Examiner treatment of doctoral candidate language: a novel application of Communication Accommodation Theory (CAT)

Year: 2018

Author: Burke, Rachel, Holbrook, Allyson

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Examiner treatment of candidate language is an important aspect of doctoral thesis assessment. Language is the medium via which candidates demonstrate their expertise in their chosen field, their research proficiency, and their suitability for inclusion within the academy. Widening participation initiatives have resulted in increased linguistic diversity in the Australian higher education sector, with growing numbers of doctoral candidates identifying as English as an Additional Language and/or Dialect (EAL/D) background. This presentation reports on research exploring examiner perceptions of candidate language, and the relative importance afforded to linguistic issues within examiners’ overall assessment of theses. Using Communication Accommodation Theory (CAT), a conceptual tool for examining linguistic mechanisms for the construction of personal identity(ies) and group affiliation (Giles & Ogay 2007), we analysed over 2,000 examiner reports evaluating theses written by candidates from EAL/D and English as a first language backgrounds. 
Specifically, we sought to explore the various ways in which examiners may or may not accommodate candidate communication style. We also explored whether use of CAT in the analysis of thesis reports would indicate (as it has done in other multilingual settings) that first language (L1) speakers tend to be biased towards more ‘standard’ communicative styles, and exhibit more positive evaluation of second language (L2) users who employ language convergence techniques (see Zuengler 1991). Finally, we also sought to use CAT to examine the manner in which examiner perceptions of candidate language were linked to discursive constructions of membership within the broader discourse community of the academy. 
CAT proved to be a useful analytic frame for exploring examiner feedback regarding candidates’ communication styles, allowing for a detailed and nuanced investigation of the treatment of linguistic identity. Interestingly, our study indicated that doctoral examiners were generally accommodating of non-standard English forms and utilised a range of feedback mechanisms for scaffolding candidate appropriation of the expected style. 
Giles, H. & Ogay, T. (2007). ‘Communication Accommodation Theory’. In Whaley, B.B. & Samter, W. Explaining Communication: Contemporary Theories and Exemplars. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum.Zuengler, J. (1991). ‘Accommodation in native nonnative interactions: Going beyond the "what" to the "why in second-language research’. In Giles, H. & N. Coupland (Eds.). (1991), Contexts of accommodation: Studies in emotion and social interaction(pp. 69-102). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Keywords: Communication Accommodation Theory, Doctoral thesis, Doctoral examination