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)


6 thoughts on “Unchartered waters

  1. Really interesting post! I too am constantly surprised to see how many things EAP can be. Within my own institution (a Canadian university) if you talk to the university Writing Resource Centre, Faculty of Arts and Social Science, those who coordinate the Writing Across the Curriculum program and then in the ESL/EAP programs you would get completely different definitions of academic writing and how to go about teaching it. My own research has recently lead me to explore the differences in L1 vs. L2 approaches to academic writing instruction in the Canadian context. It’s fascinating, because, as you allude to in your post, the US and UK have very different EAP traditions, both of which come together on Canadian campuses.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I enjoyed, was inspired by, and grew fear from this post! Like Jen, I too am deeply embedded within the EAP context of a Canadian university, particularly academic reading and writing, but while we agree on many foundation principles that guide what we teach and what our students learn, even the contexts presented within our two universities shows drastic differences, limitations, and expectations. I’m interested in going further in research, but at the same time, as you get across well in this post, wonder if it will be an overwhelming adventure.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hello both of you, Jennifer and Tyson,

    Thank you so much for reading me, and especially for responding.

    The first thing I’d like to say is, Tyson, research is only scary in so far as it requires / leads to a degree of honesty and accountability. Yes, I know that is what makes it scary ;-), but then that is also what pushes boundaries and transforms knowledge. I haven’t read your reading circles, yet – I will – but I suspect there is a lot more to say about reading in higher education, and doing research gives you the space to explore this.

    Jennifer, I have a hunch that EAP should be allowed to be different in different contexts … Language and standardisation force us to label and to attribute univocal, ostensive meanings (referents) to terms, but given that ‘academic’ means different things in different contexts (or does it?), then maybe EAP needs to be defined on a case-by-case basis.

    I suspect that commercial, for-profit publishing, can create an expectation of what EAP is (by standardising it), and that we (teachers/researchers) are therefore torn between what we know/think our students need and what the market tells us ‘they’ need.


    We all work within constraints, but I find my research liberating, because it allows me to explore and experiment, and to think and say what I can’t think and say in my professional capacity (not because of any sinister censorship, but because work is a different space). It’s that freedom that can be scary, and that can lead into the ‘dark caves’ Steve Kirk referred on this blog.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Hi JM (eyes rolling – what a great drawing – please include in all posts),

    This is a really useful post. I hope you don’t mind me sharing it with some pre-sessional tutors in the coming weeks.

    In answer to your question about uncharted waters, I found myself reframing my proposal in my head this afternoon (while monitoring prospective PGT candidates for coherence of thesis). I went out of body from EAP to professional development for lawyers. Not that the Law was necessarily the locus of my thoughts. It was refreshing to think not only within Education and teacher learning, but professional learning in another specific context.

    I found I was running a kind of thought experiment on my research questions: if they apply to language teachers, do they apply to other professional learners? What about law, what about…?

    This all came about because instead of going for a coffee at lunch, I had decided I couldn’t gain anything more nutritious than 20mins in the library browsing just for the sake of it and came across a calendar for Oxford Colleges that explained the founding of Nuffield College. It’s aim being something along the lines of…to bring, through research, academic and non-academic professionals together. I might need to check that – I was browsing.

    Meta-tags: Founding a college. Doctoral EAP blog. Politics. Access to ‘libraries’ for EAP practitioners/ researchers. Labelling: (non-) academic; Doing research and doing teaching.

    Thanks JM (eyes closing after long day)!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks Steve – thought experiments are good! Good research and good supervision afford exploration and experimentation which can lead to the creation and the crossing of theoretical boundaries. I think boundary work is fascinating, it is where new ideas germinate, moving knowledge all the time. This is one of the reasons I like my supervisors. Please share all you like: would be good to hear others’ thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

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