Explorations in EAP
I spent the afternoon in Edinburgh on Friday. About 25 EAP professionals got together for the inaugural meeting of ‘EAP in the North’. The format was informal and open, but we had agreed to focus on sharing our contexts and the freedoms and constraints these bring. A key question some of us moved towards was:
How do the colleagues we work with, the materials we use and the institutions we are part of colour and construct our views of EAP?
This is the kind of question that I’m very interested in. As an external examiner of Pre-Sessional courses since 2009, I have had the privilege to visit a number of EAP units across the UK, view materials, talk with course directors and observe teachers at work in their classrooms. What has become clear is that, just within my own national context (and, to be honest, even within my own unit!) EAP is a Many Splintered Thing. This sense was reinforced on Friday afternoon. While there were, of course, many overlapping views of what ‘EAP’ is and what it needs to be, institutional contexts construct in important ways the reality of what EAP becomes.
At my own institution I have worked with departments and with central admissions over the last 3-4 years to agree Faculty standards for direct entry and for pre-sessional entry. For a 12 week pre-sessional our Science Faculty students can still join us at IELTS 5.5 (all skills), but most of our Humanities and Social Science students now need at least an IELTS 6.0 in all skills (MA TESOL need 6.5 for three months of PS). Listening to many colleagues yesterday, this puts us in a relatively privileged position. Students are already at CEFR B2, so we don’t have to think about UK Border Agency visa hurdles and can focus on teaching students over testing them. The university trusts our course and our assessments and thus we have no need to go anywhere near IELTS type content or assessment. We can prepare our students via discipline-appropriate texts and tasks, and use internally developed marking criteria to report exit levels on our own terms.
This is not everyone’s position. The very first session on our long pre-sessional shows students how and why an IELTS style of ‘academic’ writing is something they need to move away from, yet in other contexts, EAP courses are required by the university structures above to continue to use IELTS type assessments on exit. This means course time must be spent on teaching to this test (and thus not so much on preparing students for the reality of the academic road ahead). We have written all of our own materials, as we are less than enamoured with most of what is on the textbook market. However, others may not have this freedom and may be working with a prescribed textbook. One or two colleagues yesterday felt that EAP textbooks were more than adequate for their students and thus ‘why reinvent the wheel?’ We had to disagree – but then we would. We have the freedom and we make the time to do something different.
The placing of an EAP unit within an institution (school of education? Autonomous Service unit? Part of central services? Within modern languages? Linguistics? Careers and study skills?) changes how we are viewed and thus, perhaps, what we are allowed to become. The qualifications required of EAP teachers (CELTA / DELTA / DELTA + MA / MA only) and the experience of those in coordinator roles changes the nature of the expertise in a department, and thus attitudes to materials, staff development observations and relations with the rest of the university. International student recruitment, tied inevitably to market forces and to the symbolic capital of individual institutions, changes the profile of the student body we work with. How far, I wonder, are our conceptions of EAP, at least institutionally, market-driven? If you need to take students at IELTS 4.5, then you’re going to be interested in low-level EAP. For one or two of my colleagues, however, working at this level is not ‘EAP’ at all…
Informally on blogs and other online platforms, formally in conference discussions and in journal papers, we all talk of ‘EAP’…but it is increasingly clear to me that the iceberg of beliefs and assumptions beneath the waves looks very different as we cross teachers, as we cross contexts. This is likely to be all the more true as we move to English-medium tertiary education outside Inner Circle contexts, to lingua-franca contexts, where there may be no native speakers involved in the EAP delivery, to certain Third World contexts, where constraints on access to resources and expertise will deeply colour the nature of what gets called EAP.
Notwithstanding the inherent issues of power and differential distribution of wealth and expertise in some of the above (a conversation for another day), I don’t believe we necessarily need to reconcile (all) these differences. While continuing and evolving collaborations and sharing of practice across individuals and institutions will, no doubt, result in some alignment (and The Competency Framework for Teachers of EAP gives us a starting point for one such conversation…), we need to recognise, after Pennycook (2010), that practice is always local. We can never fully reconcile the differences beneath the waves, precisely because the local assemblies of people, principles and practice make local ontologies of practice inevitable.
The same is at least partially true of what students need to learn. Corpus mining of academic spoken and written texts, such as Nesi & Gardner’s (2012) Genres Across the Disciplines, and the pedagogical implications that emerge (e.g., in this case, Andy Gillet’s emerging website based on corpus insights from the book) are invaluable to our understanding of disciplinary variation. However, perhaps we need also to be preparing our students for the local, not just for the notionally disciplinary.
In our pre-sessional teacher induction last year, we had staff brainstorm their views of good academic writing, before then handing out example assignments to discuss from Law, Chemistry, TESOL and Classics. Assignments chosen were deliberately slightly leftfield. The Law assignment, for instance, required students to write a judgement as if they were the judge. The TESOL assignment was a concept map + commentary. We cannot, of course, prepare our students for every type of writing that might come up, but becoming more aware of local enactments of disciplinary understanding, locally developed reading lists, collaborative project tasks, and local assessments that emerge from these are surely essential in light of the above.
For some, this may be a no-brainer in an in-sessional context, but perhaps not so much on a pre-sessional course. If we can explore with learners the kinds of writing they are actually going to produce, maybe we can also avoid veering towards misleading maxims as ‘never use ‘I’ in academic writing’ or ‘the passive is more academic’, and instead towards more nuanced conversations about how and why writers (need to) make the choices that they do.
The insight that, just like language practices (Pennycook 2010), EAP practices are local and emergent, serves further to remind us of why EAP professionals need to be engaging with scholarship – and with each other across contexts. Local assemblies and institutional cultures may black-box what we do and thus hinder or prevent critical engagement with what has become The Norm. Through scholarship and stepping outside our own physical localities (either into other real or virtual spaces) we raise the likelihood of meeting other ways of thinking, other ways of practising.
This helps to ensure that we continue not only to be, but rather to become. I have often (and recently) met an idea here or there in a book chapter, or in chance conversations with like-minded colleagues, that has proved somehow transformational in how I perceive EAP practice. This is one of the key aspects of my work that I find most satisfying. I’m always learning, shifting, changing in my sense of What To Do.
I’ll share one or two of these in a future post, but for now, what about you? Was there a particular journal paper or book chapter that stared a seismic shift in your thinking? Was there a critical incident in your classroom that you interpreted in light of a blog you read that changed how you thought about your students? Was there a conference conversation that influenced how you thought about yourself as an EAP professional? And are there crucial aspects of your local context that have coloured your personal ontology of EAP?