Whose conference is this? IATEFL 2017 reflections
It’s a bit strange when a big international conference like IATEFL comes to your home town. In many ways it highlights just how international it is, and this year it also highlighted to me how little the ELT scene in Scotland is engaging with the wider profession. This was a great opportunity for us to showcase the many good things that go on here, and also to take advantage of the valuable input that can be gained by attending something like this. Obviously a number of us did, and there were a few sessions from local presenters, but on the whole I feel there could have been a much bigger local presence at the conference. Maybe it was because it took place during a week where most schools and colleges are on holiday, and, understandably, only a small minority of teachers are prepared to give up valuable holiday time to attend something work-related. Or maybe most ESOL teachers in Scotland just don’t think IATEFL is for them; it’s too EFL-y, too global to have relevance, I don’t know.
Anyway, I want to write about something that really stood out to me at this year’s conference, which is the scale of corporate influence over IATEFL and the tensions caused between big money sponsors and the genuine (I think) desire of IATEFL to be a force for good. Other bloggers like Geoff Jordan have criticised IATEFL in the past for being little more than a sales convention for publishers and a vehicle for writers to sell their latest books. Apart from the shameless plugging of materials and other “products” that goes on in the exhibition area, where delegates eagerly lap up the sales pitches along with the free samples of materials, stress balls, beer, bubbly and whatever else is deemed effective at luring them in, I was also struck by the corporate messages being transmitted through the sessions themselves.
The most striking example of this for me was in Sue Kay’s session on using authentic materials. I got a lot out of this session, but I’m not sure if what I got out of it was what Sue wanted me to get (I really hope it was!) and I know for sure that what I got out of it definitely wasn’t what Pearson, the publishers of her latest coursebook, would have wanted. Her session was entitled “The genuine article (you couldn’t make it up)” and ostensibly aimed to demonstrate the value of using authentic texts rather than writing them from scratch.
Very quickly though, it became obvious that Sue was really talking about using authentic texts in coursebooks. Within the first five minutes she had qualified her definition of “authentic” to mean texts that are originally found in authentic contexts, but are then adapted/graded to be more accessible for learners of English. Which, it could be argued, means they are no longer authentic, but let’s leave that whole argument to one side. Sue wanted to demonstrate the considerations that must be taken when selecting texts, to be sure the learners – in her case older teens – would respond positively to them. To do this, she presented three different authentic texts that she had wanted to include in her latest book, and our task was to guess which two had been rejected by the editors and which one had been accepted. The first one was about Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi, and how they had jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize for their work in promoting children’s rights to education. The second text was about Jeff Bezos, the multi-billionaire founder of Amazon. The text described some of his personality traits and, put bluntly, implied that he is a bit of a dick. The third text was about a machine that sucks in smog and blows out clean air, and also breaks down the gunge from the smog in such a way that it can be used to make jewellery.
Perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not (depending on how sceptical you are about international publishing companies), Sue’s editors accepted the text about the smogsucker, for these reasons:
I suspect they also liked the fact that the machine’s ability to recycle the smog particles makes it commercially viable as well as good for the environment. But OK, it’s an interesting innovation and it does have a positive use, though the publishers seemed to like the picture most of all and were less interested in its potential to curb pollution. In fact they seemed to like the fact that the article seemed to trivialise the “potentially dry” topic of the environment. Potentially dry!
So this means of course that the publishers rejected the text about Bezos. They didn’t like it because it didn’t portray him as a positive role model:
So we want to make out to the younger generation that all multi-billionaires are nice guys, do we? That’s aspirational, I suppose. Apparently it’s good for the younger generation to grow up thinking that rich capitalists got where they are by being nice to everybody. That way, when they end up on a low wage working for The Man, at least they’ll believe that The Man is spending his billions responsibly.
The publishers also rejected the text on Malala and Satyarthi, and here are the reasons they gave Sue:
To my way of thinking, these reasons are simply pathetic excuses. Students are too far removed from the topic? The topic is education for children. The students are older children who would be reading the text in an educational context. The topic couldn’t be more relevant to them if it was dancing a jig on their classroom desk. Satyarthi is too old for the students to relate to? Do these students not have parents and grandparents? Do they never engage with other generations? If teenagers have problems relating to older people then surely those of us who are educating them have a responsibility to make it easier for them to do this, like maybe showing them how older people like Satyarthi can do a lot of good for the younger generation. Controversial? This could only be controversial if the teenage students thought that they shouldn’t have a right to free education. If they do have that opinion, then surely there’s something seriously wrong with the type of education they are getting. Oh hang on.
As soon as the presentation was finished, and before Sue even got a chance to answer questions, some guy from Pearson stood up and announced that we could find out more about the book and order copies etc. from their stand in the exhibition hall, and then about half a dozen other Pearson people marched down the aisles thrusting brochures into our hands. It was all very hard-sell and really quite aggressive.
The whole experience of being in this session was a bit weird. Sue stressed how, when she saw the feedback from her editors, she agreed with what they were saying and was happy to go with the smogsucker and forget the other two texts. But her candour in exposing the comments from her editors gave us a real insight into just how ugly, self-motivated and irresponsible a publishing company can be. I genuinely hope that this was her real intention, and that her session was a clever act of subversion.
However, despite the dominant in-your-face commercialism resulting from its reliance on corporate sponsorship, there is still plenty to be said about IATEFL as a potential source for good. The most obvious example of this was the fact there was a plenary from JJ Wilson in which he spoke passionately about the work of Paolo Freire, and gave practical examples of how language teaching can be used as a means of highlighting inequalities and promoting social justice. There were also a number of smaller sessions on the same theme, such as Mike Chick’s engaging presentation of his partnership project that provides ESOL classes to refugees in Cardiff. Linda Ruas, who is heavily involved in IATEFL’s Global Issues SIG, did a great job of demonstrating the usefulness of the free downloadable materials that she’s developing for New Internationalist Magazine. Angelos Bollas presented research findings on the lack of LGBTQ representation in ELT materials. These are just the ones I saw, and I’m sure there were a lot more. I suppose I should also be grateful to IATEFL for allowing me to give my own presentation, which was a fairly direct attack on certain aspects of established ELT practices.
But IATEFL’s status as a charity, and the fact that the conference relies on sponsorship from massive corporations like Pearson, Cambridge and the like, places it in a very uncomfortable ethical position. Well, it should feel uncomfortable; I don’t know whether it does. There is some evidence to suggest that IATEFL is quite happy in its relationship with these for-profit bodies, such as its refusal to accept a Teachers as Workers SIG on the grounds that it doesn’t want to get involved in politics. This in itself is a political decision, which seems to place IATEFL firmly on the side of the dominant sources of power, rather than standing up against inequalities and promoting ELT as a force for good. Maybe all this social justice stuff at IATEFL is just lip-service, a bit like McDonald’s selling carrot sticks.
For those of us who do genuinely believe that education should not be a for-profit industry, I don’t think we should be boycotting IATEFL. Instead, I think we should all become paid-up members, allowing IATEFL to become less reliant on corporate sponsorship and forcing it to listen to the voices of individual teachers around the world. We should all attend the conferences but, instead of drinking the free beer and listening to the sales pitches, we should ask the reps questions about pricing structures, profit margins and the ethical issues embedded in the content of their materials. We should go to all the sessions, applauding any that promote education for social justice and heckling any that promote “innovative new products”. We should submit proposals for our own sessions so that the balance of content tips in our favour, creating a dominant discourse calling for our profession to harness its emancipatory potential. IATEFL is an International Association of Teachers. Let’s claim it back.