This conference was held at the University of Essex on 24th November this year, and arranged jointly by BALEAP (the English for Academic Purposes association in the UK) and ALDinHE. It was the first of its kind in the UK. While Academic Literacies as an approach focuses on the learning history of the student and power relationships between academics and students, and EAP on assignment genres and academic discourse communities, on the ground the two approaches increasingly overlap. It’s an feature of ALS’s work that I’ve become more and more interested in, so I was very keen to learn some more about other people’s experiences and thoughts on this topic.
I attended the conference with Michelle Munn (see her 27th November post on the LEaD Staff Blog), so here are some thoughts and details of the different sessions I attended.
One noticeable aspect was that the event had a great sense of community, despite the 150-odd delegates being from two supposedly different academic communities. Both seemed to be faced with common challenges of fitting in with their Universities’ structures, and engaging with academic members of staff in a meaningful way.
Also, reflecting the backgrounds of the participants, some sessions were quite practical, others more focused on the political aspects of teaching Academic Language and Literacy in an HE environment. However, both strains were represented in all of the presentations.
In the classroom, do we redistribute or reproduce power structures?
John Wrigglesworth, Sheffield Hallam University
This addressed the issue of power structures within the classroom, and how students can be empowered to study outside those power structures. Counter-intuitively, it was suggested that to do this the tutor could drill down to the level of micro-genre, the individual assignments themselves, and then give the students the tools to analyse the use of language. They could then use this knowledge to construct their own texts.
The suggestion seemed to be that this is redistributing power structures, but if the student is still working in micro-genres set up by the academics, isn’t that simply reproducing that power structure? Suprisingly, this wasn’t addressed, although the answer would probably be that it is both redistributing and reproducing those power structures.
“I can’t get started”. How can EAP practitioners and learning support staff respond to students struggling with writer’s block?
Mary Davis, Oxford Brookes University
Mary described Writer’s Block as the result of ‘the agonies of getting down to it.’ Whether or not it’s accurate as a strict definition, it’s important to recognise that the act of writing can at times be difficult and unpleasant. So, what to do about writer’s block?
One proposal was to provide the writer with an initial framework they could build on. For example, when starting with the introduction, the writer could refer to the University of Manchester Academic Phrasebank, ‘the nuts and bolts of academic writing’ http://www.phrasebank.manchester.ac.uk/, and its description of the typical activities writers perform when writing an introduction (for example, establishing the importance of the topic for the discipline). This can act as scaffolding for the writer when they’re finding it impossible to know where to start.
Demystifying academic writing can also help. This could include understanding how essays are graded, and exploring what is needed to get the really high marks. It could also be worth discussing what acceptable and unacceptable academic practice consists of, and why.
Mary also suggested stimulating the writers’ creativity by asking them to write in other genres, e.g. film plots and blogs. I must admit I have reservations about this, as I’ve seen students’ confusion on being asked to write a blog post for assessment (‘what should it look like? Do I have to be formal?’). However, it’s important to create a writing climate, and to get across the idea that writing is only part of the learning process, and can actually be fun.
Writers don’t always have big chunks to time to work in, and this leads to the concept of ‘snack’ writing (where there is a short break the writer can take advantage of) and ‘feast’ writing (where a long period of free time can be used). Writers need to do both, and not just wait for the ‘feast’ opportunities to come along. However, the length of time to get into creative mode has to be taken into account, and the implication that all available time should be spent studying is a little concerning. Students shouldn’t feel that longer Library opening hours during exam season means that they should be studying 24/7.
Mary’s last observation was that staff giving support to students need to be able to empathise with them, and so engage with writing themselves.
A case study of an “Academic Skills” course devised by EAP lecturers but part delivered by lecturers from other disciplines
James Ackroyd, GSM London
GSM is a private HE provider based in Greenwich, and several of their degrees consist of a one-year foundation course, followed by a two-year degree. This format is very popular, with 68% of the students coming via the foundation course route.
Another feature is a big WP cohort, with a lot of students entering the foundation course without A-levels, 64% of students 30 years old or more, and the majority of students identifying as BAME. Cultural exclusion, a lack of cultural and social capital and a struggle to be meaningful in a written academic English context contributed to 25.9% of first-year students not progressing in 2014/15.
As a result, a series of support packages were put in place, including an Academic Skills course. This was mandatory and credit-bearing, and consisted of a two-hour lecture given by a language specialist, followed by a two-hour tutorial from a subject lecturer.
Overall, it was a success. The course had above average attendance and pass rates. Students liked the course, and in retrospect saw the value of the course in their subsequent studies. Crucially, retention has improved. However, there were some surprising student and staff reactions.
The students didn’t like the subject-specific content of the course, weren’t happy with the summative and formative feedback they received, and found the general lectures more useful – the opposite to what could be expected. This can be explained, however, by the feelings the academic staff had about the course.
It wasn’t seen as a valuable part of their role, despite its contribution to retention rates. By many teaching on the course was seen as a punishment, and spoon feeding students who should be capable of writing this material themselves. As a result, there was a high turnover of academic tutors teaching on the course, which meant that the necessary skills and relationships with EAP tutors couldn’t be established.
The students’ complaints about the feedback they received can partially be explained by the way the subject lecturers tended to fall back on their own areas of expertise. They weren’t experts on some student genres of writing, for example reflective writing. Also, the subject lecturers had either never struggled in their own studies, or forgotten what it was like, and so couldn’t put themselves in the place of students who were struggling.
James’s suggestions for improving the scheme included better retention of subject tutors; improved communication and guidance for subject tutors (this kind of activity isn’t part of their normal skill set); better cohorting of students, especially in the language lectures, and more specific input in the lectures.
The panel included Steve Briggs, the Co-Chair of ALDinHE, and Maxine Gillway, Chair of BALEAP, so it carried a fair amount of authority. The conclusion? The two approaches now overlap a great deal in the practical work that they do. Which makes sense: if I’m in a one-to-one appointment with a student, I’m interested in both them and the work. It’s important to know what they’ve studied before, how they’re relating to the academic staff, whether they’ve produced work which is in an appropriate genre for the subject they’re studying, and if they’ve used the right referencing style.
The only difference the panel could readily identify was the more diverse professional backgrounds of Learning Developers, with EAP tutors and lecturers coming almost exclusively from an English Language Teaching background. No other significant differences could be identified by the panel or any of the attendees. It’s clear the two approaches really are closer than ever.