Of Dark Caves and Community


We are really pleased Steve Kirk took some precious time out of the day job and his EdD to write this post for us.

I’m an EAP course director. I’ve been in EAP teaching and management for over a decade now. I’ve always read quite a lot in applied linguistics, education and related fields. So of course my own journey as a doctoral student has been fairly smooth and relatively easy.


Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

It’s been hard. Really hard. And not for the reasons I necessarily expected. It’s been very up and down, a snakes and ladders game. For a long time it all seemed pointless. Just not worth the effort.

So what have the challenges been? Well, there have been many, not least time and motivation. Here, though, I want to focus on what I’ve learned as I emerge from one particular dark cave of struggle. This has been the struggle between two selves: between my identity as an EAP programme manager and my identity as a research student.

I’ve had a really hard time reconciling my student sense of not-knowing with a professional sense of should-know. How can I lead an academic writing programme when I find it so hard to write myself? How can I supervise MA student dissertations when I find it so time-consuming to think through my own research methods? I experienced real lows and pockets of significant self-doubt that made me question pretty much everything.

It has taken a couple of years (I’m part time), but I seem to have made it through the cave and am emerging out into something calmer, something more balanced. And I am now, finally, more enthused than I ever have been. So what have I learned? Here are a few things I would want to highlight for anyone early (or perhaps not so early…) in their EAP doctoral journey:

1 Become friends with uncertainty
There are many tales of the doctorate as stumbling lost through the forest. Believe them. Expect the same – though your own forest will always feel slightly different. I’ve been teaching for twenty years. I am a reflective practitioner. I have always been scholarly in my practice. I feel at home in theory. But this has not really made things much easier. I only began to feel a true sense of progress when I accepted that sometimes I just needed help, that I was not the writer I thought I was, and that not knowing was okay, despite my professional position and roles.

2 Put aside your writing-specialist self
I was told not so long ago that my literature review was far too descriptive. I couldn’t believe it. It’s one of the things that bugs me most about my MA students’ writing. Surely I know what criticality looks like. Don’t I know by now how to avoid ‘presenting’ ideas in favour of engaging with them? I challenged my supervisors slightly on this one…but then later re-read what I had done…and they were completely right. My LR has now been through 3 major re-thinks – and is much much stronger for it. My chapter 2 is now my chapter 1. Forget that you’re a writing specialist. You are too close to your own writing to have the critical eye you need. Get feedback often – from anyone. Your supervisors, your colleagues, perhaps even some of your students. Listen to what they say. Reject nothing immediately. Your critical readers are not always right, but they have the distance you don’t, and that will benefit you immensely.

3 Don’t wait to ‘ship the bastard’
Perfect is the enemy of done, as Inger Mewburn (@thesiswhisperer) puts it. She is so right. I have been writing little-and-often for myself, but it took me a very long time to get anything substantive to my supervisors. This, I now realise, was because I wanted it to be really good before I sent it. Bad move. This was again my should-know self trying to lead me through the forest – and it didn’t get me very far. To paraphrase some advice from this wonderful book of Dr Mewburn’s blog posts, don’t let the whispers from your inner engineering department stop your marketing department from shipping the bastard :-). I have learned rather late that faster and greater progress is made if you: start in the middle of an idea…write in chunks…edit later…ship it early…and expect it to be torn apart when it comes back :-).

