You are on page 1of 11

English for Specific Purposes 20 (2001) 293303

When professors don't cooperate: a critical

perspective on EAP research
George Braine *
Department of English, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shatin, NT, Hong Kong

This article compares two EAP research projects undergraduate writing task surveys
one conducted in the United States and the other in Hong Kong. The rst could be considered
a success, but the second is a failure, mainly due to the lack of cooperation from teachers of
science and engineering faculties. The possible reasons for this lack of cooperation are dis-
cussed and analyzed. # 2001 The American University. Published by Elsevier Science Ltd.
All rights reserved.
Keywords: EAP; Needs analyses; Engineering natural science; Undergraduates; Writing

1. Introduction

EAP literature is replete with descriptions of successful research carried out in all
parts of the world. Researchers have surveyed students on their backgrounds and
goals (Frodesen, 1995), consulted teachers on course requirements (Bridgeman &
Carlson, 1983; Johns, 1981), collected and classied writing assignments (Braine,
1995; Horowitz, 1986), and observed the language and behavioral demands of
learning situations (Jacobson, 1987: McKenna, 1987).
Nevertheless, not all EAP research will go according to plan. The methodology
may have shortcomings, the questionnaires may be inappropriate, and the infor-
mants could become uncooperative. Tried and tested data gathering techniques,
successful at one location and in one target situation, may not be eective at
In the following account, I compare two undergraduate writing task surveys carried
out in the United States and in Hong Kong. I consider the rst a success and the
second a failure. In an attempt to determine why the second study failed, I will

* Tel.: +852-2609-7445; fax: +852-2603-5270.

E-mail address: (G. Braine).

0889-4906/01/$20.00 # 2001 The American University. Published by Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights
PII: S0889-4906(00)00011-9
294 G. Braine / English for Specic Purposes 20 (2001) 293303

describe and analyze the approach used in each context. Because the cooperation of
teachers from other disciplines is vital to the success of EAP research, I will also discuss
possible reasons for the lack of cooperation from the teachers in the second study.

2. An analysis of writing tasks in the United States

Dan Horowitz's (1986) ground breaking study, ``What professors actually require:
Academic tasks for the ESL classroom'', was a turning point in EAP research. Until
then, the accepted approach to data collection was to distribute questionnaires to
informants usually teachers from the disciplines to be studied. (See Robinson
(1991) and West (1994) for a review of the approaches to ESP/EAP research, espe-
cially needs analysis.)
Horowitz criticized the use of questionnaires in academic writing task surveys
because the terminology (``preconceived academic writing tasks'' as he called them)
compelled teachers from other disciplines to t their responses to these tasks; hence,
according to Horowitz, the use of questionnaires might more plausibly reveal what
teachers think they do, not necessarily what they do (1986). Instead of ques-
tionnaires, Horowitz advocated the analysis of authentic material in his case
writing assignments given to students by teachers from 17 academic departments
which would provide more reliable data on academic writing tasks than ques-
tionnaire surveys. Writing assignments, because they are often rich in rhetorical
features (see Fig. 1), can be classied on the basis of locus, length, genre, cognitive
demand, and rhetorical specication, thus providing more accurate and reliable
information on the writing needs of students.
Taking Horowitz's study (1986) as a model, I conducted a survey of under-
graduate writing tasks as part of my doctoral research at The University of Texas at
Austin. In my research, I further rened Horowitz's approach, arguing that the
inclusion of data from widely dierent disciplines such as marketing and biology in
the Horowitz study could not result in a reliable classication of writing tasks
(Braine, 1988). My focus was the writing tasks in engineering and natural science,
disciplines that share sucient characteristics to be considered a single type of academic
community. In both disciplines, the most frequent writing genre at undergraduate
level appeared to be the lab report, and both disciplines required a knowledge of
mathematics and science. Further, in terms of EAP, statistics showed that more than
35% of the international students enrolled in US universities in the late 1980s were
majoring in engineering and the natural sciences (see Braine, 1995).
The University of Texas at Austin was an ideal site for EAP research on writing
because it was home to a clearly dened, well-established Writing Across the Curri-
culum (WAC) program. In order to graduate, undergraduates were required to take
six credit hours (two courses) of the program. In the semesterly Course Schedule,
these courses were clearly labeled as ``substantial writing component courses'' and
listed under each academic department's oerings. To be certied as a substantial
writing course, each course had to include at least three writing assignments per
semester, exclusive of quizzes and examinations, and the three assignments had to
G. Braine / English for Specic Purposes 20 (2001) 293303 295

