When you go to the IATEFL Conference 2015 website, the first thing you see is is an advert for Booking.com, offering you a wide variety of places to stay in Manchester. If you sort by price, you’ll see at the top of the page the five star hotels where the plenary speakers, textbook writers, publishing managers, Cambridge Examiners, British Council big-wigs, and, of course, the top IATEFL organisers themselves, will all stay. You’ll see that
rooms have large walk-in wardrobes, satellite TV and an iPod dock, and
the elegant bathrooms feature a marble bath, large shower and free bathrobes.
During the conference, the high jinks that go on among the privileged few will find their apotheosis in these glitzy hotels’ cocktail bars, where ten quid gets you a silly drink with an umbrella in it and a seat near she who’s going to give the opening plenary and he who edited the latest edition of English File Intermediate. But while these worthies swap stories of their recent travels (“I just love the food in Hanoi, don’t you!”) and conference appearances (“Then some, some person in the audience asked me if I’d ever actually taught English! I mean, really! Moi?”), those of the IATEFL crowd further down the food chain will having a rather different experience. They’ll be eating soggy, rain-soaked chips from a platic plate as they turn the damp pages of their conference programme in a bus shelter, waiting for the 56 Manchester night bus to take them back to their not very well-appointed, the-bathroom’s–third-on-the-left-down-the-corridor room in Mrs Blathingstoke’s Bed and Breakfast.
Who goes to this jolly jamboree? What proportion of the gate is made up of your average language teacher, I wonder? My bet is that most people there spend less than 10 hours a week in the classroom, and even if I’m wrong, which I probably am, the event is still one where there’s scant evidence of any real connection with the membership. How many teachers pay to be members of IATEFL anyway? I went to a few IATEFL conferences, paid for by my employer, but I was never a paid-up member. Why would I be? What, I might ask, in a Monty Python voice, did IATEFL ever do for me? Apart from the viaducts, of course. No, really, what do they do for their members? What have they done to push for better salaries in China, fight for equal pay and conditions for NNESTs, promote research into SLA, for example? What kind of general influence do they have on the ELT profession? What’s their annual income? Where does all the money go? Why does the regional secretary need an armour-plated Hummer to go to the office in; is she really that unpopular? These are serious questions calling for serious answers. But, seriously though, does this awful annual knees-up represent the height of their achievement? To be fair for just a second, I have to recognise the work of the special interests groups, where really impressive grass root initiatives happen from time to time.
If you’re thinking of going, then don’t expect any critical examination of important issues in Manchester, because that’s not what the conference is about. The IATEFL conference is about self-promotion, it’s held to justify IATEFL’s existence and to give the huge commercial concerns that run the ELT industry a chance to flog their shoddy goods to you and the rest of the horde of dazed delegates who, like you, will spend the week hurrying along endless corridors, clutching the string handles of flimsy Oxford English paper bags full of today’s collection of worthless samples, looking for Room 1234 (or was it Room 1324?), dizzy with the demands of 30 concurrent sessions held mercilessly every hour for 5 long days, struggling to keep up, not quite able to take the sensible decision to abandon the awful circus and go to the nearest pub.
So, how to choose what sessions to attend? Big is definitely not better, and anyway, there’s not much evidence of big star quality this year: the programme offers a list of plenary speakers that would be disappointing if you were attending a Saturday session organised by the North Cornwall Ramblers Club. But who knows! They certainly won’t be worse than all the usual names, all those staying at the glitzy hotel, all those on the long list of teacher trainers and coursebook writers who, as they tour the conference circuit, do their best to make sure that innovation is stamped out and all the true but embarrassing accounts of teacher exploitation from all over the world are swept under the conference carpets.
One by one a succession of invited and sponsored speakers will take the stage, and after a fawning introduction by somebody who knows nothing about them, they’ll drone on about how much progress we’ve made but how much more remains to be done, plundering a rich store of corny clichés and ancient anecdotes, skilfully managing to avoid saying anything remotely controversial. If you could get a bird’s eye thermal image of the conference centre at 12.45, say, it would show blobs of pale yellow in all the auditoriums where the invited speakers are performing, indicating that all the warm heat of social engagement has been sucked out of the room, extinguished by these old campaigners as they plod through their set pieces yet again, oblivious to the discomfort of an audience which realises after the first 5 minutes that it’s made a terrible collective mistake and now can’t get out. The shuffling of feet, the constant low din of people moving around in their seats, the anxious coughing, the palpable sense of time dragging, the sly exits from the hall which threaten to turn into a desperate stampede, none of this will suffice to stop the show. And thus, day in, day out, a stream of ELT’s stars will spin their tarnished yarns, while those who listen struggle to stay alert, their free Pearson pens poised over their empty notepads in the vain hope of hearing something – anything – worthy of note.
If anything of interest is said, it will be by somebody whose soggy chips and lumpy bed at Mrs Blathingstoke’s B and B didn’t prevent them from enthusiastically sharing a few fresh, innovative, sincerely-held ideas with the 45 people who were clever enough to have shunned the big guns and come to Room 5678 instead. But if it’s that good you can read all about it on the blogs just a few days later, so do yourself a favour and don’t go.
And that, as Forrest Gump would say, is all I have to say about that.