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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

September 23, 2009

Drop the puck! It's ELT Conference Season!

For a university English teacher fall means conference season. If you’ve got a budget, this is where a good chunk of it will likely end up. If you are trying to get established in the biz, make connections, or building up your resume with presentations, conferences are pretty much essential. They are also a good place to have a few drinks (after the presentations, that is) with your peers and shoot the breeze. You can take in as much academic stimulation as you like or treat it like a bit of a holiday. Or both.

I recently presented at the national JACET (Japan Association of College English Teachers) Conference in Sapporo, and the MELTA Conference in Johor Bahru in Malaysia, in June (quick descriptions of each event later in this post). My remaining schedule for the next few months includes:

1. CUE National Conference- Tezukayama University, Nara. Oct. 16-18
CUE is a JALT SIG. OK- let’s explain the acronyms. JALT is the Japan Association of Language Teachers and a SIG is a special interest group, with CUE being to the college and university educators group. This conference weighs most heavily on my mind right now because I’ve been invited as one of the two plenary speakers (apparently they couldn’t get Noam Chomsky), which usually means that I will present in one of those intimidating, cavernous amphitheatres more suited to full symphony orchestras or religious revival meetings fronted by charismatic 'prophets’ than for humble EFL commentary.

OK- I haven’t actually seen the CUE conference facility yet (actually this will be my first CUE national conference) but the fact that a hefty number of my peers will be there to stroke their beards while judging my academic worthiness adds more than a bit of pressure.

Anyway, I’ll be speaking on “An Immodest Proposal; that all university English teaching be ESP/EAP”. I’m also part of a follow-up panel discussion on the topic (ESP- English for specific purposes; EAP- English for Academic Purposes). Heckle politely please, I’m sensitive.

2. JALT National Conference- Shizuoka, Nov. 19-23
Although the JALT conference (and JALT membership) is open to any language teacher it has become a de facto university teachers’ association headed and maintained largely by dead, white, university-teaching males like myself (note to women and non-Caucasian males- yes, I know that a lot of you are active contributing members to JALT but I’m talking about the outward image here. You know what I mean. I hope).
This is the place to spot Mr. James look-alikes. It’s also the place where you can check out name badges as surreptitiously as possible and note things like, ‘So that’s the guy who attacked my article in that online newsgroup!’ or “So that’s the brainy woman who writes all those clever articles in the TLT” (The Language Teacher- JALT’s monthly).

What ultimately makes this a de facto university teachers’ conference is the whopping 17,000 Yen fee for the conference (and that’s for basic pre-registration). If you’re not on a university budget, and when you add transport and hotels to the cost, it can burn a hole in your pocket. However, you DO get your money’s worth. This is (IMO) the best run conference in Asia- the organizers seem to have thought of everything. There’s a cheery air (not to mention a lot of old boy back patting) and better displays, food, and related events than you find at other conferences. And the variety of topics and presentations is so widespread and comprehensive that you can always find something stimulating and worthwhile.

Let me add here that JALT is a good place to earn a spot by presenting something that appears very up-to-date, radical/progressive, and statistic/research-based. “Does Twitter negatively gender balance in language education? An empirical analysis” is the type of title that gets the JALT steering committee all hot ‘n steamy.

I’ll be presenting “EFL Training Programs for International Exchange” at this year’s conference with my UOM colleague, Rick White.

3.ETJ Kyushu Expo
ETJ means English Teachers Japan and, in addition to the Kyushu Expo in Fukuoka on Dec. 06, there are several similar ETJ Expos being held all over the country. ETJ is affiliated with, but is not an official subsidiary of (I hope I’m getting the terminology correct) David English House Empire Incorporated (the multi-national cabal). OK- I’m joking here. The DEH tentacles are wide-reaching but benevolent.

The ETJ organization does place emphasis upon the teaching of children although not exclusively so. The audience/participants at the ETJ expos nonetheless tend to include a higher percentage of Japanese HS, JHS and elementary school/JET and AET/Conversation school teachers than the other conferences listed here. The upshot is that there are fewer pretensions at the ETJ Expos- it’s a simpler, more familiar feeling. And the entry fee is more than affordable: 500 yen for members, and ETJ membership is free..

The presentations here often lean towards the practical than the theoretical. Recipe-types seem to be very popular indeed. The conference is not supposed to be ‘academic’ although many presenters certainly display a strong academic foundation. I’ll be presenting “12 Goals for Culture Teaching to Young Japanese Students” at the Fukuoka Expo Dec. 06th.

