Thoughts on teaching “academic style”

In the first week of our course, there is a lesson on “academic style”. It’s one of those “easy to teach” lessons where the materials give black-and-white answers. But I often feel a bit uncomfortable with these black-and-white (but not necessarily clearly transferable) rules, which seem quite arbitrary to me at times, so what must it be like for students! E.g. why are they not allowed to use “surprisingly” if, at the same time, we encourage students to “show their stance through the use of adverbs” such as “this clearly shows”? Or why this: “If it is necessary to estimate numbers use approximately rather than about.”

Prompted by a tweet (this is becoming a theme here 🙂 ) and by this blog post, I started to think about my own perception and development of what makes writing academic. There are a few strands to this, including studying in Germany, studying in Durham, studying Linguistics (i.e. doing some research on academic writing) and being an EAP teacher. Here, I am looking at writing style, rather than the credibility/criticality aspects of using sources and developing arguments/theories.

My current conclusion is twofold:

1) it depends on context, audience and all that, in addition to the obvious disciplinary differences – sounds like such a commonplace, but I get the feeling that not all EAP teachers communicate this to their students

2) maybe a better guiding principle is clarity. Be as precise as possible, or maybe, as precise as necessary/appropriate (which is so much harder, since it depends on social context rather than on linguistic possibility) – and this principle can guide style choices, e.g. it might be a rationale for using “many” over “lots of”.

Studying in Germany over 10 years ago, we thought that “complicated” was “academic”. My husband, then studying Philosophy (specifically, Hegel), would write grammatically correct sentences that were over half a page long. We were encouraged to waffle by requirements for assignments to be “at least 20 pages long” (no upper cap) as opposed to “max. 5000 words”. This is as much a matter of academic tradition, possibly also in the subjects we studied, as it is of style, but it’s my background/starting point for developing as an Academic English writer.

Coming to Durham, I learned all sorts of rules and tried to apply them. Then my in-sessional teacher read my essay and pointed out some instances where I could do better – “but you taught us to do this!”, I would argue. She then explained that once you’ve reached a certain level, you can break some rules if you know what you’re doing. (I later went on to write a Masters dissertation on that question – does career stage have an effect on what’s ok in writing style?)

I watched my husband write his PhD thesis and it was a complete U-turn from his first-year writing on Hegel. Sleek, precise, highly readable, even entertaining, it made its way into in-sessional materials. Most of what made his writing so “good” is what I would advise students not to do, e.g. contractions.

As a result, I’m very reluctant to say to my students “it’s not academic”, or worse, “it’s just not academic”. I rather say “in this context, it is not appropriate” and like to continue with “because”, although this often doesn’t happen, isn’t easy, or the student isn’t interested. Often this “because” is something like “because in this discipline/on your current course/your subject teacher is very clear about…” and that’s how I try to defer responsibility and, for example, reconcile my own knowledge that using first-person pronouns is indeed “academic” with my duty to prevent students from getting lower marks in style if they do use them.


Neoliberal influence in Higher Education and on EAP

About two weeks ago, a few tweets in my Twitter feed referred to this book:

Gregory Hadley (2015), English for Academic Purposes in Neoliberal Universities: A Critical Grounded Theory, Educational Linguistics 22, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-10449-2_3

Fortunately, the author has put his book on his page, so I could start reading it straight away…

One key concept is “neoliberal HEIs” (Higher Education Institutions). As far as I understand, these are universities, colleges etc. that are governed less by old/western/Humboldtian principles than by profit-maximising administrators.

Another key concept is the Blended EAP Professional, the “BLEAP”, which is actually the focus of the book. BLEAPs are, as far as I understand, people who used to be EAP teachers (TEAPs) but have then moved on to management positions mediating between the “command and control” of the university and the teaching workforce at the bottom in the EAP unit – and this happens mostly in neoliberal HEIs.

I’m about 70 pages in. This is not a book review; I rather want to comment on two points that emerged for me from the first three chapters.

1) The HEI point

When I started reading, I was a little bit defensive, expecting this to be a slap aimed at private providers in the (UK?) EAP sector. Certainly the description of the neoliberal HEI fits the private providers, or at least the one I work for, as a work and study place. But I soon started to read this differently: actually the book seems to explain how nearly the whole of Higher Education, on a global scale, is affected by neoliberal influences. So the private providers in EAP are not the only institutions commercialising education (ok, that wasn’t news to me), and they are certainly not the main driving force. Everyone seems to be against private providers, but I can read from this book:

  1. that their existence is a symptom of a much wider phenomenon, rather than the main driver, and
  2. that much of what happens here is also very common in other places, e.g. agreements with student recruitment agencies (I’m not involved in that here, I’m just a teacher).

