Side effects may include….


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.

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