ELT conference culture and confusions in Nepal: A personal reflection

Pramod K. Sah

A conference is an occasion to bring together professionals to share their research and teaching practices, including day-to-day professional struggles and pleasures. It also provides opportunity to engage with fellow teachers’ and researchers’ experiences. Attending a conference supports continued professional development of ELT teachers. Borg (2015) lists several of such benefits; for example, a) giving participants a sense of achievements, b) allowing positive comparisons with ELT professionals from elsewhere, c) creating a belief in their own potential, d) enhancing their credibility in the eyes of colleagues, and e) reducing feelings of isolation. Similarly, IATEFL (2017) argues that it “provide[s] general support in helping teachers and other ELT professionals in their professional development, and to provide a platform where they can offer their views, exchange research, and teaching experiences and learn from each other in the field of professional development.” These are the basic norms of ELT conferences, but the question remains whether these promises are kept ‘true’ in all conferences. There is also very limited empirical knowledge on whether teachers and other professionals benefit from attending conferences.

I’m personally often positive about attending conferences and, therefore, I try attending at least one international conference every year. Luckily enough, I have already attended (and going to attend) a number of national and international conferences in 2019. While I’m in Nepal (at the time of writing) for some academic purposes, I also got opportunities to attend two major conferences of Nepal: ‘2nd Annual ELT and Applied Linguistics Conference’ and ‘National NELTA Conference 2019’. I’m sharing what I have recently experienced at both conferences via-a-via my experiences of different international conferences like TESOL International Convention and AAAL Conference in the USA, IATEFL in the UK, Language Planning and Policy Conference and ACLA in Canada. The purpose of this piece is to critically review the overall effectiveness of these conferences, which may help the concerned organizers and attendees to effectively organize and get benefitted from ELT conferences in future. The areas of improvement of these conferences that I discuss are by no means, meant to demotivate the academic spirit to put up these conferences in the low-resource context.

The first conference, ‘2nd Annual ELT and Applied Linguistics Conference’, was organized by the Department of English Education, Tribhuvan University (TU). This conference was able to gather professionals from different parts of Nepal, including a handful number of participants from abroad. One of the keynote speakers was an internationally recognized professor, Gary Barkhuizen, based in the University of Auckland, New Zealand, who has excellent contributions in the field of narrative inquiry, in particular. Other keynote and plenary speakers included locally renowned professors of ELT. Interestingly, the conference looked exciting with the presence of enthusiastic graduate-level students from TU, some of whom were always rushing from one session to another. The second conference was the ‘National NELTA Conference 2019’ held at Solidarity International School, Hetauda, which was attended by a large number of English language teachers from all over the country, including a very few international delegates. All keynote and plenary speakers at this conference were ELT scholars and professionals from Nepal.

The first point I would like to discuss is the central theme of conferences and keynotes/plenaries. Most conferences announce their central theme every year, which basically invites delegates to bring discussions around that theme and extend the debate forward. It’s often the case that, at least, keynote/plenary speakers discuss major arguments related to the themes in relation to their empirical research/theoretical underpinnings. In this regard, the ‘National NELTA Conference 2019’ had theme ‘Transformation in ELT Methods: Addressing 21st Century Classroom Contexts’, which indicated that the conference envisioned to bring together discussions on effective ways of addressing the issues of ELT, prominent in this millennium. However, I struggled to find any talks, including keynotes/plenaries focusing on the theme. In fact, in my search for the term ‘transformation/transform’ and ’21st century’ in the program schedule, the former appeared only twice, and the latter appeared once. In this regard, the topic of one keynote talk, i.e., ELT in Post-Method Era, sounded enthusiastic as I anticipated some critical discussions of different teaching methodologies that can have significant relevance to the Nepalese context, but the talk was merely limited to listing all ELT methods often found in ELT books. The talk also included different microstrategies of teaching English that Kumaravadivelu (1994) suggested about 25 years ago, but the presentation neither made a clear reference to Kumaravadivelu nor there was any critical discussion appropriating those microstrategies to the characteristics of 21st century ELT in Nepal. In fact, there was no element of ‘transformation’ in the talk, at all. Uniquely, the same professor was there as a keynote at both conferences with the same topic, without almost no alteration. The ‘2nd Annual ELT and Applied Linguistics Conference’ had one keynote talk, which nevertheless tried to align with the central theme of ‘Policies, Practice, and Possibilities in ELT’. In this particular keynote, the speaker showed some ‘possibilities’ of ELT through ‘narrative inquiry’ as a new practice.

Further, I was expecting some critical discussions on different issues in relation to the Nepalese context under the light of existing literature of Nepal, but hardly anyone made a reference to research in Nepal. For example, in one plenary at the NELTA conference, the speaker tried to critically review the phenomenon of English-medium instruction (EMI) in Nepal. I particularly liked the points that the speaker made against the uncritical promotion of EMI, but the speaker didn’t make any reference to research on EMI in Nepal. There has recently been some research on EMI in Nepal—available in the forms of journal articles, chapters, and dissertations—suggesting some unique findings. However, the speaker only cited a couple of studies on EMI from other South Asian countries, not any from Nepal. The speaker also made claims, which aren’t valid. For example, the speaker claimed EMI policy as “illegal” in Nepal, which is not true. The National Curriculum of Nepal (2008), stating the medium of instruction as Nepali, or English, or both Nepali and English, gives a clear legal background for EMI in Nepal. There can, nevertheless, be an argument that EMI is illogical/ineffective, but again such argument needs to be put forward in reference to research.

