The strawperson argument

Challenging negative evaluations of EAP & EAP practitioners

I read the abstract of a recently published article posted to the BALEAP discussion list, which contained the sentence: ‘Although EAP has traditionally been blind to knowledge, focusing instead on language and skills development (Monbec, 2018), EAP courses are well placed to make explicit to students legitimated language practice AND legitimated knowledge practice.’ It made my blood boil – always a good trigger for a blog post.

It is an example of an argument that was traditionally – i.e. in the dark ages before enlightenment – called ‘strawman’, I guess now called strawperson. In this type of argument, the writer sets up a spurious claim, ‘EAP focuses on language and skills development’, weakly supported (Monbec, 2018 – who?) in order to knock it over with their own superior position. This same strawperson argument was levelled at EAP as an ‘academic socialisation’ model in the early days of Academic Literacies (Lea and Street, 1998). It was critiqued by Wingate & Tribble (2012), who noted that criticisms of EAP refer to ‘practices which might still have been in place at the time of the authors’ seminal publication (1998) [but] do not take into account Genre/EAP’s founding principles, recent literature and innovation in current instructional practice’ (p.488). I would suggest that the writer cited above is guilty of exactly the same thing as Lea and Street in 1998.

Retrieved 27.6.20 from https://www.artsjournal.com/engage/2014/02/the-pandering-straw-man/

So the first thing to do is find the Monbec 2018 article to find out who this researcher is and whether the writer quoted above has cited them accurately or is guilty of massaging their claims to make a stronger strawperson argument. Monbec turns out to be based in Singapore and this may be the context which has formed her understanding of EAP. She is a proponent of the new kid on the block, Legitimation Code Theory (LCT), and is in fact a co-author of another paper with the writer cited above. Now I’m not objecting to the content of these articles. Indeed, I enthusiastically endorse LCT for bringing new insights to the practice of EAP; but I am objecting to the positioning of EAP in a general and negative way in opposition to the new shining light of LCT. A writer with a more confident academic voice would not need to do this.

A quick surf across the Monbec (2018) article shows that her claims are much more hedged than the citation above would suggest. She argues for the disciplinary, i.e. context-specific, nature of knowledge as set out in LCT but then fails to give any kind of context to her claims about the nature of EAP courses and curricula. She refers to ‘many EAP courses’ with no indication in which contexts these are delivered; she notes ‘attempts in various locations to strengthen epistemic relations in both curriculum design and in teacher training’ without noting which locations.  She argues that ‘lack of focus on a functional knowledge about language in some EAP curricula constitutes a form of knowledge-blindness’. Her EAP references are all at least 10 – 20 years old although her LCT references are bang up to date. She also gets the name of the BALEAP TEAP Competency Framework wrong and does not include it in her references list. So it would be legitimate to suggest that she is herself suffering from a form of knowledge blindness about EAP.

Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of this for me is that I doubt whether these or other writers currently pushing LCT will actually contribute to EAP practice in any meaningful way by publishing teacher handbooks and teaching materials that show (rather than tell) ordinary EAP teachers how LCT might inform their classroom practice. It is really hard to convert research into pedagogy and make it accessible to teachers who do not share your understanding of the nature of EAP and how it could be taught. But I don’t see how the field moves on unless theorists stop telling EAP practitioners that they have a hostility to theory and a dysfunctional relationship with it (Ding & Bruce, 2017:151, cited in Monbec, 2018) and start showing them what theory looks like in practice.

Monbec, L. (2018) Designing an EAP curriculum for transfer: A focus on knowledge. Journal of Academic Language & Learning, 12/2, A88-A101.

Wingate, U. & Tribble, C. (2012) The best of both worlds? Towards an English for Academic Purposes/Academic Literacies writing pedagogy, Studies in Higher Education, 37/4, 481-495.

Author: Olwyn Alexander

I'm a teacher and researcher in the field of English for Academic Purposes (EAP). I collaborated with two friends and colleagues, Sue Argent and Jenifer Spencer, to write EAP Essentials: a teacher's guide to principles and practice, now in its second edition. Sue and I also wrote the course book series, Access EAP: Foundations and Frameworks.

