EAP 2013

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We had an EAP  conference here in Berlin yesterday organized by the Humboldt University Language Centre. ELTABB, the teachers association I coordinate events with, was involved as one of the sponsors. This was the second such annual conference here in Berlin. Time will tell whether there is a need for such a conference to grow outside Berlin, whether it will wander further afield.

The Humboldt team organized the conference, and after the keynote by Martin Hewings, ran the workshops in the morning (including the great one by Jeffrey Verhey on academic writing, which I went to) and included their partner institutions European University Institute in Fiesole, at the LSE and in Frankfurt/Oder in the final panel discussion. In between came two sets of talks. I went to listen to Steve Kirk (sponsored by ELTABB) and Judith Mader. I’m just summarizing my notes here:

Martin Hewings spoke on the applications of corpus analysis in research, learning and teaching. He expects the focus to shift towards speech, learner English, a wider range of scientific corpora, and more areas of language. The free online corpora he recommended were

  • COCA Corpus of Contemporary American English
  • BAWE British Academic Written English
  • MICASE Michigan Corpus of Academic Spoken English
  • BASE British Academic Spoken English

Looking back on his own early championship of data-driven learning (DDL) in the classroom, he said:

We need to consider whether the outcomes are really worth the time, effort and money needed to set up DDL. Not all students or teachers enjoy the experience of sifting through corpus lines. Though there is value in letting students get their hands dirty and learn to use the corpora, it is more economical for us as teachers to do the necessary research before we go to class and select the information to give to students.

For example, he used his MBA students’ work to create a corpus, and compared that to a corpus created from published articles in their field, to show them how their use of language differs. For instance, he discovered that students used “I” to express opinions (I believe, I think, I feel, I personally, I suppose), whereas the published works used “I” in hypothetical questions on behalf of the business community (Should I buy? When should I invest? How do I know…? If I were doing this…?)
He analyzed the use of adverbs and adjectives in selected structures, e.g. to express similarity and difference:

  • closely/ roughly/ reasonably similar
  • radically/ totally/vastly different
  • essentially/rather/ strikingly similar or different

or to express opinion more subtly:

  • It is important/possible/ difficult/necessary to
  • It is likely/clear/possible that
    It is true that… but…

Then he tipped us off that the best source of authentic examples in context is Google Scholar.

In his workshop, Jeffrey Verhey had us think about what we, what our students, and what our students’ professors consider to be good writing. He told us how he’d begun teaching using George Orwell’s six elementary rules (“Politics and the English Language”, 1946) and how his students had said they couldn’t possibly agree with them. We then discussed an example from Judith Butler, who in 1998 won Philosophy and Literature’s “Bad Writing Contest” for a sentence in Further Reflections on Conversations of Our Time. Also, he related having been told by one of his professors that his style was “journalistisch”, which to him sounded great at the time, but was in fact criticism. That got us talking about purpose, genre, and discourse communities at each academic level.  Jeffrey recommended Helen Sword Stylish Academic Writing (Harvard University Press 2012), who has essentially distilled all of the style guides since Fowler. He then came up with an image that he says his students understand, the contrast of Baroque and Bauhaus architecture, our preference being Bauhaus, he said. That fed into a discussion about personal style and standardization. – A recommendation I’ve come away with is Latham, R. A. Revising Prose, using this basic method to fix style (example).

1. Circle all the “be” verbs
2. Circle the prepositions
3. Ask, what’s the action, who’s performing it?
4. Put the action into a simple active verb (not compound)
5. Start fast — cut out introductory verbiage
6. Once you have a revised, shorter sentence, check to see if you need to add more information

Towards the end Jeff presented the type of phrases in German that drive translators crazy, because they lack the clarity we associate with end weight: “Dieser Zäsur geht die vorliegende Studie nach.”

I got a lot out of Steve Kirk‘s presentation. In his talk on putting the A back in EAP, extended to include thoughts on the use of English as a lingua franca, he focused on putting context first, i.e. treating all text as historic and connected to the specific status and authority of the writer/speaker. As soon as context stops mattering and we focus on accuracy and fluency, we leave what is special and specific to EAP behind. At the University of Durham they aim to skill teachers up to be able to apply scientific methods.

What students need to be doing is dealing with academic matter and expressing complex ideas. Language then follows. So they provide content integrated learning. Speaking and writing are the key skills, the others are ancillary.So what they do is to give their students 4-6 journal articles to read pre-session. That is followed by an essay question. Similarly, a content based lecture precedes speaking. They also have sessions dealing with long reading and note-taking, again a content-based lecture, and finally a 1,000 word essay. He criticized corpus studies as de-contextualizing. Though he hardly had any time at all to expand the idea, he said the importance of ELF is that the local context should lead the way in selecting both the content and the relevant language.

I also heard Judith Mader speak on intercultural conflicts in her diverse classes. The conflicts she presented involved the transgression of rules (a student using the word “bullshit” to criticize a task, another handing in a text copied from the Economist as own writing, chatting away over mobile devices). She drove home that rule-based communication requires that these rules be made explicit from the start. That got me thinking that I personally prefer negotiating emergent rules, as the group forms.

It was also helpful to reflect on the general method of analyzing conflict: Look closely at what the student or students expect of the teacher, and at what the teacher expects of the student(s), and compare and contrast. Other lecturers prefer to do this at the beginning of the course, but I prefer to do a cultural learning styles analysis at the beginning, and then study student preferences as they emerge, reacting flexibly and in the situation. But I’ll be thinking through why this is, and what the consequences are as the summer progresses.

The challenges I face in my diverse classroom involve enabling all learners to advance and grow as they compete with each other. I don’t feel challenged myself. But making them aware of their cultural communication preferences is key to keeping them from unfairly blocking their classmates’ progress, which can lead to skewed assessment. So I am more interested in exploring the role of the teacher as a conflict mediator than as an enforcer of given rules.


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