I’ve been immensely cheered this week by news of at least three potential vaccines against Covid19. While these vaccines are not expected to be available to the general public until at least spring next year, the news itself has given me a real boost to think we might have a route out of the current lockdown to something approaching the normality we used to take for granted. I’m firmly in favour of vaccination as one of the wonders of medical science, which has enabled most people to live safely in a world teeming with virulent bugs of one sort or another. I used to work in the pharmaceutical industry and so have an awareness of how stringent the regulatory procedures are to ensure vaccines are safe for the majority of people.
However, this welcome news of a vaccine put me in mind of an EAP metaphor, EAP by inoculation. This is one of a number of medical metaphors in EAP such as writing clinics and remedial courses, which position EAP students as unhealthy due to low English language proficiency and in need of treatment to cure this. As the EAP field has matured, these negative orientations have given way to more nuanced approaches which recognise the complexity and specificity of academic communication in different disciplines. However, my experience of visiting Pre-sessional English (PSE) programmes for the purpose of BALEAP accreditation has shown me that EAP by inoculation is still prevalent in approaches to course design and assessment in PSE programmes.
Inoculation involves giving one shot of a vaccine followed several days or weeks later by booster shots to challenge the immune system to recognise and contain the pathogen next time it enters the body. EAP by inoculation uses the essay genre as the vaccine and involves setting a generic essay question followed several weeks later by a more specific essay question, usually on a topic related to a students’ future discipline. The specific essay question will have been chosen by the EAP syllabus designer perhaps in discussion with subject lecturers. A third more specific essay question might follow, in which EAP students are allowed some limited autonomy to specify their own angle on this final essay question. In the first two essays, reading material is usually supplied and only in the third is the student granted independence to explore the literature to find relevant sources.
The problems I have with this approach is that it is topic-based rather than performance-based; it greatly increases the workload for PSE teachers, who are required to mark multiple drafts of often poorly written text; and the essay genre itself doesn’t map easily onto assessment tasks that students might meet on their degree studies.
As we noted in EAP Essentials (2nd Ed. 2018, p 101) a topic-based approach ‘cannot provide the overall aims and the unit-by-unit framework for development, recycling and transferability of language’. The language and skills to prepare to write about each topic do not transfer easily to the next topic, mainly because EAP students assume the content is the most important aspect of the essay. If instead the approach is performance-based, the topic becomes the carrier content for moves and functions such as defining, comparing or arguing. Assignments based on these functions give rise to shorter texts which develop language repertoires that can be shown to be common to a range of oral and written genres in a wide variety of disciplines, including poster presentations, research articles and exam questions.
Setting two or three 2 – 3,000 word essays gives PSE teachers a huge marking load across an already intense and crowded programme. The first essay is often quite poorly written and hard for teachers to understand. Nevertheless, they attempt to guess what the student intended to say and give copious quantities of feedback. This is often discussed in a writing tutorial, which students enjoy as a chance for one-to-one interaction with the teacher, but from which they take very little away that can be used to improve the next essay. Indeed, the copious feedback can be counter-productive as it has a demoralising effect on students with little indication of the most important points they should work on. Where teachers are encouraged to give feedback on multiple drafts before the students submit, there comes a point where the student no longer owns the essay or feels invested in its production. In contrast, short (250 word) formative tasks to define a concept or outline a problem are much easier to assess according to targeted performance criteria. By writing these shorter texts and receiving targeted feedback, students learn to recognise these functions within academic genres such as research articles and can use them to build longer pieces of writing. They can also be given responsibility for building the final submission and retain ownership and investment in their work.
The main problem I have with EAP by inoculation, however, is that the essay is such a nebulous genre. There are a huge number of instantiations of the genre, e.g. high school essay, IELTS essay, undergraduate essay, postgraduate essay, all with slightly different requirements. It is also a label students are most likely to have encountered in previous studies and will thus have preconceived views about its requirements. PSE programmes which adopt an EAP by inoculation approach often have built into them a contrast between an IELTS essay and a university essay to help students move away from an advantages/disadvantages approach to argument in order to develop a more nuanced ‘to what extent…’ perspective. It is true that university lecturers often do set something they call an essay, especially in semester 1 of taught postgraduate (PGT) programmes, to see if students can write and use academic sources in ethical ways. I myself fell foul of this in the first semester of my Applied Linguistics MSc at Edinburgh University. As I detail in a talk for Lynch (2014), I received feedback to tell me I had written an undergraduate essay, with little indication beyond ‘it doesn’t have headings’ to tell me what I should have done differently.
An essay is essentially a convergent genre. The essay question or title sets up an issue, on which students are expected to develop a viewpoint. They come to a conclusion, which closes off further discussion. However, most genres at university, including student assessment genres, are divergent. They explore opportunities for the development of new knowledge in relation to concepts that disciplines are actively researching. Gillett & Hammond (2009) mapped the maze of assessment at one university and found a huge range of assessment types, many of which could be a replacement for the essay genre. As we found on the PSE at Heriot-Watt University over a large number of years, students are quite capable of writing annotated bibliographies, literature reviews and case studies, genres more closely related to the assessment types on their degrees. These make much better vehicles for developing language and skills performance than topic-based essays.
Gillett A. J. & Hammond, A. C. (2009). Mapping the maze of assessment: An investigation into practice. Active Learning in Higher Education, 10, 120-137. https://doi.org/10.1177/1469787409104786. Also available at https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/1640736.pdf
Lynch, T (2014) Study Listening. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.