Monthly Archives: April 2019

Academic Language

Before Easter, I attended the BALEAP conference at the University of Leeds. As was the intention of the conference organizers, I gained a great deal of insight into my professional identity as a writing coach, and my civic function in the modern university. I have never been formally associated with the “EAP” (English for Academic Purposes) community, but I’m certainly considering signing up under that banner. (The alternative, or, perhaps rather, complement, is to think of myself as an “academic literacy” or “learning development” practitioner — an overlap I explored at a conference last year and blogged about.) In this post, I want offer my reflections on two aspects of EAP practice that struck me during the sessions. Roughly speaking, they go to what is meant by “English” and “academic” in EAP.

English is of course a language. It is therefore not surprising that we EAP practioners would see ourselves as applied linguists who, in our scholarly function, take English as an object of scientific study. This explains the prevalence of presentations at the conference that used either corpus linguistics or conversation analysis, or both, to answer the questions they raised. I was struck especially by the naturalness with which presenters discussed their own professional identity as an object that might be studied through discourse. Chris Mansfield, for example, suggested that identity “emerges in the way talk about what we do,” and based his conclusions on observations of a prompted converation he conducted with practitioners. Similarly, David Camorani “focus[ed] on language as the locus for the interactional construction of professional identities,” which he observed in real-world practice, interviews, and written work. While the results were certainly interesting, and my sense was that I (a relative outsider) was not the only one who found their results illuminating, there was something odd about a community of peers examining their own sense of self in this clinical manner. It may be my background in philosophy that made the exercise unfamiliar, but I wondered why we couldn’t just exchange opinions and experiences more directly, unmediated by “evidence”. I understand why linguists need evidence to discuss language use that is not their own. But is that really situation of the EAP practitioner?

Given that our practice is squarely aimed at students, it is also not surprising that we would define “academic” in terms of the student’s experience. Our purpose in life is to help students; “academic purposes,” we naturally conclude, must have something to do with the students’ goals. Indeed, I am myself fond of citing John Henry Newman on their essential role in academic life. “If its object were scientific and philosophical discovery,” he said, “I do not see why a University should have students” (1852). But as I have argued before, I think we should be careful about reducing our sense of the “academic” situation to the particular predicament of students. This makes it appear that we want to help students solve their temporary problems while at school, rather than introducing them to a competence, and a practice, that we ourselves represent. Academic knowledge is the kind of knowledge that can be imparted to 17-23 olds over several years of concerted study. Our task as EAP practitioners is to prepare students for that effort and support them in it. But what we are really helping them to build is a durable, disciplined, eduated imagination that they can use for all sorts of things later in life, whether or not they go into research themselves.

Bringing these two concerns together, I’m hesitant to think of English for Academic Purposes as an object of scientific study or, more specifically, an area of applied linguistics devoted to understanding how students use language to pass their assignments. I would much rather think of EAP as the underlying craft of all academic work. Being a student, on this view, is simply being an apprentice scholar, even if the student has no ambition of being a scholar for the rest of their lives. They are learning to use language in a distinctly “academic” way, and one that we are qualified to teach them, not because we have a priveleged scientific perspective on “language”, not because we have analyzed a corpus or a conversation, but because we are ourselves competent users of language for academic purposes. Like all other scholars, it is our business to expose ideas to criticism, and in our professional conversations that what we mainly need to do. This could, of course, take the form of “evidence-based contributions” to journals and conferences. But could it not also, perhaps, consist of experience-based essays and discussions? (This possibility was actually raised by a panelist at the closing plenary, as I recall.)

Maybe I’m arguing that EAP could move beyond its linguistic and student-centred origins and conceive of itself as an interdisciplinary field devoted to the philosophy, rhetoric and literature of modern scholarship. It need not gather a corpus of student essays to understand what academic writing is, for example, it may simply reflect on readily available exemplars, both canonical and heretical. The scholarly discourse, after all, is available in writing all around us, written by perfectly competent scholars. And it is their competence that we are trying to transmit to our students. Perhaps our identity does not emerge so much in how we talk about what we do, but the actual doing — in what we do well and what we enjoy doing — namely, in writing.

And this gives me a good note to end on — with a shout-out to Julia Molinari, who I finally had the pleasure to meet. Her talk was an attempt to challenge our conceptions of “academic writing” with three examples that don’t conform to the usual conventions. (Two of the examples weren’t even examples of writing!) There is much here to consider and I will certainly take this up in a separate post, but, while we seem to moving towards very different conclusions, we share a, let’s say, “philosophical” bent, and are less swayed by “empirical” arguments. Characterizations of academic writing, such as “the art of writing down what you know for the purpose of the discussing it with other knowledge people,” may not be best approached as hypotheses, but intuitions, though no less to be tested. We may not always agree about the qualities of good writing, nor even what qualifies as academic writing, but surely our competence can reveal itself in many different ways? The important thing is to keep exposing our ideas the criticism of our peers.

PS. Rob Playfair’s post on BALEAP 2019 is also of interest and, though not as recent, Matthew Overstreet’s post about the importance of academic writing is very relevant.

