We know too little of how EAP centres function, why some centres are supportive of development and others not, why some thrive and others, many, struggle, why and how some managers and directors (and practitioners) embrace the market, why practitioners, at times, appear to reject or embrace scholarship.
Ding and Bruce, 2017:157.

Micropolitics is controversial and risky and opens up a potential Pandora’s box of partial insights, recriminations, libel, misunderstandings and damage to both institutions and people. Yet, there is a real imperative to understand how and why some centres can and do much more than survive and for this knowledge to be made available for scrutiny, critique and possibly used by others to influence or attempt change in their own institutions. Also we do need, collegially, with rigour and in good faith, to examine and understand poor practices and dysfunctional work cultures to change them and support those practitioners who are struggling with the micropolitics of work. And not just practitioners – it is too facile and unreflexive to assume that all cultural/political issues in EAP centres are not in part our own responsibility. We do have some agency and we also contribute to the ethos of where we work through our everyday interactions, conversations with others, our (mis) use of officious (contra official) power that we have, how we talk about what we do and each other, our everyday actions and how empathetically we try to understand those with different roles and perspectives. How we treat each other is significant in this respect.
There are ethical risks in undertaking this sort of research and there are methodological issues too – which is better emic or etic viewpoints? Are ethnographic/anthropological research methodologies the most helpful to uncover and analyse micropolitics? I don’t know the answers to this but I do feel that despite the serious risks attached to micropolitics we need to have the conceptual tools as well as the research to understand and improve where (and how) we work. It has got to be better than gossip and partial truths.


9 Comments on “The Micropolitics of EAP Centres: Opening Pandora’s Box”

  1. In EAP centers that are floundering or in a state of inertia, I’d argue that an unhealthy, unsupportive environment (at times underpinned by a culture of bullying) might be a key issue. Office politics can bring any department or company down, and the world of EAP is no stranger to the negativity and destructiveness that unhealthy office politics can cause. I suspect that if you delve into examining attitudes and insights to bullying, you’ll touch upon the tip of an iceberg.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dr Alex Ding says:

    Thanks Dustin for commenting. I don’t want to suggest you are wrong at all. I suppose its the delving part that interests me. What does unsupportive mean? We often hear that but if we were to unpack it does it mean lack of guidance? recognition? encouragement? do we use unsupportive sometimes without precision? Also and perhaps more importantly, once we start to try to think about work environments more analytically (and less emotively – without suggesting that work impacts on emotions and vis versa) are there any systemic structural forces or cultural traits that seem to engender certain types of flourishing or floundering? Why do people who work in the same centre perceive their environment so differently? In my blog I’ve focused on the centre rather than the individual. It is interesting too how events, people and policy can be interpreted very differently by colleagues sharing essentially the same environment. Why is it that some see threats and conspiracies? others see the same context very differently. I haven’t touched on that at all in my post though. Thanks again for commenting.


    • Unsupportive can of course mean many things. If the unit/department in question treats its employees dispassionately and officiously, then that unit, I think will flounder.

      Perhaps by unsupportive, I mean in the context of those who either consciously or subconsciously engage in unhelpful, needless and arguably petty “politics” that seek to keep people within their own little silos rather than develop them as colleagues.

      For example, when a center frowns upon its colleagues networking and seeking to either engage in or develop university-wide initiatives, this is the unit being unsupportive of the colleague, which in effect, demonstrates a perhaps deeper symptom of the lack of support for colleagues more generally. If an EAP or academic skills department is to thrive and be successful, some level of cross-pollination of ideas is required. Without collaboration across the departments, such units, I’d argue, perhaps have an identity crisis and/or are too afraid of taking risks that might benefit the department. Lecturers regularly network with colleagues from across their own and other universities, so why shouldn’t colleagues in EAP?

      Perhaps the answer lies in styles of management and leadership. The best managers/leaders I have had the opportunity to work with regularly supported networking across the institution and beyond it. The best ones encouraged colleagues to explore and take risks – to boldy go, as they say. The best ones welcomed potential for innovation and creativity in learning and teaching. And as a result of that style of leadership, the general atmosphere was one of support, encouragement, empowerment. The future was and is bright, no matter the issue.

      By contrast… some of the absolute worst were “managers” who had an emotional quotient of near next to zero, were generally closed off people, were those who felt threatened by empowering colleagues and who believed that colleagues should work within their own silos, never raising their head above the pulpit. In each of those centers, I also observed the opposite to the above: people were unhappy, colleagues were unsure and/or afraid of making waves and intolerance to innovation was the norm.