4 Find people who speak your languages
My supervisors are not EAP specialists and I am now using a theoretical framework that neither of them knows. This has made one thing really important for me: community building – though I would recommend this to everyone. Research methods books and piles of journal articles just won’t give you the human stories, the insights into experience and the motivating sense of I’m-not-alone-here that can come from engagement with others who speak the same theoretical languages you need to. For me, these people are largely not in the UK. I’m on mailbases, Google+ communities, Facebook groups and Twitter. I skype and hangout with a handful of people who converse in the conceptual languages I need far more fluently than I do – and it’s amazing. It’s challenging. It’s motivating. If you’re not already, get onto Twitter and follow #phdchat. Find online communities that do some of the things you do. The people, blogs, links and resources you will come across there will form a bedrock of inspiration that will help carry you through the entire process. Really.
…And of course on this last point, this is what the Doctoral EAP blog hub is all about. Building community. Building a home for EAP practitioners looking for their researcher selves. Developing ideas and sharing practice. The most valuable insights in my Ed.D journey so far have come from outside EAP, and I hope this space will enable more of us to meet new and unexpected ideas, to meet strangers and to make new connections.
So, what are you up to? What are your puzzles and problems? What are the conceptual and research languages you wish you spoke better? And what is currently your dark cave of confusion?

Outside his cave of confusion, Steve is director of summer Pre-Sessional programmes and a senior teaching fellow at Durham University English Language Centre. He also teaches MA modules in SLA for teachers and in TEAP on the Centre’s MA Applied Linguistics for TESOL. Inside the cave, Steve’s EdD is explores the relationship between the ‘espoused curriculum’ and the ‘enacted curriculum’ in EAP teacher practice.


8 thoughts on “Of Dark Caves and Community

  1. Pingback: Affirmation | Doctoral EAP

    • Thanks for commenting Tyson. ‘Feeling alone’ captures it well. Finding community online or offline who are tackling the same kinds of problems or questions has been hugely useful for me. I think I also need to get back into the habit of writing publicly more often too – something you’re so good at. We only get better at writing through writing, of course. I need to remember this myself and do it far more than I am at the moment…


  2. This is such a comfort and an illumination. In the Pre-Conference event which spawned this blog we talked in one group about writing often and writing ANYTHING, also having a critical friend from another discipline (see more on FAQs page). I find my ruminations are much more coherent and confident when talking to someone who (I assume) has no knowledge of my field, it feels like there is a level of judgement missing which puts me at greater ease.
    I’m also struggling with a shift in identity, I’ve been a teacher for so long that I’m anxious about starting out on a research journey…. I don’t know what my researcher self looks like, or talks like for that matter.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Unchartered waters | Doctoral EAP

  4. Hi Steve,

    Sorry for such a late reply. Thanks for a rich and prompting post.

    I think you write here in such an open and personal (vulnerable) way that it speaks to me as a reader on a very personal level. Lifting the lid on what goes on in the hidden places of any walk of life can be liberating. Thanks for the bold move – it is inspiring and reassuring. From the comments, I can see, not only to me.

    The passage you write on engaging with community is practical alongside that personal edge, I find. Puzzling me is my own un-sense (temporary?) about how to maintain engagement with any community in a meaningful way, especially online. There are those who regularly blog and post and engage. There are lurkers. Are there wilful absentees? And if so, I feel that those non-participants are as important as those who non-participate in research. We opt out for reasons, I am suggesting – I would like to understand that better, in myself and others.

    Perhaps, teachers and researchers seek to move from position to position. (I hope I label carefully, as EAP Archivist encourages). Might the community often be something we negotiate/ project onto a group to good and less good effect; is it something we make sense of personally? I wonder what makes EAP and research ‘communities of practice’, for example, open to such fluid engagement and engage people at moments when they want to engage but may not have done so or do so again. Are PLNs what you make them or what others articulate them to be?

    This rambling is leading me to think (he writes by inserting after signing off) that I am asking the question: how are we mindful of others’ needs in online professional communities?

    On the other hand, I wonder how much I seek to gain and give to communities. Why is it that I may feel less isolated and sometimes more isolated in response to posts and discussions by online communities? Am I always comfortable that the community may challenge my view of the world and values? Perhaps, our safe spaces shift from the private to the public, depending on how, for instance, the Doctoral EAP community allows for a safe space in which to be challenged or just to be. Now, to consider (privately?) when I feel the need to be challenged…

    Stay well,


  5. Pingback: And so the writing begins… | Doctoral EAP

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