ESP Project Leader Profile: Karen Schwelle

Hello, ESPers worldwide!

In this ESP Project Leader Profile, you will read about Karen Schwelle, who is a past chair (2007-08) of the English for Specific Purposes Interest Section and currently serves on the ESPIS Steering Board as secretary/archivist. She has developed and taught courses to meet the English communication needs of students and researchers in architecture, biomedical sciences, business, law, and social work. In her responses to the questions below, she describes an ESP course for international graduate students in the field of social work.

 Karen Schwelle

Karen Schwelle, Director of English Language Programs
Washington University in St. Louis

How would you define leadership?

It’s complicated! One important element of leadership is the ability to innovate—not just openness to innovation and the technical skills to make it happen, but the discernment to recognize what forms of innovation will pay off, and the communication skills to earn buy-in from colleagues. Another important element of leadership in English language teaching, program administration, and ESP is to advocate in a smart and productive way within the framework of your organization for your program, your staff, and your students, with students’ needs at the forefront. That’s not a comprehensive definition, but these are skills that I admire in many people that I work with at my university and in many TESOL colleagues, and they are skills that I am always trying to strengthen in myself.

Tell me an ESP project success story. Focus on your communication as a leader in the project. How did you communicate with stakeholders to make that project successful?

Project: A course in ESP to support master’s degree students in social work (MSW)

Project Description: Our university-based English language program developed an ESP course to help international MSW students obtain the English communication skills they need to succeed in a core course in the MSW curriculum. In the core course, students learn skills for social work practice with clients in individual, family, and group settings. Much of the core course is spent in supervised role plays with classmates as “simulated clients.” The core course requires students to read textbooks and research articles, and to complete assignments such as an annotated bibliography about evidence-based interventions for a problem experienced by their simulated client. Later in the semester, they must write both practice-oriented and academic genres such as case notes and research papers.

Outcome: In the ESP course, we support MSW students by working with them on skills such as accurately and appropriately describing clients’ feelings, recognizing euphemisms and slang (especially in relation to sensitive topics), jumping into group conversations, and managing group conversations. We also work with them on general academic reading strategies and writing skills such as summarizing, paraphrasing, writing critiques, and commenting on data.

Communication With Stakeholders:  Since this course was launched almost 10 years ago, we have maintained lines of communication with stakeholders including (but not limited to) the following:

  • Students: Students complete several short written reflections per semester in which they describe their success stories and challenges in applying new English communication and intercultural skills. These reflections help instructors know in what respects the ESP course is meeting students’ needs and in what respects it is not.
  • MSW Program Faculty and Administrators: When we were developing the ESP course, I sat in on the core course for two semesters to better understand the communication demands it places on students. This step was crucial in order to develop a relevant course and materials. For the last several years, one or both ESP course instructors have attended meetings twice per year with all faculty teaching the core course in order to better understand their perspective on international students’ challenges and successes. This line of communication has allowed ESP instructors and MSW faculty to share concerns about particular students, confer on how to handle issues such as plagiarism, and better align assessments of things like class participation. This connection also led to the opportunity for two ESP course instructors to attend training along with MSW faculty on an evidence-based client interview technique taught to students in the core course.
  • Within the English Language Programs: Communication within our program is probably the area where we encounter the biggest challenges. It’s easy to take for granted that the instructor in the other section of the ESP course is approaching things the same way, but that is not always the case. Because both sections of the ESP course meet at the same time, some important discussions about the course happen at the copy machine or on the walk from our offices to class. We also use a Dropbox-like service for instructors to share materials. These materials can then be easily shared when new instructors teach the course. Other important conversations happen in weekly meetings for all instructors in our program (who are not necessarily teaching ESP courses) and in the placement process.

Comments: Because this ESP course has been in place for so long, we have navigated multiple stages: launching the course, recognizing what wasn’t working, and adapting. Later we responded to different sets of changes: new and different student populations entering the MSW program, new instructors coming into our program, faculty and administrators in the MSW program changing roles, and other changes that required us to regroup and adjust our approach. I am confident that the course is a success story, but managing the lines of communication in an ESP project is never truly finished.

Karen’s comments in the Within the English Language Programs section above resonated with me: “It’s easy to take for granted that the instructor in the other section of the ESP course is approaching things the same way, but that is not always the case.” From a leadership perspective, this is the challenge of communicating to achieve a shared vision. (In this connection, see my blog post on teaching negotiation.)

Do you have any questions or comments for Karen? Please post those in the Leave a Reply box below! Thanks!

All the best,


Note: Go here to read all of the ESP project leader profiles and more.

About Kevin Knight

Kevin Knight
Kevin Knight (PhD in Linguistics, MBA, MPIA) is an associate professor in the Department of International Communication (International Business Career major) and has also been working in the Career Education Center of Kanda University of International Studies in Chiba, Japan. In the TESOL ESP Interest Section (ESPIS), he has served as chair and English in occupational settings (EOS) representative, and he is currently the ESPIS community manager. He was also a member of the Governance Review Task Force (GRTF) appointed by the board of directors. In addition, he has been a TESOL blogger in the area of English for Specific Purposes (ESP). He has more than 30 years of professional experience working for private, public, and academic sector institutions including Sony and the Japan Patent Office. His doctoral research on leadership communication (i.e., discourse) as a basis for leadership development was under the supervision of Emeritus Professor Christopher Candlin and Dr. Alan Jones.
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