Who’s in the room? Metaphors I teach by

My daughter opened her bedroom door this morning, and with it a world of opportunities. She’d snatched at the handle before but never quite managed to turn it. Happy and fearful in equal measure at her achievement, she turned to me and reached for my hand before taking a step out into the dark hallway, like the world’s cutest bunny about to set foot on the first sheet of white snow of the winter.

So, a doorway into a world of opportunities. “A metaphor. Things are looking up” to borrow words (and another metaphor) from Spooner in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land. I read No Man’s Land at secondary school (and loved it, not least for the brilliant swearing) but didn’t begin to understand it until much more recently. I also learned about metaphors at secondary school, and have also only recently begun to give them more thought.

At school I learned the difference between a metaphor and a simile. A metaphor is when you say that X is Y; a simile is when you say that X is like Y. My daughter opening up a world of opportunities is a metaphor, but when I compare her to a cautious yet excited rabbit, I’m using simile. This distinction is useful if we want to point out the shortcomings of others, since nothing could make us feel more intelligent than smugly telling a friend or colleague “that’s not a metaphor — it’s a simile”. If we want to try to be even smarter, though, linguistic analysis provides a further distinction between a metaphor and a metonym. A common example of a metonym would be when Wall Street is used to refer to US financial markets (a place representing what goes on within it) or when we are told potentially bizarre pieces of information like “I’m parked in the multi-storey”. Rather than respond with “No, you’re not, you’re sitting here in Café Rouge with me” we understand that the speaker is using the controller of an object (“I”) as a representative of the object itself (“my car”). Here we are in the realm of metonymy, because in context, there is a salient link between the driver and the car. Suggesting that the traffic outside Café Rouge is crawling past would also be metonymic (since movement is a property of traffic and crawling is a slow form of movement), but to suggest that our lunch hour was crawling by with all my tedious talk of semantics would be a fully-fledged metaphor, since physical movement is not a property of time. Now, if like me you’re ever-so-slightly confused about the difference between metaphor and metonym, you can perhaps stop acting like a smartarse because you know that neither of them is a simile.

Semantic distinctions are perhaps as tenuous as they are tedious. If my opening sentence had been “this morning my daughter literally opened a door to a world of possibilities” then I would expect a herd of pedants to quite rightly (not to mention literally) jump down my throat. But when we use metaphor we are obviously not really saying that my daughter’s bedroom door is the portal to Planet Potential in the way that we might say a spade, say, is a spade. Rather we are drawing a comparison using a particular stylistic approach.

Infinitely more interesting than the definition of a metaphor is its purpose. I don’t remember this purpose ever coming up at secondary school, but I do understand if any of my inspiring English teachers simply couldn’t bring themselves to construct a question as clumsy as “what’s a metaphor for?” Now as an educator myself — a Lecturer in EAP no less (a job title that never really quite fits, but that’s a topic for another day) — I find myself (and my students) encountering the word ANALOGY more frequently than SIMILE, and I find, to bend a sentence from Lakoff and Johnson (1980), METAPHOR pervasive in my everyday working life, “not just in language but in thought and action”.

As a language teacher I try to encourage learners to make connections between collocations encountered within and a language, and metaphors prevalent in the culture or ideology of its speakers. The MacMillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners features neat little METAPHOR boxes to highlight salient concepts and relationships within the language. The entry on OPPORTUNITY reads thus:


For anyone who wants to write with style and panache, each expression here may look worrying like a cliché, a label that can certainly be applied to my reference to opening the door to a world of opportunities in the opening sentence of this post. I could have avoided the cliché by instead choosing “my daughter took a step towards a mountain of possibilities” but this would have jarred, and the clash between message and the reader’s expectations may have hindered my attempt to communicate. And of course, the importance of communication cannot be overstated in language learning, where the pursuit of fluency and accuracy inevitably favours the learning of clichés over stylised and nuanced prose. MacMillan’s metaphor boxes are therefore a welcome resource for me and my learners.

Something that has surprised me in my teaching career is how universal some metaphorical concepts appear to be. If an expression like “window of opportunity” arises in a class, I’ll ask questions like “do you use the same metaphor in your first language?” and “does your first language have a similar collocation?”; responses to the former tend to be positive, and may help to bridge a linguistic gap where responses to the latter are negative.

In English for Academic Purposes, we walk a (metaphorical) tightrope between encouraging our learners from noticing and learning useful language in their reading, and discouraging them from copying it verbatim in their own writing. With an eye on Michael Lewis we may urge our learners to memorise chunks of language, but with an eye on academic offences committees, we worry about how they might regurgitate it. Participating successfully in an academic context, however, involves an interplay of behaviour and practices that goes far beyond the merely linguistic, and I often find myself relying on metaphor as I attempt to help students gain a clearer understanding of what this means.

