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Publicly Available Published by De Gruyter Mouton March 3, 2022

The dark side of EMI?: a telling case for questioning assumptions about EMI in HE

David Block ORCID logo
From the journal Educational Linguistics


The neoliberalisation of higher education (HE), which began in earnest about three decades ago, and the global spread of English, which began earlier, together have motivated an exponential increase in the number of universities worldwide offering English-medium instruction (EMI) as a key part of their internationalisation policies. EMI in HE is by now a much discussed and examined phenomenon; however, all too often research does not challenge certain assumptions about its existence. One assumption is that the introduction of EMI is an on-the-whole innocuous change in how HE courses are delivered, and that any negative side effects for the primary stakeholders, lecturers or students, are minimal. This paper takes a contrarian and critical view of EMI, highlighting its more problematic side. This is done to some extent through a short and selective discussion of relevant literature in the next section. However, the critique comes through most clearly in subsequent sections of the paper, in which interview data collected from an EMI lecturer at a university in Catalonia are examined. As will become clear, the perspective of this single informant, presented as a ‘telling case’ (Mitchell, John C. 1984. Typicality and the case study. In R. Ellen (ed.), Ethnographic research: A guide to general conduct, 237–241. London: Academic Press), is illuminating, as it highlights aspects of EMI that do not often appear in policy documents and research publications focussing on the topic.

1 Introduction

The neoliberalisation of higher education (HE), which began in earnest about three decades ago, and the global spread of English, which began earlier, together have motivated an exponential increase in the number of universities worldwide offering English-medium instruction (EMI) as a key part of their internationalisation policies. EMI in HE is by now a much discussed and examined phenomenon as witnessed by the growing number of publications on the topic. However, all too often research does not challenge certain assumptions about its existence. One assumption is that the introduction of EMI is an on-the-whole innocuous change in how HE courses are delivered, and that any negative side effects for the primary stakeholders, lecturers or students, are minimal. In this paper, I take a contrarian and critical view of EMI, highlighting its more problematic side. I do this first via a short and selective discussion of relevant literature in the sections that immediately follow this one, and then, in the second half of this paper, via my examination of interview data collected from an EMI lecturer at a university in Catalonia. As will become clear, the perspective of this single informant, presented as a ‘telling case’ (Mitchell 1984), is illuminating, as it highlights aspects of EMI that do not often appear in policy documents and research publications focussing on the topic. As I will suggest here, the latter take a decidedly more positive view of EMI, and thereby ignore the darker side of EMI in practice in HE.

2 Neoliberalism and internationalisation in HE

The neoliberalism of HE is understood as the process by which a set of economic postulates (a reconfiguration of classical liberalism), once implemented, extended from the economic realm into education, much as it did, simultaneously, with other fields of social activity. Here neoliberalism is understood as the current version of global capitalism, dominated by unfettered financialization and monopoly capitalism. It entails a number of diverse phenomena, activities and behaviours, including the reduction of the welfare state; privatisation of public goods and services; regressive tax regimes; the deregulation of financial markets; the market metaphor as all pervasive; the framing of human nature as greedy and individualistic; the framing of the ideal citizen as individualistic and entrepreneurial; competition as a key mediator of activity; and the return of class warfare via the adoption of economic policies and practices that benefit the few and increase inequality. Meanwhile, following authors who have written about events in Anglophone countries (e.g. Collini 2018; Fleming 2021; Giroux 2020; Smyth 2017), the neoliberalism of HE includes the following processes: the marketisation of all academic activity; the metrification of all academic activity; increased managerialism and the introduction of more and more sophisticated auditing procedures; the bifurcation of the academic workforce into lower-status teachers and higher-status researchers; the fomenting of hyper-specialisation, hyper-individualism and competition among academics and universities (and the resulting rise of the ‘superstar’ academic and an obsession with international rankings, respectively); the gradual marginalisation of the social sciences and humanities; and finally, the prioritisation of ‘internationalisation’.

While internationalisation is a term with a great deal of currency in the sociology of globalisation, where it refers to ‘interactions between national governments (such as formal agreement’s conflicts, diplomatic relations) … [and] the to-ing and fro-ing of items from one nation-state to another (such as people/travel and goods/trade)’ (Vertovec 2009: 3), in HE it has been understood in a more domain-specific way (Law and Hoey 2018). Writing about the nature of internationalisation in HE and what it entails, Morley et al. (2018) offer the following assessment:

Internationalisation is a dominant policy discourse in higher education today. It is invariably presented as an ideologically neutral, coherent, disembodied, knowledge-driven policy intervention - an unconditional good. Yet, it is a complex assemblage of values linked not only to economic growth and prosperity, but also to global citizenship, transnational identity capital, social cohesion, intercultural competencies and soft power. (p. 538)

Elsewhere, Zhang (2018) orients to internationalisation in a slightly different way:

Internationalisation of HE, considered as the process of integrating an international, intercultural or global dimension into the purpose and functions (e.g. teaching, research and service) of HE …, has been a grand goal of many universities worldwide since the turn of the 1980s and 1990s, albeit in different forms. Internationalisation of HE is broad-ranging and varies from scholar to scholar regarding its definition, but some common key components as follows are always included …: international content of the curriculum; international mobility of students and scholars; and international technical assistance and cooperation programmes. (p. 543)

Bringing these two angles on the topic together, I see internationalisation in HE as both a policy discourse, organised around key tropes such as global citizenship and intercultural competence, and a context-contingent, multifaceted process, including curricular and extra-curricular activities, mobility and research and knowledge transfer. In addition, it is a policy/process usually introduced by a Ministry of Education or other educational authorities aiming to insert universities into global networks of internationalised universities in competition with one another. In this way, internationalisation in HE, once more oriented to academic exchange and intercultural education, has over the past four decades become part and parcel of the aforementioned neoliberalisation of education and the pursuit of ‘global university’ status in a world of universities vying with each other for research funding, staff and students (Smyth 2017).

