This will be a quick blog. I am on my way to Buenos Aires shortly, to participate in the FAAPI Conference (Federación Argentina de Asociaciones de Profesores de Inglés) in Buenos Aires. I haven’t done many conferences so far this year, and I’ve done even fewer outside Brazil. When I got off the plane in São Paulo in February, I did not want to sit in another bucket seat for a good few months. But now we’re getting back on the horse. We’ve got FAAPI in BA this week, and another in Vilnius, in Lithuania, in less than a month’s time.
I largely enjoy conferences. My first English teachers’ conference was a TESOL Scotland event in the mid-1980s. I was one of a small team working at Stirling University at the time, and the conference was a sudden means of access to other people with similar interests, similar problems and better solutions. I realised that I had been feeling lonely and hadn’t realised it. And so I joined the Scottish association, and have been taking minutes in different places for one group or another, in some capacity, ever since.
Obviously, now, I get different things from conferences. One is simply to connect again with old friends whom I mainly only meet at conferences now. One nice thing about regular conferences is watching little explosions of pleasure here and there, as people recognise each other, yelp, and fling themselves into an embrace. Another more commercial reason for attending conferences, as an author, is to publicise your work and get useful feedback from those who are actually teaching with it. And yes, I do get a kick out of book signings. But what do I get from sitting in the audience now?
This question is raised, indirectly, in one of my favourite campus novels, Small World by David Lodge, which updates the plot of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to the present day. Instead of going on a pilgrimage, his hero attends conferences – but the entanglements, misunderstandings, stories, and humour remain remarkably similar. Lodge writes:
“The modern conference resembles the pilgrimage of medieval Christendom in that it allows the participants to indulge themselves in all the pleasures and diversions of travel while appearing to be austerely bent on self-improvement. To be sure, there are certain penitential exercises to be performed – the presentation of a paper, perhaps, and certainly listening to papers of others.”
I did once go to a conference presentation that attempted to answer the question, “What do we get out of conference presentations?” The answer (the speaker’s detailed investigations seemed to suggest) is: “Not much.” The presentations themselves, he argued, are not the main thing about conferences; people don’t remember them in any great detail, it seems. The main thing is the social and professional networking in the spaces between the presentations – the discussions, arguments, gossip about the next big thing, and the opportunity to share opinions with informed and enthusiastic fellow professionals.
Perhaps that is true. Certainly some conference presentations I’ve been to recently by major figures in the ELT have come to resemble polished pieces of performance art rather than reports of research-based struggles to come to new and helpful understandings of the language and how to teach it. The best presentations (for me) combine a little of both. And I do remember ‘eureka’ moments of good conference presentations – an idea to take away and try myself, something to adapt, an article to follow up … an assumption questioned. The illumination I get from a good conference presentation is not always immediate: an issue that a presenter raises nags at the back of my head for a while, and then surfaces later, perhaps to change the direction my professional life is going. And of course bad conference presentations are also good. You learn what not to do. You gain confidence: “I can be as good as that,” you think, often foolishly.
And conferences, too, are changing. My email inbox is clogged with rather frightening invitations to join Virtual FAAPI and follow the conference proceedings in hyperspace as well as in the physical world. (I have avoided opening those emails up.) I am abashed by watching co-presenters tweet as they juggle their powerpoint slides or prezis. My Facebook pages are equally clogged by friends tweeting in real time from conference presentations they are attending. David Lodge writes, in another of his novels, that “Information is the religion of the modern world.” Sometimes I feel we have too much of it. When I am presenting, now, I have to suppress the idea that someone in the third row is simultaneously keying into a smart phone: “Fatter& greyer than his program pic. LOL!”
So I’m back on a plane tomorrow and looking forward to being in Buenos Aires again, meeting up with old friends and making new. There is a small knot of folk interested in intercultural language education, many of them orbiting erratically around the extraordinary ball of energy that is Andrea Assenti del Rio, my co-organizer of a Facebook group on that subject. It will be good to put some faces to the names, so do say hello. To finish with a last quote from David Lodge, again from Small World:
“Intensity of experience is what we’re looking for, I think. We know we won’t find it at home any more, but there’s always the hope that we’ll find it abroad.”
See you in Argentina.
FAAPI 2013: http://www.apiba.org.ar/faapi13
Intercultural Language Education SIG (Facebook): https://www.facebook.com/groups/250536458398597/