EAP discourse is, unsurprisingly, full of metaphors. Some worry me, like when “practitioners” employ metaphor to elevate the status of the field. There are many who claim that EAP Lecturers are gatekeepers to academia, which always seems a stretch to me. This is partly because I’m not convinced that even the majority of my students genuinely seek to inhabit “academia”, but mainly because there are far more powerful groups of people who can open or close the “gate” at will. In my context these include UKBA, my university’s International Office, and anyone who works in Admissions. I feel less like a gatekeeper and more like a black cab driver offering his services outside the arrivals hall at Heathrow. I know my way around, I know what I’m doing, and I can take you on a route that will help you to understand where you are. But sadly I’m more expensive than the unlicensed guy next to me with a beaten up Peugeot 406 and Google Maps, who will probably get you to where you need to be anyway. Of course the scariest sight is when I see the new arrivals walk past us both, either reliant on a friend to do everything for them, or worse still an error-filled map they’ve downloaded from the Internet with a tweeted endorsement that it’s all they’ll ever need.

As a teacher who regularly employs metaphors in the classroom, I am troubled by a niggling suspicion that metaphors are less effective in teaching than in preaching to the converted. Anyone who works in EAP and shares my mindset will have nodded in recognition at my “cab driver” analogy in the previous paragraph. But the colleague who truly believes in our “gatekeeper” status might not get it at all, and I have frankly little hope for the IELTS cram-school teacher in China who tweets about how using words like “cacophony” and doing tedious gap fills will help everyone get an IELTS 9 and “achieve academic success”. So should I not also be concerned with metaphors that I use in the classroom?

EAP coursebook writer and all-round charming and well-informed gentleman Edward de Chazal recently visited my place of work and gave an excellent talk on EAP and its influences. He’s an erudite and persuasive man who really does have a gift for presenting, and I was pleased to see him employ the metaphor of a frame for reading and interpreting academic texts. Better still, he brought with him an empty picture frame as “realia” (we need a term for metaphorical realia) which really brought the concept of framing texts to life. I think the frame is a brilliant metaphor for reading and discussing texts, and indeed it’s a fairly normal concept within academia. Every international student I teach knows the word MOREOVER; they don’t all quite know what it means or how to use it appropriately (thanks IELTS cram-school teacher in China) but they’re certainly more familiar with it than the word FRAMEWORK, which they are likely to meet as an important concept when they come to apply theory to their own research, thinking, and writing. Take a look at the British Academic Written English Corpus, however, and you’ll find that instances of FRAMEWORK outnumber correct or incorrect uses of MOREOVER.

I’m not sure, however, that all of my students understand the metaphor of the FRAME. EAP students are typically set summary-writing tasks, and many such tasks difficult to approach. First attempts at writing a summary are often just flat accounts of whatever the source says without making reference to what the source is, who wrote it, or why it was written. In other words, student summaries often fail because they lack a sense of FRAMING. In class I liken writing from sources to curating a gallery (without, of course, really understanding what gallery curation truly involves). It’s not enough, I say, just to put a picture or two up on a wall. You have to think about what kind of frame to put around them (I guess curators don’t do this, but never mind), about how you will label them, how the room will be lit, and how each picture will be positioned in relation to other pictures. This metaphor clearly resonates for some students, who may nod enthusiastically or say “yes exactly”, but there’s always at least one student who struggles to write from sources with any sense of framing, even after four or five attempts and weeks of coaxing, poking, and prodding through feedback. Certainly there’s room for improvement in EAP task-design that may help the learners, but it does seem that there might be something wanting in my choice of metaphor.

A couple of years ago a Saudi student confessed to me that whatever I was saying about FRAMING was lost on him. He was confused, he told me, about what his own contribution should be when writing from sources. If I’m just summarising what other people say, went the concern, isn’t it the case that I’m not saying anything myself? Since the student’s confusion was not abated by my excited response of “good question!” and reassurance that this was a controversial issue for all sorts of people, I tried another metaphor. Or simile, as it happened. Academic writing is like architecture, I said. Who is the “author” of a building? Whose contribution to creating a building is most important? The room agreed that it was the architect. Good (and a sigh of relief that nobody else had read John Ruskin on stonemasons and Gothic architecture). More questions: does the architect lay the foundations of the building? No. Does the architect bake the bricks in a kiln? No. Does the architect make the windows? No. The cement that hold everything together? No. The slate on the roof? No. Does the architect put any of the parts of the building in place? No. Is the influence of the architect present in the finished building? Yes. Academic writing is like that. You are the architect. You think about materials, certainly. You understand them, you know how they will work, and you know how they can be used to create your vision. You don’t produce the materials or put them together, but you provide the design and structure. You guide the building process. The completed building is your work. “Yes!” a Phd Literature student in the room exclaimed. But my Saudi skeptic was nonplussed. “No, I don’t get it” he said.

