Preparing to Enter the Academy: Issues to Consider

Corinne Boz


One of the most challenging aspects of writing a PhD thesis is ensuring the language of the text is accepted as legitimate by the academic discourse community that the student is entering. The student must prove themselves linguistically to be a legitimate member of a particular academic community of practice. If the task of becoming a successful writer in the community is challenging for native speaker students it is more so for second language students. These students must not only perform using a new academic discourse but must also do so in another language. In order to make the transition into their chosen academic discourse community ‘easier’ many students take a pre-sessional course or a course in English for Academic Purposes (EAP) which are available at most universities in the UK.

Although there are undoubtedly enormous benefits to these kind of preparatory courses they do not come without inherent problems. In this article I would like to concentrate on one of the most significant criticisms of mainstream EAP and that is its refusal to engage with its own status as a political activity or in other words its determination to be seen as a pragmatic enterprise. For many students the transition into the academic discourse community they have chosen to become a part of is a difficult and confusing process. Although academic discourse is not a fixed entity L2 students are faced with an institutional concept of academic discourse that is resistant to change or difference. Many students feel that the language of the academic community does not reflect their own cultural identity and feel that they either have to surrender their own identity in order to become accepted or they choose to flout the conventions of traditional eurocentric academic discourse in order to preserve the identity that they feel is a crucial part of their work as an academic. Despite the obvious cultural and political issues surrounding this process of entering the community EAP in general continues to see itself as divorced from these problems and therefore does not adequately prepare students for the political struggle they will have in situating their identities within their chosen discipline. Following on from this general critique, I would like to briefly discuss critical approaches to linguistics. Although  an immense amount of valuable work has been done in the field of mainstream critical linguistics I will discuss the way in which these approaches are limited. I would like to argue that critical approaches to EAP based on mainstream critical linguistics may work well in the EAP classroom but may still be inadequate in terms of preparing students for entrance into the academic community. I will discuss the presence of a ‘wall’ that students may hit when they enter their chosen discipline after leaving the protective environment of the EAP course. I will use Pennycook's discussion of  mainstream critical linguists as ‘Emancipatory Modernists’ (Pennycook, 2001) to illustrate the existence of what I have described as the ‘wall’. This discussion will challenge the idea that once students' attention has been brought to the existence of structures of institutional and individual power access and acceptance in the academic community is straightforward, as this is clearly not the case. Students' struggles to maintain their own identities as well as an accepted academic identity in a UK institution are always going to be struggles unless we can do something towards destroying the wall that has been erected to protect the dominant discourse conventions of the academic community

The problems with EAP

It seems obvious to begin with a look at the most common criticisms of the field of EAP. The first major criticism of the field of English for Academic Purposes is to do with the problematic notions of ‘academic discourse community’ and ‘academic discourse’. In general, EAP has worked with the concept of an academic discourse community as a ‘homogeneous circle, unified by its distinctive discourse features’ (Canagarajah, 2002, p.32),  and academic discourse has been seen as a ‘unified register’ although it has not been systematically investigated or researched (Bhatia, 2002). Academic discourse has been treated as a discrete set of common core skills that are applicable across disciplines. There is, however, a large body of research that highlights the fact that there is no such thing as one ‘academic discourse’ but an assortment of academic discourses which can be interpreted according to particular values and beliefs and can vary from institution to institution, department to department, and even from supervisor to supervisor within departments. (Candlin and Plum 1999, Hyland 1999, Johns 1997). With so much research clearly showing the wide variation of academic discourses across disciplines it is now almost impossible for EAP to pursue the concept of a unified, cross-disciplinary academic discourse. Hyland and Hamp-Lyons, in their overview of the current state of EAP for the new journal entirely devoted to the field, call for EAP practitioners to build on  this research and challenge old assumptions (Journal of English for Academic Purposes, vol.1, 1, 2002). They point out that a belief in a universality of academic conventions misleads students into believing that success is based upon mastering a set of ‘transferable rules’ (p.6) and that this is of course a dangerous misconception for students as they then see their EAP course as providing them with all the skills they need for academic success. In other words, if they can learn the set of skills presented on the EAP course they will then have the ‘key’ to the academic community. This inevitably leads to frustration in the student when they encounter problems with their supervisor or their tutors as they cannot understand why they are facing difficulties and why their supervisors may not be happy with the writing they are submitting.

