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.

2 thoughts on “Academic Language

  1. I have been thinking about the questions you raise about identities and discourse in this post. I have been working with organization theory scholars in recent years who study identity, including social and organizational identity (who are “we”, rather than who am I). In many ways the work reflects the same issues as individual vs. social epistemology. And much of the work turns on discourse, commonly shared beliefs and knowledge, and what is socially constructed. Once in a while, I am warned by these scholars to pay attention to etic vs. emic perspectives — which were developed in linguistics. I am not surprised by your observation that this professional group was engaged in this self-analysis.

    1. Yes, my sense is that many disciplines and professions, probably because of their exposure to social science (especially anthropology) have grown accustomed to adopting an etic perspetive on themselves. Indeed, in many academic fields, this etic perspective has become part of the emic one. That is, the group understands itself internally in part by way of its understanding of how it could be understood from outside it. Or, in a less circular way, a segment of a community understands another segment etically, instead of seeing it as part of its own emic sphere. My favorite case in point is when teachers think of students as a “foreign culture”, rather than as legitimate members of an academic culture, which of course includes students.

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