Beyond the Opening Plenary: Making a Lasting Impact

Dec 20th, 2014 | By | Category: TESOL
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Andy Curtis, p-elect of TESOL

Andy Curtis

By ANDY CURTIS

—The FIFO Problem

More than 40 years ago, in 1972, Donald Bligh published a book with the “quitle”—a question used as a title, pronounced “kwai-tul”—What’s the Use of Lectures? The fact that the book is still being read and referred to confirms that this question is still being asked, as lectures are still being used everywhere. Besides being a rhetorical question, it was also a somewhat loaded question, as Bligh made his position clear at the beginning of the book: “Lectures are relatively ineffective for teaching values associated with subject matter … for inspiring interest in a subject … for personal and social adjustment” (p. 3).

I have been a fan of Bligh’s book, and opposed to lectures as a learning device, for some time, and although few effective language teachers I know give lectures, some of us are invited to give lectures, for example, in the form of an opening plenary. Since becoming president-elect of the TESOL International Association (TIA), in March of last year, at TESOL 2014 in Portland, Oregon, I have been invited to give a number of such talks. Because the language teachers I know and meet do not use traditional, unidirectional, content-delivery lectures, I have learned to make my opening plenaries as interactive as possible. However, there is still some pressure, in some countries and contexts, to give a traditional lecture, especially if it is a highly formal event with protocols, dignitaries, and so forth.

It is an honor to be invited to give an opening plenary, as that can help shape the rest of the conference, and because I always build my talks around the theme of the conference, it can serve as a reference or starting point for the following conference presentations. But my main concern is the limited long-term impact of a one-off talk. I first heard the term “FIFO” some years ago; it stands for “Fly-In, Fly-Out” and refers to the so-called “outside experts”—which has always seemed to me a contradiction in terms—who fly into the event, give their talks, and then fly out.

Dawn in Mongolia … An Amazing Thing

One of the challenges of being the president-elect of an organization that is as global as the TIA—with more than 13,000 core members in more than 160 countries—is crossing borders and working in different countries. For example, to work as an English language specialist (ELS) with the US State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), within which the Regional English Language Office (RELO) is situated, it is necessary to be a US citizen. Of the many things that I am and can claim to be—British, South American, Indian, Canadian, and so forth—being American is not one of them. But as a result of the collaboration between those US governmental agencies and the TIA (including an official Memorandum of Understanding), in October of 2014 I was able to give the opening plenary at the eighth national and the fourth Mongolia TESOL International Conference, in the capital, Ulan Bator, written locally as “Ulaanbaatar.”

The limits of language to describe the vastness and the unique beauty of Mongolia was captured by the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami in his 1995 novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle:

Dawn in Mongolia was an amazing thing. In one instant, the horizon became a faint line suspended in the darkness, and then the line was drawn upward, higher and higher. It was as if a giant hand had stretched down from the sky and slowly lifted the curtain of night from the face of the earth. It was a magnificent sight, far greater in scale … than anything that I, with my limited human faculties, could fully comprehend.

While in Mongolia, I was regularly reminded of images of lunar landscapes beamed back to planet Earth from different space exploration vehicles.

One of the first ways of expanding the scale and scope of the impact of my talk at the conference was to use part of my US State Department honorarium to support English language teachers from the Mongolian countryside, who live in rural villages and towns and who cannot usually come to the capital, to attend this year’s Mongolia TESOL conference. This was made possible by the RELO office in Beijing, under the auspices of Dr. Kelli Odhuu and her team, without whose support none of what we were able to achieve would have been possible.

Making a Talk Last a Year

After the inter/national conference in “UB” wrapped up, we headed way out into the Mongolian wilderness, skirting the periphery of the Gobi Desert, for a challenging six-hour drive, mostly on potholed, dirt-track roads, covering hundreds of miles—with none of the usual signs, signals, or directions of any kind. Eventually, we came to the province of Khentii and arrived at the town of Chinggis, named after the rehabilitated now-hero of Mongolian history known incorrectly, we were told, as “Genghis Khan” in the Western world.

There in Chinggis town, we three—Dr. Chris Hastings, an ELS with the Beijing RELO, and Ms. Ninj Khurel, a Mongolian teacher of English and a board member of the TESOL Mongolia TIA affiliate, and I—presented workshops for and with teachers of English in the local schools. We also talked about the benefits of being members of the TIA, and although some teachers were keen to join, even the heavily discounted TIA Global Membership rate for teachers in relatively low-income countries was still a lot of money for some of them. So, I was able to use some of my State Department honorarium to further subsidize one-year membership of the TIA for the six teachers in Chinggis town who decided to join.

The next day, we left Chinggis town and after some more hours of off-road adventures, including stopping to ask directions from heartwarmingly open and welcoming local nomadic families, who were happy share with us whatever they had, we made it to the town of Choir, in the Govisumber province. There, again, I was able to use some of my State Department honorarium to further subsidize one-year TIA membership for another six local teachers of English who decided to join.

In terms of expanding the scale and scope of the impact of my time there, one of the highlights of the trip was my meeting with and talking to a group of final-year, preservice English teachers at the Mongolian University of Education—one of the only state universities in the country that provides a four-year ELT degree program. With the help of TESOL Mongolia and the university’s English department, I was able to run a small writing competition with these final-year English teachers to-be, who were invited to write a page (of about 500 words) on the topic of “Why I would like to become a member of the TESOL International Association.” I was then able to use the rest of the honorarium to offer the five student teachers who wrote on that topic “free” Global Membership of the TIA for one year.

Before I went to Mongolia, there were 13 members of TESOL Mongolia who were members of the TIA, and by the end of my journey we had nearly tripled the membership, to around 40, and enabled teachers who would not usually be able to attend these kinds of events and to join the TIA to do so. One of my goals during my three years in the TIA’s presidential line (2014-2017) is to help make the association more international by growing the membership in countries such as Mongolia, where there are relatively few TIA members in spite of a large population of English teachers in the country. Beyond that, one of my broader goals is to make the potential, positive impact of my visits last long after the opening plenary has finished. I am looking forward to making more of these kinds of journeys, and I would be happy to hear suggestions from CATESOL members about how we can contribute beyond our talks.

Andy Curtis (PhD, MA) is the president-elect (2014-2015) of the TESOL International Association (www.tesol.org) and he will be the president during TESOL’s 50th anniversary in Baltimore, Maryland, in 2016. He teaches online with the Graduate School of Education at Anaheim University, and he works as an independent consultant for language-teaching organizations worldwide.

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