For individual universities, an internationalisation policy is a set of articulated objectives, strategies and actions carried out with a view to achieving this goal. For example, with reference to the Spanish context, Luis Delgado describes the internationalisation strategy of the Spanish Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport (Ministerio de Educación, Cultura y Deporte – MECD), published in 2016, as follows:

The Internationalisation Strategy … is founded upon a broad concept of internationalisation that goes further than simply promoting student mobility and signing international agreements. It also takes into account aspects such as the internationalisation of university curricula, brain circulation, the internationalisation of research, international joint qualifications, internationalisation at home, transnational campuses, quality assurance, accreditation and evaluation systems, competition to attract the best students, university rankings, international alumni associations, employability and entrepreneurship, interest in Spanish-language higher education, etc. (Delgado 2017: 18)

In Delgado’s thoughts on the Spanish ministry’s internationalisation strategy, and indeed in a great deal of the literature on internationalisation in HE, there is a tendency to see the phenomenon exclusively in positive terms, or as Morley et al. suggested above, as ‘ideologically neutral, coherent, disembodied, knowledge-driven … [and] unconditional[ly] good’ (Morley et al. 2018: 538). For example, in an overwhelmingly upbeat depiction of internationalisation in HE, the International Association of Universities (IAU) cite the following benefits that it brings:

  1. Improved quality of teaching and learning as well as research.

  2. Deeper engagement with national, regional and global issues and stakeholders.

  3. Better preparation of students as national and global citizens and as productive members of the workforce.

  4. Access for students to programs that are unavailable or scarce in their home countries.

  5. Enhanced opportunities for faculty improvement and, through mobility.

  6. Decreased risk of academic ‘inbreeding’.

  7. Possibility to participate in international networks to conduct research on pressing issues at home and abroad and benefit from the expertise and perspectives of researchers from many parts of the world.

  8. Opportunity to situate institutional performance within the context of international good practice.

  9. Improved institutional policy-making, governance, student services, outreach and quality assurance through sharing of experiences across national borders.

    (IAU 2012: 2–3)

However, matters in the real world are seldom so simple, and perhaps never entirely positive. Thus, in response to the previously cited MECD document, Bazo Martínez et al. offer a very different perspective on internationalisation in Spanish HE, noting how ‘the implementation of these measures (and others related to internationalisation) has brought to light the great differences and lack of coordination that exist, in general terms, among the different Spanish universities when it comes to identifying, defining and applying criteria related to language policies and internationalisation’ (Bazo Martínez et al. 2016: 2; author’s translation). With this assessment in mind, it is perhaps best to take a balanced view of internationalisation, recognising its more positive aspects, while bearing in mind that the realisation of idealised versions is often not possible in real world HE contexts.

3 Englishisation and English-medium instruction

When it occurs in non-English-speaking countries, internationalisation usually means Englishisation, which may be defined as the use of English in a range of social domains where previously local languages were used (Lanvers and Hultgren 2018). In practice, Englishisation in HE means the introduction of English as the mediator of communication in an increasing number of the administrative, curricular and research-related activities that are carried out in universities. This is not an unproblematic process, as there is the concern (in my view justified) that English will come to supplant local languages as the mediator of research, culture and scholarship, what is known as ‘domain loss’ (Haberland 2005; Phillipson 2003). There is also the issue of whether staff at all levels is prepared for such a transformation and willing to be involved in it. For example, if we examine the case of administrative staff, who very often are a student’s first contact with the university, several questions arise about their readiness to carry out a good number of their habitual tasks in English. There is, first and foremost, their English language proficiency, but other considerations include their confidence in their ability to use English and their willingness to use it. Nevertheless, despite such concerns, and indeed many others, there is in evidence in many contexts a certain acquiescence to the new status quo and a degree of resignation with regard to the increasing presence of English in HE worldwide. Thus, while Englishisation is not necessarily welcomed, it is also not rejected or resisted to any significant degree. I will come back to this point in the latter part of this paper.

One key component of the Englishisation of HE institutions, and one that has generated a great deal research in recent years (see surveys by Coleman et al. 2018; Deardon 2015; Galloway 2020; Lanvers and Hultgren 2018; Macaro 2018; Macaro et al. 2018), is English-medium instruction (EMI). Definitions of EMI abound, varying according to different researchers’ interests. For example, Rose and Mckinley (2018) highlight the linguistic context of EMI when they define it as ‘an educational system where content is taught through English in contexts where English is not used as the primary, first, or official language’ (p. 114). Elsewhere, Bradford and Brown (2017), emphasise how EMI is (in theory) about the teaching and learning of disciplinary knowledge and that neither the instruction nor the learning of language is the goal. As they explain, ‘EMI refers to the teaching of academic content through English in classes that do not focus on language teaching or learning goals’ (p. xviii).

Whatever the orientation to EMI, there are, it seems, certain assumptions underlying its existence which are seldom if ever challenged or contested. One such assumption is that EMI in HE must, and in addition, should exist. This assumption is based on the higher-level assumption that Englishisation and internationalisation also must and should exist, given that they are preconditions for EMI. The internationalisation-Englishisation-EMI chain comes to be understood according to the same mantra employed in favourable portrayals of neoliberalism: In effect, there is no alternative (TINA) in the dynamic, globalised world in which we live. But is this entirely the case? Is it the case that EMI is so necessary in today’s world? An affirmative answer to this question would point to the necessity of EMI once universities in non-English speaking countries manage to recruit a critical mass of non-national students who do not have a sufficient command of local languages to carry out their studies in these languages. Obviously, a lingua franca is needed in such cases, and that lingua franca is English. EMI thus arises naturally from this necessity.

