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.