Now that we’re well into March, my thoughts are very much on the upcoming IATEFL conference in Brighton. For well over a decade now, the annual conference has been one of the highlights of my professional year. As I’m making plans for Brighton, I’m thinking about how my approach to the conference these days compares with my early years. What has changed? What has stayed the same?
THEN: In my early days, I planned my conference time in advance, and I was very meticulous about it. As soon as the preliminary programme arrived in January, I would highlight the sessions that interested me. When the full programme was released in March, I would plan every day in great detail, noting the title, the speaker and the room number. I generally stuck to my plan.
NOW: I still do this. IATEFL is huge, and I think it’s important to go into it with a plan. What has changed is that I don’t always stick to my plan – I may run into someone and end up chatting, or something completely different may catch my eye – but I always start with an idea of how I want to spend the week. I have a couple of formal roles with IATEFL (editor of Conference Selections and joint Coordinator of MaWSIG), so I’ll be too busy to just leave things to chance.
THEN: Coming from Canada, I liked to arrive in the UK two or three days before the start of the conference. That allowed me to get onto UK time, so I was not falling asleep in sessions. In my early days, I would often spend a couple of days in London before travelling to the conference venue. I never really spent much time exploring the conference city. I remember one conference in Harrogate (my favourite venue, and one I’ve been to three times for IATEFL); I was staying in the conference hotel, which is connected to the conference centre, and I realised that I hadn’t actually stepped outside and breathed fresh air for three days.
NOW: I still like to arrive in the UK with time to spare, but these days, I am making more of an effort to get to know the conference city. In Brighton I will be in the conference hotel, and I won’t have much free time for the duration of the conference, but I have booked a couple of days on my own in Brighton before things get going. I’m planning to be a tourist: see the Royal Pavilion, walk on the pier, eat fish and chips, and get to know the city a bit.
THEN:I maxed out the number of sessions I went to. In my early days, I was still working full-time as Curriculum Coordinator of a Canadian EAP programme, and I saw the conference as a way to gather information that I could share with my colleagues. It was not unusual for me to go to 25 different talks (including the PCE), and I took copious notes on every session I attended.
NOW: I go to far fewer sessions. The conference for me is now about much more than going to six or seven talks in a day. Because of my other commitments, there are now entire days when I don’t actually make it to any sessions. Even though I have to be a bit more selective about what I go to, I try really hard not to miss something that’s important to me. Editing Conference Selections, which I have done for the last eight years, gives me a taste of the many, many interesting sessions I don’t get to see.
THEN: My first IATEFL conference talk was in 2005 in Cardiff. My most recent was in Birmingham in 2016, in the ESP SIG PCE. I learned quite early that it worked well for me to speak in the PCE rather than the main conference, just so that I could get it out of the way and focus on the rest of the conference.
NOW: I’m no longer so concerned about speaking at the conference. These days, I’d rather listen to what others have to say – that is far more interesting. I am not speaking in Brighton, other than to give my annual How to write successfully for IATEFL Conference Selections talk.
THEN: When I first started coming to IATEFL, I did not know a single person. Hardly anyone came from Canada to IATEFL, and this was in my pre-Facebook days. For my first couple of conferences, I was surrounded by strangers. I was probably a bit intimidated by the whole thing – I didn’t talk to many people, and it took me ages to actually speak up in sessions and ask a question.
NOW: I can guarantee that if I go into any session on materials development or EAP, there will be people there that I know. IATEFL now is an endless stream of hugs, starting with the SVA dinner before the conference gets going and continuing until the final hours. I love it. I now talk to people between sessions, and I introduce myself to people whose papers I have edited. It takes time to build up a circle of friends and acquaintances, but it’s well worth putting the effort into getting to know people.
THEN: I brought back books and handouts I’d been given and piles of stuff (mostly publishers’ catalogues) I’d picked up at the Exhibition. I bought books, many of which I never ended up using. I remember at one early conference, I focused on vocabulary learning and teaching, and I came back with three or four heavy dictionaries in my suitcase.
NOW: I have noticed a huge decline in the number of handouts that are distributed in hard copy, and I no longer get free books at sessions. I always bring back the conference programme (I refer to it when I edit Conference Selections), but I try not to bring back a lot of stuff I probably won’t use.
THEN: In my first couple of years, I spent evenings either at organised events (the pecha kucha, or David Crystal’s wonderful theatrical performances with his family) or alone in my hotel room. Since I didn’t know anyone, I appreciated having organised events to go to. After I got to know people, I started going out more and hanging out with new friends until the wee hours. There were nights when I was out socialising until 2 a.m., and there were times when it was hard to stay awake the next day.
NOW: Today, I am something between the two. I like to go out with people that I don’t see very often, but I rarely stay out late. These days I am back to spending the occasional night alone in my hotel room – but this time it’s by choice.
THEN: I used to get depressed after IATEFL. This was the one time in the year that I was in my home country, with my own kind of people, and I didn’t want it to end.
NOW: I take a longer-term view. As a freelancer who does a lot of work in the UK, I’m always over there for one thing or another. I’m no longer sad to leave the IATEFL conference because I know it won’t be that long until I’m back again – and a year goes by very quickly.