There are two more points that can be made in relation to this problem. Firstly, those who assume that academic literacy practices come in this kind of kit form are also assuming that if a student does not manage to use the kit  to communicate effectively that this is the fault of the student. They convince themselves that this is a weakness in the learner rather than in the existing pedagogy. Secondly, and in direct relation to the first point, as Canagarajah points out,

to treat each use of deviation from academic discourse as a sign of unproficiency or failure is to underestimate the agency of the students (2002, p.33).

In other words, the attitude that academic discourse rules are a discrete set of skills combined with the attitude of a discourse community that is resistant to change from its newer members prescribes that students should write in a particular fashion, although it is not always clear to the student what this should be (see Clark, 1992). When a student, particularly a second language student, chooses to appropriate the skills and use them in a different way this is all too often regarded as deficiency on the student’s part. It is easier and less challenging for the instructor to categorise the student as one that has not properly mastered the required skills than to deal with a student who has decided to resist institutionalised practices and appropriate the discourse into something that helps them to preserve their cultural identity as well as fulfil the demands of  good academic discourse practice.

This brings us to the second major criticism of the field of EAP and this relates to its pragmatic nature and its failure to challenge established institutional practices.  Canagarajah (2002) regards EAP as adopting a ‘normative attitude that the discourses of academic communities are not open to negotiation or criticism’ (p.32) and Benesch (2001) emphasises the fact that the politics of EAP remain largely ‘hidden’ and that ‘power issues have been ignored in the name of pragmatism’ (p.3).The main point to be gleaned from these criticisms is that teachers of EAP tend to teach their subject as if it is detached from any political or ideological connection. They do not acknowledge that there are institutional powers at force behind the work they do in the classroom. James Gee (1994) states that,

Like it or not, English teachers stand at the very heart of the most crucial educational, cultural, and political issues of our time (quoted in Pennycook, 2001, p.21).

It is essential that English teachers recognise the importance of these educational, cultural and political issues as they simply cannot be separated from the context of the English language classroom. As Pennycook says in his call for a ‘Critical Applied Linguistics’ (2001),

we need to understand the classroom itself as a social domain, not merely a reflection of the larger society beyond the classroom walls but also as a place in which social relations are played out and therefore a context in which we need to directly address questions of social power. (p.138).

He is emphasising the fact that social relations are produced as well as reflected in the context of the classroom and therefore the teacher, as Gee declares, has to acknowledge and accept the role that they are playing and the fact that the classroom is not a space free from ideological influence and relations of power. In the first issue of the Journal of English for Academic Purposes (2002) Hyland and Hamp-Lyons admit that the field of EAP ‘has yet to seriously confront these issues’ (p.10) and that although there is a greater awareness of the way that institutional power structures are at work this has not necessarily led to any further action to deal with it.

Critics of this pragmatic approach feel that not only is this refusal to acknowledge relations of power denying a basic reality but it is also placing the students at a disadvantage. It leads to a situation where students are so tied up with learning 'information' that they do not tackle larger questions of power and simply reproduce conventional discourses. As a result of this ‘they will simply receive practice in using the established knowledge and conventions in the expected way’ (Canagarajah, 2002). Although for some this may seem to be a satisfactory result, for most it is very far from what they would conceive the purpose of academic study to be. If the university is a place of learning, discussion and debate, discovery and innovation then surely it is undesirable to assimilate students into an established way of thinking and a formalised way of producing knowledge. If the university is truly a site of discussion and debate, discovery and invention then EAP must face up to its responsibilities and acknowledge the way that power works within the institution and proponents of this view should be more than simply ‘voices on the margins’ (Hyland & Hamp-Lyons, p.10).

Moving towards a critical EAP 

As stated above, the refusal of traditional EAP to recognise its political nature and to make students aware of the way that power and ideology are at work within the discourses of the institution restricts the creative potential of the second language writer. When presented with only one viable option students will have no choice but to conform to it or risk being refused entry into the academic discourse community. Students therefore often find it simpler to follow the path that they are shown rather than try to deviate away and create an alternative path.

The usual temptation for subjects is to accommodate to preconstructed, legitimized, univocal discourses. These institutional    discourses offer a readymade and convenient way to solve communicative challenges. However, to use these institutionalized uncritically is to let oneself be represented by the conventions and ideologies of each discourse. It is to be cast in the subject positions and roles preordained for speakers by the respective discourses. (Canagarajah 2001: p.128)

The danger in this situation is readily apparent. To conform completely to the dominant discourse conventions of the academic discourse community requires the subject to produce a certain kind of knowledge in a certain way. It does not allow space for representing alternative social, cultural and political identities or presenting alternative types of knowledge.