This makes my workplace sound more “valid” and confirms my suspicion: in the global picture, private EAP providers are not “the evil ones”, even though some colleagues from other institutions like to make this out, as here:

“I think scholarly activity is (…) an ‘added value’ we can offer as compared to the para-university private college sector. Otherwise we risk becoming lambs to the slaughter of privatization.”

2) The BLEAP/TEAP point

At the beginning, the description looks like being a BLEAP is utterly undesirable.

TEAPs have a clear professional identity, they know who they are – teachers (p. 45). (That’s more than most of the active BALEAP discussion contributors seem to know 😉 )

BLEAPs, on the other hand, describe themselves as a mix between “not sure, never thought about who I am” and “a salad” (p. 46). Sitting between all parties, “highly disposable”, not middle managers because they have no official authority (p. 8) – who would ever want to be such a strange thing as a BLEAP? TEAPs seem to be the real thing, those who know the students, those with a professional identity, those who have the knowledge and skills that EAP professionals need.

In Chapter 3, “Life as a BLEAP”, we learn that BLEAPs usually “progress” from being a TEAP to becoming a BLEAP, so are BLEAPs higher in the hierarchy? This probably depends on what hierarchy – they seem to be higher in the institutional hierarchy, since they manage TEAPs and execute what they are told by “command & control”. But in the “value” hierarchy, they might still be lower than TEAPs? TEAPs try to sabotage the BLEAPs’ efforts to transform, or simply develop/form, an EAP unit to ensure survival (of the EAP unit and the university) in the bigger picture, going back to the HEI point. BLEAPs seem to have the tendency to “sink”, for various reasons, so it seems to be a highly temporary career highlight, unless they are “upwardly mobile” to the extent of leaving EAP completely. And TEAPs will not accept a BLEAP back in their ranks.

So does that mean that in an EAP career, you can’t progress? Because once you get into management, you become a BLEAP of some gradient and can’t go back to “normal”, to being a valued professional? Not sure this is the case, since I know quite a few EAP professionals whose job includes more managing (including tasks that BLEAPs to) than teaching and whose career trajectories do not seem to follow the BLEAP trajectory, so what’s the difference?

When I started reading, I asked “How many BLEAPs do I know”, now I ask “Do I know any BLEAPs”? Would anyone happily describe themselves as a BLEAP?

Maybe I’ve misunderstood some of this, and I’m still reading. I’d be interested in what others think about the book (if you’ve read it or part of it), its core concepts or what I make of them so far.

Who am I?

This post is an attempt to put into writing a few thoughts that were triggered by the recent discussions about EAP practitioners as researchers, and what they might be called. At the conference in Leicester, especially during the Symposium with Steve Kirk, Alex Ding, Susie Cowley-Haselden and Julie King, and through the very fact that there was a pre-conference event on doctoral EAP, there was this vibe that EAP practitioners need to be researchers. As a teacher with 20 hours on the timetable, this made me feel a bit uneasy, later developing into a feeling of (potential) professional inadequacy. There were further discussions about the distinction between “research” and “scholarly activity”. Bee Bond’s blog post struck a chord with me, and discussions with a colleague who is actually involved in doctoral research also helped to regain confidence in my role as a teacher (gasp!).

So, who am I?

Not a researcher.

A teacher. A higher education professional working with students in an academic context (as opposed to Student Services).

If I wanted to be a researcher, I would have pursued the academic route. I started a PhD in 2008 but didn’t really want to do it, so stopped very soon.

I would be fine being called a lecturer. I want to be a teacher with an interest in lots of things: research (academic), professional development (theory and practice), interacting with colleagues in other contexts (online and at events).

I see how “visible parity is key” (Susie C-H) but at the same time I don’t want parity. I don’t want to be under pressure to do research. To bring in funding. To be REF-able. Yes, I do want to publish when I have something to contribute, but I prefer “research light” and contributing to the professional discourse to “publish or perish”.