Interesting though these issues are, in focus in this paper lies elsewhere, specifically on how an early career STEM lecturers, as a key social actors in the internationalisation-Englishisation-EMI chain, experience EMI. In particular I am interested in how one such lecturer, acting as a ‘telling case’ (see explanation below), recounts her negative experiences as she assumes the responsibilities and duties that are integral to EMI in HE, revealing what I see as the dark side of EMI. While ‘dark side’ is a term suggesting evil and malevolence on the part of human beings, I use it here to refer to all of the under-the-surface negative impacts of EMI in HE on lecturers and their sense of self. In effect those who are tasked with implementing EMI in HE are often ill-prepared for all that EMI entails and they usually do not receive adequate support from the HE institutions for which they work. My aim in this paper is to reach down deep, so to speak, into the inner recesses of EMI in action to examine how the accumulation of negative experiences come to be embedded in the lecturer’s figured model of EMI (more on this below). I am also interested in how my informant’s perspective on EMI in HE differs from that found in policy documents and a good number of research-based publications on the topic. My two main research questions, therefore, look as follows:

  1. What negative aspects of the EMI experiences are identified by an early career STEM lecturer?

  2. How is this lecturer’s perspective different from the views of internationalisation and EMI that one finds in the more optimistic accounts that frame this teaching modality as a necessarily positive experience?

In the sections that follow, I will examine the case of Begoña, an EMI lecturer at a university in Catalonia. Begoña was one of eight EMI lecturers who participated in a funded project examining EMI in action at two Catalan universities.[1] As will become evident, her portrayal of the EMI experience through narratives and theme-based explanations provide much food for thought and are far more nuanced versions of EMI provided by policy makers, to say nothing of researchers who have tended to treat the topic in an overwhelmingly positive way.

4 The research

As indicated above, the sole informant in this paper is Begoña, an early career Agronomy Studies lecturer, who is presented as what Mitchell (1984) some years ago termed a ‘telling case’. For Mitchell, in case study research in anthropology ‘the search for a ‘typical’ case for analytical exposition is likely to be less fruitful than the search for a ‘telling’ case’ (p. 239), as the latter highlights and illustrates key concepts and theories driving research aimed at developing understandings of people and the cultures which they inhabit and constitute with their activity. As Andrews (2017) notes in his critical examination of Mitchell’s ideas about case study research, a telling case is ‘neither typical nor atypical of the phenomena under scrutiny’ (p. 459). Nor is it ‘necessarily focused on generalisation’ (ibid). However, it is ‘focused on making visible previously hidden or poorly understood theory … [and] on identifying the necessary conditions for that theory’s relevance’ (ibid). Begoña certainly fulfils these criteria for telling cases given that her accounts of her EMI experiences are uniquely enlightening, bringing to the fore important underlying issues which other informants in the aforementioned project tended to gloss over, or in some cases did not even mention.

The data presented in this paper are from two lengthy interviews conducted with Begoña a year apart, the first occurring in September 2017 and the second in October 2018. Both interviews were carried out by two members of the project research team and they were conducted in Spanish, Begoña’s preferred language, and then transcribed. The aim of the first interview was to elicit from Begoña as much information as possible about her past as a student and as an academic, including her experience as an EMI lecturer. The second interview focused on the academic year 2017–2018, during which one of Begoña’s courses was monitored closely by researchers, who observed and video recorded 50% of her classes. The atmosphere in both interviews was relaxed, and each resembled an informal conversation with colleagues more than a cold information transfer. It is perhaps for this reason that Begoña was very open in expressing her opinions and feelings on a range of topics, an aspect of the interviews that will be evident when we move to the data.

In the sections that follow, I present and discuss five excerpts from Begoña’s interviews which I have translated into English; the original versions in Spanish can be found in Appendix A. The transcription conventions employed here were developed by the author and can be found in Appendix B. Interview excerpts are presented following a format proposed by Gee (2011), whereby oral data are presented in stanzas composed of two or more lines containing ‘idea units’. These idea units may be seen as chunks of meaning, dividable by grammar (they express a single meaning in a full or truncated sentence or a clause) and prosody (intonation, stress and rhythm). Here I adopt the view that in the stanzas presented, Begoña acts as an informed insider, someone having first-hand information which makes her knowledgeable about the domain being researched – EMI in Catalan HE. In effect, in her talk she provides instantiations of her EMI lecturer identity, doing so by producing idea units which in some cases may be qualified as narrative and in other cases as thematic and explanatory. In the former case, her discourse is structured along the lines Labov and Waletzky (1967) model, according to which a narrative will always contain some, and sometimes all, of six key elements: (1) an abstract conveying what kind of story will be told, as well as the topic; (2) an orientation providing background information and scene setting; (3) a complicating action, which is the crux of the story – the problem and the key events leading to an outcome; (4) an evaluation expressing values, making clear what is important, interesting, unusual and significant about the story; (5) a resolution, that is, the outcome or denouement; and finally (6) a coda announcing the end of the story, connecting it to the present and looping back to the abstract. In the case of thematic idea units, the structure is variable, as Begoña draws on a range of resources to construct what amount to explanations of key aspects of her EMI experience.

In both cases one important aspect of Begoña’s instantiations is Goffman’s (1974) notion of ‘frame’, which he defined as a speaker’s ‘understanding of what it is that is going on’ and how ‘individuals fit their actions to this understanding and ordinarily find that the ongoing world supports this fitting’ (p. 247). Framing is thus about linking the immediate context with a broader context: the interaction occurring in the here and now is necessarily embedded in broader sociocultural, institutional and deep-level social structures. The latter are, further to this, historically situated. Meanwhile, past events in one’s life are retained mentally in one’s episodic memory, that part of the memory ‘concerned with unique, concrete, personal experiences dated in the rememberer’s past’ (Tulving 1983: v). Over time, elements in episodic memory cluster and congeal into ‘figured worlds’, that is, ‘socially and culturally constructed realm[s] of interpretation in which particular characters and actors are recognised, significance is assigned to certain acts, and particular outcomes are valued over others’ (Holland et al. 1998: 52). Through her talk, be it narrative in nature or more thematic and explanatory, Begoña always frames what she is talking about, drawing on her experience-based figured world of EMI in HE.