In an attempt to move away from the traditional pragmatic approach that advocates such unquestioning assimilation, many people working in the field of EAP have drawn on the fields of Critical Linguistics, Critical Language Awareness (CLA), and Critical Discourse analysis (CDA) in attempt to find a pedagogical approach that raises students awareness of the political nature of the context they are in. Romy Clark, for example, writes of her experience of introducing the principles of CLA into her Study Skills programme at a university in the UK (Clark, 1992). She believes that when teaching academic writing it is crucial to ‘critically explore with the students the notion of academic discourse community and how it is that certain forms of knowledge and ways of telling that knowledge have evolved in the way that they have’ (p.118) and secondly that it is vital to develop ways of ‘challenging some of the discourse practices and of producing alternatives which allow the excluded values and experiences to shape alternatives’ (p.118). These two things incorporate the most important tenets of this kind of critical work, the notions of empowerment and emancipation, which Clark defines respectively as ‘the process by which students become aware of what the conventions are, where they come from, what their likely affects are and how they feel about them’ (p.118) and ‘using power gained through awareness to act’ (p.119). For Clark, then, as for many others the objective is to raise students awareness of the fact that the academic discourse conventions are conventions that have been enforced by the people who hold the most power within the academic discourse community and that these conventions can be questioned and challenged. It is important however that the decision to challenge is made by the student; that once they are aware of the way that power works they can choose to conform or resist and that this is not something that is prescribed by the teacher as this would, as Clark points out,  be replacing one kind of prescriptivism for another (1992, p.135).

I would like to focus here on what appears to be a problem with this approach. In order to introduce the problem I am using the example presented by Clark of one of her students who challenged his lecturer’s explicit ideas on ‘proper’ academic conventions (Clark, 1992, p.120). Clark describes the situation of a mature, postgraduate student who, after receiving feedback from his instructor complaining about the subjective nature of one of his assignments, felt empowered to go and challenge his lecturer and assert his right to use personal expressions in his writing. The student’s awareness of the nature of ‘objectivity’ as a dominant discourse convention that can be challenged and questioned gave him the confidence to approach his lecturer to discuss the issue and ‘insist’ on his rights. We are told that this was a ‘successful outcome’ (p.120). 

Although this may be interpreted as being a successful outcome I would argue that there is not enough information presented here to really establish  the outcome. I would also like to argue that this example points to a shortcoming in this type of critical approach. What we are told in Clark's example is that the student approached the lecturer, discussed the issue further and insisted on using the personal, subjective language that he felt he had the right to use. What we are not told is what the reaction of the lecturer was and this is where the problem lies. The example suggests two possibilities: that the instructor simply conceded that the student was right and allowed him to use the language that he felt comfortable with or that he discussed the student’s concerns but insisted on the traditional academic conventions that he believed to be important and the student then insisted on doing it his own way. The first of these options seems unlikely as the lecturer would have been unlikely to give such critical feedback of the student's style if they had indeed been flexible anyway. The second option, if this was the case, is also problematic as we know that the student got what he wanted but the lecturer may have been unhappy about the decision. It would be interesting to know how the lecturer felt about subsequent work from the student and whether further conflicts arose.

I think this micro-level encounter reveals a macro-level concern and that is what I have described in my introduction as the ‘wall’ that can exist between the English language classroom and the disciplines. If we think about this on a micro level, an English teacher may be very successful in introducing their students to the idea of ideological discourse and the way that power works to privilege the knowledge and writing of certain groups and the students may be successful in producing academic writing that challenges the dominant discourse conventions and provides them with a feeling of individual empowerment. The English teacher may be happy with the academic writing that the students are producing but we have to remember that this is a ‘sheltered’ environment. The participants in this scenario have the same purpose in mind; both teacher and student are aware of the cultural politics of the writing situation and are working towards producing academic discourse that allows the student to enter the academic community without compromising their particular social, cultural and political identities. In a situation like this, as in the example from Clark (1992) above, we can see that the student feels prepared to tackle political problems once they enter their department. The problem occurs when the student leaves the supportive environment of the English classroom and enters into their department. What happens if their lecturer or supervisor in the department is not prepared to accept academic writing that differs in any way from their own conception of what academic writing should be?