More pay would be nice. Being called a “lecturer” would be nice, as long as this doesn’t have a research element in the contract that might imply REF-type pressure (some research hours/days would be very welcome, but I can’t see how this does not convert into pressure at some point). I’m fine with the option of working 9-5 for most of the year.

I’m not ruling out a PhD in Linguistics (yes, because that is my personal interest – although this might change more to EAP) when the time is right. I hugely enjoyed doing research for my MA, both times. But I don’t see myself as a researcher. If I choose to do research, on whatever scale (between a little bit of classroom/action research and a full-blown PhD), that is my personal choice, possibly informed by a professional field that encourages this step. My identity might change at that point, possibly temporarily. But I don’t think that everyone who teaches EAP, not even everyone who thrives teaching EAP and does it well, needs to “be a researcher” in any capacity. (For the record – I do believe that everyone teaching EAP needs to have been through the research process at least at MA level.)

I am grateful that we have a professional community that welcomes and encourages further research, and I have great respect for everyone taking the step to do formal research as part of a doctorate (or not) – I might join you later! Thank you for preparing, or maybe: fighting, the ground for us. But I do hope that it will still be possible to be an EAP teacher, rather than a researching EAP academic.

Does it matter to students whether their teacher is a nNEST? by Bella Ruth Reichard

TEFL Equity Advocates

This is not a success story about employment, but about my own perception of myself as a non-native English speaking teacher. I teach EAP (English for Academic Purposes) to mainly Asian students with IELTS 5.5-8, based at a UK university.

Starting out

I first came into contact with EAP as an international student at Durham University, where I took in-sessional classes. A year or so later, when I wasn’t sure what to do with my life, my in-sessional teacher suggested that I do a CELTA and become an EAP teacher. My immediate response was: How can I teach English, my English is nowhere near good enough! (Only IELTS 8 plus a year of academic writing at Masters level.) Rubbish, she said. So I went ahead. During my CELTA, I was further encouraged by my fellow trainees, who made a big deal of having very little language awareness and kept saying…

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Being a non-native speaker teacher to native-speaker students???

In my most recent group of students on an international Pathway programme, there were a few native speakers of English (NES) – from India, Nigeria, Singapore. I am a non-native speaker of English (NNES), and I was their teacher (NNEST).

Does this matter?

The recent discussion on the BALEAP list made me think.

I am a native speaker teacher of German. And I think this is important. I used to teach low-level German classes here in England, and I was a “gateway” for my students not only to my native language, but also to my culture. We talked about food, geography, public transport, festival traditions etc. I am sure that having me as a native German speaker added real value to my students’ experience.

However, “nobody is a native speaker of Academic English” (Bourdieu and Passeron, 1994 – Thanks Deborah for pointing me towards this). So are we all equal? With a certain level of English language competence, should we assume that everyone, whether NES or NNES, starts to “acquire” academic English, say, around the start of their University career? Or earlier, depending on schooling – and again, does this include NNESs?

Going back to being a “gateway” for my students, I think I am a pretty appropriate gateway to academic English for my EAP students. I have done successful postgraduate study/research in two different subjects, I have been involved in academic publishing for a long time, and I seem to be able to function well in all sorts of academic English situations.

My students can’t usually tell that I’m not English. Until well into the second semester of the course, no one ever questioned me (not regarding my language “authority” anyway), at least I don’t remember noticing anything. Then, in an informal chat about bilingualism, I let it slip in front of two of my NES-students – that my children are bilingual and we speak a different language at home. A few questions later (yes, it took a while, they were so convinced of my Englishness), we had established that I’m actually German.

After that, I think things changed, even if only a little bit. Now that the whole class knew, I was questioned more often. One high-level student opted to “disagree” with the corrections on his writing paper. “But the correction you made doesn’t sound right to me,” he would say, even after I had explained why in this context and in academic writing this is definitely the right way to express whatever it was. (Go on, accuse me of imperialism – let’s assume that that’s a different issue.) Others would ask “Really?” more often. The difference was not massive, and I am not even sure whether it was the students’ actions that were different or just my perception. But one of them changed, either the students did question me or I was simply more self-conscious.

Other NNESTs of EAP, have you noticed anything similar? It makes me wonder whether I should try and conceal my nationality, just for convenience and just because I can (it would be much more difficult for my Chinese colleague to pretend that they’re English). At the moment, I do it for fun, and of course I never lie about it, just “let’s see how long it takes my students to figure out”.

