And so the writing begins…

DUSTY  VINTAGE KEYBOARD

 

As part of the first year of my PhD I was required to take an academic writing module. This consisted of a two day workshop and culminated in a 2,000 word assignment where I had to critique four articles relevant to my area of interest (though the workshop was delivered by the university’s academic writing centre, the assignment would be marked by my supervisors). The purpose of this was to ascertain whether I can write well and do so critically (criteria mentions things like ‘going beyond description’, ‘appropriate texts for analysis were chosen, ‘appropriate style for a paper at doctoral level ’ etc.). For an EAP practitioner this should be a walk in the park, no?

When it came to the assignment you might think I was brimming with confidence. Not so. I write a blog that is very much in line with the assignment brief (where I summarise and critique an article relevant to my field – The EAP archivist) and can happily sit and produce 1,000 words or so. The difference is I don’t know who, if anyone, really reads my blog. Writing for no audience in particular is a very freeing experience. Writing for your 2 supervisors is not. Talk about suffering from imposter syndrome (see excellent posts from thesis whisperer and ebefl)! While I agree with Steve Kirk in that we should ‘put aside our writing specialist self’, I also need to be very aware of heeding my own advice. Not least, not leaving my assignment to the last minute!

One of the biggest challenges was finding the time to write. I embarked on this PhD with naïve enthusiasm and a commitment to write everyday – that hasn’t happened. I find myself having ideas at inopportune moments and no way of writing them down. I have heard about authors having pads on their bedside tables to capture those 2am thoughts, but I can’t be bothered to turn on the light and I don’t have a bedside table. I often have the best ideas while driving to and from work.  So, while on the M45 one morning, it struck me – why not turn the music off and record my rambling thoughts on my phone? This is the only space I have alone and uninterrupted (unless I need to shout at an Audi driver) and I need to maximise it. So this is what I have been doing, though road rage rants will need editing out!

I wonder though, if it’s illegal to text while driving, where does the law stand on writing a thesis while driving?

 

 

 

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Tea and Sympathy

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I attended my first Shut Up and Write session last week. To be honest, as I have only officially been a PhD student for 3 weeks, I only really went for the free cake! Surely I had nothing I could actually write? I hadn’t even had my first supervision meeting.

I arrived about 10 minutes into one of the pomodoros  (25 minute stretches of writing in silence as described in much more detail by the Thesis Whisperer here), sat down and opened up my laptop. I opened up a new word document and instead of staring at a blank page wondering when it would be ok to help myself to a slice of cake, as I had expected to do, I actually started writing. Reams and reams of questions came to me about a particular theoretical framework I hope to use in my research. I was truly amazed I had it in me!! I’ve been mulling this stuff over in my head for so long now, but I never sit down and take note. This session enabled all my thoughts to surface and actually get recorded. I can’t tell you how satisfying that felt. Admittedly, I ran out of steam fairly quickly (I managed 3 pomodoros), but I’ll be back, and not just for the cake!

The company is pretty cool too. In between pomodoros were 10-20 minute breaks. During this time tea and sympathy flowed. People often say that doing a PhD can be a lonely experience; it didn’t feel like it that morning. I chatted to some very interesting people, doing some very interesting research in areas far removed from my own. The people there were at all stages of the PhD and all had advice to offer. It got me wondering whether this might be an ideal place to find a critical friend from a radically different field, as recommended at the pre-conference event that was the birth place of this blog?

People have advised me to dedicate time to my PhD, perhaps a day a week. I do do this, but it has not been any way near as productive as that first Shut Up and Write session so far.  The dedicated space was so important, so too were the lack of distraction, and the knowledge that we were all there for the same reason.

If you don’t have a Shut Up and Write session at your institution, I’d strongly recommend setting one up. Just don’t forget the cake!

Side effects may include….

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A reflection by Jennifer MacDonald on a welcome consequence of writing.

Empathy—to my knowledge it doesn’t appear as an outcome in any framework of qualifications for doctoral level studies. But for me, it’s been an unexpected side effect of my first year of EdD coursework. A heightened sense of empathy has emerged for me in the classroom and it has changed the way I approach certain aspects of how I teach EAP writing to postgraduates.