Fig. 1. Sample writing assignment from the University of Texas at Austin.

total approximately 16 double-spaced A4 pages. Students were to be provided with

feedback on their papers and writing quality was a criterion in the nal grade for the
course. In fact, some academic Departments had hired Masters or doctoral students
of English as teaching assistants to help teachers handle the increased workload
involved in these substantial writing courses.
The Vice President for Academic Aairs and Research at Texas monitored the
WAC program by requiring the academic Deans to submit the following documents
from each substantial writing course: a course syllabus, the writing assignments, and
a statement from each course instructor on the procedures used to evaluate student
writing. Statistics on class size and a statement from the instructor summarizing
course outcomes was also required. Each semester, the Course Schedule listed 18
substantial writing courses in the College of Engineering and 21 courses in the College
of Natural Sciences.
296 G. Braine / English for Specic Purposes 20 (2001) 293303

Since the academic status of the researcher was vital to the success of such
research and my status was well below that of my informants, I approached the
study with some foreboding. I was a graduate student, a foreigner with an accent,
planning to scrutinize writing assignments prepared by experienced, native-speaker
teachers in disciplines (engineering and the natural sciences) I had little knowledge
of. I was indeed a stranger in a strange land, and I knew the challenge ahead could
be daunting.
Hence, my plan was to begin data collection with the Deans of the two colleges; if
they had the required information on WAC courses on le, I would not have to
contact individual teachers. However, I soon discovered that only one course in the
Natural Sciences and ve in Engineering had provided complete information to the
Deans. With some trepidation, I telephoned the teachers of the other WAC courses
in the two Colleges, explaining the purpose of my project and requesting copies of
course syllabi and assignments.
The response was overwhelmingly supportive. Most teachers were not only willing
to provide the data but also volunteered to give me lab manuals, lab notes, and
samples of student writing. A few invited me to attend their laboratory meetings so
that I could observe what ``really went on'' in their courses. Of the 39 WAC courses
for the two Colleges in the Course Schedules for that year, some courses had to be
eliminated due to cross listing, leaving a total of 34 courses suitable for the study. In
the end, I collected syllabi from 17 courses and 80 writing assignments from the
teachers of these courses (see Table 1), a much higher response rate than that of

Table 1
Distribution of assignments by college and academic departments, the University of Texas at Austin

College and department Course titlea Assignments

Aerospace Design and testing of aerospace structure 02
Chemical Chemical engineering fundamentals lab 09
Process and projects lab 05
Civil Eng. economy and construction management 03
Professional engineering management 03
Contracts and specications 01
Electrical Electrical engineering projects lab 06
Mechanical Mechanical measurements 06
Petroleum Petrophysics and uid ow 10
Petroleum engineering design 06
Natural sciences
Botany Lab methods in cell biology 10
Chemistry Advanced analytical chemistry 02
Physical methods for biochemistry 02
Geology Mineral resources 02
Home economics Intro. to home economics education 05
Microbiology Microbiology 03
Physics Quantum phenomena 05
Total 80
Syllabi were obtained for all these courses.
G. Braine / English for Specic Purposes 20 (2001) 293303 297