The two I've already presented at this year are:

1. The JACET Conference (held Sept. 06-08 in Sapporo). JACET stands for Japan Association of College English Teachers. Unlike JALT, this organization really is only limited to college and university types. Most members (by far) are Japanese. The national conference always seems to me to be a very sober affair- much less festive than JALT and with a more pronounced ‘read your paper’ motif. Most presentations are thirty minutes- the standard Japanese twenty for the presentation and ten for Q and A division, although in fact the Q&A rarely lasts that long and the moderator feels forced to ask questions. Until recently the conference was (in)famous for older gentlemen in suits and ties sitting at the back with their hands poised over bells to announce the twenty minute time limit (and the now ubiquitous “five more minutes” cards). This always gave me a sense that simply getting through my presentation- carrying out the bureaucratic necessities- was more important than what we actually presented but that may be changing. JACET also brings out a lot of narrow-field specialists with presentations titled “The redaction criticism of aspect in post-De Sauserre genre informatics reevaluated”.

2. MELTA- This Malaysian conference is a relative newcomer to the field but like most South East Asian conference is very welcoming (there are a lot of associated parties and events). This year’s conference was held in Johor Bahru, just outside Singapore. Interestingly, even though it is relatively new and not well advertised there were still several Japan-based presenters (perhaps being held in the rather conference-barren month of June had something to do with it). Like most South East Asian conferences, it was held in a hotel which meant that several of the presentation rooms were designed for wedding receptions, not language seminars. It can feel a bit odd standing there talking about learner autonomy research in a setting that screams “And now a toast for the bride”.

I also had a presentation scheduled for the International Conference on Applied Linguistics in Iran for late this September but due to the political turmoil there it has been cancelled. This is all very unfortunate, but obviously more so for the Iranian people involved.

The biggies on a worldwide scale are of course the TESOL Conference and the IATEFL Conference although these tend to fall at bad times and in difficult locations for yours truly to attend. Comprehensive lists of language-teaching (and related specialty) conferences can be found online. Here is a good one.

On the ‘possible’ list over the next six months (depending upon money, classes, time, and the opportunity to present) are:
PAC 5 at PALT (The Philippines)
ETA-ROC (Taiwan)
TESOL Arabia
Asia TEFL Conference
KOTESOL Conference (Korea)
CamTESOL (Cambodia)

I’ll write more on these conferences (and the process of applying and presenting at conferences) in the next blog entry.

« Emulating our heroes- and 'Mr. James' | Main | More on conferences and presentations »


Hi Mike. Trust all goes well. You summed up very accurately what the conferences in Japan are all about: namely resume building. Education is notorious as a field for reinventing the wheel. Really, I mean you and I know what works in the classroom and what doesn't. We also know what kinds of courses are needed. Yet, year after year, JALT and its pretenders keep spinning out more repetitive 'research' articles that are nothing more than navel gazing run amok. The only thing I can think of that's worse are the ELT publisher / author tours that put a few 'famous' names in a room with some beer and snacks and then pretend that those same publishers / authors actually give a hoot about the average 'James' in the classroom. I've been to a couple of these events and felt like I was intruding on hallowed ground. I have yet to see the transformations in the results of Japanese students' English abilities that these conferences / tours should warrant. Call me cynical I guess. (By the way, I hope the surgery and hospital stay panned out ok. Pun intended. Cheers)

Hi Mark. Thanks for the comments.

I wouldn't (and didn't) say that the conferences are ALL about resume padding but even when they are that is not always a bad thing. Attending many of the presentations can be a motivating and enlightening experience and while it will ultimately adds a check on the presentations database, that presenter may well have presented a study that is helpful or inspirational to someone.

True, there are some real navel gazers out there- for me it is especially those that are heavily focused upon quantifying the glaringly obvious or do statistical backflips to conclude something very pithy.

But I don't think you should ever expect a classroom transformation arising out of these conferences anymore so than parents or fellow teachers should expect to see your own students suddenly transformed. Rather than a revolution, positive changes in ELT tend to occur in small, often near-invisible, increments.

At any given presentation- or as a result of your own- you may move slightly forward or remain unmoved. Always having some question or keeping ideas open about how to make things work better is the catalyst for these small forward movements. One things I will never do is remain stuck in pedagogical intertia and blame the man.

By the way, the hernia is fully recovered, thanks.