Much has been written in the field of L2 writing research highlighting the fact that we are not always aware or sensitive to the cultural needs of L2 writers. In his article ‘Addressing issues of power and difference in ESL academic writing.’ Canagarajah points out that although second language writing teachers are        

not unaware of the conflicts of power inequalities and cultural difference involved in language acquisition…they do not have at their disposal the methods and approaches which would enable them to teach writing with a sensitivity to such concerns. (2001, p.117)                                 

If this is the situation for L2 writing teachers who are constantly dealing with these cultural and political issues at some level on a daily basis then the problem is surely multiplied for PhD supervisors and departmental lecturers who may not have any sensitivity at all that such conflicts even exist. For a student who has been through an English course that has encouraged a critical approach to written academic discourse, meeting a lecturer or supervisor who is insensitive to the cultural politics of writing will be frustrating and demoralising. It is this situation that I have described as the ‘wall’ i.e. any attempts to resist assimilation into prescribed notions of academic courses and any attempts to produce discourse that is seen by the lecturer/supervisor to deviate from the norm are blocked. In this situation the problem lies with the fact that the lecturer/supervisor is unaware or underprepared for dealing with the cultural politics of second language writing but unfortunately the difficulty of overcoming this always lies with the students. It is here that the problem of these mainstream critical approaches to English teaching lies. It seems that the students are led to believe that their awareness will lead to emancipation through action but what happens when their action is not accepted? In order to elaborate on this criticism it would be useful to introduce the ideas of Pennycook (2001) at this point.

Pennycook and Emancipatory Modernism

Although critical approaches to linguistics like Critical Language Awareness, Critical Discourse Analysis and Critical Linguistics have provided us with much that is valuable Pennycook moves away from these approaches. In Critical Applied Linguistics: A critical introduction (2001) Pennycook refers to most of the work in this field as ‘mainstream critical linguistics’, and this includes work such as Fairclough (1996), Kress (1990), Wodak (1996), and Phillpson (1992). He defines their work as taking an ‘Emancipatory Modernist’ approach (Pennycook, 2001, p.36). Work within this field, as I stated earlier, aims to reveal the overtly political nature of language and uncover the ways in which this political aspects of language are concealed. It is an important tenet of this approach that all attempts to reveal the political ideology of language should be conducted from a rational and scientific point of view. Pennycook states that,

while drawing on a neo-Marxist analysis of power and ideology and making awareness and emancipation its ultimate goals, it adheres to a hierarchy of knowledge production that places the scientific at the summit. (p.37)

For Pennycook there are many problems inherent in this approach. Firstly, and most fundamentally, he believes the neo-Marxist framework to be an inadequate one as it oversimplifies the division between the oppressors and the oppressed, and assumes that the main source of power in society is economic power. This denies the potential of other forms of power such as gender, race, culture, etc. His second criticism is centred around the version of ideology that is used in this neo-Marxist framework. He argues that it ‘presents us with problems regarding truth and reality’ (p.38). In addition to this, Pennycook is dissatisfied with the preoccupation with knowledge that claims to be scientific fact. He argues that claiming to be involved in the search for scientific fact causes more problems with the idea of objectivity and truth and also illustrates an inability to be self-reflexive which is one of the most important aspects of what critical work should be.

A final criticism for Pennycook is that any critical approach must provide an ‘alternative vision or strategy for change’ (p.39) but this approach only provides us with two problematic alternatives. One alternative would be to change relations in society so that this change in power is reflected in a change in language. This is unworkable as Pennycook points out that any individual empowerment would reproduce inequalities not change them. The second alternative is to ‘focus on removing ideological obfuscation, leading to emancipation through awareness’ (Pennycook, p.39). In other words, by making people aware of the way that language is used to reproduce power relations and ideological meaning it is possible for them to become empowered and take action to emancipate themselves. Although this sounds attractive, as we saw earlier with the Clark (1992) example, Pennycook illustrates the problematic nature of such a view. We have to be aware that this approach can be seen as patronizing. To advocate this emancipatory stance implies that large groups of people are generally ‘duped’ (Pennycook, 2001, p.40) and need someone to come along and reveal the truth or liberate them from their disadvantaged position. In addition to being patronizing this stance reveals an overwhelming self-importance and self-righteousness.

A further criticism of these approaches, and the one that I feel is most relevant to the discussion at hand, is the fact that this emancipatory modernist stance seems to suggest that once the ‘truth’ has been revealed to people they can become empowered and emancipate themselves. But what does emancipation mean in this case? The emancipatory modernist approach  suggests that there is an ‘enlightened state’ (Pennycook, 2001, p.40) which seems to suggest a state that exists outside relations of power. The problem here is clear. There is no state that exists outside the relations of power although there may of course be a different state that exists under different relations of power. In suggesting that emancipation is achievable it would seem that the emancipatory modernists may also be guilty of a similar kind of ‘duping’.

