Although the official title of the BALEAP 2019 conference was ‘Innovation, Exploration and Transformation’, my experience would steal the title of co-organiser Alex Ding and Ian Bruce’s 2017 publication, ‘The English for Academic Purposes Practitioner: Operating on the Edge of Academia’. Many of the talks I attended explored the question: What are EAP teachers? Even the one session which started with the speaker saying she was fed up with discussing identity couldn’t keep away from it entirely – even in opposition. However, conferences are the sessions you go to and over three days this one had around 170 of them so the following summary is of my experience, rather than anything comprehensive. Abstracts of all the talks I refer to can be found in the online programme here.
What are EAP teachers?
There seemed to be two answers to this question. The most widespread was that EAP is a discipline in its own right and through research EAP teachers should be challenging HE and the EAP materials industry’s attempts to turn EAP into a low-skilled service. Plenaries by Nigel Harwood (are we teachers or cleaners?) and Cynthia White (take action, guys!) and Alex Ding and Ian Bruce’s session (don’t trust the system and scholarship=capital) argued this explicitly while David Camorani reported on the ‘self-marginalisation’ of EAP teachers when talking about their role. A hot topic during the coffee breaks pit stops was Olwyn Alexander’s incendiary comment during the ‘Lessons from the BALEP Past’ panel plenary that teachers need to do research in their own time, rather than as part of their job: If EAP is an academic discipline shouldn’t universities pay for research to be done? If we don’t research, what is to distinguish us from private providers?
The second and less widely represented answer came from the Sunday Symposium titled ‘How a focus on context could transform EAP teaching practice…’ starring Julie King, Andrew Norther and Robin Mowat from Imperial and Gary Riley-Jones from Goldsmiths. They argued that the role of EAP teachers is to develop contextually relevant products to serve ‘clients’ both within and beyond the institution. They described how at Imperial they support researchers to produce research which is a more tangible benefit than other types of EAP – such as academic literacies? i.e. contributing to REF scores and other research-oriented metrics. To paraphrase Julie King (Director of the centre), output is everything, with the centre’s goal to change the world through effective communication of knowledge. ‘Future-proofing’ the department was mentioned a few times, which I took to mean demonstrating the value of a university-embedded EAP department in the face of external private providers. Gary Riley-Jones talked about context in a different way, in that after speaking to students and lecturers in the Art school he identified that students needed most help dealing with ‘The Crit’ – a dreaded open presentation and discussion of their work with tutors and peers. His response has been to act as a rehearsal coach for these students who perform The Crit and he responds in an unplanned, Dogme kind of way. For him this forms part of a ‘pedagogy of uncertainty’ acute for Art students as they grapple with self-expression through their work and the subsequent exposure to open criticism.
Putting the ‘E’ back into BALEAP
Andy Gillet (of UEFAP fame) called for BALEAP to focus more on language, and there were some excellent talks on this. Michael McCarthy ‘s on word lists was a teacher friendly introduction to how they can be used when designing materials as a ‘short cut to pedagogy’. The thrust of the talk was introducing 4 new academic word lists under the banner of OPAL (Oxford Phrasal Academic Lexicon), divided into words and phrases for both writing and speaking. This free online tool can filter each list by academic function e.g. adding, comparing, making contrasts, which could help heed Ding and Bruce’s advice (see above) to check the validity of information about language in EAP coursebook materials and develop more context-specific materials in house.
David Oakey’s talk about the gap between research and practice in phraseology also referenced OPAL but I was so bowled over by his erudition that I couldn’t keep up with some of what he said (handout here)! However, his final point was about the lack of take up by teachers of corpus research tools and judging from my own experience, I think this is sometimes the way that findings from corpora are presented to teachers. For example, take a look at Pearson’s The Academic Collocation List and practical lesson ideas don’t exactly jump out at you! He gave some examples of how EAP materials have incorporated these in more useful ways (see p.2 of the handout) and I think OPAL could help make corpora a bigger part of teachers’ work life.
Fake news and ones that got away
The 2021 BALEAP theme is focused on pedagogical approaches and Philip Leeke’s workshop pre-empted this with resources he’s used to try to ‘inoculate’ students against fake news: the Calling Bullshit website has online courses in… doing just that; the Sheffield Methods Institute ‘why numbers matter’ video series explains how numbers can be used and abused in research; and TinEye, a reverse image search tool, lets students ascertain the source of any image.
A few sessions I missed which sounded great were Jenny Kemp’s ‘Develop your corpus competence and your understanding of discipline-specific student needs’ and Sally Zacharias’ ‘What can cognitive linguistics do for the EAP community?’ If anyone has notes from these, I’d be keen to see them.
I finish with two questions I haven’t been able to make sense of:
- Why do TESOL and EAP speak to each other so little? It seems to me that findings from SLA in particular could be really helpful to EAP, yet I saw no mention of the SLA literature in the presentations I attended.
- Perhaps connected to the above: Is ‘international student’ now a boo word? Some throwaway comments during the conference seemed to suggest this and that all HE students should be considered EAP students, regardless of L1. The implications of this would be huge, or have I missed something?