Literacy for Academic Purposes

I spent Saturday at the University of Essex attending the BALEAP/ALDinHE Joint One-day Conference (PIM) on Academic Literacies and EAP. It was an excellent conference and I have much to process in the weeks to come. (It was a good week on this score. Just before I left, I had my abstract for the BALEAP Conference in April accepted.) It was great to talk to others who are trying to help students master the art of academic writing and I’ll probably be writing some posts in the future about individual sessions or inspired by the conversations I got to have in the breaks. In this post I want to work through one particular thought that is likely to stick with me.

The conference closed with a panel discussion on the question ” Academic Literacies and EAP: Same or different?” during which a number of very interesting issues were raised. For example, it was pointed out that the Academic Literacies / EAP (English for Academic Purposes) distinction doesn’t map easily onto the Learning Development / EAP distinction, and this had something (though not everything) to with differences in professional background and institutional setting of the different practitioners. Someone else asked when we’d be able to do away with the term “international” to denote the mysterious, foreign “other” of university students in general. We even got into the question of whether academic writing practices are best seen as ways of reproducing or redistributing power through education. All in all, very stimulating stuff.

It seems to me that a great deal of common ground can be found if we think seriously about what we mean by “academic” and, perhaps, challenge a presumption that we, and our stakeholders, often make, perhaps unconsciously. When we talk about academic literacy, and English for academic purposes, we are often using that word to indicate the peculiar predicament of the student. As AL/LD/EAP practitioners, we are helping students to “meet their learning objectives” (often a euphemism simply for doing their assignments). From the point of view of the teaching programs, we are delivering better students, we are imparting “study skills”. The allure of the “deficit model” stems from this presumption, which construes the university as an exotic location with unfamiliar customs and standards. The more “foreign” the student, the more understandable it is that they would need various kinds of pre-sessional and in-sessional support in order to participate fully in the university experience.

But this makes “academic” skills something we need mainly in order to get through school. I makes them something that applies up to the day you graduate, after which you can forget them and use the knowledge that those skills merely helped you to acquire. I think this is the unfortunate consequence of favoring “ideological” over “autonomous” models of literacy, even when we do so, as Mary Lea and Brian Street suggest, to get beyond the “study skills model” of academy literacy. After all, the ideological situation of a student can be specified — and the situations of students in different disciplines and at different levels can even be differentiated. By thinking of “academia” as an ideological setting we position AL/LD/EAP as an ideological function and there’s a short road from this to being the mere service provider that I heard some participants distancing themselves from. The alternative, I’d propose, is to think of ourselves simply as educators (not ideologues).

(I’ve previously reflected on this question in terms of the usefulness of the metaphors of research as a “second language” or seeing our students as a members of a “foreign culture”.)

My suggestion is to think of academic literacy as an autonomous competence that is imparted (along with discipline-specific knowledge) by a university education. I am not sure that we’re doing anyone any favors by pluralizing literacy here, however. Though I understand the arguments for “academic literacies“, specific to disciplines and subjects, it seems to me that “being an academic” involves membership in a diverse but ultimately unified community.  Such membership has privileges for the individual and the existence of the community has value for the society as whole. When I defend the autonomy of literacy practices I do so because I think being literate, and, by extension, academically literate, makes people’s lives better and the existence of literate people makes life as such better. This is not a slight against those who lack such literacy: I also think musical ability makes people’s lives better and I am very appreciative of the existence of people who have this ability even if I don’t.

I need to end this post. The thought I’m getting to is that perhaps a number of apparently arbitrary features of our AL/LD/EAP practices, and perhaps some those that make us feel like members of different “tribes”, might be re-imagined as integral to our work if we think of “academic” skills as valuable in themselves.

Think, for example, of why we are so focused on English language competence. Is this just because we are the Hegemon? Could we not instead say that academia is an international endeavor that has, for a number of well-known historical reasons, settled on English as its common tongue and that English language competence is therefore simply part of academic literacy? To take this a step further: could we not say that writing clear, coherent prose paragraphs, in the familiar “dominant” essay form, is a valuable skill that connects the writer to other knowledgeable people through recognized conventions that facilitate communication and criticism. Finally, could we not argue that a university education gives the student the skills needed to read and write in the contexts that shape the knowledge we have as a culture? That is, academic literacy is simply the competence we need to participate in what was once called “the knowledge society”. This begins at university but does not end there.

I want to make it clear that, as in my example of musical ability, academic literacy, and indeed general literacy, does not have to be a condition of human dignity. In fact, that particular ideological function should be thoroughly critiqued. But I do think that we AL/LD/EAP practitioners can reasonably claim to be doing much more than help people get through school. Academic literacy is not the student’s predicament; it is the scholar’s competence. The individual and the society both benefit from its reproduction, i.e., its transmission to future generations through education. And in that sense, in fact, I don’t mind being a “handmaiden to the sciences”.

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