6 thoughts on “The strawperson argument”

  1. Hi Olwyn,
    I don’t understand why you chose not to cite the article you refer to in this post. The citation is: Cowley-Haselden, S. (2020). Using learner diaries to explore learner relations to knowledge on an English for General Academic Purposes pre-sessional. Journal of Academic Language and Learning, 14(1), 15-29. (https://journal.aall.org.au/index.php/jall)
    It’s a shame that you seek to deepen the gulf between theory and practice and shocking that you would try to devalue an author because they are not based in the UK. Monbec’s work is incredibly important for uniting theory and practice in EAP, irrespective of where she is based.
    You say: “I doubt whether these or other writers currently pushing LCT will actually contribute to EAP practice in any meaningful way”. Steve Kirk’s LCT informed talk at the 2015 BALEAP conference in Leicester has made a huge contribution to EAP practice. Monbec’s work has also made a significant contribution to my own practice and the practice of other colleagues.

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    1. Thanks Susie, for the reference. I think you missed my point somewhat so I didn’t make it clear. I wondered on what basis you felt able to claim that EAP was about langauge and skills development, as you do in your abstract. That certainly isn’t the position my co-authors and I take in either EAP Essentials or Access EAP, both of which have been on the market now for about ten years. I’m really pleased that LCT is coming into EAP practice but in Monbec’s conclusion she says ‘This, in turn, may provide a theoretically sound basis for selecting items to include in the EGAP syllabus.’ For me a contribution to practice would be to publish a syllabus which demonstrated that sound basis. Without this further step, practice remains locked in the heads of the people who read research and never makes it to the practitioner at the chalkface.

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  2. Hi Olwyn,

    I am quite confused by your blog post, for its content and its tone. I also wondered why Susie’s abstract was cited without any acknowledgement and why your boiling blood found a single target in my JALL article. It falls on me to respond, my work is the subject of your blog post.

    So, a few points:

    To be clear, I am not the only one, by far, in the field who has raised the issue of knowledge in EAP (see Ken Hyland, John Flowerdew, Susan Hood, and many others, for example within the SFL/Genre approach). As you state in your post, my claims ‘are much more hedged’. That’s true, so why did I nevertheless remain the sole target of your diatribe, despite your statement that you agree with my paper (and Susie’s), and that you enthusiastically support LCT in EAP.

    You then dismiss my work with the expression (Monbec, 2018 – who?). What does the ‘who’ mean? It reads like : ‘who cares, this is a nobody’. Or does my name sound odd to your ear? I hate being so direct in a public sphere, but I found this particular phrasing (Monbec, 2018 -who?) appalling.

    You then state that I ‘turn out’ to be based in Singapore. I am confused as to why this is mentioned. It is very common for EAP educators to work in different countries throughout their careers. The context is clear in the paper.

    You also mislead your readers in casting my work under the label ‘theoretical’, again a way to dismiss my contribution. In fact, I am as much a practitioner as you are. I am on an educator track, I am in the classroom every day, and I share this practice in my publications. For instance:
    – The JALL article you cite provides a KAL syllabus.
    – A paper in the JEAP Special Issue commemorating MAK Halliday, provides an Academic Writing Toolkit or Table of Instantiation, suggestions of activities to use it in class, and a 13-week, 48-hour EGAP module. That you would be silent on this is less forgivable, since you also published a paper in that issue.

    The premise of your blog post was that you ‘objected’ to my characterisation of EAP in ‘a general and negative way’. You are not completely wrong there, I am not general, but I have voiced what I think needs improving in EAP and I have shown what has proved particularly useful in developing my practice (namely SFL and LCT). Why do you object to some negativity towards EAP? In your JEAP contribution, you state that ‘to date only Argent and Alexander (2010) presents a systematic development of Theme and thematic structure throughout a coursebook for lower proficiency EAP students (B1 on CEFR)’ (Alexander, 2019). You also seem to highlight what is missing before contributing your work.

    Shutting down attempts from EAP practitioners who are keen to explore and move the field beyond the boundaries of what you believe is legitimate EAP practice, is problematic. Using this tone as you target someone’s work is not acceptable. To quote your blog post: ‘A more confident academic voice would not need to do this’.