It is this question of emancipation that most obviously ties in with the notion of the ‘wall’ that I have described. Students may be led to believe that once they are aware that there are structures of power that exist in any kind of social situation that they can act to change the situation and achieve emancipation , whereas,in fact, this also depends on some degree on the attitude of the  students' lecturer/supervisor. For those who are fortunate enough to have a mentor who is aware of the cultural politics of second language writing then the degree to which the student can negotiate his position in relation to the academy is something that can be worked out between them but for those who are not fortunate enough to be in such a position the ability to negotiate is much more difficult. Although they are empowered to question and challenge the status quo and although they may act to try and ‘emancipate’ themselves they are still running up against the ‘wall’ that is created by lecturers and supervisors within the department who are either unable or unwilling to deal with such issues, and who prefer instead to defend the dominant discourse practices of their particular community. The ‘enlightened state’, as Pennycook (2001, p.40) states, cannot and does not exist.


My purpose in this short article was to discuss some of the problems that exist within both traditional approaches to EAP and some of the more critical approaches to EAP. It has been my intention to discuss the way that the problems inherent in these approaches contribute towards the difficulties that second language writers face in trying to establish a relationship with the academic discourse community that they are working with. In addition to this, I have discussed the idea of a ‘wall’ that can exist between the preparatory EAP course and the discipline that serves to protect the dominant discourse conventions of the community.

We have seen that the field of traditional EAP can be criticised on several grounds. It is too often guilty of viewing academic discourse as consisting of a discrete number of skills that, once learned, provide the student with access to the academic community. In addition to this, it also has a problematic view of the academic discourse community itself and sees it as  ‘homogeneous’ and ‘unconflictual’ (Starfield, 2001, p.132). The second criticism that we have considered is the lack of commitment to dealing with issues of power or the ‘assumption that students should accommodate themselves to the demands of academic assignments, behaviors expected in academic classes, and hierarchical arrangements within academic institutions’ (Benesch, 2001, p.41). It is clear that this refusal to deal with the political nature of English language teaching is unsatisfactory and disadvantageous for students. Students should be aware of the way that power works within the university so that they are in a position to negotiate a position for themselves within the academic discourse community. However, this article has also pointed out that the ‘emancipatory modernist’ approach, although working towards desireable ends, can also be criticised for what can be seen as its patronizing nature, an over-reliance on a neo-marxist framework that privileges economic power over any other kind of power and, possibly more importantly, an over-optimistic view of its own emancipatory powers.

I have argued, using an example study from Clark, that even when students are made aware of the dominant discourse practices of the academic community and are prepared to engage with them that this is not always easy as there can often be a ‘wall’ blocking their attempts to renegotiate their academic identities. I have described this wall as being created by those lecturers and supervisors who continue to subscribe to the view that there is a fixed set of academic conventions that make up ‘acceptable’ academic discourse and that if students wish to enter the academic community ‘membership is contingent on students surrendering their discourse to that of the experts’ (Benesch, 2001, p.89). Even though students are aware of the way that power works and understand the fact that academic discourse conventions are only conventions it may still be impossible for them to appropriate the discourse to represent their own cultural and political identity because of firm resistance from these particular lecturers and supervisors.

To conclude this article I will again turn to Pennycook who says,

on the one hand we need to help our students gain access to those forms of language and culture that matter while on the other we need to help challenge those norms. On the one hand we need to help our students develop critical awareness of academic norms and practices, while on the other we need to understand and promote culturally diverse ways of thinking, working and writing. (1997b:265 quoted in Swales, 2001, p.53)

Although Pennycook is referring to English teachers here, it seems that the need to  ‘promote culturally diverse ways of thinking, working and writing’ is something that we should not only be concentrating on with our students but also with lecturers and supervisors within the disciplines who are working with second language students. A closer relationship between EAP classes and pre-sessional courses and the departments that the students will go on to, a relationship that explores issues of power, access, cultural and political identities,  may go some way towards breaking down the ‘wall’ that prevents so many second language writers from establishing their academic identity in a way that is fulfilling for them.

Works cited

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Kress, G. (1990). Critical discourse analysis. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 11, (84-99).

Pennycook, A. (2001). Critical Applied Linguistics: A critical introduction. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Starfield, S. (2001)  ‘“I'll go with the group”: Rethinking “discourse community” in EAP.  In J. Flowerdew & M. Peacock (Eds.). Research Perspectives on English for Academic Purposes (pp. 132-147). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Swales, J.M., (2001). ‘EAP-related linguistic research: An intellectual history’. In J. Flowerdew & M. Peacock (Eds.). Research Perspectives on English for Academic Purposes (pp. 42-54). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.