Hi Mike. Thanks for the reply. I guess part of what fuels my cynicism is that for the vast majority of instruction in Japan, particularly at the secondary level, methods are stuck in the ice age. I don't see JALT or the ELT publishers having done much at all to truly influence the, and I'm roughly calculating here, the 80-90% of the time students spend studying English with Japanese English teachers. Yes, I will concede that for some of the time students spend with native teachers there may be lessons that have been positively influenced by some ideas tossed out in JALT publication or conference, but this is really just spitting in the wind, in my opinion. Until Japanese English teachers in large numbers go to JALT conferences and learn how to transform their classrooms from translation (let's face it, that's what most still do) to a much more wholistic form of language learning, it doesn't really matter what the foreign teachers share, publish, or present at conferences. I'd have to disagree that conferences shouldn't mean immediate change. Why not? How many more decades of poor pedagogy must Japanese students tolerate? A quick example: Almost all Japanese English teachers still teach parts of speech in Japanese and even when the students know them, continue speaking the Japanese versions AND writing the Japanese versions on the blackboard. What message does this send to eager young students? The language is not to really be used, it is dead. Until JALT and other organizations tackle this kind of basic issue head on,I can't respect it as an agent of change in ELT in Japan. You obviously have good intentions, as most presenters and attendees probably do, and I intend no disrespect of your or their efforts. I'm just not going to give credit where results (output ability) indicate that not much is due.

Mark- Not to flame you, but I have to say that I'm finding some of your comments rather dubious and disconcerting.

You said in your first post that "both you and I know what works in the classroom... what courses are needed" and then add that EFL conferences are basically 'resume padding', apparently because they haven't revolutionized the classroom. Frankly speaking, from these comments I don't see that a revolution is likely to occur in your classroom anytime soon.

You point your finger at fellow teachers who you claim use teaching methods 'out of the ice age' yet downplay the importance of bettering yourself, furthering your understanding, or challenging your pedagogical preconceptions by attending conferences.

What I'm hearing is: "I don't need it. I already know what's right and best and no one there can tell me. But the other teachers I work with- hah! Those other teachers, they need to go and learn". Reading your responses, it seems to me that your own teaching is likely to atrophy, that you are not open to challenges or accepting of differences.

It is better not to be so sure that one's teaching approaches and methods are indubitably correct and that others are so obviously still stuck in the ice age.

Everytime I attend a conference, despite attending a few vacuous presentations each time, I always manage to find something that challenges me, that makes me re-evaluate my own teaching priorities and methods, and I do follow up by applying some of these. I never think that I know 'the right way' and it's just up to those lesser teachers to catch up to me. That cloistered way of thinking is the best way to fall behind.

Cynicism may be warranted at times, true, but you come off as dogmatic and dismissive of others in these posts.


Hi Mike. Thanks for your feedback. You have correctly recognized a lot of frustration on my part, and I suspect I'm not alone, with how conferences (and publisher's tours) actually do very little to further the overall cause of pedagogy change in Japan's sclerotic classrooms. I do not wish to be dismissive of any teacher who claims to get something out of a conference that improves his or her performance. My point is that associations like JALT have a very small influence on how Japanese English education evolves. In my time in Japan I've seen almost no change in how English is taught by those who do the vast majority of the teaching, namely Japanese English teachers. I feel that if JALT or other associations really had the best interests of Japanese youth at heart, then they would advocate much more strongly for change in the classroom and in the entire approach that English teachers take with their students inside and outside the classroom, not hold meetings that give feeble justification to some very weak research intended to boost the career of the researcher so he or she can maybe get a better university position. I challenge all association members who are qualified teachers to start being proactive in terms of trying to change the system. This doesn't have to be done by browbeating. It can be done by actually encouraging exchange of views in formal and informal settings, based on classroom observation.
What do I do about it? I gently push and persuade others to try different approaches in the classroom and I encourage feedback about my methods. In our school this process is actually built in to the schedule which makes it easier than perhaps in some other institutions. In addition, I've found the websites of major universities that have extensive ELT support to be invaluable. I have modified many aspects of my teaching because of the depth of quality on these sites. Essentially, however, I do know what works and what doesn't work in the Japanese secondary classroom. To suggest otherwise would be an admission of failure after many years of thought, revision and, admittedly, experimentation. This was a process of evolution using a lot of common sense and the support of my administration.

Mike, what I'm dismissive of is anyone who actually claims that JALT-like conferences have a great effect on improving the overall level of English instruction and output ability of students in Japan. I have acknowledged that some members may gain a tip or two from a presentation, but that is such small cheese compared with the breadth of the real problem: the vast majority of time that students spend in English classrooms taught by teachers who have no training or inclination to actually make the language real.