Horowitz (1986): only 38 of the 750 teachers he contacted had sent him assignments.
Horowitz's data consisted of 54 assignments from 29 courses taught in 17 academic
My meetings with the teachers taught me that, even in L1 situations, teachers
across the disciplines were concerned about the apparent decline in the English
standards of their students. They had strong views on what language skills the students
needed and how they should be taught. The open admission policies of The University of
Texas allowed almost any high school graduate to enter university. In fact, the teachers'
views had some justication. Probably as a result of open admissions, the dropout rate at
Texas for undergraduates was well over 50% at the time of my research.
My teaching assistantship at Texas required me to teach rst year writing courses
in the English Department. This dual and somewhat unusual role as a non-native
speaker teacher/researcher of writing may have opened doors to me. In fact, many
of the teachers in engineering were of the view that their non-native speaker students'
writings were heavily plagiarized ``cut and paste jobs'', and, during my visits, pulled
out reports written by these students to prove their point. What they did not appear
to realize was that students were often required to compose lengthy (ve to six
thousand word) reports with no more guidance than a one-page handout, with the
required rst year writing course as their only preparation.

3. An analysis of writing tasks in Hong Kong

When I returned to Asia by joining The Chinese University of Hong Kong in

1995, I entered a somewhat surreal world. As Britain's last major colony, Hong
Kong was passing through another nervous, uncertain phase in its recent history. To
support its immensely successful service-based economy, Hong Kong needed to
maintain a high standard of prociency in English, and, as a result, English teaching
was enjoying a boom that attracted teachers from every corner of the globe.1 Staed
by a truly international faculty, the tertiary institutions paid a great deal of attention
to their students' English language enhancement. Unlike in the United States, where
cash-strapped universities were downsizing academic departments and cutting
funding for research, Hong Kong universities were expanding and generous in
awarding research grants. My proposal to survey and analyze the writing tasks of
undergraduate courses in the engineering and science faculties, which was essentially
a replication of my doctoral research, was funded. I began the study with the help of
two undergraduate student helpers.
However, the methodology at Texas could not be replicated in Hong Kong.
Unlike Texas, The Chinese University of Hong Kong did not have a WAC program
that could allow us to narrow the search for informants. We therefore sent letters to
223 teachers in the engineering and science faculties who were listed in the timetable
as teaching in English or in Cantonese and English, inviting them to participate in

For a description of the status of ELT in Hong Kong during this period, see Flowerdew, Li and
Miller (1998).
298 G. Braine / English for Specic Purposes 20 (2001) 293303

the project by sending us their course syllabi and writing assignments. Within a
week, 80 had replied, citing their reasons for being unable to participate: some were
too busy, others were not teaching that semester/year, and the rest did not give
writing assignments in their courses. In response to follow-up requests, phone calls,
and e-mail messages, only ve teachers from engineering and four from science
agreed to participate in the project. Despite requests through e-mails and telephone
calls, 134 teachers did not respond at all.
Because the response was so poor, I contacted the Deans of the two faculties. One
announced my project to heads of departments and I was later advised to contact
the heads directly to obtain the data. However, after visits to two heads of depart-
ments, I was given syllabi from courses that the heads themselves taught; they did
not appear to have information relating to other teachers in their departments or
were reluctant to share the information with me. In lieu of writing assignments, I
was also given two student reports written about 10 years earlier.
My meeting with the other Dean was revealing. I was informed that most teachers
did not have course syllabi (also referred to as course outlines) because the syllabi
were gradually developed as the courses were being taught. I also learned that
instead of creating writing assignments or prompts, most teachers simply prescribed
exercises from textbooks.
Because data was not forthcoming from the teachers, my student helpers sug-
gested other indirect but obvious sources: students enrolled in engineering and
science courses and the Internet. Through informal networks and at casual meetings,
the student helpers sought course syllabi and writing assignments from students. A
few teachers in engineering had homepages for their courses on the Internet, and we
downloaded a few course syllabi. We also contacted the administrative assistants of
all the departments, knowing that each department was required to keep detailed
teaching materials on le for a university-wide Teaching and Learning Quality Process
Audit that was conducted a few months earlier.
Despite ve months of eort, the results were disappointing (see Tables 2(a), 2(b)).
Although 60 course syllabi were eventually collected, they were not appropriate for
the study because syllabi, unlike writing assignments, do not provide sucient
information on the types of writing done in academic courses (see Figs. 1 and 2).
Course syllabi, impoverished in terms of rhetorical features, often only list infor-
mation on the teacher, course contents, assessment procedures, and a weekly list of
reading. As Tables 2(a) and 2(b) show, only 29 assignments were collected from
engineering, and none from science. Twenty-two of the engineering assignments
came from two engineering courses and were sent by teachers of the courses. However,
they were instructions for laboratory experiments and too succinct for detailed analysis.
Although most teachers were reluctant to share their syllabi or writing assignments,
they were generous in sending us reports written by their students. Entirely unsolicited,
these reports poured in, one teaching assistant sending 19 nearly identical reports
written by students in a course. In the end, these student reports were helpful,
because a close analysis did provide insights into the writing demands of the courses.
However, in the absence of assignments given by the teachers, we had to retrace and
reconstruct laboriously, from the students' reports, the teachers' expectations.
G. Braine / English for Specic Purposes 20 (2001) 293303 299

