The conference experience

My second post on my experiences at TESOL France Colloquium from November 16-18 focuses on an aspect of the conference that I went to see in particular. As a collaborator on the organisation of several past and chair of next spring’s TESL Toronto conference, I’m always curious as to what others believe works best for them, how they pull it off and what takeaways can inspire different ideas for us. TESOL France had several.  Let’s see if you agree.

Length of the conference

The PLN out for drinks on Day 1 of #tesolfr

 The term “conference” seems to entail a multiple day event. A one-day affair, even if jam-packed with sessions, doesn’t feel lengthy enough to deserve the term. Personally, I’m good with three days, depending on the length and spacing of the sessions. It’s not too long for my cognitive demands to be overloaded, but is long enough to make a little bit of travel worthwhile. TESOL France began late Friday afternoon, with a cocktail hour and plenary session followed by choice between 1 of 6 sessions. The whole thing evening was done in a little over three hours, leaving plenty of time for socialising over a late dinner and drinks afterwards  Saturday hosted a full day from 10AM-10PM, with time for lunch and space between sessions. Sunday was another half day, ending just after 3PM.

Duration of the sessions

An ideal 60-min session on ‘near synonyms’ with Leo Selivan.

I would have initially chosen 90 mins as the ideal length–it’s what we’ve traditionally used at TESL Toronto. Like a class, it provides enough time for both presentation and practical discussion/group work for attendees. But often that group work becomes repetitive or is just filling in time where discussion could be furthered as desired outside the session itself. Additionally, I have to admit that after teaching, I often like to attend sessions where I’m not expected to do that much participation. Alternatively, I’ve been to online conferences where sessions were a mere 30-minutes–quite light for any participation, though great for not getting bored. TESOL France’s sessions were all 60 mins, an ideal compromise, leaving presenters enough time to adequately explain their message with some interaction, without being too burdensome if you lose interest in the topic half-way through.

Types of sessions

The multitalented president, Bethany Cagnol, during Open Mic Night.

Variety of session options is vital. Session after session of workshop/presentation can drag on and on. TESOL France included many of these options. First, a plenary each day signposted the beginning, middle and end. Their Open Mic night involving volunteer talent (singing, dancing, comedy) on Saturday night hosted a (mostly) entertaining departure from our ‘learning’.  But would this work everywhere? I’m not convinced; it entirely depends on the willingness, personality, and familiarity of the attendees (tip: evening with alcohol option doesn’t hurt). Finally, though there was no conference-wide debate or unconference session, both were held within the concurrent sessions–good enough, especially if a first try.

The (un)importance of food

We enjoyed a small group lunch off site.

Much discussed at TESL Toronto is the importance of provided food Are coffee and snacks enough? Should the food be cold or hot? Sit-down altogether or various times? When we moved away from a hot meal a couple conferences ago, years of expectation resulted in surprising complaints. TESOL France provided no meals, only snacks, coffee and wine (of course). Never once did I snicker under my breath. With restaurants nearby, that was our time to leave the site for a break and socialise together.  But maybe this wholly depends on the conference location. In any case, I wouldn’t get angry if there weren’t a full meal: that’s not what I attend a conference for.

Benefits for conference speakers

Chia Suan Chong & Bethany Cagnol speak for all of us…

Given the high costs of conference fees, the least organisers can do in my opinion is waive these fees for those who are accepted as speakers of any sort. I mean, come on, throw a bone. Most conferences I’ve been to don’t, unfortunately. They expect speakers (excluding plenaries) to pay their way–travel, accomodation and entrance to the conference–when without them, there would be nothing to attend. Yes, budgets are a factor, but a token “come on in and enjoy sessions when you are not leading them” sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? TESOL France did just that. My proposal for a session was accepted for Sunday slot and so they offered me attendance to everything else freely. TESL Toronto actually pays an honorarium too, though I’d guess there’d be few hard feelings if dropped in favour of other perks.

