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.


Research and its representations: Ali Smith and the upgrade report


We are pleased to have this post from Steven Peters, a participant at the Doctoral EAP pre-conference event held in April.

In February 2015 I presented a paper at the Centre for Assessment and Evaluation Research at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Bristol. It was the first time I had acted as an invited speaker in presenting my research work to an audience. My initial reaction to receiving the email detailing the expected length of the talk was to write back suggesting that I split the time into a talk followed by a workshop of equal length. Not long after sending that reply, I wrote to the Centre coordinator to say that I would in fact aim for the 45 minutes originally suggested. Why had I changed my response?

I had, I suppose, prioritised the work over my own anxieties of performing a new set of practices that felt very new to me. In addition, I realised that the new experience would push me to view my work in a new way and provide the opportunity to represent in greater depth the research process, its data, some of the findings, a key bit of method here and there, and the new set of questions arising from engaging with a different audience, including from new starting points. This led me to reflect on how researchers choose to represent all these practices and data differently at different times. It put me in mind of a talk Ali Smith had given about the origins of her Man Booker short-listed work How to Be Both. In this talk, the author describes how she became aware of the processes that lead to the painting of a fresco and the way that previous compositions remain beneath the final version, invisible to the eye.

In my understanding, she wanted to explore how revealing these versions to the viewer could inform a richer understanding of the work. She calls this the under-novel. It occurred to me that we rarely make available to our audiences the various ways in which we have represented, interpreted and adapted our work for others and that this might offer a meaningful addition to understanding the original data, the related theory, and the research as a collection of representations that have been worked upon and reworked. This might be the research equivalent to the under-novel – the under-report. I have to add, I don’t see this as a question of good faith in the researcher but rather one of how to capture the developing understandings and multiple directions understanding can take. Perhaps, the silences and omissions become starker, the positionings and the responses richer in colour? It certainly views research work as a set of discursive practices which can be traced or charted.

At the Doctoral Research PCE in April, one participant told me that she had written her upgrade report and submitted it only to be told to rewrite it in a different style. She was questioning whether this version reflects adequately the nature of the research conducted. Afforded Ali Smith’s freedom, she would be able to create something that goes beyond either single version standing on its own, I would suggest.

It is possible that if one sees research as a way to capture eternal universals, then I suppose it might seem that adapting and representing don’t do the facts justice. However, in a world where we understand a bit more about the human way knowledge construction works, with decision-making and problem-solving bound up with messy ambiguity but helped by transparency through reflexivity, there might be something in looking at how the colours and lines come across once we allow audiences access to our versions. How this would look in practice is another question, or perhaps I have missed where this is already being done. I would argue that EAP practitioners as researchers, with a wide and extensive sense of the needs of varieties of audiences, are in a prime position to explore such innovations in research practices. The under-report might not be such a static thing after all. The immediate questions are, should I have kept all my revisions to this text available for the reader or is that a different question – one which looks at the miscommunicated or irrelevant rather than the diverse, alternative or recontextualised?

Steven Peters
Bristol, May 2015.

Steven is an EAP tutor and educational researcher currently working at the University of Bristol, Centre for English Language and Foundation Studies.

Link to Ali Smith interview at LRB: http://media.londonreviewbookshop.co.uk/2014-09-02-Ali-Smith.mp3

Photo by Lauri Kosonen licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/

What Matters in EAP?

This post has been written by Dr Lia Blaj-Ward, one of the experts at the BALEAP doctoral study PCE last month. At the end of the post we share Lia’s ‘Tips for the EAP Research Journey’

“What matters in EAP?” is one of the questions I keep coming back to – and at the moment my answer to this question is: joining professional conversations. Research feeds into professional conversations at all levels, and a space to debate doctoral research in EAP was long overdue. That this space has been created by future doctoral researchers with a strong link to the EAP profession is all the more valuable, because they (and other doctoral student contributors) will be asking all those pertinent questions we need answers to.

A wise person taught me that research capacity building starts with showing people you have faith in their ability to do research. I hope the doctoral EAP blog plays that role – giving people confidence to move forward with their research; encouraging them to join conversations which help shape research projects; helping them negotiate any tensions arising between doctoral thesis genre constraints and wanting to give something valuable back to the EAP community (professionals and students).