      Luckily, the “good” seem to outweigh the unsavory.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Dr Alex Ding says:

        Thanks again Dustin for your valuable thoughts and I wonder what others who read this blog think. There is a lot to think about in your reply and I will respond in the next few days. I can’t see much or anything that I would disagree with. Styles of management and leadership are interesting areas – particularly in relation to power and lack of it. I am also interested in how peer relations also influence centres. Hope others will comment too even if it is a delicate subject to talk about in public. I’ve had a few emails on this topic already

        Liked by 1 person

      • Dr Alex Ding says:

        I really appreciated this Dustin and of course it made me think. I think we need studies that get to the underlying causes and effects of the types of behaviour and actions that you describe. We, more importantly, need to know this in order to avoid and share – also from these sorts of studies what more progressive or (I am struggling to find the exact term ..) innovative centres do. Obviously, managers seem to be the focus of discontent (Greg Hadley’s book provides useful insights here of course) as they possess more power. And power is important. However, just how much power managers or leaders really have in neoliberal UK universities is interesting. Managers have managers who have managers and so on. How much power do directors or managers in EAP really have? No doubt this will vary across universities. This is not a mitigation or excuse for the exercising of the power that they do have nor a cop out. I am also interested in the agency of practitioners – we do have it and we do influence the culture of a centre. How can we influence the culture of a centre – again without suggesting that power is equally distributed? Do we also on occasion self-sabotage? This is not a leading question but genuine curiosity.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Steve says:

    Based on a premise that discourse could be a determinant of how power is distributed and accessed and type of community of practice established, I wonder what conversation analysis would make of samples of discourse taken from interactions in the staff room/office and meetings? It’s can be interesting to listen to the kinds of terms that become established as part of everyday discourse norms, for example (and examining what assumed interpretations of such terms might be). E.g. how regularly is ‘teacher’ or ‘tutor’ used as opposed to ‘practitioner’, and what are the implied/inferred meanings of these?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dr Alex Ding says:

      Discourse and power tend to be treated as somewhat synonymous (which I don’t think is helpful but it is one significant way to understand power and perspectives). I would be really interested in seeing this sort of study and what emerges. One thing that always makes me flinch is when I hear EAP referred to as ‘industry’ or ‘business’ by colleagues and those in the profession. I never quite know whether this is an endorsement of the entrepreneurial, a reflection of the perceived reality of EAP or just a lazy term. Words matter and how EAP is described whether as an educational endeavour or business changes perceptions and understandings of EAP. In Ireland they are setting up an EAP organisation (from scratch) and I was dismayed to read repeated reference to ‘industry’. Certainly conversation analysis would be helpful in bringing to light assumptions about who we are and what we do, maybe more so than simply asking practitioners what they profess.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Sharon says:

    Dear Alex,

    This is an interesting and timely post. I am in the middle of doing research on EAP practitioners and although a small study the teachers collectively have experience of over 11-12 EAP centers. From the data, the micropolitics of these centers is a key theme. Apart from working out how I will report this sensitively, there are many interesting issues that unfold. I agree with Steve that labeling is a key issue which is often linked to contract, another area that is not really addressed in many studies. How institutions treat an hourly paid teacher, for example, seems to have an impact on the department. If the practitioner feels that they are listened to, time for marking is included in the hours that they work at the institution, that there is a clear structure and direction they seem more likely to want to invest in the department.

    Other issues coming out of raw data at the moment are also that course inductions are extremely important but can be unfocused and disorganized leading to increased stress on practitioners who are already working in a complex environment; time for development and working with complex content might not be given and that reaching the people who can help solve work-related/course related issues is not always clear. This then means that practitioners are wasting precious time. Another key factor seems to be the humanity of management as in any organization. Some of the stories being told are of managers being unavailable or out of touch with their workplace as opposed to being open and listening to their practitioners. On the other side of this, those also managing are under huge stress from their managers and are juggling other responsibilities. Workspace also seems to be a factor. Do all practitioners have access to a desk or a computer at work?

    The team also seems to be a factor. How is it working with other colleagues? Is building the team invested in by management? In some of the stories there is clear evidence that the teams are supportive, however, in other departments, it is very individualized (one described it as a lone wolf mentally).

    However, although incredibly sensitive as a topic, until we can really look at the micropolitics of EAP centers we can never get the whole picture of what is going on and we can never have an honest discussion of working conditions within the sector.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Dr Alex Ding says:

      Hi Sharon, I’m really glad to read that you are undertaking this study and I’d be more than curious to know what your findings are. I hope you will find somewhere to publish (please consider the language scholar at Leeds as a way to make your work public). It seems as if – and I might be quite wrong here – mainly focuses on temporary tutors? What you seem to have found in your initial analysis doesn’t seem terribly surprising (sadly)… you mention some teams are supportive and others less so -what do you think lies at heart of this difference? Thanks again for your comments


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