Document Type

Book Chapter


This chapter takes as its starting point the theme of traversing unfamiliar territory in order to examine the ways in which language specialists teach, support and scaffold students' learning in tertiary contexts in which the language specialist is unfamiliar with the students' discipline. One such context is the individual writing support consultation, in which a language and learning adviser provides advice to a student on aspects of a student's draft assignment or research writing. Students seek individual consultations to clarify aspects of their work, to understand the reasons for poor grades, or they have been referred by tutors. While some consultations may have a remedial focus, a case study account of a consultation using discourse analysis has shown the interaction to be dynamic one with little explicit teaching, the interaction instead centring on clarifying a range of meanings, making suggestions and negotiating changes. Furthermore, these consultations have a learning focus, the dialogue with a more experienced person scaffolding students' academic writing development, and facilitating students working in their zone of proximal development. Advisers provide advice on the language choices, generic structure and discourse organisation of projects from numerous disciplinary fields, fields which are often outside the disciplinary expertise of the adviser. Within the timeframe of the consultation, advisers also have to come to terms conceptually with the student's writing in order to suggest changes and assist the student to clarify his or her thinking. One dimension therefore of unfamiliar territory in the writing consultation is the adviser's own unfamiliarity with the topic of the student's writing as well as with the discourse and epistemologies of the student's discipline. A second dimension is the student's possible unfamiliarity with the writing requirements, expectations and academic culture of the discipline, the degree of unfamiliarity potentially more acute when the student is from a non- Western academic background. The third dimension of unfamiliar territory in the writing consultation deserves closer scrutiny. This concerns the perceptions of faculty and students about the function and nature of the writing consultation as well as tensions around boundaries and academic territory. The above-mentioned learning outcomes of individual writing consultations are often overshadowed by the widely held view amongst faculty that the primary function of the consultation is an editorial one, particularly when the students involved are from non-English speaking backgrounds (NESB). The supervisor's directive of 'fix the grammar, don't touch the content' is not uncommon and reflects a one-dimensional view of language support in which form and content are viewed as separate. It also reflects tensions about intellectual territory. This third dimension of unfamiliarity therefore reflects misconceptions about the nature of language advising and EAP teaching. It is a potentially damaging one as it can hinder or restrict the writing support consultation. The aim of this paper is therefore to provide better understandings of how participants in language support consultation traverse unfamiliar territory, both from the perspective of the adviser and that of the student. It also examines the tensions which arise in the consultation as a result of the unfamiliarity and how the participants address these tensions. Such understandings are critical to ensure that university- wide discussion and agreed approaches for individual consultations are informed by empirical research rather than perceptions of what the consultation should or should not involve.