4. Discussion and conclusions

Why were teachers in Hong Kong reluctant to share their writing assignments? Of
the teachers contacted for this study, 55% of those above assistant professor rank in
engineering and 74% in the natural sciences had received their rst degrees from
universities in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. In fact, a signicant percentage had
also received their Masters and doctoral degrees from regional universities. What
this suggests is that these teachers may have received little or no instruction in writ-
ing during their secondary, undergraduate, and graduate studies.
Although reliable information on the teaching of writing in the region in the past
is not available, the current practices in secondary writing classes in Hong Kong
may provide a clue as to how writing was taught in the past, when these teachers

Table 2(a)
Distribution of data from the faculty of engineering, the Chinese University of Hong Kong

Faculty and department Course title Assignments Student reports

Computer science engineering Data structures and applications

Fundamentals of articial intel.
Microprocessor systems 03
Software engineeringa 01
Electronic eng. ASIC technologya 01 02
Basic engineering practice 09 22
Communication systems
Computer aided electro. sys. des. 05
Electronics communication tech.
Electromag. and radiowave prop.
Electronic thin lm science
Final year projecta 02
Microelectronic devices
Microprocessors and comp. sys. 02
Microprocessor design and org. 19
Optoelectronics 03
Physics and tech. of semicon. device.
Signal processing
Solid state electronics
Eng. common courses Digital sys. and computer org.
Engineering laboratory I 13 03
Principles of comm. systems
Product development projecta 01
Information eng. Network soft. design and prog.a 01
Mechanical and automation eng. Computational functional analysis
Fund. of machine intelligence
Intro. to control systems
Laboratory 1
Manufacturing systems
Microprocessor systemsa 02
Projecta 02
Thermouid mechanics
Total (Syllabi) 35 29 62
Syllabi were not obtained for these courses.
300 G. Braine / English for Specic Purposes 20 (2001) 293303

Table 2(b)
Distribution of data from the faculty of science, the Chinese University of Hong Kong

