Teaching writing in ‘general’ EAP

‘Writing is never general’

This is what Elizabeth Wardle tells us, on page 30 (see also a review of the whole edited book on Bad Writing Advice, here). And I agree, kind of …

Specifically, Wardle (who writes from a US Composition Studies perspective) claims that (pages 31-2, bold added):

A better conception of writing is one in which we all remember (realistically) our own experiences learning to write in different situations, and then apply that memory to our expectations of what we and others are capable of achieving. A better notion of how writing works is one that recognizes that after learning scribal skills (letters, basic grammatical constructions), everything a writer does is impacted by the situation in which she is writing. And thus she is going to have to learn again in each new situation.

Donald Judd also argues (from a US perspective), drawing on Critical Realism, that writers always need a reason to write, a reality to write about. He therefore encourages writing teachers who have the task of teaching ‘writing in general’ (school teachers, first year composition studies (in the US) or general EAP (in the UK), to design tasks that engage their student writers meaningfully. He has some well thought-through, generalisable and educationally-sound suggestions that don’t necessarily require writing to be discipline-specific (but they do require caring about a topic and having an audience in mind).

From an EAP perspective, I think this quote from Huckin, 2003 (abstract, p.3) more or less sums up my own stance on this:

While agreeing with some of Hyland’s criticisms of the ‘wide-angle’ position (for example, that generalized LSP [Language for Specific Purposes] can fail to appreciate the distinct linguistic and rhetorical features of specialized discourses), the paper criticizes his ‘narrow-angle’ position as well by pointing out that it can easily lead to a teacher-centered prescriptivism and to an overly rigid focus on certain forms and tasks at the expense of others. Furthermore, such an approach fails to prepare students for the unpredictable new forms of communication that await them in their professional careers.

In commenting on Huckin, Hyland (2016, p.18) claims:

This straightjackets creativity and encourages a dull conformity to convention and a static, decontextualised pedagogy, particularly if teachers fail to recognise genre variation. Such an approach may produce unimaginative and formulaic essays, and fail to prepare students for the unpredictable new forms of communication that await them inh their professional careers.

So, this got me thinking, as usual, about how we teach writing on a general EAP course. I know there are many who think EAP should not be general (I have references for this, sorry – I just don’t have them to hand, it’s late, it’s Saturday, I have food in the oven), but the fact is, most EAP is taught ‘in general’. And given that it is, how can we turn this to our advantage, make it a meaningful experience for our students and ourselves, and perhaps even give it an added edge over and a separate remit from English for Specific Purposes, which seems to attract far more sympathies and favourable arguments than English for General Academic Purposes?

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Is general EAP stochastic, and is order even meant to emerge?

I have several ideas, including ideas on giving general EAP an interdisciplinary identity and focus (but more on this another time and in another post/article). In the meantime, I have proposed the following summer staff development session where I work. It still hasn’t been accepted by my department, but regardless of this, I wanted to share my thinking on how to meaningfully go about teaching general EAP with my wider #tleap community.

And the reason I wanted to do this is because I want to know what you think – what should and could we be teaching on ‘general’ EAP, given Wardle’s and Judd’s, and those who favour ESAP (English for Special Aademic Purposes), consensus on the non-feasibility of teaching writing ‘in general’?

Proposal for a general EAP Staff development session:

DRAFT title/abstract.

Academic WritingS: Diversity, Plurality and Multimodality, and why these matter

Given the research indicating shifts in traditional writing norms and the de facto diversity of academic writing genres, why does general EAP conflate ‘academic writing’ with the traditional academic essay or research report, both of which also embody empirical and epistemological assumptions that not all academic traditions value? To what extent, therefore, does a general EAP course justify its choice of genres and capture and deal with their diversity? Should it deal with writing diversity? If not, why not? If yes, how?

This session/symposium/forum/panel is aimed at showcasing diversity in academic writings and at providing a reflective space for considering ways in which general EAP teachers might make sense of it. Making sense of it matters because our students, particularly our PG students, are part of a new era in Higher Education, where competition (for funding applications, grants, etc.), academic communication (within and across disciplines), publications (in traditional/Open Access/Digital/Multimodal journals and on social media such as blogs), public engagement, collaboration and influencing policy are taking centre stage. It also matters ethically, educationally and democratically, in the Deweyan sense of harnessing learners’ diverse experiences and aspirations – in other words, what choices do we give our students, what’s our rationale for selecting these choices, what choices are we comfortable giving them, and to what extent are we ourselves even knowledgeable about or interested in these wider academic/educational practices and values?

How are we preparing them for all this? Should we be?

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2 thoughts on “Teaching writing in ‘general’ EAP

  1. Pingback: Julia Molinari: Teaching writing in ‘general’ EAP | Salon des Refusés (redux)

  2. Thomas Basbøll (@Inframethod)

    Excellent topic, as always, Julia!

    I work at a business school with a very broad social science and liberal arts orientation. We cultivate a very wide range of subjects and styles, as well as empirical and epistemological assumptions. No matter who I’m talking to (from first-year students to full professors in all disciplines) I always define academic writing as the “art of writing down what you know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people.”

    I encourage everyone to think of their audience as consisting of peers, which means that students should think of the others in their cohort. I feel like this is a very “general” definition and one that applies across the board. It is sufficient for me to teach a substantial set of “generic” skills and support all students and faculty, regardless of discipline, in their efforts to develop them.

    That said, there are definitely problems and difficulties that are specific to the various disciplines. But I think many writers struggle to be “academic” in a generic sense, and that struggle is entirely meaningful. I agree that there’s more to academic life than being able to write an essay or research report. But I also believe that academics must master those genres, and that it’s our obligation as EAP instructors to help them achieve this mastery.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

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