    You could approach the discussion differently. You could, for example, drop me a note and ask me whether I am aware of your textbook (I was not until you published in the JEAP). You could ask the people you find so theoretical to write for your blog, making a very practical contribution. That would be a more productive, inclusive way to engage. A better use of everyone’s time. We do not need divisions.

    And to close, I would encourage the readers of your blog to check the original JALL paper and to contact me if anything is unclear. I would also encourage all EAP practitioners to be inclusive in their practice and their research.

    Best wishes from Singapore, or anywhere else where EAP is studied, taught and researched.

    Laetitia

    PS: I do object to LCT being called in such a dismissive manner…‘The New Kid on the Block’. I hope readers will check for themselves the significant and inspiring work this community has accomplished in a wide variety of field. Your readers may want to see for themselves as many papers can be accessed on the Legitimation Code Theory Centre for Knowledge Building in Sydney University. Closer to you, Prof. Steve Kirk has published and talked extensively on his practice with LCT in EAP.
    https://www.sydney.edu.au/arts/our-research/centres-institutes-and-groups/lct-centre-for-knowledge-building.html

    Alexander, O. (2019). The contribution of Halliday to EAP writing instruction: A personal journey. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 41, 100769.
    Brooke, M., Monbec, L., & Tilakaratna, N. (2019). The analytical lens: developing undergraduate students’ critical dispositions in undergraduate EAP writing courses. Teaching in Higher Education, 24(3), 428-443.
    Cowley-Haselden, S. (2020). Using learner diaries to explore learner relations to knowledge on an English for General Academic Purposes pre-sessional. Journal of Academic Language and Learning, 14(1), 15-29. (https://journal.aall.org.au/index.php/jall)
    Kirk, S. (2017). Waves of reflection: Seeing knowledge (s) in academic writing. In EAP in a Rapidly Changing Landscape: Issues, Challenges and Solutions-Proceedings of the 2015 Baleap Conference. Reading: Garnet Education.
    Monbec, L. (2018) Designing an EAP curriculum for transfer: A focus on knowledge. Journal of Academic Language & Learning, 12/2, A88-A101.
    Monbec, L. (2020). Systemic Functional Linguistics for the EGAP module: Revisiting the common core. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 43, 100794. You will find a week-by-week syllabus for a 13 week 48-hour EGAP module in this paper.

    You will find the other authors cited in this response in the reference list of the two papers above.

    Like

  3. Just in case you missed my response earlier. I think this is a very useful conversation to keep public so I hope you will agree to make it public.

    Hi Olwyn,

    I am quite confused by your blog post, for its content and its tone. I also wondered why Susie’s abstract was cited without any acknowledgement and why your boiling blood found a single target in my JALL article. It falls on me to respond, my work is the subject of your blog post.
    So, a few points:
    To be clear, I am not the only one, by far, in the field who has raised the issue of knowledge in EAP (see Ken Hyland, John Flowerdew, Susan Hood, and many others, for example within the SFL/Genre approach). As you state in your post, my claims ‘are much more hedged’. That’s true, so why did I nevertheless remain the sole target of your diatribe, despite your statement that you agree with my paper (and Susie’s), and that you enthusiastically support LCT in EAP.
    You then dismiss my work with the expression (Monbec, 2018 – who?). What does the ‘who’ mean? It reads like : ‘who cares, this is a nobody’. Or does my name sound odd to your ear? I hate being so direct in a public sphere, but I found this particular phrasing (Monbec, 2018 -who?) appalling.

    You then state that I ‘turn out’ to be based in Singapore. I am confused as to why this is mentioned. It is very common for EAP educators to work in different countries throughout their careers. The context is clear in the paper.

    You also mislead your readers in casting my work under the label ‘theoretical’, again a way to dismiss my contribution. In fact, I am as much a practitioner as you are. I am on an educator track, I am in the classroom every day, and I share this practice in my publications. For instance:
    – The JALL article you cite provides a KAL syllabus.
    – A paper in the JEAP Special Issue commemorating MAK Halliday, provides an Academic Writing Toolkit or Table of Instantiation, suggestions of activities to use it in class, and a 13-week, 48-hour EGAP module syllabus. That you would be silent on this is less forgivable, since you also published a paper in that issue.