Academic Purpose

Scholarship is the business of exposing ideas to criticism. They may be our own ideas or those of our peers. Or we may critique the ideas that inform the leaders, managers, and artists we study. In any case, the aim of our scholarship is to bring an idea into the light and examine it. We are not surprised, nor offended, when this examination reveals the weaknesses of an idea. Some ideas may be improved and some may need to be discarded altogether. Sometimes our inquiries will reveal flaws in the very foundations on which the ideas have been proposed. But here, too, we are neither surprised nor offended; rather, we are grateful to be disabused of the errors we have inherited from the past. We are moving towards the light.

In the academic setting, then, I bring my ideas before my peers to be tested. “Unless special institutional arrangements are made,” Steve Fuller reminds us, “language functions primarily to move people to act, speak, and feel in certain ways” (2004, p. 153). There’s nothing wrong with these functions of language. But Fuller also teaches us to distinguish them from the “representational function of language” and cautions us to observe the “rhetorical function of representation” (when a statement of fact is treated as true, uncritically). The whole point of a university, I would argue, is to make the “special institutional arrangements” that allow us to make and critique statements of fact. This, as Fuller points out, amounts to implementing “a language designed to represent reality”, i.e., to establishing “standards [that] would test the validity of [an] utterance” (p. 154). Without such a critical environment, we might say, there are no facts to speak of.

Criticism is hard. It is hard to give and it is hard to take. But anything that can be done well can be done badly and be done better. The difficulty you feel is simply the experience of getting better at something, of learning. If Robert Graves struggled, in his poetry, with “the huge impossibility of language”, we struggle, in our scholarship, with the particular difficulty of discourse. Our work is much easier than poetry; indeed, it is simply possible where all poetry is destined to fail. Like poets, however, writing affords us a precision that is not available in oral culture. Being literate puts the means of saying things more efficiently and more exactly at our disposal. (If it brings precision to the poet’s glorious and inevitable failure, it sometimes just exactly allows us to succeed.) We sometimes complain about the difficulty of this task too. But we must remember that writing is hard only to make criticism easier and we are in the business of exposing ideas to criticism. That is our purpose.

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These are some preliminary reflections inspired by my participation in the 2019 BALEAP conference at the University of Leeds  — notes towards a philosophical investigation of the meaning of “English for academic purposes”.

Act Five

In “Hamlet and his Problems”, T. S. Eliot famously suggested that Shakespeare’s most famous play is an artistic failure. I have always thought that his argument depends on thinking of Hamlet, the man, as an existential failure, and that this in turn depends on misunderstanding his problem. My opinion doesn’t matter, of course, since “the Hamlet problem” exists in the scholarly conversation independently of my solution to it. The fact that I’ve solved it to my own satisfaction does not mean that the problem no longer exists. It arises for every reader of the play and finds, or fails to find, a solution in the mind of that reader. In the ninth and tenth weeks of my imagined course, as we’re reading the final act of the play, that is precisely what we’re asking the students to do: make up their mind about what Hamlet’s problem was and how well he solved it. A natural essay question here would be, simply, “Did Hamlet succeed?”

As usual, the students would be given one thousand words, and it would be strongly suggested that they compose at least five paragraphs. By now, this form should be familiar to them. They would know that the first paragraph should motivate and outline their argument, demonstrating that they understand the question and are able to organize a coherent answer. The rest of the essay should support, elaborate or defend that answer. They would hopefully by now be used to addressing their intellectual equals, i.e., the other students in the class who have also read and discussed the play over the past ten weeks. They would understand and accept that they will be graded on their ability, not to persuade their teacher, but to converse with their peers. From an epistemic point of view, i.e., in terms of what they know, there’s really no difference between their performance here and in a formal debate with another student. But in an essay they will also obviously demonstrate their ability to write coherent sentences and paragraphs.

Success and failure are ordinary notions. We can talk about the success and failure of social movements and business ventures, of literary projects and theatrical productions. We can mean different things by “success” but we all know it has something to do with accomplishing what you set out to do. When analyzing a series of actions we can assess them relative to their goals. A student who can do this well in the case of Hamlet has a skill that can be applied to other cases. So, once again, a seemingly trivial question about an infuriatingly “canonical” text offers an occasion to demonstrate a valuable everyday competence.

Let me also emphasize again that Hamlet serves as a somewhat arbitrary example here. The course could be organized around any other well-known and widely studied event or story. Students could be studying the Bell breakup or the Paris Agreement, The Pale King or The Lion King. It is essential that there is something like a canonical text, a body of documents that stipulate the central facts of the case, but these documents don’t have to be unambiguous. In fact, it is preferable that there’s a great deal of room to interpret them, since these interpretations are really the content of the course. The material has to be rich enough to sustain twelve weeks of study and bounded enough to keep the students from pursuing completely unrelated questions, and building up disconnected domains of knowledge. You want to make sure that they can address each other as peers; you don’t want them always to be experts (on some esoteric detail) addressing each other as non-experts.

In this course on Hamlet, the question of the hero’s success allows the students to bring everything they know to bear. They will specify Hamlet’s goal and the difficulty it implies. They will assess his actions and inaction and the state of things at the end of the play. They may realize that everything depends on what Horatio and Fortinbras make of the mess that lies before them. What is the story that will be told in Denmark of what happened at Elsinore? A teacher who has been teaching Hamlet all semester should be looking forward to reading these essays. How they are written will say a great deal about how well the course went. They will be worth much more than any set of evaluations.

I have one more post left in the series. There are two more weeks in the course to think about, and there’s a final exam.