Another unacceptable claim, made by one of the panelists in the panel on EMI in the 2nd Annual ELT and Applied Linguistics Conference, that there is no research conducted on EMI proved the research ignorance of some of the invited scholars. This problem was seen in almost all the talks I attended. There was another professor presenting on the use of L1 in ELT classrooms at the NELTA conference, who didn’t cite any research from Nepal. This time, as it was a concurrent session, I had an opportunity to ask a question and I, in fact, asked why the speaker didn’t cite any research from Nepal. Not surprisingly, the speaker also mentioned that there is no such research undertaken in Nepal. With frustration, I told the speaker that I myself have published a study on the use L1, among some other scholars, and the speaker really needed to at least ‘google’, which will direct to available published research. I think such unacademic practices can be checked during the proposal screening process that proposals not making references to research should be declined. Of course, the conferences will also have to provide a relevant rubric for successful proposals.

There were some other instances of keynote/plenary speakers giving very illogical/unacademic answers to the questions. For example, one plenary speaker presented his/her action research on a given teaching activity that he designed and experimented. S/he claimed that the students developed “confidence” as a process of learner autonomy and hence, the success of the activity. One audience, who was another professor of TU, was seriously concerned about the “validity” of the research findings that how he would believe that the students developed confidence. He specifically asked how the confidence was measured as the presenter hadn’t mentioned research design and data analysis in the presentation. The plenary speaker answered, “I looked at my students’ faces, and I knew they were confident.” I couldn’t believe that the speaker didn’t mention any point of his/her data analysis and, instead, gave such an illogical/unacademic answer. But, unexpectedly enough, there was a huge round of applause from the mass, which made me really confused about what just happened. I couldn’t understand why there was such appreciating applause at that kind of answer. Perhaps the speaker was a well-known ELT expert and the audience—the majority of them were university students—had just “wowed” at the answer without deeply thinking about it.  Similarly, there were lots of “गफ” (bluffs), which also consisted “mocking” of English accent/use of school-level English language teachers with low English proficiency that was not only unacademic but also in-humanizing. As experts, we’re meant to discuss how we can come up with solutions to overcome weaknesses of English language teachers in Nepal and we can also check our own practices in teacher education programs at the university, instead of making fun of poor teachers at academic gatherings. For instance, while presenting research findings, another plenary speaker often made fun of the teacher participants who didn’t have the technical/practical knowledge on “teaching writing”, which also received lots of laughter and claps from some audience.

There were some other less significant issues that looked bizarre to me. First, the management of both conferences lacked mobilization of volunteers and clear plans. While TU conference had mobilized some graduate students as volunteers who tried to take up their responsibility seriously, NELTA conference had school children as volunteers who were not really able to understand the conference situation. The conferences should try looking for volunteers from the conference attendees, which I think will be more effective. Moreover, the catering service was another area to pay high attention as due to long queue it was affecting the preceding and the following sessions. Similarly, I often saw one of organizing committee members at the TU conference requesting attendees to join on-going sessions as it seemed the majority of attendees weren’t going to sessions. Although it’s true that many attendees like to connect with fellow attendees, but not at the cost of on-going sessions. Attending sessions and engaging in discussion, I think, should be the first priority, which I found missing at both conferences. Keeping track of session-time was another big area of improvement, which really influenced the schedule of different sessions. Most keynote/ plenary speakers seemed to take so much of extra time, which eventually influenced the timing of the following sessions. As a result, I missed several sessions that I was interested to attend.

Finally, the conference culture is not new in Nepal but, for me, its effectiveness is really an issue. The organizers, first, have to move beyond the ideology of making some limited people happy and re-think of people who could best support English language teachers with new ideas during the conference. We don’t need repetition of ideas and experts at the conference. International conferences don’t really invite the same scholars every year. I think there are several Nepali scholars working in different countries, doing excellent works, who can be invited to these conferences. We also really need to think about maintaining diversity in experts who are invited, meaning the representation of race, gender, ethnicity, age, etc. Second, we need to peer review proposals, otherwise, there is danger of unintellectual/illogical/inhuman discussions. The local national conferences should also be a means of promoting/up-lifting local scholarship. This reflection is a kind message to many of us, who tend to fall into the (mal)practices discussed above, to bring in intellectual and critical discussions instead of repeating old ideas/knowledge and mocking the less-knowledgeable others. Third, the conference organizers really need to plan the conference in terms of employing volunteers, not only for on-site needs but also for the peer-review process. Most importantly, we should start teaching what “conference” really means to our university students, so they can utilize most from attending conferences. They need to be prepared to problematize and question ideas being presented rather than uncritically accepting everything and clapping, shouting, and hooting as we do in cinema theaters.

 

References

CDC (Curriculum Development Centre). (2008). Primary education curriculum. Sanothimi, Bhaktapur: Government of Nepal.

Kumaravadivelu, B. (1994). The postmethod condition: (E)merging strategies for second/foreign language teaching. TESOL Quarterly, 28(1), 27-48.

IATEFL (2017). IATEFL’s mission, goals and practices. Available at:https://members.iatefl.org/downloads/member_info/IATEFL_mission_goals_practices.pdf

Borg, S. (2015). The benefits of attending ELT conferences, ELT Journal, 69(1), 35–46.

The author:

Pramod K. Sah is PhD Candidate and Killam Scholar in the Department of Language and Literacy Education at the University of British Columbia, Canada. He has earned an M.Ed. in English Language Teaching from Tribhuvan University, Nepal, and an MA in TESOL with Applied Linguistics from the University of Central Lancashire, UK. His work is driven by the core values of social justice indexes, for example, class and ethnicity, in English language education policies and practices in low- and middle-income polities, often drawing on Pierre Bourdieu’s critical social theories. His research works can be accessed at: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Pramod_Sah5