5 Begoña’s world of EMI in HE in five stanzas

I begin my examination Begoña’s world of EMI with her short narrative of how she first came to teach some of her courses in English.

Stanza 1: Getting started (09/09/17)

  1. look first I’ll tell you

  2. first why I got into this and then what I think about it OK?

  3. so I got into this because

  4. I told you that I’m going to be honest

  5. because the vice dean of teaching tricked us

  6. I’ve worked as a temporary lecturer

  7. and so now I have two or three

  8. I think this is the third year of my internship as assistant professor okay?

  9. so at one point they told us that with this

  10. when they started talking about teaching and whatever

  11. the [name of university] in Europe

  12. that they were going to fast-track promotions for the lecturers who taught in English

  13. X from the vice dean’s office

  14. I even have the emails

  15. I can even

  16. so that’s a filthy lie {laughing}

  17. so this subject

  18. this was right when they changed the undergraduate degree

  19. I mean I am talking to you by now about three or four years ago I think

In this stanza, Begoña begins by setting the frame, providing an abstract that makes clear that what is to follow is about how she became an EMI lecturer, adding to this that she will be ‘honest’ (line 4), an interjection that signals that what she is about to say will be controversial. This establishes Begoña’s position as something of a whistle-blower, or in any case a person with inside knowledge about the object of conversation. She then goes on to give support to her claim to this position, saying that she and other early career lecturers on temporary contracts were ‘tricked’ into EMI by the vice dean (line 5), who had promised to fast-track their promotion if they volunteered to teach their courses in English as part of the university’s internationalisation policy, referenced here by its official name: ‘the [name of university] in Europe’ (line 11). Begoña describes the vice dean’s promise as ‘a filthy lie’ (line 16), laughing as she makes what is a serious accusation. However, she immediately shows her awareness of this seriousness when she offers evidence to support her claim – ‘I even have emails’ (line 14) – which it seems from her truncated utterance – ‘I can even’ (line 12) – she would be willing to show. She ends the stanza with a coda, connecting the story to changes made to the undergraduate degree as part of the internationalisation policy (line 18) and situating the events she has just recounted in the past: ‘three or four years ago’ (line 19).

Begoña’s serious accusation against the vice dean’s office[2] was made early in the first interview conducted with her in September 2017. It set the stage for what amounted to an overall negative orientation to her EMI experiences that pervaded much of what she said. This negative orientation is once again in evidence in stanza 2, in which she provides, again in narrative format, some detail about herself as an EMI lecturer.

Stanza 2: A teaching experience (09/09/17)

  1. so I had just done a course with some super prepared practical exercises about everything

  2. like putting in interactive activities

  3. and so I started teaching the class

  4. but of course you come in with all this

  5. you come with everything super organized

  6. yes yes I’m going to do everything super interactive

  7. and what I find is that my English level is crap

  8. when my cortisol level goes up as I put it

  9. when my stress level goes up my English goes like that {makes a gesture of something slipping away}

  10. but of course since I don’t have much experience speaking English

  11. I mean I have a lot of experience reading English to understand more or less

  12. but not speaking

  13. so of course you can know a class in English

  14. and yes you can just vomit the content reading the power point

  15. but that’s not what it’s about

  16. it’s just that if you know

  17. if you’ve just come from teaching a good class in Spanish

  18. and you know how you can transmit emotions

  19. but no

  20. I don’t even mean transmitting emotions in English

  21. I’m telling you it’s about you shitting yourself with fear

  22. I mean what I felt was literally fear

  23. so I was teaching the class

  24. and of course I started to stutter

  25. you start to notice how you get stuck

  26. you start to notice how you are getting more and more nervous every time you get stuck

  27. and this was after five years of teaching classes in English

  28. like going back to day one

  29. I mean I went back to my life studying English

In this stanza, Begoña describes a class she has taught recently which did not go well despite planning and preparation on her part. In her version of events, this was due to her insufficient proficiency in English. In the opening lines, she provides background about her preparation of the class (lines 1–6), including her self-voicing of how she was confident about the eventual outcome (line 6). Then, the frame shifts slightly as she introduces a complicating element in her narrative: her ‘English level is crap’ (line 7), which raises her ‘cortisol level’ (line 8) and her ‘stress level’ (line 9). In such circumstances, she finds that she cannot speak English as well as she would like to. Begoña then explains her situation in more detail, moving through her lack of speaking practice (10), which contrasts with her ability to read in English (line 11). She then marks a difference between knowing one’s subject and actually teaching it, suggesting that one strategy when teaching in English is to ‘vomit’ memorised content and rely on the PowerPoint (line 14) before making clear her disapproval of this approach: ‘that’s not what it’s about’ (line 15). This leads her to the face-saving comment about the difference between teaching in English and teaching in Spanish, making clear her superiority in the latter language (16–18). Then comes the climax and a clear statement of the problem that Begoña faces when teaching in English: ‘it’s about you shitting yourself with fear’ (21).

The tense switch she effects at this point marks that she is clearly in the narrative that she suggested she was going to produce at the beginning of the stanza (lines 1–5). She talks about having ‘felt … fear’ (22), how she ‘started to stutter’ (24) and how she got ‘stuck’ (25), all of which led to her ‘getting more and more nervous’ (26). The coda to the story is delivered at the end, as Begoña expresses the view that she is moving backwards: after five years of EMI teaching experience, this one class made her feel as though she had gone back to her initial contacts with English as someone studying the language, not using it (lines 27–29).

