Conferences and professional development: An exclusive interview

Conferences help recharge the batteries of your profession!

Bal Krishna Sharma, PhD is an Assistant Professor of TESOL in the Department of English at the University of Idaho, United States of America. He teaches courses on applied linguistics, sociolinguistics, intercultural communication and second language acquisition. He is one of the founding members of ELT Choutari, and a co-editor of the Journal of NELTA from 2009 to 2012. Dr Sharma has a good exposure of national and international conferences. In this connection, our Choutari editor Jeevan Karki has spoken to him to explore the conferences then and now, roles of conferences in the professional development of the ELT practitioners and other forms of continuous professional development.

1. What were the ways of professional development in your time in Nepal? And what changes do you see in the trends of professional development at present?

I can think of NELTA as the only key venue for opportunities for professional development in the late 90s and the early 2000s. I attended several NELTA conferences before I made my own presentation. The annual NELTA conference was meaningful for young ELT scholars like me for several reasons. First, this was an opportunity to leave your school or hometown for a few days, experience a difference, and engage in conversations about English pedagogy and materials development with a wider audience. Upon return, you could use the conference as a resource to boast your pride of professional development and international exposure among your peers. Second, you could meet people whose names you had only heard of, both national and international ELT celebrities. Just being able to see people like Dr. Jai Raj Awasthi, Dr. Ram Ashish Giri, Dr. Govinda Raj Bhattarai and so on, and greeting them, exchanging smiles with them was a big accomplishment for many English teachers, especially those who were from outside Kathmandu. International scholars whose names were familiar to you but you never imagined seeing them in your life—would be at the conference, and seeing people like Dr. Diane Larsen Freeman and Dr. Ted Rodgers was like seeing ELT Goddess and Gods. That was the feeling I could see among many of my friends in the early days. The Linguistics Society of Nepal would also feature some ELT/Applied Linguistics presentations at its annual conferences, and that was exciting too. In addition, when I was a teacher in Chitwan in the later part of the 90s, I remember attending a few workshops conducted by textbook publishers and authors. Paul Gunasekaran, a scholar from India, was one of a very few people I was impressed with as he talked about the usefulness of the Oxford English textbook in schools. I also used visit the British Council library to read recent articles from The ELT Journal.

The professional development landscape has changed recently with more opportunities. Colleagues have chances to travel internationally, access online resources, and create their own venues for developing their portfolios. ELT Choutari and NELTA ELT forum are two key examples. Some colleagues have personal blogs that showcase their narratives of teaching and research. There are more publishing opportunities in journals today.

2. You have recently presented your papers in AAAL (American Association for Applied Linguistics) and TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) conference. Could you reflect briefly how this participation and presentation supported in your professional development?

I travel to conferences for a few key reasons. Apparently, one pragmatic reason is the constant need to update my CV, utilize the fund that my university offers, and update my professional portfolio that is needed for my tenure and promotion. But my biggest drive to travel to conferences such as TESOL and AAAL is to create my scholarly space and identity in the field, update my knowledge repertoires with recent developments in scholarship, and network with junior and senior colleagues. For example, I presented a research project that was completed collaboratively with my graduate student Andrea Mason at the TESOL convention last March. This was a unique opportunity to mentor a junior colleague and learn fresh perspectives from her. Likewise, I organized a colloquium with a senior scholar Suresh Canagarajah from Penn State University, and the colloquium included 5 presentations by scholars from around the world. This was a special opportunity in another sense: I had an opportunity to collaborate and learn from somebody who is a very popular name in applied linguistics. We are publishing a journal special issue from this colloquium. In addition, I take these conferences as social networking opportunities. I met my friends from Nepal, Hawaii, and many other parts of the world; had conversation and dinner with them; had pictures taken, and so on. The social part of conferences is not less important than the academic part. When you return home from conferences, you sort of feel that you are recharged with a new pair of batteries.

