Opportunity and Loss

Dr Sarah Brewer


Professor Sarah Brewer is a good conversationalist and storyteller who has spent a lifetime involved in one way or another with texts and books and stories. She has worked for more than 20 years at the University of Reading, in the International Study and Language Institute (ISLI) and been at the epicentre of several language networks, teaching and writing groups. Only last year did she step down from her role as Chair of BALEAP, the global forum for EAP (English for Academic Purposes) professionals.

Before joining Reading, however, she had a variety of jobs. She can recall the exact layout of a former London antiquarian bookseller where she worked for years along Marylebone High Street; the serendipity of finding huge crates containing perfectly preserved 16th-century documents and treasured locks of children’s hair while working as a researcher for an auctioneer in Suffolk; typing up  the letters of Richard Hurd, the Bishop of Worcester, in triplicate on a portable typewriter for her doctorate in the seventies at the beginning of an academic career; her love for the fenland town of Cambridge where she grew up, and her critique of social disparities after also living in London and Reading, alive to diversity, having taught hundreds of international students over the past thirty years. These are stories of a changing England from the perspective of someone who teaches English, with an academic cast of mind, which it would need a well-deserved sabbatical to write about.

One of those stories will be how an international group of language professionals, academics, volunteers, and administrators, came together to do something powerful in the face of displacement and war.  It is true that academics who find themselves in exile might not have imagined they would have to work in translation one day. And often, self-reflexive and aware, they may have wondered about the global hegemony of the Western academy. Still, language empowers and broadens horizons. Collaboration and friendship can change what is considered a loss into an opportunity, with time.

Although the Cara Syria Programme was initiated in 2012 through the Cara Fellowship Programme, the Syria Programme in region, including the English for Academic Purposes (EAP) strand, only started in 2016. Armed with lessons from the Iraq Programme (2006-2012) it was clear that issues such as language barriers, the ability to write academic papers or to give presentations in English needed more attention to allow participants to thrive. The then ISLI director and Brewer’s boss, Ros Richards, returned from a Cara Syria-related meeting to galvanise ISLI colleagues and lead on the development of an EAP strand, driven by her view that Syrian academics forced into exile would need more than English as a second language.

“What is fascinating about English for Academic Purposes is that you are looking at academic communication, which goes beyond the communicative processes in day-to-day life. So how do you write about ideas?” The language used needs to take account of disciplinary differences and genres and the functions of text required to talk about research both to specialists and to a broader audience. “You’ve got to be interested in that sort of approach to language.” Brewer says, “We work more with the texts, although oracy is a big area in EAP given that oral communication is essential for presentations and seminars, but a lot of what we do with the Syrian academics is about text and the texts they’re producing.”

Kate Robertson (Cara) welcomed the inclusion of EAP into the programme, and Brewer, BALEAP Events Officer at the time, sent out a call to see whether individuals or institutions could provide time, resources or teachers for the programme and join a development meeting at ISLI. Representatives of eleven institutions came together around the programme with participants from the universities of Durham, Edinburgh, Kent, Reading, and Sheffield forming an initial core group.

When Karen Whiteside, also from Reading University, got involved, Brewer described her contribution as invaluable: “She was an absolute genius at breaking down the complex aspects of language to make it intelligible and teachable for this particular group. There is a tension in that their English language may not be very highly developed, but they are highly professional, experienced, mature academics. Karin began to do more teaching at the Syria programme workshops in Istanbul, and I was the connection to BALEAP. We are both members of the Syria Programme EAP Steering Group, of which I have recently become chair. I do more of the administrative side, keeping things going in the background and recruiting more teachers as the programme has grown. It was interesting to see how many EAP tutors have been supporting the programme for several years. You get people who want to contribute beyond their everyday job and are happy to give their time freely.”

Since 2017, Brewer has worked with a core group of EAP specialists, organising parallel online social events, shaping the overall pedagogy. She believes that people derive meaning from their involvement in the programme. “You know, there are always things that you can contribute to, but because we’re specialists in EAP, it’s good for us to have the opportunity to contribute within our specialism. It’s been a great privilege to feel that we can use our expertise to help in some way. I think the tutors really value it.”

Over a hundred Syrian academics have gone through the EAP strand of the programme. Here and there are nods of gratitude to their EAP tutors, anecdotal remarks about how invaluable regular intensive residential events in Istanbul were, and casual admissions of the benefits of the weekly one-to-one EAP lessons and the parallel academic skill development soiree sessions.

Syria Programme participants who benefit from research incubation visits to the UK, often travel across the UK to meet their EAP tutors in person, who, in turn, might fly to Istanbul to support Syria Programme research-related academic writing workshops. Like Brewer, they appear to have dedicated years, not just months towards building the fluency of their participant, with very tangible outcomes in the form of published articles, presentations, lectures, jobs, and research connections and collaborations. Something has worked. Brewer agrees and suggests that it is partly the connections that are made and feeling part of a new academic community after losing their place in a different academic world.

Brewer will retire from her full-time commitments at the University of Reading this year but plans to continue working with Cara and chairing the Syria Programme EAP Steering Group. It’s a unique programme and a mission dear to her heart, and she will work as long as needed: “It’s been a privilege to work with Kate, her energy, her experience, and her can-do attitude. I feel very privileged to have been in a position where I could contribute. I would say this is also true for the other members of the steering group.” Retiring also hands her an expanse of time to write those stories she once saw hidden away in vaults and Record Offices across the country, rooted not only in the 18th century which she still loves, but to find stories – where they are – hidden and in plain view – that she will now have enough time to unearth.