The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Monday, April 07, 2014

IATEFL Highlights 2014

As ever, this year’s IATEFL conference was varied, inspiring, fun, thought-provoking and yes, completely exhausting! Below I’ve picked out just a few of my highlights:

Meeting up with people who I’ve worked with but hadn’t met in person before – especially The Round authors who I’ve worked with this year on editing their ebooks; Jennie Wright & Christina Rebuffet-Broadus, who wrote Experimental Practice in ELT and Dan Barber, who wrote From English Teacher to Learner Coach along with Duncan Foord (who I sadly didn’t manage to cross paths with).

Going along to Jennie and Christina’s session which I would never have chosen if I hadn’t known them – just because it’s not within my usual areas of interest – but which was great fun and I think by far the most enjoyable session I went to this year!

The MaWSIG PCE, the first time I’d been to a pre-conference event. There were some interesting sessions and lots of great chat, but mainly it was just nice to be with lots of people like me!  Especially as a freelance writer, rather than a full-time teacher, it’s really nice to feel properly part of a group.

In the same vein, there was a great freelancer’s lunch on Thursday where I got to chat with freelance colleagues old and new, to share some of the joys and frustrations of freelancing. Big thanks to Karen White for organising that one and an ELT T2W gathering on Friday night too – lots of fun!

I had fun doing a bit of blatant self-promotion in my How to Write EAP Materials t-shirt. A lot of people didn’t quite ‘get’ the slogan on the front, which some seemed to mistake for something in Spanish! It still started a few conversations though, which after all, was the idea …

I did lots of useful networking, a mix of pre-planned meetings, publisher’s events and just general schmoozing. I gave out lots of cards and I’ve got fingers crossed for some potential new work down the line.

An unexpected highlight this year came from mentoring a new speaker. I’d ticked a box on my proposal form way back in September and completely forgotten about it. Then a couple of weeks ago I was contacted by my ‘mentee’.  We did quite a bit of to-ing and fro-ing via email ahead of the conference while he worked on preparing his session. And although we didn’t finally manage to meet in person, he sent me a lovely message after his session saying how helpful my input had been, which was a really great note to end the week on!

Oh and did I mention the Turkish Baths … ?!

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Friday, March 21, 2014

Sharing expertise: How I wrote how to write ...

When the team at ELT Teacher 2 Writer asked me if I’d like to write their module on “How to Write EAP materials”, my first reaction was one of excitement, quickly followed by panic! Who am I to tell other people how to write EAP materials? Surely lots of other writers are far more experienced and qualified!

I think it’s a feeling that all of us have probably experienced at some point. I’m sure that when anyone’s asked to give their first presentation or their first teacher training session, they’re convinced that their audience will know more than they do.  Certainly when I gave my first IATEFL talk back in 2000, I was super-conscious of all the ‘experts’ in the audience.  Of course, it went fine. And the more you share your experiences and accumulated knowledge, whether in person or in writing, the more feedback you get from people who found it interesting or useful or just thought-provoking, and the more you gain confidence in your own developing areas of ‘expertise’.

The EAP community are a tough audience though. They tend to be rather earnest and scarily critical. That’s not a slur on any of them personally, you understand – a lot of my best friends and all that! - it’s just the nature of academia and in turn, EAP. We spend a lot of time encouraging our students to think critically, to question the basis and validity of what they read, to pick holes in the arguments or evidence. So it’s hardly surprising that we tend to hold each other up to those same rigorous standards.

As I set about writing the module, I tried to keep in mind my target audience, or rather my potential target audiences. I reminded myself that I wasn’t writing for those other experienced EAP writers, but for new writers or those just starting to write materials for a wider audience (quite a different challenge from writing the odd hand-out for your own class). I thought of the lovely international group of teachers I met in Oxford last summer, some of whom had plenty of experience teaching general English, but had now been asked to teach (and often plan and resource) a university-level EAP course, sometimes with little or no support. I thought of experienced EAP colleagues who’d tried writing materials but who, without a background in publishing or materials development, had come up against all kinds of problems and pitfalls. I also thought of all the mistakes I’d made myself over the years and tried to include ideas and advice to pre-empt them.