    The premise of your blog post was that you ‘objected’ to my characterisation of EAP in ‘a general and negative way’. You are not completely wrong there, I am not general, but I have voiced what I think needs improving in EAP and I have shown what has proved particularly useful in developing my practice (namely SFL and LCT). Why do you object to some negativity towards EAP? In your JEAP contribution, you state that ‘to date only Argent and Alexander (2010) presents a systematic development of Theme and thematic structure throughout a coursebook for lower proficiency EAP students (B1 on CEFR)’ (Alexander, 2019). You also seem to highlight what is missing before contributing your work.

    Shutting down attempts from EAP practitioners who are keen to explore and move the field beyond the boundaries of what you believe is legitimate EAP practice, is problematic. Using this tone as you target someone’s work is not acceptable. To quote your blog post: ‘A more confident academic voice would not need to do this’.

    You could approach the discussion differently. You could, for example, drop me a note and ask me whether I am aware of your textbook (I was not until you published in the JEAP). You could ask the people you find so theoretical to write for your blog, making a very practical contribution. That would be a more productive, inclusive way to engage. A better use of everyone’s time. We do not need divisions.

    And to close, I would encourage the readers of your blog to check the original JALL paper and to contact me if anything is unclear. I would also encourage all EAP practitioners to be inclusive in their practice and their research.
    Best wishes from Singapore, or anywhere else where EAP is studied, taught and researched.

    Laetitia

    PS: I do object to LCT being called in such a dismissive manner…‘The New Kid on the Block’. I hope readers will check for themselves the significant and inspiring work this community has accomplished in a wide variety of field. Your readers may want to see for themselves as many papers can be accessed on the Legitimation Code Theory Centre for Knowledge Building in Sydney University. Closer to you, Prof. Steve Kirk has published and talked extensively on his practice with LCT in EAP.
    https://www.sydney.edu.au/arts/our-research/centres-institutes-and-groups/lct-centre-for-knowledge-building.html

    Alexander, O. (2019). The contribution of Halliday to EAP writing instruction: A personal journey. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 41, 100769.
    Brooke, M., Monbec, L., & Tilakaratna, N. (2019). The analytical lens: developing undergraduate students’ critical dispositions in undergraduate EAP writing courses. Teaching in Higher Education, 24(3), 428-443.
    Cowley-Haselden, S. (2020). Using learner diaries to explore learner relations to knowledge on an English for General Academic Purposes pre-sessional. Journal of Academic Language and Learning, 14(1), 15-29. (https://journal.aall.org.au/index.php/jall)
    Kirk, S. (2017). Waves of reflection: Seeing knowledge (s) in academic writing. In EAP in a Rapidly Changing Landscape: Issues, Challenges and Solutions-Proceedings of the 2015 Baleap Conference. Reading: Garnet Education.
    Monbec, L. (2018) Designing an EAP curriculum for transfer: A focus on knowledge. Journal of Academic Language & Learning, 12/2, A88-A101.
    Monbec, L. (2020). Systemic Functional Linguistics for the EGAP module: Revisiting the common core. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 43, 100794. You will find a week-by-week syllabus for a 13 week 48-hour EGAP module in this paper.

    You will find the other authors cited in this response in the reference list of the two papers above.

    Like

    1. Hello Laetitia, you are absolutely right to take me to task for the casual way I seemed to disparage your work, which was NOT AT ALL my intention. I have over the years had a habit of being provocative, when I see imagined slights. My friend and co-author Sue has always been excellent at reigning in these tendencies but they pop up now and again. I suppose I do see this blog as an opportunity for a bit of controversy. I absolutely agree with you that your work is important and I don’t dismiss it. My blog post is called Straw Person Argument and of course I was guilty of that myself – setting you and Susie up (Monbec – who?) as the straw person for my argument! So apologies but I really appreciate your response and engagement.

      Like

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