I now feel my students’ pain when we’re talking about the nuances of verbs and structures to refer to sources, or performing structural acrobatics with a particular sentence to eliminate the first person. I see my students’ struggles in a new light, as I may have just spent the morning agonizing a few particular sentences in my own writing. I share their stress around paraphrasing—Did I misunderstand the author’s meaning? Are my words too close to theirs?—and am constantly adding to my repertoire of tips, tricks and pointers for this aspect of writing. And when I tell my classes that I absolutely don’t know how I would survive without bibliographic management software, I mean it, and I will happily walk my students step-by-step through setting it up. With empathy comes newfound energy.

My own doctoral studies have underlined for me the integral role of language in postgraduate research and scholarship; the idea that language is not instrumental, but constituitive, and that, to quote Turner (2004), “language proficiency in the academic context is important as content”. Sometimes it seems an insurmountable task to convince my students, especially those in STEM fields, that the English language isn’t just a tool used to carry out research and participate in lectures but rather that language IS their research. The product of their postgraduate work isn’t just knowledge—an improved type of lithium battery or a new approach to marine management—-but is also that thesis they will painstakingly create in English over the next few years. And as I painstakingly craft my own papers word by word, I can’t help but be reminded how important it is to bring this message into my own classes and relay it to my students.

Source cited:

Turner, J. (2004). Language as academic purpose. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 3(2), 95–109. http://doi.org/10.1016/S1475-1585(03)00054-7

Jennifer MacDonald is Head Teacher of ESL/EAP Programs at Dalhousie University and doing an Ed.D at the UCL Institute of Education

I didn’t do a PhD to leave EAP, but that is what has happened

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A new post from Dr. Elaine Lopez, who managed to compress her PhD into a highly entertaining Pecha Kucha at the BALEAP conference in 2015!

Summer is nearly over, my corrections are complete, I’m officially a doctor, and no longer an EAP tutor.

I came back to BALEAP in April this year after a 4 year hiatus spent in my doctoral research cave. I was introduced to this blog but it has taken me several months to write this post. Most of that time was devoted to viva prep, doing my (thankfully minor) corrections, and finding a job. But some of it was spent soul searching, deciding whether I have anything to say to the doctoral EAP community. Because, for me, my life as an EAP tutor and my decision to undertake a PhD are not one and the same. My research was conducted in an EAP context because that is the world I know, but it was coincidental. My topic explored the relationship between formal linguistic theory and grammar instruction; any language teaching context would have done. Indeed, completing the PhD has led me away from the language teaching career that I loved so much. I am no longer an EAPer, although I hope that future research projects will engage with that context.

Unlike many people on here, I completed my PhD full time. I was lucky enough to get funding from a research council and gave up teaching to devote 3 years of my life to my studies. For me that was a relatively easy decision because I was an hourly paid EAP tutor with no guaranteed hours and no job security. I hoped the PhD would lead to job security, but almost as soon as I’d started there were a mass of permanent EAP jobs being advertised, any of which I would have been happy to invest my career in. So did I make the right decision?

I have learnt so much. The ‘teacher me’ of 2011 was a very different person to the ‘doctor me’ that I have become. My confidence has grown (with a lot of wobbles along the way), my knowledge of a very small and specific area of research has grown, my awareness of how much I don’t know has grown. It was lonely, it was challenging, and I put my family through immense financial hardship, but it felt like an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. Luckily it seems to have paid off. I secured a lectureship just 2 weeks after passing my viva, and this academic year I enter a terrifying new world of collaborative research, the REF, and bid writing. But there’s also the teaching, which isn’t so different from EAP and where my previous experience really helps. My MA students are mostly international and, although the native speaker undergraduates were intimidating at first, they’ve turned out to be a joy to teach.

So what is my message? Do a PhD and leave EAP behind? Or do a PhD to become more engaged with your specialism? I’m afraid I don’t have answers. The doctoral research journey is so personal and such an emotional roller coaster that I think it’s a decision that only you can make. I’m glad that there are people researching EAP, it’s a huge and important area that we need to understand more about. If you work in EAP then you’re ideally placed to spot issues and questions, and find research ideas. But will the process make you a more effective EAP tutor? And as more of us undertake research, will the PhD become a requirement for securing a full time EAP job? In answer to my second question, I hope not. 3 years away from the classroom hasn’t made me a better language teacher, although all that reading and what I have learnt feels invaluable when lecturing to my MA students.

