Book Reviewed by: Steven Peters
25 March 2015
This monograph from Lia Blaj-Ward is a welcome addition to the literature and resources that support researcher and research-engaged development in EAP and related fields.
Thoughtful and suggestive, the text encourages engagement in, not only with, educational research. As such it reflects similar calls in wider educational policy and academic communities (e.g. Winch, Oancea and Orchard, 2013). More specifically, Blaj-Ward’s text views EAP tutors as being particularly well positioned to conduct studies looking at issues around higher education: in this book, teaching and practice roles inform important research insights rather than acting as an outer boundary of activity for the professional.
The context for EAP in this text is delivery in higher education in the UK with three ‘categories’ of professional presented; these are tutor, course director and head of department. These audiences the author hopes to engage by explicitly directing the focus to each by turns. Briefly, the roles are introduced, going some way to help orient the reader whose context perhaps does not directly map onto such an organisational scheme.
An initial impression that may be gained by a look at the chapter headings is one of key topics being dissipated throughout the text. Not having a chapter on writing and assessment may seem idiosyncratic given the weight this can carry in the EAP experience. However, certain topics are given explicit consideration within chapters under sub-sections. For assessment, these relate to the wider higher education context, or to either student or tutor experiences. Of 183 pages, 25 or so have a reference to assessment. It is my view that Blaj-Ward successfully engages with this and such topics in representing the scope and intricacies open for consideration as the focus of research.
The introductory chapter lays out the writer’s theoretical and evaluative stall. It signals a social-constructivist underpinning of the approach to research promoted and foregrounds the need for research to be made available for public scrutiny. Four further chapters each turn to consider one broad area of the EAP context from a researcher’s perspective. Areas include the HE Context Outside the EAP Classroom and EAP Materials and Course Design. One structural decision was to separate out the student and tutor experiences into subsequent chapters. This allows for a clear distinction between how assessment, to stay with this example, has been and can further be explored from distinct starting points. Within chapters, sub-sections look in greater detail at key topics or concepts in EAP such as technology in teaching and learning, critical thinking and reading, or management and leadership. These enable the inclusion of further resources such as summaries of the literature or crucially vignettes, which are a major device in the text, the use of which deserves some attention here.
There is something of the ‘vicarious experience’ that Stake (1995) claims for case study research provided to the reader through this series of scenarios. These representations based around fictional EAP researchers provide the vehicle Blaj-Ward needs to introduce a rich level of description of the type of contexts, thinking and challenges EAP professionals may encounter. It also affords a way of immediately interweaving the research active responses they may deploy in order to act as effective knowledge producers or critical consumers.
Leaving the narrative presentation (of research?) as fictional creations without accompanying reflexivity, however, may be viewed as missing opportunities for transparency in the knowledge creation process to allow for scrutiny as well as transferability. This niggle seemed to increase the more apposite and skillful the vignettes. Additionally, individual readers will probably have differing levels of tolerance for accessing authorial insights and suggestions in this manner. I found the vignettes mostly effective in relating research process oriented thinking to context. As readers, we are being introduced to how academic work is done, none so sensitively as in these representations of lived experience: the human level of decision-making and problem-solving is foregrounded. The overall impression is one of rich data presented in a way that requires skillful navigation of challenging issues around research ethics and publication, something pertinent to many considering research in EAP.
The author views researcher positionality as central to the processes of conducting research. This is in itself a discursive act enablng an inclusive view of who is a researcher. What is more, it resonates with the view taken of participants, data and knowledge construction through the lens of dynamic interaction. It is in the interaction of different stakeholder perspectives that meaning is generated for the book and for the research it encourages according to Blaj-Ward. Although not critically discussed, its social constructivist standpoint is a philosophical position consistent with the open-ended approach to the content of the book, exploring and asking rather than prescribing.
Blaj-Ward maintains a clear position on what makes for good research: ‘the systematic and rigorous gathering and interpretation of evidence to inform teaching and learning practice, policy and/or further research in the EAP field’, first provided by the author in a call for papers (cited in Blaj-Ward, 2014: p7). This instrumental definition orients more experienced researchers to the book’s frames of reference, while encouraging those coming to it with less luggage to begin to formulate their own criteria for what constitutes quality in research practices. The consistent message is: the reader is in the best position to decide the best fit to any given setting.
The reach of this approach to learning from the lived experiences of researchers is made more robust by placing EAP research firmly in the context of research into higher education. The structure of the book will be familiar to those acquainted with editions of Tight’s Researching Higher Education (2003, 2012) which begins an annotated bilbliography with rewarding range introduced in the first chapter. This does some of the work on method and methodologies not covered. Alternatively, thought-provoking gems such as Robinson-Pant (2005) come to light through the body of the text.
A conscientious exploration, this context-driven interweaving of research methods discussions and current EAP debates with summaries of the literature encourages a view of qualitative research as importantly ideographic and reflexive. I would position this publication as a primer not only for those engaging with research active practices in EAP but also for those, perhaps new to the field, who would like an overview of the EAP professional experience. It also serves as a useful map of what is currently known to diverse research in EAP and where researchers, published and unpublished, may be headed.
Blaj-Ward, L (2014) Researching contexts, practices and pedagogies in English for Academic Practices. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Robinson-Pant, A (2005) Cross-cultural perspectives on educational research. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Stake, R. E. (1995) The art of case study, London: Sage.
Tight, M (2012) Researching higher education (2nd ed.), Maidenhead: Society for Research into Higher Education/ Open University Press.
Winch, C, Oancea, A and Orchard, J (2013) The contribution of educational research to teachers’ professional learning – philosophical understandings, online: BERA-RSA. Retrieved from https://www.bera.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/BERA-Paper-3-Philosophical-reflections.pdf 19/03/2015 14.30pm.