Not long after my architecture metaphor toppled, I read a neat little book called They Say, I Say: the Moves that Matter in Academic Writing by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. Its influence can perhaps be spotted in my over-use of the verb “say” in previous paragraphs. Graff and Birkenstein seek to make engagement in academic discourse more accessible by presenting it in terms of a conversation. The core premise of the book is set out in the preface thus:

Good argumentative writing begins not with an act of assertion but an act of listening, of putting ourselves in the shoes of those who think differently from us. As a result, we advise writers to begin not with what they themselves think about their subject (“I say”) but with what others think (“they say”). This practice, we think, adds urgency to writing, helping to become more authentically motivated. When writing responds to something that has been said or might be said, it thereby performs the meaningful task of supporting, correcting, or complicating that other view.

Again the metaphor — academic writing as conversation — works for me, and is not a particularly controversial concept. In my own teaching I find it equally important to bring in the verb “do” and, particularly at the beginning of an EAP course, ask students questions not just on what a text SAYS but what it DOES. The matter of what a text DOES regularly appears to be the more problematic question, although this might SAY more about the kind of training my students have had before I see them. Many have embarked upon IELTS training before they could competently converse in English, and tend not to have ever really thought about the purpose of a text. But even students who have been through whatever stages it took to get onto MA programmes can struggle with the question “what does this text do?”. Last year I worked with a group of Management students who had been asked to read a Steve Jobs obituary and to analyse its content using a theoretical framework (there it goes again) from their course. They didn’t have a problem with what the text SAID, but what it DID appeared to be a mystery. Nobody in the room had read an obituary before (in English, or apparently in any other language), and half of them didn’t know what an obituary was even after reading and “understanding” the text. The text contained praise from Jobs’ rival Bill Gates, and I asked the students for their thoughts on this. What did Gates say? And what was he doing in saying this? Blank looks. It took a question as blunt as “do you think Bill Gates would say ‘I’m glad Steve Jobs is dead’ to a journalist, even if he meant it?” to get the students engaging with the subtleties of the text type they were supposed to be analysing.

My favourite metaphor for academic discourse can also be found in They Say, I Say but it originates with the philosopher Kenneth Burke. Graff and Birkenstein cite Burke’s explanation of his assertion that academic discourse is like a conversation at a party (and yes I know that’s a simile):

You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about…You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you…The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.

This heated discussion at a party has become my metaphor of choice, and it appears to resonate quite effectively with my learners. Once they’ve got the concept, I find I am able to ask questions about academic texts in terms of the metaphor, starting with “who’s in the room?” (i.e. who are the key figures within this text — the authors and anyone that they refer to?) and leading onto any number of the following, which I am constantly refining with the aim of using “who’s in the room?” as a framework for reading, writing, and thinking about academic texts:

– Who in the room do the authors agree with?

– Who in the room do the authors disagree with?

– Who’s the most influential person in the room?

– Who started the conversation?

– Who was the last person to speak?

– Where is the room?

– Who is hosting the party?

– Who is paying for it?

– Who is doing the catering?

– Where do *you* stand within in the room?


Earlier this year I team-taught with an inspiring colleague who lectures on Management and Organisational Studies and was interested to see her doing the same thing but with a different question. As part of a discussion of a case study on an orchestra, she asked her students about the people present in the case study. She soon elicited all of the names within the text — the musicians, the conductors, the administrators etc. — but despite her best efforts, was unable to coax out the name of person who had written the case study (its architect, no less). I wondered if she might also try to elicit the fact that we as readers were somehow present in the text, framing it with our own perspectives, but this remained an avenue unexplored — in that session at least. But I felt reassured that this brilliant subject lecturer had a similar concern to me, the guest EAP guy. We want our students to understand that texts are authored and constructed in relation to other texts and other authors, and it is only by recognising this key aspect of academic discourse that our students can begin to open the door to a world of learning opportunities. If that takes a metaphorical curated painting of a building in which a party is being hosted and within which a heated discussion in a room has broken out, so be it.

Graff, G. and Birkenstein, C. (2009) They Say I Say : the Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. W. W. Norton & Company

Lakoff, G. and Jonson, M. (1980) Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press