Statistics on the number of infections and deaths from Covid-19 are rising inexorably in the UK as front line health workers struggle to secure enough personal protective equipment and to be tested to determine whether they have had the virus and can go back to work. However, the statistics remained just that, impossibly large numbers, until one day the number of deaths was 208 + one person I had worked with professionally over many years. Suddenly, this death was no longer a statistic but a very real loss of someone whose professionalism and friendship I have valued enormously. It’s not too strong to say I am professionally diminished by this loss.
It made me think about the professional relationship I have enjoyed with this person and many other colleagues, for example in BALEAP, the professional organisation I have been most closely involved with since 2004. What I have valued most in these interactions is the freedom to talk about academic concepts that interest us and live for a while the life of the mind. Of course, the life of emotions and feelings is equally important for a healthy-life balance. However, I have sometimes found in the ELT profession that the concept of ‘Caring and sharing in the language classroom’ (Moskowitz, 1978) takes precedence over the life of the mind. Students are viewed by some EAP teachers as nice people to be friendly with and chat to instead of clever people who have come to study a subject they are passionate about at an advanced level. These teachers find the concepts that students plan to study uninteresting and would rather talk to them more generally about topics. I believe it is these attitudes that contribute towards the lower status of EAP units and their staff within universities.
The academic life revolves around exploring and developing concepts models and theories in order to better understand the world we live in. At the moment, we are relying on the academic expertise of epidemiologists, who have been modelling the spread of the corona virus in order to predict when it will be safe to relax the current lockdown. We have learned new terms such as flattening the curve and herd immunity and have had a glimpse into laboratories where researchers are working to create tests with more rapid results or vaccines. These are fascinating lives of the mind and we are beginning to understand how we all benefit enormously from their research and thinking.
My own life of the mind began with my MSc in Applied Linguistics back in 1994-6. I studied part-time over two years while I continued to teach part-time. The most important skill this degree gave me was the ability to read academic research articles, engage with their ideas and think about what that meant for my teaching practice, i.e. the ability to reflect on the link between theory and practice. Later, I worked with friends and co-authors Sue Argent and Jenifer Spencer to develop a distance learning EAP programme and a short-lived EAP Teacher Development course, out of which came the teacher handbook EAP Essentials. When Sue, Jenifer and I get together now we indulge our love of talking about concepts such as noun phrases and graduate attributes.
Perhaps this is just a sign of age and the superficial connection that conversations on general topics creates is no longer enough for me. I love the sense that I share ways of thinking deeply with my two friends. We are all interested to learn more about subjects such as petroleum engineering or applied photonics and passionate about exploring the most efficient ways to help our EAP students to achieve success in their studies and research.
Moskowitz, Gertrude (1978) Caring and sharing in the foreign language class:, A Sourcebook on Humanistic Techniques. Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House Publishers.