Reviewed by Olwyn Alexander
8 June 2018
Engagement is a relatively rare term in the EAP literature, occurring mainly in the collocation ‘stance and engagement’ where it refers to an author’s interaction with a reader. However, engagement has become an all-pervasive buzzword in the discourse of Higher Education, co-opted by policymakers as a key driver of quality. Much of the research literature on engagement focuses on the general student population, both in school and at university, and seeks to understand disengagement and how this can be countered to ensure student retention. In International Student Engagement in Higher Education, Margaret Kettle focuses specifically on international students. She draws on a case study of six international students on a Master of Education programme in a large Australian university, and conceptualises engagement as a social practice.
Margaret Kettle is an academic researcher in TESOL. Her research sprang from her experience as a foreign student in Germany, where she assumed her inability to make contact with local students was based on her low proficiency in German. Subsequently she worked as an Academic English teacher and became troubled by the marginalisation of ‘Asian’ students (author scare quotes) in their degree programmes within a discourse which characterised them as quiet and non-participatory. Her students were aware of the discourses which framed them and used the EAP class as a safe space to discuss their concerns. The author viewed her role as a mediator, supporting students to reflect and take action to resist this marginalisation.
The relevance of this book for the field of EAP is that it takes us beyond the EAP classroom and the language centre and into the social spaces and practices at institution level. The book is aimed at institutional policymakers and researchers but also higher education teachers. It develops a model of international student engagement, extending previous research to understand the international student experience and highlighting good discipline teaching practice, which the students in this case study found highly effective. It is an important resource for EAP practitioners to understand the context within which they teach and the debates taking place at the level of mission and policy.
Following an overview in the preface, chapters 1 and 2 set the context for the research. Chapter 1 provides a detailed analysis of the global trends in higher education, with a particular focus on Australia as a representative example. Recent decades have witnessed the transformation of the university into a market rather than a teaching and learning place, with the result that international students have come to be viewed by policy makers as economic objects in the discourse of higher education.
Chapter 2 reviews three waves of research, which perceived international students first as deficient in language and study skills, and then as different but able to adapt to new ways of knowing and studying. Biggs (2003) provides a similar review focusing on research in the UK. The third wave of research went beyond student difference to consider power structures in the social world of the university, for example how western ways of knowing are conceptualised as superior, but also how international students can be assumed to be intellectually inferior – by both their teachers and their fellow students – because they lack the language proficiency of native English speakers. Engagement as a social practice constitutes the fourth wave of research, viewing international students as agents fully capable of responding to the challenges of western institutions.
Chapter 3 sets out to conceptualise engagement, drawing on literature from the North American and Australasian contexts and extending a specific model of engagement (Kahu, 2013, reviewed on pages 45-48) by incorporating theories of social practice from Foucault and Fairclough (reviewed on pages 48-67). In Kettle’s own summary:
A social practice theory of engagement sees the international student as a human subject located within prevailing discourses; she/he is subjected to dominant power/knowledge relations but always capable of action and transformation. The theory highlights the cultural, social, academic and linguistic demands in practices and links them to students’ responses and efforts (p66).
Engagement involves antecedents such as the students’ motivations and institutional conditions, their actions associated with knowing, doing and being/feeling, as well as their achievements including learning outcomes and personal goals. It is thus a much wider concept, going beyond student motivation to learn a language (Dornyei and Hatfield, 2014), to consider the impact of English as the medium of instruction at university (Chapter 5) and the impact of good teaching practices on the engagement of students taking a specific course: Issues in Education and leadership (Chapter 6). Chapters 4 and 7 outline the specific course context and present the results of the ethnographic case study.
EAP practitioners are likely to find themselves on more familiar ground in the later chapters of the book and Kettle acknowledges that the exemplary teaching practice of the lecturer of the Issues course is similar to English as a Second Language teaching (page 173) in encouraging participation and legitimation of international students. The strength of the book for this reviewer was the detailed analysis in the first three chapters of global trends in higher education, research on the international student experience and the conceptualisation of engagement as a social practice. These chapters alone could help teachers of EAP, who are considering applying to become Fellows of BALEAP through the TEAP Accreditation Scheme, to demonstrate that they ‘have sufficient knowledge of the organizational, educational and communicative policies, practices, values and conventions of tertiary education to operate successfully in such academic environments’ (BALEAP, 2014, page 10).
BALEAP (2014) TEAP Accreditation Scheme Handbook. Retrieved from https://www.baleap.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/TEAP-Scheme-Handbook-2014.pdf 31.3.18.
Biggs, J. (2003) Teaching for Quality Learning at University: what the student does (2nd Ed). Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Dornyei, Z. and Hatfield, J. (2014) Motivating Learning. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.