I have been struggling to find a text that has inspired me since my last post, so the idea struck me that I might search the Journal of English for Academic Purposes and see what was being published at the time I entered the field of EAP teaching in the spring of 2009. “When there is no perfect text: Approaches to the EAP practitioner’s dilemma” by John Swales immediately jumped out at me for two reasons. Firstly, because I have an idea rattling in my head that EAP needs an (online) EAP Archive of ‘suitable’ texts that might go some way to approaching the dilemma articulated by Swales yet felt by me and countless other EAP practitioners on a daily basis and secondly as there has been a very interesting debate going on on the Teaching EAP blog following a post by Andy Gillet – “EAP and publishers: The dangers of Teaching EAP for No Obvious Reason” , a comment on which also mentions Swales’s article.
Swale’s article is a very direct response to the bane of an EAP practitioner’s existence – sourcing appropriate materials. Swales proffers two options, both necessitating the EAP teacher disguising themselves as a materials writer. The first of these solutions is in the EAP instructor writing source texts. Swales notes the lack of mention the difficulty in finding the ‘perfect’ text gets in ESP/EAP resource books like Jordan’s (1997) ‘A Guide and resource book for teachers’ and Hyland’s (2006) ‘Advanced resource book’ despite the observation made by Dudley-Evans and St John (1998) that the time spent on the hunt for the perfect material to resource an hour’s teaching takes around 15 hours (quoted on p. 6). Swales concedes that finding the perfect text in terms of ‘pedagogically attractive features’ is often at the expense of students actually being able to penetrate the ‘obscure content’ (p.6) of it. Hence the insistance that a text be dropped from subsequent editions of ‘Academic Writing for Graduate Students’. Another text favoured by Swales suffers a related problem. The ‘Metering Pumps’ example is, in Swales’s words, “about as perfect as a paragraph can get” (p.6). The issue being that the content lacks interest for many; “even though this text may be uninteresting to many, it is sufficiently brief for this shortcoming not to matter very much. If compensation is need, ‘Metering Pumps’ is an extremely elegant descriptive garment hung from its definitional peg” (ibid). One solution then is to write your own, or at the very least ‘adapt and abridge’ found texts (p. 7).
This is what Swales did for a literature review exercise that required more than one source text. The multiplication of the number of texts required obviously exacerbating the issues surrounding finding the perfect text(s). Swales argues that the length of time necessary (not to mention the amount of luck needed) to find texts to suit a teacher’s requirements is akin to the amount of time involved in producing ‘original’ texts. Compensation for Swales is offered in the light relief enjoyed by “playing around with the names of the fictitious authors” (p.7).
The second of Swales’s approaches to this problem is effectively to create student writing. The context that required him to do this was that he needed multiple drafts of a literature review to show how they evolve into being over several attempts. Starting with a tediuous listing of sources, then going too far in the opposite direction with a journalistic enthusing over the reading material to an expertly produced review that a professor would be proud to have authored. In contrast to Swales’s first solution whereby the ‘materials writer’ produces the source materials, here the source material was authentic, the student’s story, dissertation topic and literature review drafts, however, had been invented (p.8). This material developed for workshop use has proved so popular and effective in producing those ‘aha!’ moments that Swales goes into great detail in order to make this material available in the article as ‘freeware’.
In conclusion Swales hopes to have provided a “(belated) response to the advocacy in Dudley-Evans and Johns (1988) for creativity on the part of EAP materials providers” and to have partly addressed the “lack of attention in the ESP literature to instructor roles and concerns” raised by Watson Todd in 2003 (p.12). Swales admits though that what is missing is a greater discussion on Cheng’s learner/participant uptake (2006). Noting that “short-term enthusiasm” expressed in extremely positive feedback on workshops such as the literature review one “may not translate into longer-term improvements” (p.12) in student writing.
I like what Swales offers here as it provides real practical solutions to a problem. However I think most of us come around to this solution in the end out of desperation if nothing else. Which makes me think that perhaps this issue is being approached from the wrong perspective. If we have the need to produce something we feel does not exist, should we not think about why it does not exist? Why then would we expect students to produce ‘it’? I cannot help thinking we are not better employed helping students with the ‘real’ language they encounter in their reading, whether or not this language agrees with our pedagogical temperaments. By disguising ourselves as materials writers and disguising the texts we then produce as ‘real life’ examples there is a risk of making the language used therein meaningless. In the case of ‘Joyce’ (the invented student, with the perfectly staged drafts of a literature review) is it realistic to expect students to have their own (arguably massive) shifts in writing structure, style and understanding of form? Let alone what they would have to do with their thinking! I think I would rather guide students through this and watch their progress (which is, as Swales points out, a greater consumption of time still) but, I would argue, a greater use of it. Why not let the students write the perfect text, with all it’s imperfections?
I may be an idealist, but I also know that in reality we need texts which is why I think Swales is (mostly) right. While Swales may be happy to forgo student interest for the perfect exemplar of language, I am not. I believe that interest is a key factor in motivation and acquisition so would much rather write my own text and make it relevant in content (doesn’t the very act of writing it down make it then an authentic text?). I also think that Swales’s desire to share his material is the greater solution to the dilemma of EAP practitioners the world over. Wouldn’t a collection of such texts in an online ‘archive’ make all our lives a bit easier? They may not be authentic ‘academic texts’, but they would be authentic English language teaching tools (the downsides of this are discussed in the comments on the current Teaching EAP blog post).
The greatest downside to Swales’s ideas are that we cannot really know the usefulness of our creative writing endevaours until we analyse whether students internalise what they have been exposed to and can then (re)produce something similar. Are we trying to fit a round peg into a square hole? Swales is right here to point out the need for greater attention to be paid to Cheng’s learner/participant uptake. And here Swales has inspired me for next week…
Swales, J. (2009). When there is no perfect text: Approaches to the EAP practitioner’s dilemma. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 8 (1), 5-13.