What happened, Jane?
You had to be there!
Jane Jones, let’s call her that, was paid by her school to go to Glasgow. She stayed in a nice hotel, she went to lots of sessions, she sat in the huge auditorium and watched the stars do their stuff, she went to a couple of parties, and she went home feeling that it had been really rewarding. Her enjoyment of the conference depended little on the plenaries; it was more that she felt privileged to be there; that she was excited to be away from the work place and away from home; that she felt the buzz of the conference; that two or three of the sessions she went to hit a cord; that she dined out; and, more than anything, that she met new people, shot the breeze with them, and felt that they (not the plenary speakers) had made her think about her job.
What did the organisers do? They laid on baloney with shovels, they played to the sponsors, and, inevitably, they emphasised the gap between “them and us”. Invitation Only events proliferated, including a cocktail party on the top floor of a 5 star hotel where the lucky few who’d won raffles at publishers’ stands could rub shoulders with the ELT stars.
At this year’s IATEFL conference, judging from the British Council’s coverage of it that I watched, nothing much happened.
- The commercialisation and commodification of ELT was celebrated.
- The IATEFL organisation did nothing much to address the ever-worsening condtions of most of its membership.
- No real challenge to coursebook-driven ELT was presented.
- The publishers were more shameless than ever in their sponsorship of presentations.
- The plenaries were all duds, with the possible exception of the last one by Tomlinson.
- The stars trotted out their usual baggage on stage.
- Boring interviews took place between the stars and the British Council’s uncritical interviewers. (But Horray for the guest interviewer Scott Thornbury, who did a splendid interview with Angelos Bollas!)
- Nicola Prentis’ criticisms of gender inequality went unanswered.
Of course, there were a few gems. There was an extraordinary, dead pan defence of absurd teaching practice in China by Wan Jung who replied to well-rehearsed questions by Jim Scrivener without even a hint of irony. It was weirdly fascinating, a great double act, and by far the most interesting thing I saw. But with the exception of this and no doubt one or two other talks, the real value of the conference, as always, was what didn’t get reported: it’s what happened to Jane that made it all worthwhile.
Which raises some obvious questions:
Q1: Why not do without the stars and the all the rest of the showbiz nonsense?
Q2: Why not give the membership of IATEFL a bigger say in the agenda of the conference?
Q3: Why not address the issues raised by the banned TaW SIG group?
Q4: Why not talk more openly about the false assumptions underpinning coursebook-driven ELT?
Q5: Why not challenge the CEFR?
Q6: Why not talk more critically about teacher training certificates?
The obvious answer to Q1 is that the stars and all the rest of the showbiz nonsense is the outward, necessary flaunting of the power of the ELT business today. We can’t do without it: it is, as we say in Spain, “lo que hay” – it’s the way things are. Being part of an industry with an $18 billion annual turnover (Pearson’s estimate), means that this kind of circus is expected: it’s the tried and trusted way of celebrating might. The bigger the plenary stage, the more reinforced the stature of those who strut it.
And the answers to the other questions are that the IATEFL organisation is not democratic, not concerned with workers’ rights, and not willing to challenge its sponsors.
What’s the alternative? Is it an ashen-faced, sandal wearing, humourless group of ELT Vegans meeting in a candle-lit cave near Stonehenge to talk about Zen-driven ELT? Well, I don’t think so. The alternative is locally organised groups of teachers who link together in a federation which has a big annual conference where all the issues that IATEFL fails to confront are discussed and fun is had by one and all.