3. In Nepal, there are two annual ELT related conferences taking place. Could you share your views on them including their strengths and areas to improve?

I’m glad that these conferences are happening with a wider impact both in scale and scope. Since I’m away from home for about a decade, I’m unable to offer evaluative comments. Based on details in social networking sites and conversations with friends, it’s quite noteworthy that the opportunities are accessible to many more individuals now. For example, the NELTA conference took place in Hetauda this year. My long-time colleague, friend, and collaborator Dr. Prem Phyak has been instrumental in beginning a new tradition at Tribhuvan University, mainly by starting the annual ELT and Applied Linguistics Conference. This is a history in the making and I hope it goes on and on. There still are a couple of areas that need to be addressed for a positive transformation. Culture of professionalism and scholarship: We do not yet have a standard in recognizing publications and presentations in making hiring and promotion decisions at universities. As a result, the environment in academic institutions does not create conditions for continuous professional development. I was a co-editor for the Journal of NELTA for three years form 2009-2012, and the number of manuscripts we received was not encouraging. This is perhaps because the role of publications in individuals’ career is not as valued and recognized as it had to be. I think this situation continues today too. While it is exciting that the journal is having an international impact as it includes contributions from scholars around the world, it certainly is not a good sign that the number of contributors from home is shrinking. Another point to note is how we organize presentations at conferences. Learning to ask good questions to the presenter is as important as being a good presenter. In the best case scenario, the Q&A part after presentation can generate rich discussion on the topic; the presenter can get constructive feedback; and eventually the presentation can be turned into a publication. I think we need create this kind of environment at conferences in Nepal.

4. ELT practitioners from Nepal are making their way up to giant conferences like IATEFL (International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language), TESOL and so on for the talk and presentation. What’s the perception of the participants towards us? On what areas should we focus to make our presence well-received?

I haven’t been able to talk to international participants about Nepali scholars at international conferences. But I have some observations. The key aspect of this is international representation of Nepali scholars. With this, questions and topics related to ELT and applied linguistics in Nepal are heard, noticed, and talked about in international venues. Many of our colleagues have won scholarships and awards to travel to conferences, and have been chosen as conference ambassadors. This is great. With this, I also feel that we need a greater representation in terms of who has access to these opportunities. Teaching in Nepal, and in general on a global scale, is a very gendered profession—more women working as teachers than men. But when we I see the faces of our ELT delegates at the international level, I see a significant under-representation of female colleagues. Likewise, the presence could be made more inclusive by representing individuals from historically marginalized groups, and professionals from outside Kathmandu.

5. What other ways do you suggest for Nepali educators and ELT practitioners for the continuous professional development?

Not minimizing the remarkable strides we’ve made to date, professional organizations and academic institutions can move to two simultaneous directions for professional development. First, our teachers and teacher educators at home have tremendous amount of narratives documenting the opportunities and challenges in teaching English; e.g. large classes, lack of adequate infrastructure, inadequate training. Amidst political influences and challenging work conditions, Nepali professionals have motivation, desire, excitement, and curiosity to learn what is going on around the world. They have the courage to rethink how their practices fit into grand theories, concepts and teaching approaches that are developed in social contexts very far from where they live. This commitment and perusal is very inspiring and unique. Second, institutions and organizations in Nepal can look for ways to attract diaspora Nepalis to contribute to professionalism and scholarship in Nepal. Now, we have Nepali ELT scholars at leading universities in the US, UK, Japan, Norway, Australia, and in several other countries. The next move is to utilize their expertise for professionalism in Nepal. Some of my colleagues have already started mentoring and offering professional development workshops online for colleagues at home. These two directions are not mutually exclusive, but inform one another—can work in collaboration.

To cite this: Sharma, B. (2019, April 25). Conferences and professional development: An exclusive interview. Retrieved from http://eltchoutari.com/2019/04/conferences-and-professional-development/

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