Finding the time to complete a part time PhD or EdD whilst teaching full time does not sound easy. I can’t honestly say that I would have done this without the funding, and I admire anyone who is doing it. Even the 3 years I spent researching and writing felt like a lifetime. It’s undoubtedly a huge commitment, and one you should be sure you want to undertake before you start. Somewhat depressingly, in this competitive job market it won’t necessarily lead to a better job, you might have to be prepared to do the research for research’s sake. But if you’re motivated, there’s a topic that excites you, and you can see how you can fit it into your life, then go for it. I’ll be supervising my own PhD students in the not too distant future and I already wonder what words of wisdom I will find myself spouting in that very first meeting.

Dr Elaine Lopez : Experienced EAP and EFL teacher. Lecturer in TESOL, School of Education, University of Leeds.

Unchartered waters

Julia Molianri's pic

We are really pleased to have a post from a great supporter of DoctoralEAP – Julia Molinari

The posts on this blog have so far broached the ‘generalities’ of doing doctoral work, generalities that probably apply to anybody doing research. So, for example, we have read about the complexity involved in deciding what research to do (https://doctoraleap.wordpress.com/2015/04/24/complex-dynamic-systems/) and about the sheer fear of stumbling into the darkness (https://doctoraleap.wordpress.com/2015/06/11/of-dark-caves-and-community/).

In this post, I would like to build on these generalities and say a little about the specifics of researching EAP.  The sketch below is meant to represent me – JM – surrounded by competing/complementary versions of EAP that I have come across so far and which sustain my curiosity for research in this area (my specific focus is academic writing, what it means in/for EAP, and beyond):

Other EAP-styles are clearly missing, eg. discipline-specific ones, but the point I wish to make is that each ‘style’ (or version/approach) is underlain by different ontologies of language and teaching, yet all claim to be representative of what EAP is (or could/should be).

For example, a systemic functional approach to EAP (SFL) relies on socio-semiotic theories of meaning-making to explain choice in academic language, whereas an academic literacies approach (AcLits) tends to foreground the social contexts of the learner. Between and beyond these, there are myriad umbrellas that EAP falls under, and a range of providers. My own EAP context, for example, places EAP within a university’s ‘School of Education’ which sits within the Faculty of Social Sciences, which in turn belongs to Higher Education provision, which means it is about Education, which is about ideology and politics, which ultimately means that EAP is contentious.

So, in one swift paragraph, I have just claimed that EAP is a political issue!

But this is what doing research in EAP has done to me! It has led me into unchartered waters although I kind of anticipated this, which is why I consciously chose non-EAP supervisors. The reason being that, epistemologically, I am committed to an interdisciplinary approach to knowledge, and I am essentially an educationalist in my EAP outlook.

But I’m now at that horrid stage in research where it feels never-ending, constantly unresolved, each question opening up an infinite regress of Russian dolls whereby I am unable to tackle the simplest of questions without first of all dealing with the entirety of human knowledge. Yes, of course I need to ‘narrow my focus’, but the fact remains that:

once you decide to do doctoral research, you have to be prepared to address theories of knowledge that take you beyond its traditional boundaries and that could potentially transform the field of EAP

Understanding EAP, in my experience, necessitates – in addition to its traditional theoretical framework (i.e. applied linguistics, see Flowerdew 2013)[1] – an understanding of the following: sociology, philosophy, education, politics, psychology, and economics. This is because EAP is a social practice that involves teaching and learning, i.e. education, regardless of who is providing it. It is therefore not simply the transmission of a set of skills (linguistic and academic), but also of the formation of a set of educational values and beliefs.

I am aware that many theorists already publish in these areas, but I wonder, who else out there, in EAP, is doing a PhD or EdD that is leading them into unchartered waters? Are you being drawn to theoretical shores that you hadn’t anticipated reaching?

Flowerdew, L. (2013) English for Academic Purposes in C.A. Chapelle (ed.): The Encyclopaedia of Applied Linguistics, November 5 2012, pp. 1-7 (Oxford, Blackwell Publishing Ltd.).

Julia Molinari is an EAP tutor and PhD researcher at the University of Nottingham in the UK.

