I’m in Tokyo after an inspiring weekend at the JALT (Japan Association of Language Teaching – thanks, Cory!) conference in Hamamatsu. It was my fourth visit to JALT and certainly the one that I enjoyed the most.
When I discovered the conference would be in Hamamatsu, I asked an ELT colleague and friend who works in Japan what he knew about the place. He said it was in the middle of nowhere, which is a bit unfair. It’s a smart, well-heeled sort of place, but it’s certainly off the beaten track.
As far as I’m concerned, this is perfect for a conference venue. Conferences SHOULD take place in the middle of nowhere or, even better, in the middle of a forest.
I was disappointed that I had to leave the conference before it finished because of commitments elsewhere in Japan. When I got back to Tokyo and switched on Facebook, I saw this update from Roehl Sybing:
I’ve only been to four JALTs, but I certainly felt the atmosphere was brighter, more enthusiastic than I remember.
I attended my first JALT conference in 2007 at the National Olympics Memorial Youth Center in Tokyo, and there were a number of things that struck me as unusual. First of all, the vast majority of participants were not Japanese. They were native speakers, mainly from North America. And mainly men.
For someone like me who mainly visits conferences in Europe and Latin America, this was really strange. I had never been to a conference where the local non-NEST (non-native speaker teacher) community was so under-represented. More recently, I’ve been to TESOL France, where the demographic is similarly skewed. At the time, JALT was a real surprise from this point of view.
The second thing I noticed about JALT was the predominance of talks, both plenary and regular, which were simply renditions of people’s research. And clearly people seemed to be getting their rocks off on some pretty low-frequency stuff!
Now, I’m going to fess up to something here. Whilst I’m very partial to a well-written magazine article with the findings of some research into an ELT-related topic, I don’t generally find it wildly stimulating to sit in a large conference hall and listen to someone droning on about their research for an hour. Especially if they don’t move away from the podium and/or have a voice which shows no particular enthusiasm for what they’re saying.
And – shoot me down in flames – but I find it really hard to look at a series of powerpoint slides containing nothing but quotes from other people in the same field as the presenter, and which all end with a series of names and a date. This sort of thing:
Authority is a necessary evil, and every bit as evil as it is necessary. (Unman, Wittering, Zigo: 1958)
I did two talks at JALT 2007, one was called Turning Passive Students Into Active Learners and the other was a more commercially-oriented talk on my book Smart Choice.
I thought Passive Students was a pretty good title, and the talk had gone OK everywhere else in the world.
Between you and me, and I’d be grateful if you don’t pass this information on to any conference organizers, I’m not very good at giving a proper talk – ie standing in front of an audience and speaking non-stop for an hour. I’ve always found it better to break up the event with some activities. And with a title like Passive Students, it seemed an eminently sensible thing to do.
At JALT 2007, things didn’t quite go as planned. It seemed to cause great puzzlement when I asked people to do a task which involved getting up and mingling. The session ended with relief all round. I later discovered that someone had written in feedback
We had fun but that was all.
Oh dear. I’d always thought fun was an OK sort of thing to happen in a presentation!
I’m nothing if not dogged. It’s my middle name. Yes, I got teased mercilessly about it at school. That’s doggED, by the way – adjective, meaning ‘stubborn’. Not the past tense of the verb ‘to dog’, which has several meanings, one of which it’s best not to go into here.
No, really…. I thought (doggedly), I have to get to grips with this, and if I come back to Japan, I will up the serious part of any presentation I do.
Oxford University Press invited me back the following year, and I brought a talk called Engage Your Students’ Curiosity. It was still activity-based, but I devoted the last ten minutes to some sage chin-scratching about the educational value of what we had been doing.
It was a much livelier session than 2007 and I enjoyed it a lot. But someone STILL wrote on the OUP feedback form that the talk ‘wasn’t very serious.’
What to do? I’d tried to give the talk a more academic feel and it still wasn’t serious enough, at least for one person in the group. Maybe the problem was that all the chin-scratching thoughts were my own, with no names at the end. Maybe I should have written ‘Emerson, Lake and Palmer’ in brackets and seen if anyone noticed!
I left Japan thinking that I was never going to crack this particular nut, but I wasn’t going to beat myself up about it. And, surprise, surprise, I didn’t get invited back to the next two conferences.
But then in 2011, the second edition of Smart Choice came out and OUP asked me to come to Japan again. To my horror, they put my name forward to the JALT committee to do a plenary – and it was accepted!
I wrote to OUP Japan saying they couldn’t be serious. I didn’t do the kind of plenaries that the JALT crowd clearly liked. Oxford said not to worry.
But I did. For most of 2011, if I woke up with one of those nagging ‘what is it I’m supposed to be worrying about?’ feelings, it was usually the prospect of doing the plenary at JALT. It didn’t help when I discovered that one of the other plenary speakers was Interchange author Jack Richards, doyen of the American ELT writers’ community.
But then something rather nice happened. I started getting emails from Steve Cornwell and other members of the JALT committee. Not only were these missives friendly, there was positive enthusiasm at the prospect of yours truly, Kenneth DoggED Wilson, mounting the podium at the National Olympics Memorial Youth Center and entertaining the troops with my downhome Garrison Keillor musings.
But I was still very apprehensive.
The week of JALT 2011 came. I flew into Tokyo, hooked up with the OUP team and we arranged to go to the conference opening party. In the hotel foyer, I met Laurel Kamada, one of the other plenary speakers. She asked me which university I was with, and I said I wasn’t with any. She asked me what my doctorate thesis was on, and I said I didn’t have a doctorate to attach a thesis to.
‘Will you be talking about your research?’
Laurel told me that her plenary was based on her research into something or other, and my mind kind of wandered. I got even more anxious about what was about to happen.
So, here’s what happened.
First of all, I attended Laurel’s plenary. I sat on the front row. It dealt with her research into the language development of mixed nationality Japanese teenage girls. And it was riveting.
Laurel is a fluent Japanese speaker. The girls she had interviewed for her research had code-switched constantly. She transcribed what they had said, we saw it on the screen, and Lauren herself code-switched as she read it out.
It was mightily impressive. A plenary based on research, the kind of thing I run a mile from usually. And it was brilliant.
Of course, this just served to make me even more nervous.
But the big day came and – it was OK. Even though I did some odd stuff, running up and down the aisles for example, or asking the 650 attendees to put themselves in teams of five – it was an exciting and memorable experience for me.
And as far as I know, no one wrote ‘We had fun but that was all’ in their feedback notes.
Oh, and I didn’t even mention the great people I met who live and work in Japan, almost all North Americans, who I now consider to be firm conference chums. When I saw them this year, I threw myself upon them and hugged them heartily, one and all.
I finally feel like part of the JALT furniture.
PS I hope someone understood the Unman Wittering and Zigo quote.