FUSION – taking positive steps to fight precarity

Paul Breen 

Imagine that EAP were a country, not a subject or a discipline. Where would it sit upon the map of higher education? Would it be an island or somewhere on the edges of the landlocked continent that is academia? Maybe it would be like Korea, an archipelago hanging beneath the udders of the great cash cow that China has become. 

Whatever it is, whether Iceland or Madagascar, the island of EAP would have quite a struggle to find a single national identity. Within our broad church, we have people working within mainstream academia, with private providers, with others and even on their own. We are a fusion of backgrounds, interests, ambitions, travels, qualifications and styles. Probably, though, there are a few common features that define us. We are passionate about language and education. We also have aspirations to make a difference to the lives of our students and to see a greater recognition of the important role we play in this area. 

Within many universities, pedagogy, interactivity, social justice, affect, wellbeing, internationalisation, inclusivity and diversity are buzz words of the moment. And here we stand in the shadows, practitioners of things long before they become fashionable. They have been a feature of our work for decades. We’re almost a Claudette Colvin of modern pedagogic history, the blacksmiths who gave shape to Jeremy Harmer’s horseshoe seating formations and Jane Arnold’s ideas about affect. Despite that, we sometimes inhabit a secondary space in the world of universities as these wheels are reinvented all around us by others who often attain the status of guru. And yet we had these things in our classrooms in their pigtails, braces and short trousers.   

But what is the reason for this? Is it the perception that academia has of language teaching in general and English teaching most specifically? Although EAP staff are not alone in experiencing casualisation, there is an incredibly high amount of it considering the revenue we generate. Though a significant number of us are permanent, the profession is a precarious one for many teachers. Even the etymology of that word ‘precarious’ captures a sense of many people’s conditions. 

Precariousness  as a term originates from Latin, referring to the act of praying or asking for favours. Those who live in states of precarity are dependent upon the will of others in higher positions. As in the origins of the word, around this time of year, for example, many EAP teachers must feel as if their fate is in the hands of the Gods or at best those who occupy such positions of power that can make or break people’s lives. 

This is not actually a good state for so many people to be in and goes against so many of the values that today’s universities espouse. Casualised labour leaves people in a feeling of being in a permanent underclass, like in that Korean film Parasite. Without spoiling that story for anyone, the parasite therein does not refer to the people at the bottom of society. It refers to the rich feeding off the labour of those below them. That, though, is not to be taken as a direct comparison with universities, especially in the age of Covid-19 when purse strings are being tightened and the future is unclear for everyone. 

The point I am making is that it can sometimes feel as if the labour of EAP teaching is undervalued. Paradoxically that comes at a time when universities seem ever more interested in professional development. In recent years, learning development centres have proliferated. Many of these exist to promote some of the very ideas that have been commonplace in English Language pedagogy for decades. This has led to some EAP practitioners crossing over into areas of academic development and teacher education. Yet still, there is a lot of work to be done in highlighting the contributions that Academic English staff can make to key areas of focus in the wider university. 

Possibly, this is because universities are hierarchical places. A PhD or an Educational Doctorate is traditionally seen as the measure of people’s academic value. That is not to say that either of these make someone a better teacher. What they do is to give us greater academic kudos in the higher educational environment. For various reasons EAP doesn’t always have this ladder of development shaped by academic qualification alone. Historically we have been estranged from common HE practices in terms of the way that people progress into positions of greater authority.  

Those with MA or DELTA qualifications can be found in positions of power whilst others with a PhD could end up in private sector roles for which they are then stigmatised. To those looking in from the outside, that creates an impression which is problematic in the long term. It feeds a perception of us not being as qualified as other academics. Furthermore, if academia thinks of our people at the top as being lesser, then the perception of those at the bottom will be incrementally worse. I’ve been in situations where I’ve spoken to senior managers in universities who are surprised that anyone with a PhD might teach on a pre-sessional.