The terrible output ability of Japanese students, in general, at high school graduation is clear. The reasons for this are well-known and I, for one, do not intend to pretend a massive problem doesn't exist. Preaching to the choir (as most current attendees tend to be)at a conference will change nothing.

Those who regularly attend and present at conferences also have to be careful of not being dismissive of those of us who fail to see a great benefit to Japanese youth as a result of their endeavors. This cuts both ways.

Is the point for Non-Japanese English teachers to become more effective in the classroom or to be advocates of a radical change in pedagogy within the Japanese education system? I understand Mark's concerns, but wonder who he is blaming for Japanese students' poor English abilities, and what he is claiming needs to be done to improve the situation. He begins by dismissing JALT, etc., in its entirely as ineffective; then, he says that it's all Japanese teachers' fault; finally, he sets up a straw man to knock over easily ("anyone who actually claims that JALT-like conferences have a great effect on the overall level of English...": by the way, I wonder who actually believes that?). These are three different sets of people, I think. First, we have earnest ELT would-be professionals, like myself, who came to Japan, discovered themselves in the classroom, loved it and decided to stay for more--but in many cases had no formal training in ELT. What are we supposed to do? Simply "teach the textbook", as is? Most of them are dreadful. And yes, the celebrity worship that goes on at JALT and other ELT conferences is part of the problem. The big names write texts that, for the most part, stink. But where does that leave "Mr. James", facing 20-80 students in a classroom? I once had a colleague who said "they paid for the textbook, and they're getting the textbook," knowing that the particular text we were being forced to use was extremely weak and more or less not caring if his students learned anything or not. I believe that attitude is cynical and unprofessional in the extreme. Would an IT professional learn an outdated computer language, and then say, "Well, it works for me: no need to learn anything new"...? Second, we have Japanese teachers, who are bureaucrats in a labyrinthine system that is more or less a shell game wherein foreign teachers are bound to lose. We are excluded from serious decision-making roles. Let's face it: this is how the Japanese system lumbers on, like a dinosaur with an enormous body and a brain the size of a walnut. In almost all aspects of society (the economy, regional issues, immigration, construction, etc.). When things are so obviously bad that immanent failure is on the horizon, all of a sudden "foreign experts" and "outside pressure" is allowed to make some inroads. As soon as things improve, if they improve, then the "foreign" element is usually expelled or handed a one-way ticket "home", and things go back to the way they were in most cases. I know that is over-generalizing and itself very cynical, but that is the sad truth in this country. Where does that leave caring ELT professionals? Basically, in Debito Arudo territory: nails that stick up and refuse to be pounded down. However, as we see with Arudo, that can quickly spiral out of control and wind up self-defeating. The third group, people who actually believe that JALT, et al, are having some large impact on how English is learned in Japan, "overall," is made up of a very small number, I would guess. People aren't stupid. They know that what foreign teachers (and don't forget the Japanese English teachers who also participate in JALT, etc.) are doing is just a drop in the bucket. But we need to start somewhere. Just dismissing the entire "professionalization" process (and, yes, I agree that it can itself be very inbred and clannish and also "big business"), entirely, is a big mistake. I think that is what Mike was saying in his recent comment to Mark, if I understood him correctly. Well, I've written too much already--I just want to ask the question, "what can we realistically do to foster positive change in the ELT situation in Japan?" Should we participate in the ELT community, should we even bother trying, or perhaps simply "teach the textbook"? Or should we pack our bags and head for the "greener pastures" of Abu Dhabi? I think Mike is helping us think through this question, with his great posts, and for that I sincerely thank him.

I wish the JALT national conference would move itself around a bit more. Two years in Tokyo then back to Shizuoka yet again this year.

These days I actually prefer the smaller SIG or pan-SIG organized JALT conferences. While there are fewer people in attendance there are also fewer things going on in the day so I found the size of my audience was about the same as the national conference. But the quality of the questions and feedback I've received has always been much better at the smaller conferences. I highly recommend them to anyone who hasn't presented or attended at a SIG conference.

In terms of international conferences I'd highly recommend Thai Tesol. Like JALT it tends to alternate between a couple places (Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Khoen Kaen) but at least the hotel is usually different.