Faculty and department Course title Assignments Student reports

Biochemistry Cellular basics of biochemistry

Clinical biochemistry
Fundamentals of biochemistry
Biology Cell biology laba 02
Cellular metabolisma 01
Developmental biology
Ecologya 05
Ecology laba 01
Environmental pollution and toxi.
Literature seminar seriesa 01
Plant physiology
Chemistry Inorganic chemistry
Inorganic chemistry III
Inorganic chemistry IV
Instrumental analysis
Integrated lab 04
Organic chemistry I
Organic chemistry III
Pharmaceutical chemistry
Physical chemistry I
Physical chem. of macromolecules
Surface and interface analysis
Undergraduate seminar 01
Environmental science program Applied ecology
Biochemical toxicology
Environmental biology
Environmental biology lab 01
Environmental chemistry
Environmental impact assessment
Environmental instrumental tech.
Resources and environmental mgt.
Food and nutritional sciences program Nutrition and human development
Physics Modern physics
Physics laba 05
Quantum mechanicsa 01
Statistics Applied regression analysis
Basic concepts in statistics
Data analysis and statistical soft. I
Data analysis and statistical soft. II
Total (Syllabi) 25 00 22
Syllabi were not obtained for these courses.

were at school. English was the main language of government and commerce in
Hong Kong under British colonial rule for more than 150 years. Since the return to
China in 1997, English has continued to be used as an ocial language and is taught
at all levels by local Hong Kong Chinese teachers as well as expatriates from all over
G. Braine / English for Specic Purposes 20 (2001) 293303 301

Fig. 2. Sample course syllabus, Faculty of Science, the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

the world, mainly from English-speaking countries such as Britain, Australia, and
the United States.
Nevertheless, the teaching of writing appears to be frozen in the practices of the
1950s and 60s. Despite the advocacy of the process approach by the Hong Kong
government's Education Department, most primary and secondary teachers still
focus on form, using arcane practices such as pattern drills, copying from textbooks,
and lling in the blank exercises. Peer feedback, the backbone of the process
approach to writing, is still not used in the majority of schools. Most writing is done in
class, and teachers usually provide feedback only on grammar. Having learned writing
under such circumstances, it is not surprising the teachers at The Chinese University
could fail to see writing as a means of thinking and learning in their courses.
However, many of the teachers I contacted for the study had completed their
graduate studies in North America, where writing is encouraged across the curriculum.
Therefore, how could their lack of cooperation in a study of writing be explained?
The term `graduate studies' is crucial here. Even in North America, emphasis on
302 G. Braine / English for Specic Purposes 20 (2001) 293303

writing instruction is mainly placed at the undergraduate level, with required writing
courses being oered usually during freshmen and junior years. For the most part,
graduate students in engineering and the natural sciences may receive little or no
assistance with their writing, often being allowed to ``sink or swim'' when completing
their theses and dissertations.2 Bridgeman and Carlson (1983), who studied the
writing needs of graduate students at North American universities, quote chemical
engineering teachers as claiming that ``it is possible to survive [graduate school] with
almost no writing skills'' (p. 118) and that the writing of their foreign graduate students
remain poor throughout their studies. In general, ``many foreign students [in
engineering]. . . have their dissertations written for them'' (p. 24). A study conducted
by Jenkins, Jordan and Weiland (1993) at six North American engineering faculties
with a high enrollment of foreign students revealed that the teachers make little
eort to ensure that students wrote regularly. The teachers also claimed that they
wrote about 25% of the theses and dissertations of their foreign students. Although
no such studies have been conducted for foreign graduate students of the natural
sciences, the situation could be true for these students too.
Thus, it would not be surprising to learn that most teachers in the engineering and
science faculties, having completed their undergraduate degrees at regional institu-
tions, had missed receiving any instruction in writing and in turn consider it of little
importance. As the Dean suggested, they would assign homework tasks from text-
books instead of composing assignments of their own; in fact, there may be few or
no writing assignments given at all.
As Spack (1988) had noted, another reason may have been the teachers' reluc-
tance to allow an English teacher to see their ``poorly written or poorly designed
texts'' (p. 33). This may have led to the avoidance strategy, of sending us unsolicited
student reports. In fact, one teacher from engineering, who sent course syllabi, general
instructions, and test papers from all three courses he taught, requested me to comment
on and correct his use of English in the material. Ironically, this teacher's assign-
ments were on a par with the most rhetorically sophisticated and student-friendly
assignments found in the sample from The University of Texas at Austin.
In retrospect, could the initial use of a questionnaire a data gathering method
popular in Hong Kong have opened the door to better cooperation from subject-area
teachers? Or could the selection of a smaller sample of teachers have helped? I later
learned that in Hong Kong EAP circles, only teachers from business were con-
sidered ``friendly'' to English teachers and cooperative in EAP matters.
A few months after my research began, the university's fortnightly newsletter
sought opinions of teachers from dierent faculties on the language needs of their
students. A teacher from business wrote about the importance of English language
skills for her students. A teacher from engineering took the opposite view, arguing
that natural language was a second language for engineers, because they only needed
quantitative skills and knowledge of software and hardware. Students knew their