In this stanza, Begoña shows how Labov and Waletzky (1967) model of narrative, tidy in its presentation, is orientative and not set in stone, as narrators often move back and forth between the general and specific and between the present and the past, and they do not stick to the order implicit in the model. Indeed, a close examination of the first 21 lines of this stanza, all in the present tense, could be taken as the presentation of Begoña’s general understanding of herself as an EMI lecturer and not, in strict terms, a narrative. However, the seamless move to the past tense in line 22 makes this stanza something of a hybrid, as Begoña seems to be mixing genres (explaining how things are and telling an anecdote). There are, of course, other aspects of this stanza that I could comment on, both in terms of form and content. However, in line with the argument I seek to develop here, I will focus on what I see as a key discourse emerging in Begoña’s words: her self-perceived role identity and how it is diminished when she engages in EMI. Following Owens et al. (2010), I understand role identity as:

… a social position a person holds in a larger social structure, considers self-descriptive, and enacts in a role relationship with at least one other person. Because it is self descriptive and internalized, it becomes part of one’s self-concept. Role-identities are predicated on recurrent interactions between role partners and provide the self with meaning because they carry recognized role expectations, whether complementary (teacher-pupil), competing (union negotiator–business executive), or counter (detective-criminal) … (pp. 479–480)

One issue that came through clearly in the research project in which Begoña participated was the strong disciplinary identity (Hyland 2012) displayed by participating lecturers: in effect, they were clear about their rights and duties (Harré 2012) as STEM lecturers and they made clear that did not see themselves in any way, shape or form as English teachers (Block and Mancho-Barés 2021; Block and Moncada-Comas 2022; Moncada-Comas and Block 2021). In this stanza, Begoña clearly positions herself as a STEM lecturer who is competent when she teaches in Spanish and less competent when she does so in English. She clearly invokes what we might see as role diminishment in that she feels less competent, less important and less valued as part of a broader process of status reduction that emerges from her role redefinition. Following Owen et al. (2010: 479), we see how Begoña’s investment in the role of STEM lecturer, which she ‘holds in a larger social structure [her department, the university and academia more generally], considers self-descriptive [it is what she is], and enacts in a role relationship [with her students]’, is under attack and, in effect, imperiled, when she teaches in English. This leads to the situation in which, as she explains, she is ‘shitting herself with fear’. Ultimately, Begoña’s vivid expression of her personal discomfort is significant in the context of this paper because it shows how the view of EMI as an ‘ideologically neutral, coherent, disembodied, knowledge-driven policy intervention – an unconditional good’ (Morley et al. 2018: 538) is misconceived, and above all, not based on EMI in action on the ground.

Another factor contributing to Begoña’s sense of inefficacy and lack of control over her teaching when she engages in EMI is how she is received and perceived by her students. In particular, what do her students make of her as a lecturer, delivering course content in English? In the next stanza, from an interview taking place in October 2018, she describes the situations that she finds herself in when she attempts to satisfy all of her students’ needs.

Stanza 3: Student evaluations (08/10/18)

  1. so there are comments that are

  2. there are comments from people on these two sides

  3. people who are saying

  4. the professor shouldn’t be teaching the course in English

  5. because you can’t understand her very well

  6. this is the one who knows a lot of English

  7. and the one who is doing like this {grimaces}

  8. and then there is the other one who says

  9. I am not able to follow this content in English

  10. because it is too complex

  11. so what do I do?

  12. what would you do?

In this stanza Begoña is talking about the evaluation forms that students complete at the end of each course that they attend. Specifically, she focuses on negative assessments of her teaching that she believes are unfair, given that she is dealing with linguistically diverse groups of students clustered at two extremes, or ‘sides’ as she puts it (line 2). At one extreme are those who have a high level of English: ‘the one who knows a lot of English … who is doing like this’, said as she imitates a student grimacing (lines 6–7). For these students, Begoña ‘shouldn’t be teaching … in English because you can’t understand her’ (lines 4–5). At the other extreme are those students whose level of English is so low that they say that they cannot follow her lectures (line 9). She voices them as saying that the content is ‘too complex’ (line 10). These students probably are unhappy, not with Begoña, but with an educational context in which they are pushed into doing a certain percentage of their courses in English so that they can be said to be proficient enough in English to follow the complex content that they are exposed to in this language. In doing so, they are doing their part, helping the university realise its internationalisation goals, among which is the Englishisation of students. In such a situation, Begoña finds herself between a rock and hard place and she cannot win. Her questions at the end of this stanza say it all: ‘What do I do?’ (line 11) and ‘what would you do?’ (line 12).

Ultimately, Begoña finds herself inserted into a university internationalisation policy in which she has little choice or room for manoeuvre. As an early career academic, she is, by necessity, a front-line mediator of this policy and in particular the Englishisation of the curriculum and ultimately, the students. In the next stanza, she invokes the notion of a ‘system’ at work behind the scenes to explain how she feels about the situation in which she finds herself.

Stanza 4: On the ‘system’ and work (08/10/18)

  1. the system asks a lot of things of you

  2. and some of them aren’t rational

  3. they aren’t rational at all

  4. and you say okay

  5. you get into things that your body is really telling you not to do

  6. and it tells you

  7. and it’s telling you

  8. don’t do this don’t take this on

  9. you’re just barely managing

  10. because it turns out that this thing is worth a thousandth of a point in your CV

  11. and the people at AQU have to evaluate you to grant you I don’t know what

  12. and you are dragging yourself around all day like

  13. and in the end much of the time you are so worn out

  14. and I say

  15. there are times that

  16. today I’m not going to sleep

  17. I’ll just go directly into a coma

  18. so it’s just I can’t go on

Begoña’s reference to ‘the system’ (el sistema in Spanish) is interesting in and of itself, given how it conjures images of occult forces at work behind the scenes. However, it is not immediately clear what exactly the system in question is as she proceeds to anthropomorphise it: it ‘asks a lot of things of you’ (line 1), where ‘you’ means a generic university lecturer immersed in the internationalisation of her university. Interestingly, Begoña notes here that many of the things the system asks of lecturers like her are not ‘rational’ (2–3), which is reminiscent of Ritzer’s (1996) work on McDonaldization in the 1990s, where he wrote about how hyper-rationalised systems, devoted to the quantification of activity, efficiency and predictability, end up generating irrationalities.[3]