I am very much looking forward to reading contributions to this blog – and also to the stage where those contributors currently at the beginning of their research journey become research student supervisors themselves. It was encouraging to see so much enthusiasm for EAP research at the 2015 BALEAP Conference PCE and I hope the blog will contribute to turning all that creative energy into answers about things that matter to us, the EAP professional community.

Tips for the EAP research journey

Dr Blaj-Ward is currently researching strategies and models of quality assurance and enhancement of EAP provision and of higher education delivered through the medium of English to non-native speakers of this language.

Complex Dynamic Systems

Dan Jones offers his thoughts on starting out on his PhD.

Diagram 1: Me thinking about doing a PhD – my decision making process*

Posted elsewhere on this blog are the collated responses of participants at the BALEAP Pre-conference event on Doctoral Research in EAP. Below I’ve described some of the decisions I’m facing and some of the advice I got from those who have been there and done that.

Full-time vs part time

So I have a full-time job. And I quite like my job, which is why I’m interested in finding out more about it. Therefore, ideally I’d like to keep my job, because then I can investigate what interests me. Also I’d like to keep my job because they regularly pay me a salary.

But my job is quite busy and unpredictable, and if I’m honest while I’m (sort of) ok at meeting all the short-term immediate deadlines of running courses, I only get round to doing a fraction of the creative, interesting, collaborative, long-term stuff that I’d like to. Of course this worries me because I’m not sure how securely the PhD would stay pinned to the top of the to-do list. The answer is of course clear. The message from those who are in the middle is, yes, it’s really hard, and yes life has a tendency to get in the way. But if you don’t have choice, then you just need to get on with it.

And another thing, someone mentioned that you need to be careful about your topic. You don’t want to go through 6 years to find that your topic and approach is laughably out of date. But the area I’m interested has just gone through a paradigm shift, so I can only hope that paradigm shifts are not like buses.

So that’s the first thing decided. I’ll apply to do it part-time. I’ll keep my job and I’ll be super-focused and super-organised. I’ll make sure that my area is slowly evolving rather in a state of constant revolution.

Super-visor vs ok-visor

With the first decision made, it’s time to think about a suitable supervisor. I’ve been to meet a couple of potential supervisors and I’ve noticed they like to ask ‘why do you want to do a PhD?’ I suspect this might be a trick question and perhaps what is really being asked is “Why on earth do you want to do a PhD?”

Speaking with others on Friday, it became clear that if you were to line everyone up from idealistic to pragmatic, you would also see the progression from proposal through to those who are just single-mindedly focused on getting finished.

I’m afraid my reasons are not terribly noble, perhaps a little selfish. I want to do something different and challenging. I’d like to learn something new and I’d like to know rather a lot about one particular thing. I’m not sure where it would lead or whether I would enjoy it, though I suspect it would be frustrating and rewarding in equal measures.

Over the last couple of months I’ve spoken to a couple of supervisors, and I began to notice that while I was interested in talking about the topic area, the supervisor was more interested in talking methodology. When I mentioned this to one of our invited experts on Friday, this was kindly explained to me as rather obvious. After all, the supervisor is the researcher and their interest will lie in means of conducting that research.

So how to find the right supervisor? Talking to those who are in the middle of a doctoral degree, I began to detect a pattern. First the positive “I get on well with my supervisor” “I have a great relationship” but of course this is invariably followed by a ‘but’. This seems par for the course, but it was also interesting to ask for advice on whether to seek out a ‘name’. I heard reasons for either side, but perhaps the most useful advice was, if you go with a supervisor who has limited expertise in your focus area then be very clear about what you are getting into.

Of course, where I work there isn’t an expert in my interest area. So I guess I either need to re-evaluate my fist decision or “I will need to be very clear about what I’m getting myself into”.

Dan works at the University of Leicester and is interested in learner identity, EAP communities and motivational dynamics

*Image licenced for reuse: J. Chen and J. Lu, “Influence of Lateral Transshipment Policy on Supply Chain Performance: A Stochastic Demand Case,” iBusiness, Vol. 2 No. 1, 2010, pp. 77-86. doi: 10.4236/ib.2010.21009.