From student writer to subject authority: a social semiotic approach to EAP

In this post, I shall be proposing that an exploration of the positioning of writers within texts, coupled with an examination into the nature of intertextuality, should be a central focus of any EAP course. Having explored the theoretical grounds for such a claim, I will move on to make some suggestions as to how such notions could be implemented pedagogically.

The 1977 proclamation of “the death of the author” by Roland Barthes threw modernist notions of authorship into disarray. Barthes directly challenged over two hundred years of Romantic-Individualist thought by asserting that texts were not the single unaided work of a lone imagination wresting meaning onto the page, where it resides as a single unalterable entity, but that rather texts were “a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash” (Barthes 1977: 143). Barthes insisted that readers always create their own meanings, regardless of the writer’s original intentions, and that texts are, therefore, by their very nature shifting, open spaces.

The poststructuralist paradigm that followed insisted that all writing is intertextual by nature, a view which would seem to be of direct relevance to all those engaged in the teaching of any form of literacy. Such views suggest that student writers excel when they write with a full understanding of the intertextual nature of their practice, and when they are able to translate this understanding into the act of positioning themselves within the competing discourses of their particular subject. As such, what becomes a central issue in the development of the student is positioning : the ability of the student to not only negotiate their way through the literature of the field, but also to appropriate the parts of it suited to their needs, and with these to construct their own texts, placing themselves into the wealth of competing voices on the subject and using them to shape a voice suited to their own particular purpose. This process of textual struggle has been described by Pennycook (1996: 207) as “a constant interplay between creativity and previous writing.”

If we are to accept that herein lies one of the greatest hurdles facing student writers, then it should become clear that if this is a pertinent issue for native speakers, then it is even more so for non-native speakers studying in British, or English medium, academic institutions. As it is the latter who constitute the bulk of those seeking some form or other of academic language support, it is important to remember that, for many, English is something they feel they have little or no personal ownership of, and that their writing in English is thus unavoidably doomed to be something other than in their ‘own words’. As a result, non-native speakers are perhaps those who would benefit the most from being made aware of such problems, and from looking at their own academic practices from a perspective informed by such ideas.

The issue of position within EAP coursebooks is generally tucked under the umbrella of plagiarism – using sources in essays, which suggests it is somehow a finishing touch. The attitude adopted tends towards the proscriptive, warning that copying other people’s words without acknowledging those people is like stealing their ideas and is one of the most serious ‘crimes’ an academic can commit. Such grim utterances are, I feel, a soft option that bully EAP pedagogy towards an unhelpful simplicity. They are also typical of the way the majority of EAP coursebooks treat the whole issue of intertextuality, and typically fail to tackle the paradox that academia stresses the individual, creative writer and yet at the same time also emphasises a fixed canon of disciplinary knowledge.

To treat the whole area of quoting as a minefield of academic etiquette is to deny the fact that referencing the work of others is only partly about establishing the spurious notion of ownership of language. It is also, more importantly, about establishing the authorial self of the writer. Such reduction also completely neglects the fact that student writing, especially at undergraduate level, all too often tends towards narrative, towards fact giving, as if students were simply too overwhelmed by the sheer weight of the literature of the field to do anything with it except splice it up and recycle it, uncommented on. However, even such failings as these suggest a door through which argument could be more fully explored, as shall now be discussed.

The ability to see ‘voices’ or discourses within texts, and to be aware of how writers construct meanings through the juxtaposition and, perhaps equally importantly, omission, of these must be seen as a central part of reading, and all the more so, perhaps, for those whose particular cultural or religious viewpoints and attitudes are less likely to be represented within the predominant discourses of a Western university education. As a result, reading skills classes must focus strongly on the analysis of ‘voices’ within texts, and on how these contribute to the rhetorical thrust of texts. Thus, students can come to appreciate the use of quotes to establish or undermine an argument, and will also gain exposure to the lexis used to realise such purposes, and the typical rhetorical patterns found in a variety of text types. Through such study, students can learn how to break into texts which would, on the surface, seem to simply be ‘factual’ and can learn, should they feel the need to, to insert missing voices into arguments.