Proceeding, Begoña simulates a dialogue between her body and herself: the former tells the latter not to take on more tasks and responsibilities (lines 8–9). As for why a lecturer, already overworked, would be inclined to take on more work, she begins to make clear that the system is embodied in organisms such as the ‘AQU’ – l’Agència per a la Qualitat del Sistema Universitari de Catalunya – which is the Catalan government’s quality control unit for universities (line 9). Following Foucault (1973; see also Block 2022; Block and Moncada-Comas 2022), I see what amounts to an ‘institutional gaze’ on university lecturers at work here. For Foucault an institutional gaze is an identity-shaping discourses that arises from ‘grids of specification’, that is, ‘the systems according to which the different [group members] are divided, contrasted, related, regrouped, classified, derived from one another as objects of … discourse’ (Foucault 1989: 42) – through which professionals in a given domain of activity are governed (surveilled and disciplined). Grids of specification define what is and what is not legitimate as regards behaviour within that domain of activity. In this case HE, by now neoliberalized to the core, casts a gaze on university lectures, defining them according to quantified accountability regimes, and among other things, as English language users when they engage in those activities that are most valued (teaching, publishing, conference participation).

One result of the current HE gaze is that aspiring early career academics are pushed to their psychological and physical limits. As Begoña, explains, she is ‘worn out’ (line 13), ‘dragging [her]self around all day’ (line 12), an unstainable situation that has her at the end of her tether. We see this clearly in her rather desperate image of ‘not going to sleep’ (line 16) but ‘directly into a coma’ (line 17) and her resignation in the face of no alternative: ‘it’s just I can’t go on’ (line 12).

However, as Begoña makes clear elsewhere in this interview, she does go on, persevering and even arriving at the conclusion that in the end, her experience as an EMI lecturer has been a positive experience. This can be seen clearly in the fifth and final stanza to be discussed in this paper, in which she explains her need for recognition.

Stanza 5: Seeking recognition (08/10/18)

  1. you wait for it to recognise you

  2. because you’re looking for the recognition of the system

  3. and sometimes that recognition doesn’t come

  4. and you go even crazier because you say

  5. on top of this for what?

  6. and that is when you die completely isn’t it?

  7. when you are trying to find yourself

  8. you realise that you are looking for recognition

  9. that’s it

  10. why do I teach classes in English?

  11. because I have been looking for recognition from the system

  12. it’s obvious

  13. not because it brought me anything

  14. because I made my own life difficult

  15. because my English level wasn’t good enough for me to teach a class smoothly

  16. and making all those connections that I explained to you before?

  17. why did I do that?

  18. because I

  19. because I was looking for recognition from the system

  20. has it granted it to me?

  21. well actually in the end I have learned to do it

  22. I’m happy

  23. I’m satisfied

In recent years there has been a good number of publications devoted to how individuals in neoliberal times must curate a positive, consistent and authentic image of themselves in both their occupational and personal lives. Brown (2005) has written about how a neoliberal normativity ‘constructs and interpellates individuals as entrepreneurial actors in every sphere of life’, framing them as ‘rational, calculating creatures whose moral autonomy is measured by their capacity for ‘self-care’ – the ability to provide for their own needs and service their own ambitions’ (Brown 2005: 42). Elsewhere, over the past three decades, Franck has written extensively about the social environment in which Brown’s ‘rational, calculating creatures’ operate – the ‘economy of attention’. For Franck, individuals immersed in this economy seek and compete with other individuals for the scarce resource called attention. In his work focussing specifically on academia, Franck (2002) describes scientists as ‘entrepreneurs who allocate time and effort so as to maximise the attention received from other scientists’ (p. 8). This attention evolves into recognition and the endpoint is notoriety in one’s area of research and the celebrity that comes with it. In this vein, Franck (2019) has more recently written about how scientists seek ‘the benevolent notice other people take of us’ (p. 8) as `[t]he attention of others is the most irresistible of drugs [and] ‘[t]o receive it outshines receiving any other kind of income’ (p. 9).

In neither this stanza nor anywhere else in her interviews does Begoña address the economy of attention with regard to her publications and conference papers. However, here she does discuss her need for recognition (which arguably entails attention) from the system. In fact, the word ‘recognition’ appears on six occasions in the stanza, acting as the theme holding the storyline together: Begoña realises that she has always sought recognition from the system. And even if the system has not always granted her the recognition she thinks she deserves (line 3) and the effects of this slight have been nothing short of devastating (lines 3–6), Begoña prefers to see the outcome of her efforts to become a plausible and effective EMI lecturer. In effect, she implies that she has managed to do just this, stating ‘in the end I have learned to do it’ (line 21), adopting what amounts to a major shift in her orientation to EMI, from a highly critical and on-the-whole negative self-positioning to a more positive one. The stanza thus ends with her emotive expressions: ‘I’m happy’ (line 22) and ‘I’m satisfied’ (line 23).

