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!

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

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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.

Of Dark Caves and Community

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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.

Right?

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

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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/