The Coming War in EAP (Writing)

I write this post at a time where Donald Trump has just won the 2016 presidential election and the future of international education is uncertain. Perhaps this has got me thinking in terms of politics and political metaphors, but the war I am talking about is more detached and niche from the current state of American politics, and even international education.

In fact, the notion of a “war” itself comes from one of Christopher Tribble’s (2016) latest articles in the Journal of English for Academic Purposes, called “ELFA vs. Genre: A new paradigm war in EAP writing instruction?”. It deals with the current tensions within English for Academic Purposes Writing Instruction (EAPWI, or what we could call #eapacrwri for cool hashtag purposes). The article has a particular emphasis on the native vs. non-native speaker dichotomy and its (mis)application to EAPWI, but I will save that for a future ELT Research Bites post.

In his article, Tribble outlines four major EAPWI paradigms that are now being placed at odds against each other:

  • Intellectual/Rhetorical, based on North Americans freshman comp classes, process writing, and the “essayist” tradition. Think your typical 3.5 paragraph essay.
  • Social/Genre, based on genre analysis, reading exemplar texts, and writing based on disciplinary conventions of moves and stages.
  • Academic Literacies / Critical EAP, based on challenging existing power structures (e.g. professor vs student, university vs student), “subversive discourse” (see Bensch, 2009), and assuming “alternative identities” (see Canagarajah, 2009).
  • English as a Lingua Franca Academic (ELFA), based on the rejection the unequal power structure in which students are forced to conform to native-speaker norms.

While reading the descriptions of these, I couldn’t help but notice loose parallels to major political ideologies in America. For example, the Intellectual/Rhetorical approach seems to share similar ideas to libertarianism, where individual rights are priority and only minor interventions from government are tolerated. In terms of writing, as Tribble argues (p. 31), the Intellectual/Rhetorical tradition favors “individual inventiveness” in the essayist tradition, and follows rhetorical conventions without concern for discipline (read: greater society). The Social/Genre approach seems to be aligned with conservatism, favoring tradition (i.e. genre conventions) over individual inventiveness. However, it also promotes analysis, emphasis on audience, and eventually challenged , mirroring more liberal and democratic socialist approaches. The Critical EAP approach is akin to social activism or Marxism, focusing on and challenging power structures. Finally, the EFLA approach parallels anarchism, the absence of authority. Here, all native-speakers and their linguistic products are seen as overly authoritative, and any English that is to flourish must do so without any authority. Again, these are loose parallels drawn while reading with the previous election season still burning in the back of my mind.

Where social activism/anarchism and these EAPWI paradigms really depart is in, as Tribble points out, Critical EAP and EFLA having made little to no impact on pedagogy and instruction (unlike these approaches, social activism and anarchism have made important impacts on society). In fact, he wonders whether it is even worthwhile to critique from the context of pedagogy such approaches that may exist solely to raise issues rather than to be instructional. However, as ELF is making some (and what Tribble considers positive) effects on pronunciation instruction, it must mean EFLA is trying to affect pedagogy in some way. How it is doing so is unclear at this point.

Tribbles explains that Jenkins has put these approaches into a hierarchy, where the Intellectual/Rhetorical and Social/Genre approaches are seen as conforming and therefore lowest on the hierarchy and easiest to negate; Critical EAP is seen as challenging but worthy of the top-tier (Tribbles muses it may be because challenge is doomed to fail), and ELFA is at the pinnacle, seen as a paradigm shift even though, as Tribble points out, it offers no pedagogical applications, and, therefore, what paradigms are actually to be changed is quite opaque.

So, ELFA is setting itself up as the ultimate challenger and is hoping to cause disruptions in other (conformist, challenging) writing approaches. This is mostly achieved by focusing on dichotomies, especially the native vs non-native dichotomy. Tribble does a great job taking apart this notion of native vs. non-native dichotomies in EAPWI. While this is something I will write about in a future post on ELT Research Bites, I’d like to shift back to the “paradigm war” that Tribble refers to.

ELFA is not a sign of a coming war; the war has already been waging for years. The real war here is that the war between the Intellectual/Rhetorical (I/R) and the Social/Genre (S/G) approaches that have been raging for quite some time. Not only is the I/R approach winning in terms of published materials (most major EAP writing coursebooks follow the process writing and I/R approach), but they are still the dominant approach in many university-based English language programs and ESL courses (perhaps because of the coursebooks?).

What’s interesting is that the very foundation of the I/R approach, that is, freshman composition, is actually moving away from essayism and a focus on literature, and instead moving towards the genre-approach. I recently attended a talk by Christine Tardy from the University of Arizona. She talked about the rise of the genre analysis approach in freshman comp, and what is preventing it from flourishing. The subtitle of her talk, based on her research with graduate students teaching English courses, sums it up: “It’s complicated and nuanced, and it takes a lot of time.”

How do you teach genre awareness and genre-based writing if students do not know their major, are from vastly different majors, will have to write in a variety of genres during the beginning of their academic career, or have issues in their language skills that may be better addressed by more traditional approaches to writing? Is the I/R approach more generalizable than the S/G approach? Some research has pointed to the inadequacy of the I/R tradition for preparing students for academic writing. However, S/G may not effectively address these concerns.

Critical EAP and ELF (but not ELFA) have raised valid issues, but don’t seem to be offering anything in the way of real solutions or pedagogical implications. As Tribble points out, “it is necessary to adopt paradigms that will help to meet the needs of our students, rather than attempting to introduce new paradigms which do not appear to be premised on an understanding of how academic written communication differs from speaking” (p. 40). As the new war wages in the distance, mostly in academic journals, the old war still burns bright in the hearts and minds (and hands) of teachers and students, reminding us that the search continues for the best method, even if there is no best method.

References

Benesch, S. (2009). Theorizing and practicing critical English for academic purposes. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 8(2), 81-85.

Canagarajah, S. (2004). Subversive identities, pedagogical safe houses, and critical learning. In B. Norton, & K. Toohey (Eds.), Critical pedagogies and language
learning (pp. 116-137). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tribble, C. (2017). ELFA vs. Genre: A new paradigm war in EAP writing instruction?. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 25, 30-44.