I've also had good experiences presenting at Cambodia TESOL, Lao TESOL, and Nepal TESOL. All three are usually held during Japanese university winter break. And all three are very practical classroom idea oriented conferences. I find their teacher training focus a refreshing change of pace from some of the jargon and theory clogged presentations at JALT.

Does anyone else have a favorite domestic or international conference?

Or a favorite website listing Asian TESOL conferences?

General comment-
If you want to see change in your classroom, it seems to me about the worst thing you can do is blame the government, the system, or other teachers for what is happening in your classroom. Blaming them in effect empowers them and weakens yourself. By pointing the finger elsewhere you tacitly admit that you are powerlerss and furthermore that you want or even expect them to 'make your classes work'. In short, this becomes a very conservative justification of the status quo. And, on a more personal note, I tend to find many of those prone to blaming governments, systems or other people for the reality they face ineffective in improving their own lot- precisely because they are expecting someone else to do it for them.

Want to change something? Start locally- in your own classroom, maybe something minor. Work for change in small increments in areas that you can effect. Don't wait for the big revolution from outside. If your ideas are good they will often hold, catch on, expand- and conferences are a place where you can inform and influence others regarding these local successes (and vice-versa). Your ideas may also turn out to be unworkable, idealistic crap but it's better to try them and find out rather than waiting for 'the man' to do it on your behalf.

Hi Treb.

I forgot to link the TESOL Worlwide Calendar in the last entry so I fixed that. I will be writing a bit on some of the Asian conferences in a few days but I am not knowledgeable about the Lao or Nepal conferences. Can you give any info?


The conference in Nepal is held the 19th to 21st of Feb this year.

Lao TESOL was actually held in Aug. this year but in the past it used to be just after Thai TESOL making it possible to do both.

At both conferences you can meet teachers from rural areas whose working conditions will make you think twice about complaining about your own situation again. Students with no paper or notebooks for example.

Hi Mike. I wrote a reply to James, but it seems it may not have actually been delivered. The essence of my reply was that I don't blame anyone. I blame an ineffectual system of teacher training in Japan. I should have made this much clearer much earlier. So, to counter the deadening of the language that I feel takes place in many classrooms I suggested formal peer observations built into schedules with time allocated for feedback and discussion. Sometimes, foreign teachers, with a different perspective, can give Japanese English teachers little hints or prods in certain directions to make the classroom a more alive, real place with real output in spoken and written form, not just snippets of translation taught in isolation. Our school does this and all of us receive feedback in this way. I don't see why this approach couldn't be requested if it doesn't exist in readers' institutions. It can't hurt to ask, and like you implied, doing nothing about a complaint is self-defeating, I agree. The very worst that an administration can say is no, and they just might say yes. I also suggested that JALT make a full day of its annual conference dedicated to brainstorming with Japanese English teacher attendees and / or invited ones ways to improve classroom pedagogy within the realities of entrance testing to help make the language come alive more. This would have to include feedback from Japanese English teachers on how foreign teachers could enhance what they (Japanese English teachers) are attempting to do in the classroom. If this was set up on a permanent basis with a mood of cooperation, the results might be very positive. Have the tips from these sessions mailed out to every board in the country to distribute to English Department heads. I don't see why this idea could not work for universities as well. Something like the implementation of this idea would suddenly make JALT relevant for the whole nation. Idealistic, I realize.

Mike, I'm not sure if you are planning to do this or not, but it would be interesting to read your thoughts on how conferences in other countries, as opposed to conferences in Japan, aid in classroom change in Japan. Is it simply a case of there not being enough expertise in Japan or at Japanese conferences?


Hi Mark.

I've seen so many preseentations on various aspects of 'classroom change' in Japan (at ETJ, JALT and more) that it would stun an ox.

At a typical national JALT conference there are usually a few thousand attendees and several hundred presentations. A good number every year deal with the issues you mentioned- I myself, did a presentation on the relationship between university entrance exams and suggested HS pedagogy a few years back. If people are interested in a specific issue you can easily find a presentation on it at JALT.

In short, most of what you are suggesting goes on quite regularly at conferences but of course not everybody's concern is the same as yours so, inevitably, a wide range of topics is dealt with and different people perceive needs and priorities differently.

In fact, discussions and presentations of the sort you mention, as well as dialogues with J teachers in regard to these, have been going on all of the twenty years I've been here- and I have seen a lot of changes arise from this- gradual, incremental, often subtle and nebulous. Regardless, many teachers continue to say that "nothing changes" and wrongly assume that no one is addressing the issues or working for change because there is no magical transformation in their own classrooms.


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