To the Guy Who Presented Before Me at the Conference Yesterday

The thing about your presentation is that, well, it depressed me. It depressed me mainly because nobody seemed to realize it was a salesman’s pitch, peppered with little bits of personal experience.

No, I don’t believe you actually made that gorgeous powerpoint. No, I don’t believe you’re a serious academic. No, I didn’t hear one revolutionary idea about teaching in your talk. I heard lots of interesting things, and indeed, the technology you’re trying to sell probably has some use. But it was obvious from the outset that you were out to sell something.

As soon as you posed your caveats at the beginning of your talk, a red light went off for me. The caveats included things like TEFL teachers having input into curriculum, and students being actually motivated to attain fluency in English. Sure, some people are lucky. But most aren’t, and indeed there are all kinds of reasons for this… some of them pedagogical, as I argued in my own talk.

Anyway, I can’t blame you. All complex ecosystems have parasites, right? What shocked me was not even how blatant you were, nor how blatant your friend was in supporting this business transaction of yours — the softball pitch of a question he offered as the first one was a honey of a setup, setting the frame for the audience as, “Well, I’m convinced, and let’s not talk about theory or problems with your claims.” What surprised and saddened me was how nobody seemed to “get it”; they were looking at a parasite, but they thought they were seeing, let’s say, health intestinal microflora. It was as if nobody could tell that your whole presentation was, in fact, a well-practiced sales pitch. Sales pitches may have their place in the world, but at an academic conference? Really? Seriously?

Because my understanding was that academic conferences are for talking about ideas, arguing about theories, and discussing things on an intellectual level. Not only did your talk not resemble an academic presentation, but it also failed to generate that kind of discussion. The whole frame of the thing was, “This is a technology you should buy, this is why ‘it works’, and therefore you should buy it.”

That’s not to say I didn’t learn something from your presentation, mind you. I learned (or relearned) a few things:

  • Dressing in a suit & tie, and being clean cut, seems to short-circuit people’s natural critical faculties.
  • Being a slick presenter, and having slick visuals, seems to distract most people from a lack of intelligent argument or proposition. (You, like my students, failed to formulate a compelling thesis and support it with evidence.)
  • A beautiful PowerPoint presentation can compel an audience to buy stuff. (Even I didn’t quite grasp what I was seeing till the end. I felt a little curious about the software, even as dubious as I was about your arguments.)
  • A good salesman in an entrenched industry is the absolute enemy of the person who wants to change things in that industry for the better. The good salesman is not making any sort of profound comment on the status quo, but he reinforces norms that ought to (and need to) be questioned for any possible improvement. My own presentation argued that TEFL practice being embedded in educational institutions, and in a massive economy, makes it that much more difficult to reformulate TEFL practice to benefit students; sadly, this was demonstrated before my very eyes as the technology you were pushing was, indeed, a further piece designed for simple addition to the very simulacrum that I argued needs disassembly.

My own talk had a much less beautiful powerpoint–but then, I designed it myself and wasn’t paid to make my presentation, as I strongly suspect you were–but I did also learn that making a beautiful PowerPoint can make a big difference. Next time, if I there is a next time for me and academic talks, I’ll be trying to design a PowerPoint as gorgeous as yours. That, at least, was something that I learned that wasn’t fundamentally discouraging.

We can use the same tools that businessmen have designed and refined… but we can use them for good.

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