The bottom line is you can’t please everyone all of the time–this is abundantly clear to any conference organiser–but you can do what is considered reasonable, fair and pleasing to the majority. TESOL France did this in spades and inspires me to aim for more of the same to make TESL Toronto’s conference-going experience more fulfilling for its attendees.

Now that you’ve participated in the democratic right to vote ;) above, are there any other experiences at conferences you’d like to promote?

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11 Responses to Brief conference experience analysis and call for opinion

  1. Very cool, Ty. Fun refleciton and I hope the survey results give you a bit of feedback as well!


    • Tyson Seburn says:

      Hope so. We ask these types of question of all attendees here, but it’s largely 50/50. So with several PLN coming over for the conference next May, I’d like everyone else’s opinions too. Wanna come? A talk on etymology would go over very well. You can stay with me a couple nights (may have to rotate who stays here). ;)

  2. On the subject of catering – which is close to my heart! – I think at a one-day event it’s good to have food laid on as you don’t have time to figure out where else to go. At a longer event though, it’s nice to have that break, to go off site to eat, either for a quick sandwich alone to gather your thoughts or in small sociable groups to your eatery of choice. After more than a decade of attending IATEFL conferences though, the location of the venue has a huge role to play here – if it’s in the centre of town (as in Brighton for those who’re familiar with UK venues), that’s great, but if it’s in an out-of-town conference centre, then there have to be enough on-site catering options that don’t involve massive queues during a lunch break.

    Good luck with organizing TESL Toronto – y’know having just had to withdraw my IATEFL talk :( I may think of submitting a proposal and coming on over … never been to Canada :)

    • Tyson Seburn says:

      Yes, food is a never-ending discussion. I see all your points. TESL Toronto has always been a 1-day affair, and so we always offer a lunch, sometimes cold, sometimes hot. It seemed though that many who attended gave more feedback about the food than the sessions themselves, leaving us with the impression that it is the food that is most important. So, we decided to minimise its availability… You can imagine the result.

      TESL Toronto is shaping up to be awesome this coming year and I’d love for you to come over for it. Several of my friends from TESOL France have indicated that they will come this year (though I’ll believe it when I see it… haha) and I’m going to ensure there are extensions to the usual Saturday event.

  3. Rita Carrasco says:

    I liked reading about your experience in France and I liked having a chance to vote and see what other people voted for. Thank you!

    I would love to volunteer to help at the conference or before.

    • Tyson Seburn says:

      Glad you enjoyed all, Rita. Hope you’re doing well wherever you are! We’d love to have you as a volunteer at the conference. When time comes around, I’ll remind you. ;)

  4. Carolyn says:

    What a splendid post! The voting made it quite interactive – and the results were interesting. I’m excited about the TESL Toronto conference too. I’d like to see more networking opportunities for those teachers that come from remote communities or are returning from overseas. People need to make connections – or at least have the opportunity to make them. Maybe a Mellyn Mixer after the conference? Hmmmmm. The wheels are turning.

    • Tyson Seburn says:

      Carolyn, you’re thinking right up my alley RE our conference. I have plans for a pre-conference event on the Friday and good spacing throughout the day on Saturday too. Plus, it’s looking more and more that a bunch of PLN from TESOL France might make the trip this time around–an added incentive to make it worth their while.

  5. Leo says:

    Hi Tyson
    Thank you for using my synonyms talk as an example of an ideal session even if it’s only the time length you are referring to :)

    On the subject of catering, I have to agree with Julie (by the way, why did you have to withdraw from IATEFL?) that it’s all about location, location, location. In a place like Brighton there are plenty of options, whereas last year’s conference centre (although a nicer venue by itself) was too remote from the centre and had a severe lack of on-site catering options. It may also have to do with food culture. In a country like France, where skipping lunch is unheard of, you’re sure to get a proper lunch break with plenty of time to have a proper cooked lunch – even with unhurried service.


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