I have just returned from TESOL Arabia 2010 with a feeling of great satisfaction. It was a really great conference. Great talks, great company, lovely site etc. And as I was waiting for the plane – and then half asleep on the flight home – I started to reflect on why TESOL Arabia was so good, and why I remember some conferences with pleasure, whilst others disappear from my memory as quickly as possible.
Where to start? Well, perhaps the best place to start is to try and remember conferences I have really liked. IATEFL 2004 in Liverpool, for example. Or the Universidad de Santiago (in Sain) in 2008. I loved MEXTESOL in Toluca so many years back that I don’t remember when it was. Pearson’s conference in Mar del Plata a few years ago was a triumph, and their conference in 2009 in Montevideo was a lovely lovely event. A bi-national conference in Salvador de Bahia some years ago was wonderful, and I have absolutely LOVED the two Asia TEFL conferences I have attended in Seoul and Bali. Oh and that small conference on HMS Belfast in cold cold January this year was absolutely delightful.
But I have never really enjoyed TESOL as a convention. It seems too big and impersonal to me. I went to a dire event in Catania recently, and I find that sometimes I go to a conference, spend most of my time chatting rather than going to good sessions and come away feeling tired and unsatisfied, with no real ‘feel’ for what went on.
Here, then, are 9 prescriptions for a good conference (except you can’t do much about the first two):
Try to make sure there are people there who you like spending time with. Except you can’t really control that. You just have to hope for good luck. But in all the conferences I have enjoyed I have spent happy hours both inside and outside the conference with people who are great to be with.
Make sure your talks go well. There IS something you can do about that, but it’s not entirely in your hands. It depends how many people turn up and who they are.
A lot DOES depend on the plenary speakers. They are the mood music which animates the conversations in the coffee breaks. Of course some are better than others, and perhaps your opinion depends on your mood and your interests. To some extent plenary speakers can’t do much about that; but what plenary presenters have to undertake to do –are obliged to do, really – is to speak with passion and commitment. In conversation with my fellow conference-attenders in Dubai last week, we came to the conclusion that teacher audiences need, most of all, to think their plenary speakers are making an effort.
Good perfume often comes in small bottles!! One of the reasons that the convention in la Universidad de Santiago in 2008 was so marvellous was that there were only about 200 of us. We spent three days together and so had a chance to get to know each other. People referred to each others’ sessions and we all knew what they were talking about.
The geography of a convention matters. In Dubai, Zayed university was modern and immaculate. The book exhibition area – and coffee and snacks area – was light and perfect and the session rooms were fine. But in Liverpool back in 2004 the hotel was dreadful. Crowded, falling to pieces and hopeless. Except it worked beautifully. The book exhibition was cramped and tiny. As a result people really talked to each other. We saw each other. There was a wonderful atmosphere. Good talks. Nice people to have dinner with etc.
Choose wisely. Don’t just go to talks by people you know; try some new ones. Experiment. Sometimes you make a mistake, but sometimes you stumble across gems, and meet lovely people.
Good conferences are well organised even though you don’t notice it. There need to be breaks, but not to many. Equipment needs to work. The programme should be well put together. Food and drink should be available in or near the book exhibition – and if possible the book exhibition should be right in the line of fire between the main conference rooms, or somewhere where attenders have to walk. Publishers – who pay lots of money to be there – have a right to expect it. Us conference-goers deserve nothing less.
Tell people what you’ve been to and explain why you liked it and didn’t.
Remember how lucky we are to work in a profession that can constantly renew itself, which is mostly person-centred, and which allows people to talk about a whole range of topics.
What else? Well what do YOU think? What’s the best conference you have been to, and why? I’d love to know.