It seems to move in waves or stages – the Blogosphere, I mean, and the Twitter flock. One minute it’s all peace and love (and lots of mutual support and mutual ego-stroking), and the next people are ripping bits off each other and everyone’s outraged and hurt. And suddenly, too – and serendipitously, issues and topics coalesce and something which is worth talking about floats, briefly, around our virtually real world.
What am I talking about? I’m talking about conferences and inequality and VIP speakers. All that. Because recently people have posted in near ecstasy about the ISTEK conference in Istanbul, the IATEFL conference in Harrogate, and the HUPE conference in Croatia. And all seemed well with the world.
Except, apparently, it wasn’t. Other voices have now been raised; voices which suggest that conferences are elitist and excluding, run by conference organisers who are working to their own agendas and advancement rather than for the good of the teaching body as a whole. Meanwhile over on another blog a VIP speaker of considerable standing and intellect has articulated the familiar quandary of the invited outside speaker, namely whether such encounters (foreign ‘expert’ jetting in to an educational reality that he or she knows little about), are justifiable or desirable.
As far as I can see, the issues worth discussing in this sometimes unedifying climate (though Scott Thornbury’s musings about the danger of ‘native speakerism’ – and the discussions they have occasioned- seem entirely useful) are the following:
- Do most ELT conferences favour the outside VIP at the expense of local and/or less senior presenters?
- Do VIP speakers get preferential treatment?
- Are conference organisers just ‘in it for themselves’?
- Are conferences just money-making vehicles driven by a rapacious publishing industry?
(Of course I need to declare an interest/several interests. To start with, I am invited from time to time to give talks to conferences around the world. I do, also, write books (from which I earn most of my living), and those books are sold by publishers who do go to conferences in the hope that it will persuade teachers to buy their products – some of which are mine. Occasionally (but not in the majority of cases) I am paid to speak at conferences.)
– Most conferences invite outside ‘name’ speakers. There are, as far as I can see, three reasons for this. The first is that the speakers have some kind of reputation as a result of their writing and/or other work and the conference organisers think/hope they will have something interesting to say; the second is because they have gathered a reputation as presenters; and the third (and this is a really big one) is that conference organisers hope that they will bring in the crowds. For without those crowds the conference will be a failure, both economically and emotionally.
Does this disadvantage local and more junior speakers? Are ‘name’ speakers getting unfair breaks? Well it depends. Most plenary speakers, for example, have been at it for years (and sometimes for years and years!), honing their craft after a lifetime of giving little workshops in back rooms and to small audiences. They too, in their time, started out offering sessions to tiny groups far away from the conference bright lights and big stars. And just like all the other speakers, they offered their experience with a mixture of a genuine desire to share and a big wish to impress. A mixture of service and ego.
But, and this is a big but, those outside names have never been, in my experience, the whole conference (unless it is specifically organised that way). At almost every conference I go to, there are workshops going on everywhere, often by first time presenters, and in the main, by local speakers (I mean people living in the region). A good conference mixes the two, and well-organised associations like IATEFL have specific scholarships for first-time presenters. Furthermore, as with TESOL, talk abstracts are frequently ‘blind-read’ by a presentations committee, no names attached, so that (and there are attested cases of this) some big names have their talks rejected.
But yes, plenary talks often favour outsiders for the reasons I have mentioned above. As I have said elsewhere on this blog site, they provide the mood music for a conference. But talk to any participants and they will tell you enthusiastically of other sessions they have been to, away from the main stage. The VIPs may THINK they are the main attraction, but in a good conference there is no guarantee that this will be the case.
– Are VIPs treated better than other speakers? Well that depends. Talk to any frequently invited conference plenarist and they will tell you horror stories of turning up to a conference, doing what they were invited to do (give an opening plenary, for example), and then finding themselves almost completely ignored by the organising committee and everyone else. It can be incredibly lonely out there. Really.
Of course this is contrasted with conferences where prominent visitors are treated very well – and it doesn’t feel bad to be in that position at all, of course. But it doesn’t always happen, and anyway it is amazing how quickly, after a big talk, the visiting speaker (rightly)? loses their status and reverts to being just another conference attender.
– Some teachers’ associations are run by megalomaniacs. It’s true. Empire builders, people who want to leave a legacy. They are pretty much like those presenters who mix ego and service, but they do it in the wrong proportions. However (and as an aside), it is interesting that many associations only exist because someone like that, someone with a driving force and ambition, kick-started the whole thing. But most teachers’ associations are simply NOT like that – and certainly not ones where I have been asked to speak recently. There is still the ego/service mix, but the balance is generally about right. And make no mistake; the literally hours and hours of time spent by many many volunteers in countries all overt the world, from Brazil to Bangladesh, from Poland to Portugal, from Mexico to, well, anywhere, beggars belief. And guess what! Most teachers are happy for other people to do that (I know I am) since, as for every voluntary organisation I have been involved in, the actual work is done by a small number of committed individuals whose work we are all happy to benefit from. But for anyone who doesn’t like what is happening and thinks the teachers’ associations (and their conferences) are going astray, there are Annual general meetings to go to, and anyone is free to stand for places on committees or propose motions or try to instigate change. It is, of course, easier to stand on the sidelines and moan, but real engagement is a much better option.
Or – and this really IS the best option for people who think that things are not being done well – they can start their own association IF they can find people who share their views and IF they are prepared to spend the time.
(Of course, if you attend a conference organised by a school or an educational organisation that you are not a member of, then you don’t have much chance to change anything – and it is arguable that you don’t have a right to instigate change anyway)
– And that brings me to the last charge levelled against conferences; that they are somehow in league with a bunch of money-grabbing publishers to make huge profits. Well, publishers DO want to make profits, of course. But many of them are also concerned to publish work of a high standard. When it comes to conferences, though, their role becomes incredibly important. They pay a huge amount of money to exhibit (and complain, in my view justifiably, when the exhibition room is badly located, or when the conference has less teachers than they had anticipated). Without them many conferences simply could not afford to take place. The teachers’ associations would go broke.
Are they (the publishers) trying to sell us stuff? Yes, of course they are. But we are intelligent enough and have enough integrity not to be hoodwinked by them. Aren’t we? Don’t we?
So that’s it. I don’t think conferences, VIPs, publishers or teachers’ associations are run by saints or even in a saintly manner. There’s a lot that could be changed and done better. But with any luck this blog is at least a little bit of a corrective to some of the things that have been said over the last few days.
But of course you don’t have to agree. And this would be a good place to say WHY you don’t.
Over to you!