To be, or to be made: Towards an identity-led pre-sessional

Gary Hernandez and Graham Greensit, Teaching Fellows from the University of Leeds, are going to propose an alternative model of pre-sessional courses so that they account more for learner identity.

One of the reverberations of the so-called ‘social turn’ in second language learning (Lantolf 2000) is the (re)emergence of the notion of learner identity (LI). Discussed from a variety of perspectives including motivation (Dornyei 2009), autonomy (Benson 2008), and self-concept (Mercer 2011), it is increasingly considered salient to transitioning students in EAP contexts. An academic literacies perspective further asserts the centrality of identity in relation to academic reading and writing practices (Lea and Street, 2006).

In this presentation we situate this call for a greater investment in LI within what we argue is the LI-antithetical context of short pre-sessional language courses. We argue that pedagogy-extrinsic constraints alongside what amounts to an anti-individualistic, industrial model of classroom teaching mitigate against the inclusion or deployment of any meaningful concept of LI on such courses. We further assert that pre-sessional courses continue to fuel traditional authority structures through categorical modality (Lea and Street, 1998) and as such do not foster understanding (or indeed possible future change) amongst ‘transition departments’. Perhaps more worryingly, the continuation of traditional student-tutor hierarchical power structures hinders meaningful student transition(s).

Alongside financial and hiring factors, we make reference to recent innovations in our own context wherein a shift to so-called content-based delivery has placed even greater burdens on pre-sessional language courses. We call for a robust (re)discovery of a holistic LI in EAP pre-sessionals in which voice, choice, autonomy and self-determination become not simply catchphrases but pedagogically explicit components of delivery (Kirkham forthcoming).

We conclude by offering the EAP community a stark binary choice: to continue to prostrate itself at the altar of expediency and thus abandon the concept of LI; or to stake a claim for our students’ individuality, pressing for pre-sessionals not only of greater length but of a design which intrinsically includes reference to LI.

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Gary Hernandez and Graham Greensit work as Teaching Fellows at the University of Leeds Language Centre. They have been involved in pre-sessionals for a number of years and are interested in how students do (or do not) transition into destination departments.

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