You would be forgiven for walking past this book in a bookshop – after all, how gripping is a history of an association likely to be? – but in fact, you would be missing a treat, because, in its own understated way, A History of IATEFL is a real page-turner. Shelagh Rixon and Richard Smith have put together not just a thorough historical account of how the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language was formed and how it grew into what it is today, but also a fascinating story of the squabbles, the plotting, and the occasional full-blown revolts that went on in the early days between the founders and those who wanted IATEFL to take a more radical path. There were some colourful figures and some big egos involved, but more importantly, the infighting reflected deep-rooted, passionately held disagreements about the English language, English language teaching, and principles of democratic governance. While the last 30 years have seen fewer public fights, the tensions remain, because, of course, the disagreements remain: questions about the ownership of English, the best way to teach, and the running of the organization are as hotly disputed now as they were then. So what we have here is not just a good reference work, but also a very good yarn. Chapter 1 deals with the origins of the Association, how it was set up and subsequently developed, and Chapter 2 covers its major activities: the conferences, the Special Interest Groups (SIGs), and, more recently, the tremendous expansion of online activities. Chapter 3 – with the jarringly modern title ‘Output and Outreach’ – traces the history of the Newsletter, and IATEFL’s not always successful attempts to establish links to other language teacher associations abroad. That just about brings us up to date, so Chapter 4 steps back and considers the effects IATEFL has had, both on individual members and on the profession. With their usual discretion, the authors refrain from any major criticism of the way things are today, letting others, including staff members, office-holders, and representatives of the SIGs, speak for them. Finally, Chapter 5 attempts to ‘identify overall trends and suggest issues for consideration going into the future’ (p. 146). The book has a full references section, some good, clear appendices, and a rather sparse index. The book is well produced and has a sombre charm. There are lots of boxes giving information about key figures and developments, and lots of photographs too. Older readers will doubtless have the same nostalgic fun as I did, leafing through the pages, coming across familiar faces, and smiling at those oh-so-dated early editions of newsletters. Younger readers are more likely to scour the pages in a more scholarly way, seeking evidence to support this or that argument for a paper or article. I’ve no doubt that the book will prove helpful for researchers at many levels, particularly perhaps in the area of sociolinguistics. To the squabbles and the fighting then! From 1967 to 1982 Bill Lee, editor of English Language Teaching (forerunner of the ELTJ) and founder and chairman of IATEFL, ran the show from a room in his own house with about as much regard for consultation and shared responsibility as Caligula showed in his day. By 1975, IATEFL had over 1,500 members, the conferences had established themselves as major events in the ELT calendar, and trouble was already brewing, or as the authors put it, ‘some members had started to express discontent’ (p. 23). The first shots in the struggle for power were fired after the 1975 conference, when Michael Swan and Chris Candlin sent separate letters to the Committee, criticizing the way Lee was running the Newsletter and the conference, and suggesting change. The discontent mounted, the rebels huddled together in badly lit pubs in Lancaster, phoned each other on big, black, bakelite phones, and, most of all, wrote letters. Dr Lee was having none of it: the archives reveal copies of notes he wrote to fellow committee members ‘in which’, say the authors, ‘his snorts of indignation are nearly audible’ (p. 23). This gripping story comes to a head in 1982. In a section titled ‘February 1982: New blood (and some blood on the carpet)’ we learn how Lee was ‘ambushed’ (his words) at the Annual General Meeting by the rebels who had packed the meeting and thus managed to get their representatives, including Chris Candlin, elected. The following year, at the annual conference, major changes to the constitution were made, Lee’s authority was further eroded, and he resigned as Chairman in 1984. Old-fashioned Dr Lee might have been, even for the times he found himself in, but I suspect that many who read this book will feel, as I did, a lot of sympathy for his unpopular views, particularly his dogged resistance to the commercialization of the annual conference. Still, what passes for progress is, of course, unstoppable, and Chapter 1 goes on to chronicle every step along the way to the 2017 conference, attended by over 4,000 teachers in Glasgow and followed by tens of thousands more online. SIGs were started in 1985; the Chairman became the President in 1998; the important role of the British Council, which had supported IATEFL right from the start, was recognized by the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding in 2005 between the two organizations; ‘IATEFL Online’ was successfully trialled for the first time in 2007; and the first IATEFL webinar took place in 2013, when David Crystal, IATEFL’s patron, deftly fielded questions about language from teachers all over the globe. The development of the conference and the SIGs is dealt with in more detail in Chapter 2, with a rich mixture of curiosities, anecdotes, and hard facts. With regard to the annual conference, I was surprised to learn that no fewer than six IATEFL conferences were held abroad, including Budapest, 1974; Athens, 1981; and Groningen (The Netherlands), 1984. At the Ostend conference in 1987, held in a holiday camp, participants were given different coloured beads to pay for meals, and Norman Whitney remembers snowflakes blowing under his chalet door. Nevertheless, after the initial flurry of foreign venues, the conference has been held in the UK since 1993 (with the exception of the Dublin 2000 event). There are sections on ‘Where, when and who?’ (locations and venues, timing and attendance); ‘How?’ (administration and organisation); and ‘What?’ (format and coverage of topics). The ‘What?’ section provides some good insights into the development of English language teaching itself: to give just two examples, self-access was very much flavour of the year in 1983, and the first ELTJ debate considered the motion ‘Tasks are nothing new: they’re just exercises with a new name’ in 2003. We also learn of the introduction of colloquiums, symposiums, Signature Events (a sign of the increasing influence of publishers), and, perhaps most crucially, technological support, which has done so much to make the conference’s proceedings available to a wider audience. The first internet café appeared in Brighton in 2003, the first ‘roving reporter’ posting online appeared a year later, and in 2016, hundreds of thousands of people followed the conference online, with live coverage of the plenaries and dozens of interviews with presenters. The extensive section on the SIGs covers ‘The birth of SIGs’, ‘Milestones in the early evolution of SIGs’ (at one point, it looked like they might break away from IATEFL and set themselves up independently), and full details of the SIGs’ activities and membership today. There is also a reference to the attempt made by Paul Walsh and others to set up a Teachers as Workers SIG, which came to a head at the 2014 conference. Important issues are raised by this affair, and although there is a promise to ‘return to this issue in Chapter 5’, in Chapter 5 we find no further mention of it. Instead, in the section ‘Tensions and possibilities’, the authors defend IATEFL’s general reluctance to use its influence as a pressure group, or to get involved in any of the important political issues that affect its members. Of course, such a position is perfectly defensible, but I was disappointed at the lack of any discussion of the Teachers as Workers SIG affair; it rather confirms the impression that the book is an official history and certainly not an attempt to paint a critical picture, warts and all. The first part of Chapter 3, ‘Output and Outreach’, gives a thorough history of IATEFL’s publications, particularly the Newsletter, and IATEFL’s relationship to the ELT Journal, while the second part deals with IATEFL’s claim to be a ‘truly international association’. In this, as in other parts of the book, the authors draw out the comparison between TESOL and IATEFL, giving a well-nuanced account of their very different approaches, and of IATEFL’s reluctance to get too chummy with its American cousin. In fact, as the authors point out, IATEFL seems not to have made any particular efforts to be international, leaving the job of justifying the ‘I’ in IATEFL to its growing network of Associates around the world. The final two chapters of the book ‘pull together the threads of the narrative’ (p. 130) in an attempt to evaluate IATEFL’s achievements. Chapter 4 begins with a long selection of ‘Members’ views’, all of them sounding a bit too much like ringing endorsements. When looking at IATEFL’s influence on ELT overall, the assessment is, I think, much more critically astute, concluding that IATEFL cannot claim to have been particularly innovative along its 60-year history (especially considering its initial reluctance to join in the early developments in communicative language teaching), although the authors insist that some of the SIGs must take credit for leading the way in their specialized areas, and, furthermore, they highlight the role IATEFL has played in the move away from native-speaker models of English. When I finished the book, I looked backed at the first few pages and was especially taken with Bill Lee’s stubborn refusal to give commercial concerns any room at the annual conference. The 2017 conference in Glasgow, where the Exhibition Hall could rightly claim to be the heart of the conference, where so many talks were sponsored, and where coursebook-driven ELT was triumphantly on display, surely gives pause for thought. How things have changed! For better or worse? I can guess what Dr Lee would say, but whatever your view, reading the delightful A History of IATEFL will give you a much wider, better-informed perspective. Geoff Jordan has lived in Spain since 1981. He worked at ESADE Barcelona (a postgraduate business school with a big language department) for 28 years, first as a language teacher and then as Director of Studies. Since 2004, he has worked freelance, doing English immersion courses at home, working with postdoctoral students at the Universitat Politecnica de Barcelona, with the Cooperative Linguistica de Barcelona, and as an associate tutor in the Distance Learning MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL programme at Leicester University. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press; all rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/open_access/funder_policies/chorus/standard_publication_model)
ELT Journal – Oxford University Press
Published: May 8, 2018
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