I could’ve written more, but then again, why, when so many people are doing a better job of it?
It was the best of conferences,
it was the worst of conferences,
it was the conference of wisdom,
it was the conference of foolishness,
it was the conference of belief,
it was the conference of incredulity,
it was the conference of Light,
it was the conference of Darkness,
it was the conference of hope,
it was the conference of despair,
I had everything before me,
I had nothing before me,
I was going direct to Heaven,
I was going direct the other way…
…in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
OK, this metaphor is starting to get a bit strained, so I’ll leave it there. Let’s just say that my experiences at TESOL Arabia and IATEFL Glasgow were equally incredible and yet vastly different. In Dubai I had presented a session on behalf of my university. I had met up with old friends and had occasionally tweeted about my experiences. The whole event was very professional and conducted well. Indeed, I have very few gripes about the event. I attended a lot of well-prepared, informative presentations. My own session was warmly received by an extremely diverse audience. The whole thing was extremely well done. Nevertheless, I came away feeling a bit, well, odd.
One thing that one of the presenters – sorry, I forget who – said really struck a chord in me regarding the whole experience. Said presenter had been in the Gulf since the late nineties, a time when he had first attended the TESOL Arabia event. He remarked that at the time he had looked around the participants and saw that he was about the same age as everyone else. Now, fifteen years on, he added that he looked around and saw that he was still about the same age as everyone else. This is a gross overgeneralization, of course, but this really got to the heart of things for me. This is a teaching context in which a lot of people are growing old together, and this really felt evident in the spirit of the conference. I’m not saying that this event was the sole providence of a bunch of fuddy duddies, but there was a certain ‘air’ to the proceedings. Let’s put it this way; Andy Curtis’ – excellent – plenary ‘The Meaning of Retirement in the TESOL World’ seemed particularly apt for this event. Now, of course, any one person’s perspective of a conference is shaped by the presentations they go and watch, so other people who were there may well have come away with a completely different impression of the event. There were, after all, a lot of good, innovative ideas being shared, many of which I couldn’t get to see. Nevertheless, I did have the overwhelming feeling that I was witnessing the annual get-together of a teaching culture that was collectively moving towards retirement. I look forward to any rebuttals!
So, on to IATEFL. My role at the conference was radically different to that which I had enjoyed at TESOL Arabia. I was neither presenting nor directly representing my university. I did, however, have responsibilities. Having been awarded the honor of Blogathon gold medalist by the British Council, I was required to write up the sessions I attended for the Glasgow Online website. Given that this is pretty much standard procedure for me at any conference, I didn’t see this as being too much of a chore. This was also the first time in many years that I’ve attended a conference without presenting, and the lack of stress was great!
After writing about the sessions for the Glasgow Online website I really don’t want to do that here. Furthermore, there are already plenty of bloggers out there doing that, so I’ll link to those I can find at the end of this post. I’d rather focus on the spirit of the conference and how I now see it as setting the standard for conference-based professional development.
Why was it so good?
If TESOL Arabia represented the old guard, then IATEFL quite simply embodies the future of the profession. This is a simplistic view based entirely on my personal experiences of these two events, but as I’ve no hidden agenda whatsoever causing me to favour one organization or the other, that’s what I’m going to roll with for the rest of this post.
Perhaps the simplest way to put this is to say that IATEFL has clearly come to represent the connected generation.
I first attended IATEFL in 2006, and while it was an impressively organized event with many great presentations, I didn’t have a particularly fantastic time. I presented for the first time at a major international conference, I listened to a lot of people deliver great talks on a variety of subjects, but I didn’t really get engrossed in the experience. As someone who isn’t that social and who doesn’t revel in idle chit chat, I didn’t get much of an opportunity to find out what was going on, who to see, what to avoid and where ‘to be’. This hadn’t really changed much by 2010 in Harrogate, when I next attended the big event. Whereas in 2006 I’d basically gone to whatever took my fancy, by 2010 I had started blogging and recognized a few more faces than previously. I was also following the blogs of quite a few people and was aware of what they were into and what they were going to talk about. It was clear at this point that opportunities to maximize the conference experience were now available at the click of a mouse, and what’s more IATEFL was picking up on this. Apparently, IATEFL Online has been going since I first attended in 2006, but 2012 was when it seemed to really kick up a notch. Suddenly, presenters were able to describe their sessions in advance and make sure that their handouts and slides could be shared with everyone in one central location. Sessions were live streamed so that thousands of people who weren’t able to attend could still benefit from the knowledge and ideas being shared. We were starting to glimpse the future of the international ELT conference.