I still couldn’t get the ‘professional EAP community’ out of my head though. I’ve always felt a bit of an outsider because I’m not a full-time EAP tutor based at a university, fully immersed in all the latest research and part of the ‘in crowd’. At EAP events, people introduce themselves and ask “where I’m from”, meaning which university, and I have to explain that I’m a freelancer and work on all kinds of different things, I’m not a fully-fledged academic.

So anyway, I decided to tackle the problem head on and get some other EAP writers involved in the module. I got the idea working on another project – I’d been editing an e-book for Jennie Wright and Christina Rebuffet-Broadus (Experimental Practice in ELT, published via the round) and they’d used several quotes from other ‘experts’ in the field. It gave the text a nice feel, lending both authority and just a change of voice and perspective occasionally.

So I set about emailing all the EAP writers I could think of. Some of them I already knew, some I’d met briefly at events and a couple I just ‘cold called’!  I explained the background to the project and asked if they’d like to contribute a few pieces of advice or ‘top tips’ for new EAP writers.  The response was great! I heard back from everyone I’d contacted, all were interested and supportive, and all contributed some lovely quotable advice.  My Oxford EAP co-author, Edward de Chazal, even phoned me on his mobile to dictate his quotes because his landline and internet were down due to the storms!

Being so used to working on stuff for commercial publishers where confidentiality means you can’t talk to anyone about what you’re doing, it was a really fun way to work. It was great to be collaborative rather than competitive! It was also a confidence boost – it turned out that almost all the points my fellow writers sent chimed with things I’d already included in the module. Not only did that make it relatively easy to slot their quotes into the text, but it told me I was on the right track and there wasn’t anything really obvious that I’d missed.

I hope the approach has worked and the module proves useful for new EAP writers of all stripes. Many thanks to all those colleagues who contributed and I’ll look forward to getting feedback – yes, both positive and critical! – over the coming weeks and months.

"How to Write EAP Materials" is available as an e-book via Amazon and Smashwords and look out for me sporting the matching t-shirt at IATEFL in Harrogate!

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Friday, March 14, 2014

Getting the most out of IATEFL - Part 2

I sent out my first emails today to set up meetings for IATEFL, so I thought it was time I followed up with some more IATEFL tips.  It’s a huge event and everyone does it in their own way, but as a freelance writer this is my take on getting the most from it:

Be comfortable: it can be a very long day, so wear comfy shoes and check your coat into the cloakroom so you don’t have to lug it around (it usually only costs a pound). Personally, I also try to carry minimal stuff to avoid achy shoulders – I always say no to the free bag/pen/notebook, etc. at registration, it’s just more stuff to carry.

Be selective: if you’re registered and going along to sessions, don’t try to do too much. If you fill up your day rushing from one talk to another, not only will you soon be knackered, but you’ll also miss out on lots of valuable networking opportunities. I usually earmark a few really key sessions that I definitely don’t want to miss, then a few others that look interesting and leave myself gaps for schmoozing and just catching my breath.

Arrive early: if there’s a session you really want to attend, chances are others will too and the room may fill up quickly. Check where it is on the floor plan so you don’t get caught out on the other side of the conference centre just as it’s starting.

Be brave: it’s easy to mostly hang out with people you already know. Of course, it’s great to catch up with old pals and to cement existing contacts, but try to talk to new people too. If you go to a talk by an author/publisher, go up at the end and introduce yourself, say how much you enjoyed the talk.  Sit next to people you don’t know – I’ve met several really useful contacts as a result of a ‘pairwork activity’ in a workshop.

Be flexible: if you get chatting to someone useful, suggest going for a coffee there and then, regardless of whether you were planning to go to another session.