The role of intertextuality in the teaching of listening skills seems even more oblique, often being confined, if at all, to helping students understand relationships of content and sentence markers. Again, this is a lost opportunity, for rather than exploring rhetorical structure, the tendency for many discursive lectures to begin by setting up ‘straw men’, viewpoints which are there knocked down and argued against, and so on, most coursebooks prefer to simply focus on the supposed role of key phrases such as “And what I would like to emphasise at this point is”, and the way these purportedly guide the listener through the maze of a 2-hour lecture and aid note-taking. However, personal experience and observation of a wide range of lectures shows that very few follow such generic frameworks,and yet all make use of external discourses and quotes, and are, indeed, constructed from these. One connected problem many students complain of is being unable to evaluate which information in lectures is pertinent and which merely tangential. While this skill may owe something to an awareness of sign-posting, it also owes much to an awareness of rhetorical devices and norms, and to the ways in which voices are brought into oral texts for a variety of purposes. By focusing, again, on what’s in a lecture and why, students may be brought closer to realising the pragmatic purpose such references often serve and may thus come to worry less about the specifics of detail, where such specifics are unnecessary.

From this brief foray into the current status of intertextuality and the role of positioning within EAP coursebooks, it should become clear that a central problem which arises revolves around how best to develop the ability of students from a wide range of disciplines to write more authoritatively, how best to help them to move from writing about their discipline to writing within  those disciplines. Hounsell (1987: 118) has asserted that “attempts to improve the quality of students’ essays . . . must spring from and turn upon dialogue about the nature of academic discourse”, and it is precisely this type of dialogue which can be turned to use in the EAP classroom. From product can come a discussion of process, and texts can reveal a wealth of information about how writers position themselves within a discipline, within a culture and within history. Such dialogue would involve a far greater focus on the ways in which what has been said shape what can be said. It is my belief that such dialogue should permeate every area of an EAP syllabus, and that such a focus would greatly contribute to helping students overcome many of the problems they face when using English in an academic context.

I would argue that argument should play a central part in EAP syllabi, and that issues such as quoting, claims and what constitutes valid evidence should be covered within a rhetorical framework. I feel it is vital to acknowledge Bartholomae’s (1985) assertion that :

“successful writers set themselves in their essays against what they defined as some more naive way of talking about their subject – against “those who think that . . . “      By trading in one set of commonplaces at the expense of another, they could win     themselves status as members of what is taken to be some more privileged group” (1985: 153)

and to make such issues available to students. Whilst it is certainly unrealistic to expect EAP tutors to know exactly what a valid argument in philosophy is, what counts as acceptable evidence in Travel & Tourism or to what degree are page-long quotes acceptable in History, it is nevertheless possible for them to develop their students’ broad awareness of how argument works, how it is lexically realised and how they can play different voices off one another within their own work. It is no coincidence that the words ‘author’ and ‘authority’ are morphologically linked. Good writers are held to be authorities, and what they write may well come to be seen as the voice of authority within their particular discourse community. Each more supposedly naive ‘way of talking’ about a subject comes complete with its own rhetoric, its own vocabulary, its own fixed conclusion, and these naturally form part of the fabric of a good writer’s work. For undergraduates, especially, the technique for claiming insider status, even if only by playing one set of received opinions and ideas off against another, is a vital skill to learn, and can, I feel, be taught to some degree from a lexical viewpoint. Students need to be aware not only that argument is structured as it is, that dialogue takes place, that claims are made and grounds are set out, but also that certain lexical items are available to them to perform these actions with. Student writers can acknowledge the centrality of the issue under discussion – ‘ . . . has emerged as one of the main . . .’ /  ‘The development of . . . has generated much interest in . . .’ /  they can introduce more naive viewpoints on the subject – ‘It is often claimed / argued / suggested that . . .’ , and then go on to complicate this view – ‘However, this overlooks the fact that . . .’ / ‘However, this raises as many questions as it answers’, and so on. This suggests a far greater place in the classroom not only for the study of how what has been written before is used within texts, but also of which lexis is used to do such things. This coupling of the pragmatism of lexical phrases with the social semiotic of the power plays implicit in student writing could perhaps be seen as Swales and Feak’s (1994) notions of ‘moves’ through a post-structuralist filter.

Bibliography :

Barthes, R. (1977) ‘The Death of the Author’. In Image, Music, Text  (pp. 142-148). (Translated by S. Heath). Glasgow, Scotland: Fontana/Collins.

Bartholomae, D. (1985) ‘Inventing the University’. In Rose, M. (ed). When a Writer Can’t Write : Studies in Writer’s Block and Other Composing-Process Problems. New York & London: Guildford Press

Hounsell, D. (1987) ‘Essay Writing and the Quality of Feedback’. In Richardson J. T. E., M. Eysenck & D. Warren Piper, (eds), Student Learning : Research in Education and Cognitive Psychology. Milton Keynes: SHRE & Open University Press.

Pennycook, A. (1996) ‘Borrowing Others’ Words: Text, Ownership, Memory and Plagiarism’. TESOL Quarterly. Vol. 30, No. 2. 201-30.

Swales, J. M. and C. Feak (1994). Academic Writing for Graduate Students. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.




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