Acting on an email invitation from my employer, I recently attended a TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) conference in an oil-rich Gulf state. Up to now, I never took these TESOL conferences very seriously, thinking of them solely as vehicles for self-promotion. Since the venue for this particular event took place not very far from I currently live, I thought I would go along and to see what the fuss was all about.
The TESOL Conference, held at a private university, was pretty much what I expected involving as it did lots of lecture-type presentations given by people trying to promote themselves, or their products. I must say, it was not completely uninteresting, and one or two presenting teachers impressed me with their sincerity and sensitive themes. One talk by a keynote speaker focused on how a teacher should create a culture of respect in the classroom. Another keynote speaker noted, uncritically, how English teaching was being shaped by business models.
My problem with the conference was the shape of the whole thing which indeed followed the business model whereby people market ideas enthusiastically and then somehow fail to get others to talk. A token bit of pair work for the attendees made these presentations seem like lessons, or “workshops”. The university space itself, with its open plan corridors and levels, resembled a pan-optical prison where private thought is difficult, intimacy impossible. No one knew anyone else; no one attempted to achieve synergy by engaging in a deeper way with attendees. The sessions were all top-down, and therefore rather stressful.
The choice of topics by presenters was revealing by omission. TESOL teaching remains poorly paid in most institutions; TESOL does not have a proper seniority structure or effective union/association; English teachers and students are bored by the pre-planned curriculum; class sizes are too large; increasingly the TESOL environment becomes artificial with barriers to free speech and interaction with the real world, and so on. In a worrying trend, the much-vaunted higher education (HE) sector in the UK is starting to resemble the US where the HE jobs market has shifted from full-time, tenured posts towards insecure contract work so typical of the TESOL field, especially in Taiwan. In the Gulf, TESOL teachers are similarly being sidelined by a corporate culture that turns them into disposable workers. I would say the disempowerment of TESOL teachers in the classroom is the number one issue we should be talking about together, but that would go against the dominant interests of big business so insidiously promoted at these TESOL gatherings where the agenda is defined in advance and papers censored in advance. Presenters inevitably talk about what they think they should talk about by the dominant ideological formation represented by the conference committee, instead of talking critically about the real, thorny issues of TESOL; understandably, since do otherwise would be risky.
Taking time out between sessions, I tried to get to know some other teachers at the conference, but no long-lasting relationships came out of this desultory networking. One presenter did kindly send me his paper, on critical writing, which was probably the best of all the presentations, as a soft copy when I requested it from him via email. However, there wasn't really enough time to get to know other attendees. The TESOL Conference was too impersonal and, I believe, ultimately failed by not addressing English teachers’ overarching concerns and insecurities.