[1] In the US, EAP is called ‘Composition Studies’ and its theoretical home lies in Rhetoric Studies which are usually located or outsourced from English Studies Departments (ie Literature, i.e. Humanities)

Mistakes, successes and should have dones.

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A look back at the road travelled by Dina Awad at the University of Leicester.

Looking back at the PhD years, I can’t help but think: had I just known…

In the beginning, I gave up the fight for the supervisor I wanted quite easily. Big mistake. I guess it had to do with the state of mind in the Pre-PhD stage when the whole prospect is so daunting and you are grateful they accepted you. Why should you argue?

Once the paper work is done and you are officially ‘in’, the awe and amazement stage starts. Every paper is holy, every author is a genius and there is so much to read about your topic it becomes impossible to imagine how you will find time. I read articles, theses and books, cover to cover, trying to understand every little bit while constantly thinking I could never write anything half as good. Wrong.

The first supervisor was nice and friendly but was away most of the time. I needed more guidance and direction but most importantly, I needed someone to tell me my mistakes. I was assigned another supervisor after the first one left.

The second supervisor, although renowned for excellent research, was not an expert in my field, and said my work was at ‘teacher’ rather than ‘linguist’ level and filled pages with exclamation marks and red comments. However, I started reading different kinds of sources –more British than American/Canadian. That marked the end of the reading phase and signalled the onset of the Writing one. At that time, I shifted from sources that discuss my topic (there shouldn’t be too many; otherwise you won’t be doing a PhD) to looking for well-known, frequently cited authors who had two or three words to say about it. That was quite effective.

One of the biggest turning points is when I found my own voice. In the final stages, I reversed the process of information/citation to putting my view first before selecting sources that supported it.  Success

Sudden surges of confidence that push you to write long, unsupported, unreferenced brave pieces of work should be indulged rather than restricted. There will be plenty of brain-dead days and nights when all you can do is check, rephrase, cut and paste. These two moods should complement, rather than contradict, each other.

The drive that kept me going was the need to finish. I was afraid not to. Plus, there was someone willing to listen to all the nonsense and pretend it was logical. My sister did.

Success.

Dina is an EAP tutor at the University of Leicester

Affirmation

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So this is a short interlude….Actually it’s a long comment on Steve Kirk’s post – Of Dark Caves and Community.

I have been festering in a dark cave of silence for the past three months. Three months ago I was on a high, I had a proposal submitted that I had run past a potential supervisor and I was hopeful that finally I might get my PhD underway (it had only taken about 5 years to get to proposal stage!!).

Then a few weeks went by with no response, I was starting to get a bit edgy. Then the weeks turned into months and my edginess was replaced by a feeling of pointlessness: why bother contemplating devoting 5 years of my life to this? Why bother picking up an article and reading it when it seemed I’d never be starting my research? Perhaps I should turn my attention to smaller research projects – I wouldn’t need to wait around for anyone else then.

I should say at this point that the cause of the long delay in hearing back on my proposal is beyond anyone’s control, but I still felt like it was another cog in the machinations of fate, and that some ethereal force was telling me that actually my idea was no good and I should shelve any aspirations of doing a PhD, even that I was arrogant in the first place to think I could do one and that I should return my Birkenstocked size 6s back to earth.

Steve’s absolutely right. Community matters. I voiced by exasperation to a few; to some I knew would be sympathetic and to some I met only briefly at an Early Careers Researchers forum. I realised then that I had to give myself a kick up the arse and do something. I am, after all, the master of my own destiny. I approached another institution, another potential supervisor, and I have since received real encouragement. And it dawned on me … all I needed was someone to say my idea was an OK one. That let the light break through to illuminate my dark, dank cave.

So I guess I shouldn’t have pinned all my hopes on one supervisor in one institution. I should have sent my proposal to a couple of places to start with – you can’t be in two caves at the same time, can you? I also shouldn’t have stopped talking to people about it, that just got me more and more interred in my own insecurity.

I know that a PhD is a fairground ride of intense highs and lows (with all the thrill and terror that entails), but I didn’t expect to be a victim of this so soon! I know now that to stay positive, at this stage at least, all we need is affirmation: someone to say, “you know what, you’ve got a great idea here and I’d love to work with you on it”. That’s got me riding high… for now.