An anonymous reviewer of this article has commented that this may not be true of many British
universities, where graduate students from other countries are provided with opportunities to follow EAP
writing courses.
G. Braine / English for Specic Purposes 20 (2001) 293303 303

priorities and natural language was not one of them. The teachers, for their part,
could extract meaning from the students' disorganized writing; as long as they got
the correct answer, faulty English did not matter. Respectable engineers did not talk
to people who could not understand them; only sales engineers, who apparently are
not a respectable breed, did (Ng, 1996).
To end this article on a positive note, the Dean of Engineering obviously did not
share this teacher's view. Alarmed at the poor language skills of his students, the
Dean has made Technical Communications, a course oered by the university's
English Language Teaching Unit, a requirement for all engineering majors and also
provided funding for the courses. In discussions with the Unit, the Dean emphasized
that his main concern was the lack of communication between engineers and those from
other backgrounds, and wanted the course to emphasize general rather than technical
writing. Deans in business and the social sciences have followed suit, requiring their
students to take writing courses and funding such courses oered by the Unit.


Braine, G. (1988). Academic writing task surveys: The need for a fresh approach. Texas Papers in Foreign
Language Education, 1, 101118.
Braine, G. (1995). Writing in the natural sciences and engineering. In D. Belcher, & G. Braine, Academic
writing in a second language (pp. 113134). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
Bridgeman, B., & Carlson, S. (1983). Survey of academic writing tasks required of graduate and under-
graduate foreign students (TOEFL Research Report No. 15). Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Ser-
Frodesen, J. (1995). Negotiating the syllabus: A learner-centered, interactive approach to ESL graduate
writing course design. In D. Belcher, & G. Braine, Academic writing in a second language (pp. 331350).
Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
Flowerdew, J., Li, D., & Miller, L. (1998). Attitudes towards English and Cantonese among Hong Kong
Chinese university lecturers. TESOL Quarterly, 32, 201231.
Horowitz, D. (1986). What professors actually require: Academic tasks for the ESL classroom. TESOL
Quarterly, 20, 445462.
Jacobson, W. H. (1987). An assessment of the communication needs of non-native speakers of English in
an undergraduate Physics lab. English for Specic Purposes, 6, 173186.
Jenkins, S., Jordan, M. K., & Weiland, P. O. (1993). The role of writing in graduate engineering educa-
tion: A survey of faculty beliefs and practices. English for Specic Purposes, 12, 5167.
Johns, A. M. (1981). Necessary English: A faculty survey. TESOL Quarterly, 15, 5157.
McKenna, E. (1987). Preparing students to enter discourse communities in the US. English for Specic
Purposes, 6, 187202.
Ng, W. (1996). Natural languages not a top priority for engineering students. CUHK Newsletter, 88, 2.
Robinson, P. (1991). ESP today: A practitioners' guide. New York: Prentice Hall.
Spack, R. (1988). Initiating ESL students into the academic discourse community: How far should we go?.
TESOL Quarterly, 22, 2951.
West, R. (1994). Needs analysis in language teaching. Language Teaching, 27, 119.

George Braine is an Associate Professor of English at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. He has
taught English and conducted EAP research in Sri Lanka, the United States, and Hong Kong for 20
years. His latest publication is Non-Native Educators in English Language Teaching (1999) from Lawrence