Humanities vs. Social Science in EAP?

I’ve been doing some research lately into L1 vs. L2 approaches to academic writing in Canadian universities. For example, many universities have an across-the-board 1st-year writing requirement for all undergraduates (or those in certain faculties), and this is in contrast with academic writing courses, be they credit or not and required or not, but  specifically focused on undergraduates who may be ESL/EAL. Many incoming NNES undergrads get caught in a patchwork of degree requirements and may have to take one type of writing course or the other, or both, to varying degrees of usefulness or success.

Massive topic, yes, and there’s tons of research out there on it (which I’m slowly sifting through). One interesting article on the topic is Atkinson & Ramanathan (1995),  Cultures of writing: An ethnographic comparison of L1 and L2 university writing/language programs.  The authors contrast L1 approaches to writing development and their roots in the humanities, with L2 approaches with roots in applied linguistics and social science. This divide continues to have an effect on university programming, research in the area of academic writing, and inter-departmental collaboration.

But let’s turn to a more everyday way that this divide affects us as EAP practitioners. In almost every English-teaching environment I’ve worked in there’s been quite wide variation in people’s pre-TESOL area of study. There are definitely lots from humanities backgrounds (literature, philosophy, etc.) and then those who come through social sciences (like linguistics) and then a few from hard sciences. (And then some from business, which I’m not sure where to place on the spectrum…)

I find this really becomes clear in high-level EAP environments, where there’s a lot of subject-area content, and maybe some interface with departments and content specialists. Sometimes I think a threshold gets reached with some folks whose background is in the humanities. With all the scientific or more technical content,  some seem to get lost in it. I’m not saying it happens to everyone, but I’ve definitely witnessed it happen to some over the years. This divide also becomes apparent when you hear some scoff at the thought of their colleagues preparing, for example, an activity on fiction writing in a time-crunched advanced EAP class.

Full disclosure: My background is in linguistics. (And I would admittedly be one of those scoffing, above.) Not saying my eyes don’t glaze over when I read some ESAP engineering text, but my background has included carrying out empirical research. Of course that research wasn’t in a physics lab or anything, but I find having gone through that process of developing a hypothesis or research question, designing a study, carrying it out and writing it up to be extremely valuable in relating to my students and in presenting the topic of writing about academic research.

In Canada at least, many of our students are from STEM fields. They’re scientists. I think that being able to enter that mindset and relate to the course content, assignments, and our students themselves on this level is extremely important. Even if your background is not at all related to science, I think it’s important for EAP instructors to be able to summon their inner scientist and try to approach things that way in the EAP classroom.

And when our EAP classes start filling up with philosophy and literature majors, then we’ll have to do things differently.


Atkinson, D., & Ramanathan, V. (1995). Cultures of writing: An ethnographic comparison of L1 and L2 university writing/language programs. TESOL Quarterly, 29(3), 539-568.


3 thoughts on “Humanities vs. Social Science in EAP?

  1. On a slight tangent … our backgrounds may also predispose us towards favouring certain writing strategies which may not be the most helpful to our students. I recently came across research suggesting that EAP teachers with backgrounds in the humanities – probably the majority of us – are reluctant to embrace (and teach) the use of tables and figures in student writing. Things which scientific disciplines value for their conciseness.

    • Yes, and I think this divide works it into your teaching in a thousand little ways like what you’ve described. Even in materials: so many EAP reading texts shy away from the STEM subjects, even though a large percentage of our students are STEM. Seemingly because non-STEM EAP practitioners writing those books, and they are just not interested in those topics.

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