(Having published this post, this may be a void question if students google their teacher’s name and read this…)

Learning to present at a conference

Having returned from my third conference in six months, I’d like to reflect on my development as a conference presenter and on my involvement with BALEAP in general.

My first contact with the BALEAP Community of Practice was at the biennial conference in Nottingham in 2013. I was an MA Linguistics student at the time and was collecting ideas for my dissertation, as well as trying out the environment of a big conference and meeting colleagues from other institutions. I was both overwhelmed and encouraged by this event, keen to make more of this professional network.

The CfPs for the next PIMs came out, first the one on Feedback (Oxford Brookes). A colleague asked whether I’d like to do a joint presentation with him, and I was horrified that he thought I could have anything to contribute. So he did it on his own, and I ended up not even attending the event because it was full before I had made my mind up about whether or not to register.

Then my unofficial mentor, i.e. an experienced colleague, encouraged me to submit an abstract for the next PIM on Authenticity (Leeds). I always wanted to go, but she said “no, you’re not just going, you’re presenting, you have something to say!” So I thought about my teacher identity and teacher authenticity and submitted an abstract.

At the same time, I was really interested in the topic for the following PIM on Corpora (Coventry). The upcoming event and CfP prompted me to do a teaching project “properly” and I submitted an abstract on that project. So that was two abstracts in for two PIMs.

When my abstract for the Leeds PIM was accepted, I felt a mix between joy and PANIC! I thought, “Now I have to deliver!” I kept editing the talk substantially right up until the night before, so I only really had an hour or so to practise what I would actually say around the final version of the slides. On the day, I made it somehow, but despite positive feedback after the session, I felt like I had sounded tense and memorised. I asked myself: Had I under-prepared (i.e. not practised enough) or over-prepared (i.e. settled on the exact words, rather than the content)?

Apart from feeling a bit tense regarding my talk in the second last slot, I had a great day, meeting new colleagues and others that I had met at the conference, so I thought: I’m getting somewhere. I’m starting to know people!

The next time, for the Coventry PIM, I allowed myself longer for the preparation. I started drafting the slides 3-4 weeks before the day and was happy with them a week before the event (I know, this sounds very geeky). I took the time to rehearse. I did settle on an “exact word” version, but I was not dependent on it. I talked through the “exact” version with a colleague and then rehearsed, rehearsed, rehearsed. At that point, there were a few empty classrooms in the building, so I was lucky there. Also, at that time I worked on presentation skills with my students, so this was authentic/integrated learning for all of us.

And it worked. At my third event, which was the second time that I was a speaker and the first event that I didn’t attend together with other teachers from my university, I felt like I had “arrived”. I felt like I was no longer an “apprentice” but a junior member of the community. Thanks BALEAP for welcoming me!

This weekend, I was at the InForm conference in Canterbury. There is some overlap with BALEAP of course, but the only person I knew at that conference was Olly Twist of Garnet Education. The talk I gave there was a joint talk with a colleague, so that was another first – and a different challenge. So in no way am I at the “end” of my learning journey as a presenter, but I’m getting more and more pieces of experience together, and I’m moving gradually closer to the centre of the community of practice of EAP professionals.

To anyone who might be thinking of giving a talk – just go for it!

Starting Teaching, but still Learning

I started this blog as part of my MA Applied Language Studies for TESOL, to reflect on concepts and ideas I came across in my modules, readings and in my teaching (I did a bit of part-time German teaching at the same time). As the MA got more intense and I was writing my dissertation, I lost the momentum, so that explains the gap of ca. 18 months between this and my last post.

Meanwhile, I have been working in my current EAP job for a year (to the day!), and I’m of course still learning every single day. Teaching, marking, dealing with students, colleagues, the team. I enjoy this very much, and I’m happy that this is my career now.

The learning also extends beyond the course I’m teaching on. I still endeavour to keep up with professional developments, although there’s much less time for reading journal articles and textbooks than there was during the MA. So one way of keeping this going is getting involved with BALEAP. The discussion list is great for that, and there were some interesting threads over the past few months. Another way is getting myself to events. Here, I get a lot of development done in preparing for events, and I get a lot out of being there on the day. See my post on getting into presenting at conferences.

The next step is to put together a portfolio for the BALEAP accreditation scheme

but this is a story for a different post 🙂