However, the dark side of EMI is never far away in Begoña’s accounts of her life as an EMI lecturer. Thus, in the interlude between the opening and the final part of this stanza, we see how she returns to some of the same doubts about herself that we have seen in the previous four stanzas. First, she revisits her English language proficiency and her ability to teach in this language when she began (line 15), a key topic in stanzas 2 and 3. She also returns to the self-questioning about why she agreed to be an EMI lecturer in the first place when this was going to add to her workload (lines 13–14), a topic she discusses in detail in stanza 4. However, ultimately, Begoña does not resist the institutional gaze that positions her as an internationalised and Englishised STEM lecturer, for resistance would mean her engagement in ‘intentional, and hence conscious, acts of defiance or opposition by a subordinate individual or group of individuals against a superior individual or set of individuals’ (Seymour 2006: 305). Rather, she acquiesces and voices her acceptance of her lot, which in practice means that she takes on whatever conditions the system may decide to impose on her in both the present and the future. In this sense, she is not unlike many early career academics around the world who have begun their professional lives in neoliberal times, in which the goal posts marking the margins and limits of their rights and duties are constantly being moved by those in decision-making positions.

6 Conclusion

In this paper, I have provided a brief critique of the overall positive view of EMI in HE that one finds in policy documents and research-based publications on EMI. I have then presented and discussed five stanzas from interviews with Begoña, an early career EMI lecturer. In these stanzas, Begoña presents what might be seen as the dark side of EMI in HE, as she outlines a series of negative aspects of her experience. In doing so, she provides answers to the two research questions outlined previously:

  1. What negative aspects of the EMI experiences are identified by an early career STEM lecturer?

  2. How is this lecturer’s perspective different from the views of internationalisation and EMI that one finds in the more optimistic accounts that frame this teaching modality as a necessarily positive experience?

I shall address these questions in reverse order. As regards the second question, it is obvious that Begoña’s perspective on EMI differs a great deal from that found in more optimistic accounts of the phenomenon. We see this throughout the five stanzas examined here, in which she presents the dark side of EMI, recounting negative episodes that have impacted her sense of self as opposed to singing the virtues of internationalisation and Englishisation.

Meanwhile, in response to the first question about exactly what negative issues Begoña cites, we see that these include what she sees as dishonest practices by those administering EMI; her own insecurities about her English and how teaching in English can be traumatic for her; what she considers to be unfair student evaluations when it will always be impossible for her to satisfy all of her students; the extreme, often irrational, demands that ‘the system’ makes on EMI lecturers and the bodily toll that these demands exact on her (she always feels tired); and finally, her need for recognition from ‘the system’ that she believes to be inherently unfair.

Going with the flow in the stanzas presented, and following Begoña’s stories and explanations portraying her personal hardships as an EMI lecturer, her assertion at the end of stanza 5 that she feels ‘happy’ and ‘satisfied’, is nothing short of surprising. What are we to make of this seemingly contradictory turnabout on Begoña’s part? How is it that after entering the realm of the dark side of EMI, identifying problems and explaining how EMI was making her life a misery, she could say that she was happy and that the experience had been worth it?

One of the more intriguing characteristics of neoliberalism, as defined at the beginning of the background section above, is its capacity for regeneration in the face of its manifest failure as a global economic system. Thus a decade ago, and in the midst of the worst effects of the Great Recession of 2008, Crouch (2011) wrote about the ‘strange non-death of neoliberalism’, that is, how despite the obvious risks involved in the continuance of a global economy based on financialization and monopoly capitalism, neoliberalism was emerging from the recession stronger than ever. Elsewhere, and more recently, Kiely (2018) has highlighted ‘neoliberalism capacity for ‘renewal in the face of adversity, and the paradox that neoliberalism and its tensions, weaknesses, inconsistencies and omissions are in some respects sources of strength in the ongoing renewal of the neoliberal project’ (p. 6). Kiely cites individualism – in Beck’s (1992) famous definition, the idea that ‘each person’s biography is removed from given determinations and placed in his or her own hands, open and dependent on decisions’ (p. 135) – as one key social reality undergirding the endurance and survival of neoliberalism. In this sense, he coincides with Streeck (2016) who has argued that individualism has by now taken root in contemporary societies so firmly that people accept that they have to act alone and depend on no one else, showing resilience, as they accept hardship and get on with trying to make matters better in the face of adversity.

Can we understand Begoña’s volte face at the end of stanza 5 as her self-positioning as resilient in the face of hardship, and in addition, as aligned with a certain neoliberal individualism? I would venture a yes answer to this question, wary that the reader may see this claim as akin to taking a sledgehammer to a tack (i.e. theoretical overkill). However, if we examine Begoña’s comments not only in the stanzas presented but also in all contacts with her during the research project in which she participated, it becomes apparent that while she does work in a university department, and she does work with colleagues, she is, in effect, on her own when it comes to forging a career. Her lot, therefore, is not different from that of many, if not most, young academics today. It is she and she alone who is responsible for her self-care, as discussed above, and above all for surviving and prospering in the economy of attention that reigns in contemporary academia. And while she desires recognition from ‘the system’, she will have to play along with what the system dictates. In such an environment, it is perhaps not surprising that Begoña, like so many of her contemporaries worldwide, has learned that she must make of her life what she can, doing so far more on her own than would have been the case several decades ago. This, seemingly, is the way it is, until further notice.

Corresponding author: David Block, Departament d'Humanitats, ICREA, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, Spain, E-mail:

Funding source: El Ministerio de Economía, Industria y Competitividad

Award Identifier / Grant number: FFI2016-76383-P


I would like to thank Li Wei for his support, and John Gray, Guzman Mancho-Barés and an anonymous reviewer for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper. Obviously, they are not in any way responsible for any deficiencies in the final product. This is a considerably extended version of a paper published in the proceedings of the AELFE-TAPP conference held in Villanova i Geltrú (Spain), 7–9 July 2021. That paper, and this one, are based on a plenary given by the author at that conference.

  1. Research funding: Data presented in this paper is from the project entitled ‘Towards an empirical assessment of the impact of English medium instruction at university: language learning, disciplinary knowledge and academic identities’ (ASSEMID). ASSEMID was funded by the Spanish Ministry of Economy, Industry and Competitiveness (El Ministerio de Economía, Industria y Competitividad – MINECO) (code FFI2016-76383-P) and ran from 30 December 2016 to 29 December 2019.

