Old white males – what a nuisance!

This post is for people involved in English Language Teaching. If you aren’t, you’re welcome to read it because there might be one or two amusing observations, but probably best to move on, nothing to see here….

Talking at the Çevre conference, Istanbul

 Part One

 I thought I’d toss a log on the fire of the debate about diversity in ELT, specifically about the balance of women and men, and also of non-native speaker educators, as plenary speakers at conferences.

There’s a group of people don’t come out of this debate terribly well – old white males. This is an ELT group, indeed a life-in-general group, that I am proud to belong to. OWM, as I will refer to them from now on.

A parallel debate has sprung up (Editor, please check if debates can ‘spring up’) about ELT experts jetting halfway across the world to spend an hour pontificating to audiences of teachers and other educational professionals who have gathered somewhere for a conference.

Gavin Dudeney questioned this type of activity on Facebook recently. This is what he wrote:

So here’s a thing.

Imagine, if you will, that you live in – say – the UK and you’re invited to give a plenary of one hour, 7,000 miles away in a different country.

It’s a long, expensive trip and it’s all for one hour – which seems absolutely ridiculous to you. Of course, you could add on a few days, take a holiday, but still…

Now, imagine if you said you’d waive your speaker fee if they beamed you in via videoconference, and donated the price of the flight to a decent local charity. Or simply replaced you with someone from that country, and did the same.

Would the world really fall apart?

(Reproduced with Mr Dudeney’s permission)

I’m not going to argue with that. Well, not immediately.

Incidentally, Gavin has written a very articulate blog about the whole notion of ELT conference speaker experts/gurus/dinosaurs constantly hopping around the world doing exactly the thing he describes in his Facebook update. You can read it here

So, you’re waiting for my log, right? The one I’m going to toss on the fire. It IS heavy and I’d like to toss it right away, but first, I want to tell you about a conversation I had a few years ago.

I was talking to another ELT writer, someone who writes both course books and supplementary material. His course books are quite famous and in his particular area of supplementary writing, he’s considered to be one of the best in the field, and deservedly so. I have seen him give talks at UK ELT conferences, so I know that he’s a good speaker with interesting ideas.

His background is similar to mine. He worked as an EFL teacher in a private language school in Spain before returning to the UK, working in London and then settling into life as a writer of materials, from which he makes a good living. He’s also a white native English speaker in late middle age, heading in the direction of the OWM group that I belong to.

He has spoken at lots of conferences in the UK and would have been much in demand as a speaker in other countries too if he had accepted the many invitations he received. The thing is, he has never accepted any of them, definitely not to do plenary talks and not even to do interactive workshops or training sessions.

Why not? For the reasons that Gavin talks about in his blog? Egotism? The fame? The flights? The fancy meals? None of the above. To paraphrase my friend’s argument, he doesn’t accept invitations to speak in other countries because he doesn’t want to ‘parachute’ into a place where he knows nothing about teaching methods, examination systems or the working circumstances of local teachers and tell them how to teach.

It’s an argument that has some resonance. People who jet in and out like this are often referred to as FIFOs – Fly In, Fly Out.

Istanbul - audience
Speaking at another conference in Istanbul, this one more interactive

At the time of our conversation, I was in the middle of a marathon set of conference and training visits, so I felt I needed to defend the peripatetic working life to which I had become accustomed. I remember that my first thought was – if your books are being used by teachers in other countries, then it might be worth your while accepting the invitation and taking advantage of being there to find out more about the working circumstances that you profess to be ignorant about.

But I decided that was a bit confrontational, and I hate to be that, not in print and certainly not face-to-face.

So I went away and reflected on the value of these frequent, very expensive and – as Gavin points out in his blog – quite addictive travel opportunities. I tried to imagine myself in the position of one of the teachers who attend the conferences. Do they really want to listen to visitors like me who jet in from elsewhere? Do they really want to see us in person, or would they be happy to watch us doing a live webinar and perhaps as a result pay less to attend the conference?

I came up with an analogy that worked for me, and the next time I met the non-parachuting author, I told him about it.

In a parallel world, I might have become a non-native speaker teacher of Spanish. I really enjoyed living and working in Spain and my Spanish was pretty good by the time I returned to the UK, and I remember thinking that I might get a teaching qualification and teach Spanish in a UK state school. It was a good idea at the time but other stuff got in the way and it never happened.

I thought about what I would have done if I was a Spanish teacher and the author of a book I was using, a course book or methodology book, came to give a talk at a conference in the UK. I think I would have jumped at the chance of going to listen to her. If she was a good speaker, great. If she wasn’t, never mind, I would have got a chance to see her and ask her to sign a copy of her book.

And I suppose this last part is the key. If the speaker is no good, you won’t go if she visits again. But if she is good, you’ll be there on the front row the next time she’s on stage somewhere near you. It’s a connection between the content providers and content users that is important and memorable for both groups.

And just in case I’m giving the impression that opportunities like this should be restricted to materials writers, this is absolutely not what I mean. There are fantastic speakers and trainers, native speakers and non-native speakers, materials writers and people who concentrate on training, who are worth seeing, live in front of you, giving everyone in the audience the chance to interact.

conference3 copy
Teachers at a conference in Bratislava, Slovakia, doing one of my interactive activities.

So whilst I completely understand the need to re-evaluate the whole FIFO business, the reality is that good live presentations are like gold dust, really worth seeing and not easily replaceable with a beamed-in webinar.

Which brings us back to the OWM group, some of whom are exactly the people that teachers want to see in person. I’m even going to say that there are some OWMs who are good enough to see more than once.

I want to sing the praises of three of these old white males, who have been on the ELT circuit since the beginning of time. However, this blog is already long enough, so I’ll write about them in the next post.

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