Has the future now arrived? I really believe so. Fast forward to 2012 and it has been almost impossible to avoid this event unless you’ve been living under a rock. My role at the event was an example of how IATEFL have successfully reinvigorated the conference experience. The organization’s presence permeated into the ELT social network long before the conference had actually started, much aided by the innovative IATEFL app, which allowed anyone with the requisite hardware to plan beforehand what they wanted to do and keep track of goings on without having to carry around the two-hundred page hard copy of the conference program. Note to organizers of major conferences: this was a fantastic innovation and I’d suggest you at least look into doing something similar.
What’s more, so many of the people who are going to become the future faces of this profession are now out there blogging and tweeting to the ELTosphere. I arrived at certain evening events to find a room full of people who I’d never met but knew very well. It might sound like an oxymoron, but it really was a case of meeting old friends for the first time. If I try and list you all here, I’ll upset someone by forgetting to include them. Needless to say, if you met me, you’re one of my peeps and you know it! You’re also probably in one or two of the pics in the slideshow. I’ve been weighing up the pros and cons of being on Twitter for a while now, but after this conference I’m utterly convinced that my life is better for it. Through getting to know folk on Twitter, Facebook, and through their blogs, I’ve been able to meet and instantly get on with people for whom I have immense respect. It wasn’t like this in the old days, you know. Would so many of these people come together for any other ELT conference? I think for me this is what makes IATEFL so special now.
I really only have two gripes about the event, and even then one of them isn’t really mine. Firstly, what’s with the poor wireless at the venue? Apparently, this was a markedly better experience than for those who were trying to get online in Brighton, but it was still pretty useless. Can’t UK conference centers sort this out?
Secondly, and this was something that a lot of people mentioned, let’s rethink the program. I can perhaps best highlight it by discussing something that I did during the conference.
On Tuesday my brother drove up from England to stay for a couple of days. I decided not to drop him into the ELT cauldron immediately, so we went off to enjoy one of the stand-up comedians who was performing as part of the comedy festival that was running during March. I paid my tenner and took my place in the audience. Anyone who has ever seen live stand-up will know that there are no-go areas in the audience, if you don’t want to be picked on, that is. Consequently, I took a standing position at the back of the room, but still in the potential firing line of the extremely funny Josh Widdicombe. One thought was going through my mind, naturally: ‘Don’t ask me what I do for a living!’ Now, if one week of my life has ever convinced me that I should be proud of the state of my profession, this was it. Nevertheless, I felt sure that this professional comedian would make a better job of trashing my profession than I would manage in return. Fortunately, for my own sake rather than through any embarrassment over my chosen career, I remained out of the firing line.
(NOTE: I haven’t explained myself very well here, but if I edit, it will make the comments below look weird. Consequently, I’ve attempted to clarify my ideas in the comments.)
This experience did get me thinking about the conference, though. I’d paid good money to see the pro do his thing and it was therefore highly unlikely that the funny man would die on his feet. The money was well spent. On the way back from the gig, we dropped in at a bar that was hosting an open mike night. For those who don’t know, this is an opportunity for aspiring comedians to perform a five –minute set to an audience that hasn’t paid for the privilege. As you can imagine, my expectations were lowered, with good reason. Now, I was supportive and laughed whenever possible (!) and clapped appreciatively at the end of each performance, but this wasn’t in the same league as what I’d seen earlier. If these people had been given the same billing as Josh Widdicombe, there would have been a riot, but there wasn’t, and expectations were adjusted accordingly. So, my point is, why not adopt a similar principle for the IATEFL conference? Including the pre-conference SIG events, this behemoth now stretches out over a full five days. Wouldn’t it be beneficial, both for the presenters and the potential audience, to have the equivalent of the open mike evening? Why not set aside one morning or afternoon solely for first time / inexperienced presenters. I guarantee we’d be supportive and applaud in all the right places. Just a thought…