  2. Informed consent: Informed consent was obtained from all individuals included in this study.

  3. Ethical approval: The local Institutional Review Board deemed the study exempt from review.

  4. Author contributions: The author has accepted responsibility for the entire content of this manuscript and approved its submission.

  5. Competing interests: The author states no conflict of interest.

Appendix A: Stanzas in original version (Spanish)

Stanza 1: Getting started (09/09/17)

  1. mira primero te digo

  2. primero porqué entré en esto y yo luego lo que veo vale?

  3. entonces yo entré en esto porque

  4. te he dicho que voy a ser sincera

  5. porque nos vendieron la moto el vicerrectorado de profesorado

  6. he estado de lectora

  7. y ahora entonces llevo ya dos o tres

  8. creo que este es el tercer año de agregada interina vale?

  9. entonces nos dijeron en un momento dado que con esto

  10. cuando empezaron a plantearse lo de la docencia y todo no sé qué

  11. la [name of university] en Europa

  12. que nos iban a promocionar antes a los profesores lectores que diéramos docencia en inglés

  13. X del vicerrectorado

  14. tengo hasta los mails

  15. te lo puedo hasta

  16. entonces eso es mentira cochina {laughing}

  17. entonces esta asignatura

  18. esto fue justo en el cambio de la licenciatura

  19. o sea te hablo ya de hace tres o cuatro años creo

Stanza 2: A teaching experience (09/09/17)

  1. entonces yo venía de hacer con ellos el curso con unas súper preparaciones de prácticas de todo:

  2. así de meter actividades interactivas

  3. y ahí me puse yo a dar clase

  4. entonces claro tú vienes con todo esto

  5. llegas con todo súper bien montado

  6. sí sí voy a hacer todo súper interactivo

  7. y lo que me encuentro es que mi nivel de inglés es una porquería

  8. cuando me sube el cortisol que digo yo

  9. cuando me sube el nivel de estrés mi inglés hace así {makes a gesture of something slipping away}

  10. entonces claro porque yo no tengo experiencia hablando inglés

  11. o sea tengo mucha experiencia en inglés de leer de entender más o menos

  12. pero no de hablar

  13. entonces claro te puedes saber una clase en inglés

  14. y sí que te puedes poner a vomitar el contenido leyendo el Power Point

  15. pero es que no se trata de eso

  16. es que si tú sabes

  17. si tú vienes de dar una buena clase en castellano

  18. y sabes cómo tú puedes transmitir las emociones

  19. claro no

  20. ya no te digo transmitir las emociones en inglés

  21. te digo de tú estar cagado de miedo

  22. o sea porque yo lo que sentía literalmente era miedo

  23. entonces estaba dándoles la clase

  24. y claro empecé a tartamudear

  25. empiezas a ver que te atascas

  26. empiezas a ver que te estás poniendo cada vez más nerviosa cada vez que te atascas

  27. y era a estar a los cinco años casi de estar dando clase en inglés

  28. o sea volver al día uno

  29. o sea volví a mi vida estudiando inglés

Stanza 3: Student evaluations (08/10/18)

  1. entonces hay comentarios que son

  2. hay comentarios de gente de estos dos lados

  3. gente de los que están diciendo que

  4. la profesora no debería dar la asignatura en inglés

  5. porque no se le entiende bien

  6. este es el que sabe mucho inglés

  7. y el que se está haciendo así {grimaces}

  8. y luego está el otro de

  9. yo no soy capaz de seguir este contenido en inglés

  10. porqué es muy complejo

  11. entonces, ¿qué hago yo?

  12. tú qué harías?

Stanza 4: On the ‘system’ and work (08/10/18)

  1. el sistema te pide muchas cosas

  2. y algunas de ellas no son racionales

  3. no son para nada racionales

  4. y dices vale

  5. entras a cosas que realmente el cuerpo te está diciendo que no las hagas

  6. y te lo dice

  7. y te lo esta diciendo

  8. no hagas esto que no adquieres este:

  9. que lo estás haciendo arrastrado

  10. porqué resulta que eso vale un milipunto en la currículum

  11. que te tienen que valorar los del AQU para darte la no sé qué

  12. y estás arrastrándote todo el día o sea

  13. y al final hay muchas veces que llevas un desgaste

  14. que yo digo

  15. hay veces que

  16. es que hoy yo no me echo a dormir

  17. entro en coma directamente

  18. o sea es que no puedo

Stanza 5: Seeking recognition (08/10/18)

  1. esperas que se te reconozca

  2. porqué estás buscando el reconocimiento del sistema

  3. que a veces ese reconocimiento no llega

  4. y aún te vuelves más majara porqué dices

  5. encima esto para qué?

  6. que esto ya es cuando te mueres del todo no?

  7. cuando te estás buscando

  8. tú te das cuenta de que estás buscando reconocimiento

  9. o sea esto

  10. porqué yo he dado clases en inglés?

  11. porqué he estado buscando reconocimiento al sistema

  12. así de claro

  13. no porque a mí me aportara nada

  14. porque yo me complicaba la vida

  15. porque mi nivel de inglés no era el que a mí me permitía dar una clase de manera fluida

  16. y hacer todas esos conexiones que te explicaba antes

  17. por qué lo he hecho?

  18. porque me

  19. porque buscaba reconocimiento al sistema

  20. me lo ha dado?

  21. bueno pues al final he aprendido a hacerlo

  22. estoy contenta

  23. estoy satisfecha

Appendix B: Transcription conventions

Italics voicing oneself or another
{ } comments on a salient feature of the turn
? rising intonation


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Received: 2021-12-12
Accepted: 2022-01-16
Published Online: 2022-03-03
Published in Print: 2022-06-27

© 2022 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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