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The article I’ve chosen to start with is James Donohue’s  “Using systemic functional linguistics in academic writing development: An example from film studies.” This article was included in a special issue of The Journal of English for Academic Purposes which was dedicated to two key approaches in EAP, namely Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) and Academic Literacies.

Synopsis: The action research that informs this article stems from a Film Studies lecturer’s desire to improve students’ writing performance and Donohue’s interest in exploring how SFL could inform the teaching of academic writing within the discipline. Together they redesigned a module on a first year film studies course to facilitate this research project. So in line with the SFL approach, Donohue examines a diagnostic writing assignment for this article, dissecting ‘what is going on’ (field), ‘who is involved’ (tenor) and ‘how language is being used’ (mode) (p.5). Donohue uses the work of two students as exemplars of the taxonomic film analysis (a key genre in film studies) they have been assigned.

While the two students ‘build the field’ in their analyses it is overt that one produced a very descriptive text that deals with the task of discussing how mise en scene produces meaning, while the other has clearly grasped the threshold concept Donohue argues is central to successfully completing  the task. The mode employed by the two students supports their ability, or lack of, to deal with the field in abstraction. Ultimately there is a reason for these two different students producing two different assignments, namely this idea of tenor. The student who writes a description of a film rather than an analysis of it is a practitioner; someone for whom film studies is a practical field, not a theoretical one. This division between relating to the field in abstract or concrete ways is often cause for concern with academics. EAP students are often told that their writing is too descriptive, not objective enough.

Donohue’s conclusion is that “students are not just using language, they are making meanings in context. That their writing may display a need for development is not simply a language development need, it is a meaning-development need” (p.15). Making the most useful space for the teaching of EAP the discipline classroom not the language one.

I am an EAP practitioner at odds with its generic tendencies. I am sure that the teaching of EAP, indeed the teaching of academic subjects to non-native speakers, is significantly enhanced by the ability of the instructor to fuse language and content.

Reading Donohue’s article when it was first published in March this year was a revelation for me. Practitioners are very good at intuition, of notions, of what it is that is best for their students – after all this is the basis of most course books. But a dichotomy exists in EAP which parallels film studies – that which Donohue identifies as a divide between theory and practice (p.5). So reading his article verified my notions that boundaries can be eroded, that there can exist a fusion of roles in the language/ discipline classroom.

I have seen feedback lecturers have given to students on their lack of understanding or processing of the theory/ concepts it has been expected they engage with in assignments. I agree with Donohue that the EAP teacher is most useful when they have some understanding of content and genre (p.11). We don’t have to be masters of the content, just interested parties, involving ourselves in the teaching AND learning of the discipline as Donohue did.

Perhaps my enthusiasm for ‘team teaching’ E[S]AP stems from my murky past as a master of another discipline, but I cannot ignore the fact that, as hurtful as it may be, my students don’t really want me (the language teacher), they want the academic. They want to succeed in their academic studies and I want to help them do so. I worry that in their eyes, English is simply an annoyingly difficult obstacle they have to navigate to reach their goal. I don’t want to be an obstruction; I want to break down the barriers holding everyone back.

There are too many questions (and opinions) as to whose place it is to teach what. The most troublesome boundary to overcome is that which lies between EAP and the academy. I think we need to consider who is responsible for drawing that boundary and more importantly, who maintains it. One thing is certain, the students would be better off without it.

Donohue, J (2012) Using systemic functional linguistics in academic writing development: An example from film studies. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 11 (2), 4-16

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