Behind the scenes at JALT2009

Marcos Benevides


As you probably know, the JALT conference is the largest international conference for language teachers in Asia. What you may not have considered is the massive year-round effort that goes on behind the scenes. Before the doors even open in Shizuoka on November 21st, dozens of volunteer organizers—your colleagues—will have collectively spent tens of thousands of hours preparing schedules, vetting presentation proposals, liaising with sponsors, organizing social events, creating and implementing a publicity strategy, and more. Every detail you can imagine will have been discussed and arranged, from who will chaperone the VIP speakers to where to house the student interns; from arranging the floor plan of the materials expo to assigning appropriate rooms for presentations; from creating ads to go in the Daily Yomiuri to distributing name tags and conference bags. These efforts are mostly hidden and, as a result, most conference participants will never truly appreciate the complexity and magnitude of running such a large conference.

To illustrate the scale involved, let’s focus on just one aspect of conference organization, choosing the venue. One often hears complaints that the venue is not adequate for one reason or another. For instance, that the site is inconveniently located in relation to hotels and shops, or that the components of the conference are too spread out in too many different buildings, or that the presentation rooms are too small/large/difficult to find, or even that the conference should be held in more varied locations from year to year. Unfortunately, the hard truth is this: The number of sites capable of accommodating a conference the size of ours, on a schedule we can work with, in a location that is easy for teachers around Japan to access, and all at a price we can afford to pay, is very limited.

Most university campuses are out of the question, because we would essentially need to commandeer a medium-sized campus completely, including its gymnasium, cafeterias, classrooms and seminar halls, for three days while classes are ongoing. Large hotels and conference centers have everything we need, but are either prohibitively expensive or inconveniently located. Locations outside of Honshu would lead to far higher costs for everyone involved, which in turn would lead to a severe drop in attendance. Even sites which do fulfill our needs aren’t always entirely ideal. The last two conferences in Tokyo, for example, suffered somewhat from being spread out over three or four separate buildings, as well as from many restrictions on commercial transactions onsite. If you were wondering, it was for this latter reason that we did not hold the popular International Food Fair.

Granship Shizuoka, where this year’s conference will be held, is perhaps the best space we’ve ever used: It’s centrally located in Japan near Tokyo, and right on the shinkansen line. It also boasts top of the line facilities, an all-in-one location in a single building, a fantastic main hall for the materials expo, convenient and abundant breakout spaces, an excellent location for the IFF, and even a modern coat check. On the other hand, the area immediately surrounding the venue is limited in amenities such as hotels, convenience stores, and restaurants, meaning that everything is a train stop away. Still, despite this one minor inconvenience, the choice was clear.

The unsung heroes

But of course, the conference committee is not only charged with choosing the venue. In fact, that’s amongst our easier tasks. Having been a committee member for 2 years, I have observed firsthand the amount of volunteer work that it takes to plan the JALT conference each year. My own contribution has been tiny in comparison: I’ve made most of the conference fliers and ads you’ve seen—a couple of hours a week, tops. But my efforts are truly put to shame by the sheer dedication of Conference Chairs Deryn Verity and Steve Cornwell, JALT Director of Programs Phil McCasland, Conference Manager Sarah Louisa Birchley, Site Manager Masahiko Goshi, JALT VP Cynthia Keith, Publicity Co-chair Steven Herder, AM Liaison Andrew Zitzmann, Website Administrator Paul Collett, JALT Office Manager Junko Fujio, and easily two dozen others whose names I literally cannot mention because I’d run out of space. I mention these particular names only because they are seared into my mind from unrelenting exposure via committee emails—at least one per day, every day, for the past several months.

So, when you run into any of the many conference-organizers in Shizuoka in November, take a moment to say thank you. They won’t hear you, because they’ll be dashing off to begin work on JALT 2010, but do go on. It’ll be good for your karma.