That happens, though, because of the precarious nature of the field that people want to work in. I say want to rather than choose to because our field attracts people with a genuine vocation for educating others. Unfortunately if you want a career in a university it probably isn’t enough just to teach. There are a lot of truisms that have come into EAP from the TEFL world. We are language experts and they are subject expertsWe understand studentsWe care about our studentsWe know our students. These are ideas about ELT expertise shaped by the notion of reaching a plateau of development beyond which there is no need to travel. We cannot stay trapped in our own islands and echo chambers. 

In the university environment we do have to travel the extra mile, not in terms of the work we do but in promoting that work within academia. Though our teaching is admirable, universities deal in the currency of scholarship. That’s why we need to show that we can be at the forefront of both scholarship and research. That is happening but there is also a world of difference in those very talented people amongst us who have major publications in the field and the more silent minority who don’t. Indeed this blog post is more for the latter than the former.  

Even if we do not have published research and don’t identify as traditional academics, we really need to beat the drum of scholarship at every opportunity. There is a lot of talk about research-informed teaching and teaching-informed research but the scholarship variants of that are just as important. On the BALEAP forum several examples have been given recently of how this is an important part of contexts where in-sessional courses are being run in a discipline-specific manner.  

There is a lot of disciplinary collaboration taking place and this is not just happening on in-sessional courses. Sometimes it can feel as if, within the island of EAP, pre- and in-sessional courses are like Cyprus or Ireland, when actually they should be more of a New Zealand. After all, it is on pre-sessional courses that there is often a much greater precarity. I imagine that for many teachers this literally does involve a lot of praying over student numbers, possible roles and returned emails. 

Pre-sessional courses are a double-edged sword though. Work proliferates on them because of university business models. Since it does so, there is a disproportionate demand for EAP teachers in the summer when we become the educational world’s equivalent of The Isle of Man. We fill up with tourists for a couple of months and then the harsh winter comes where it’s back to a land of fewer permanent residents.  

This also means that many people’s introduction to EAP is in a time of chaos with very little emphasis on professional development and minimal interaction with regular staff. This creates what a teacher-educator friend of mine calls a workforce of people who have been dipping in and out of pre-sessional courses for 20 years but instead of 20 years of experience, have 1 year of experience repeated 20 times. That again is the fault of employment practices and not individuals. 

Perhaps as I have suggested elsewhere on the BALEAP discussion forum there is a need for an employment code of practice within EAP that we have to persuade our institutions to adopt so that everything is ethical, equitable and an act of putting into practice the values that universities claim to espouse. We need to do more showcasing of what we bring to higher education and to collaborate more across disciplines, putting ourselves out there as equal partners deserving of equal stature.  

We also need to sell ourselves as citizens of a common island, whether teacher or researcher, permanent or part-time, public or private, native speaker or non-native speaking teacher. It is our diversity as a profession that helps define us. That alone might not be enough to change perceptions and perspectives of those around us. But we should at least aspire to it, so that among the first of many moves towards social justice in EAP, nobody’s worth as a teacher or a person is determined by their contract type. To quote the great Paul Simon in a paraphrase of someone else, every time we see a colleague in precarity we really ought to think ‘there but for the grace of you go I.’ 

About the author

Dr. Paul Breen (@CharltonMen on Twitter) is originally from Ireland and now working as a Senior Lecturer at The University of Westminster where he runs and teaches courses in the areas of English for Academic Purposes, TESOL and Linguistics. He is also involved in teacher development and has written on this subject, as well as current affairs. He is the author of Developing Educators for the Digital Age which is available to download for free in open access format. 

Published by EAP 4 Social Justice SIG

What is the EAP for Social Justice SIG? Welcome to the website for BALEAP's EAP for Social Justice Special Interest Group! This SIG is intended to provide a forum for EAP practitioners to discuss, deepen their understanding of, and address concerns related to, social justice within and around EAP, whilst also broadening and strengthening the evidence-base of the impact that social justice initiatives can make in this field. Through bringing this often-sidelined area into the spotlight and examining the knowledge, skills and values that a social justice lens can contribute to EAP, this SIG aims to encourage more EAP students, practitioners and managers to take action and play their part in fulfilling the vision of the university as the “critic and conscience of society”.

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