Be ready to drink lots of coffee! The stuff you buy from a coffee outlet is always going to be better than the free stuff provided in the breaks.

Give out cards: take along plenty of business cards and remember to give them out. Make sure you don’t lose the ones you collect either. And if you think you’ll forget who was who, jot yourself a note on the back of important ones.

Chat to folk on stands: spend some time mooching around the publishers’ stands in the exhibition hall. It’s a good way to keep up-to-date with who’s published what and it’s a great opportunity for making useful contacts. If you’re there during a session (rather than a break), get chatting to the staff on the stand. They’ll probably be from sales or marketing, but they may able to introduce you to any editorial staff who happen to be around, or at least tell you who you need to look out for.

Go to publishers’ events: most of the publishers will have an evening ‘do’ at some point. These are where a lot of the best networking takes place!  It may be open to everyone and advertised on the stand or it may be invitation only. Ask stand staff if they’re having a ‘do’, they’ll often be happy to give out invites.

Take a break: if you’re there for more than a day or two, give yourself some down time – come in late or leave a bit early. If you’re going to an evening do, a bit of a pit-stop back at your hotel can be a welcome chance to kick your shoes off for a bit. And if you’re as rubbish as me at drinking on an empty stomach, get a bite to eat before you go – the ‘nibbles’ will never be more than just that!

Take painkillers: inevitably all that coffee and sitting around in stuffy rooms will give you a headache at some point - so I always carry some Nurofen in my bag.

Follow up: I always write up a list of stuff to follow up on the train home. If you met someone who said they might have some work coming up, drop them an email when you get back. You may not get a response right away but at least you’re in their email address book.

See you there!

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Friday, February 28, 2014

Are you sitting comfortably?

It’s a grey, damp morning here in Bristol and I’m sat at my desk still in my winter cardi and feeling quite glad that I don’t have to venture out the house. Apart from grim weather, the end of February also sees International RSI Awareness Day (28 Feb) - although oddly, it seems to be marked more in Canada than anywhere else - and my annual nag about all things ergonomic!

Recently, several people have asked me about office chairs, so I thought I’d repeat a few tips and suggestions here for a wider audience.

The most important things about the chair that you’re going to sit on at your desk for possibly hours every day are that a. it’s comfortable and b. it allows you to sit in and maintain a healthy posture that doesn’t put unnecessary strain on any part of your body. I have a fancy, all-singing, all-dancing chair that has every kind of support and adjustment you can imagine. Unsurprisingly, it was pretty expensive (actually bought with a grant when I first went freelance), but it has lasted me nearly 14 years so far and is still in great condition.
My 'RH' chair from Posturite

However, I also have a second chair (for occasional work at the downstairs dining table) from IKEA, that was a fraction of the price, but is actually perfectly comfortable.

My IKEA chair - complete with zebra-print fur back!

However much you have to spend on a chair, the key elements to look for are:
- height adjustment: you need to sit at the correct height for your desk, high enough so that when you’re typing (or using a mouse) you can have your arms loose by your sides and your hands still drop down slightly onto your keyboard, with your elbows at an angle of 90 degrees or slightly more. Most people sit a bit too low so that they have to bend up slightly from the elbow, or more likely they ‘wing’ their arms out to the side and/or hunch their shoulders.  If that means that your feet are off the ground, then you’ll need a footrest too so that they can be firmly planted down flat.
I also drop my chair down slightly if I’m working on papers flat on the desk (such as proofs), so that I’m not hunching over from my usual higher position.
- back support: when you sit back properly in your chair with your bum to the back of the seat and your back against the back of the chair, it should support your spine comfortably.  Ideally that means a bit of lumber support, i.e. moulding to the curve of your spine and supporting the natural hollow in your lower back.
- seat tilt: this is the final feature that I use regularly, although it’s not as essential as the first two. Some experts recommend that you sit with your seat tilted slightly forward, so that your knees are very slightly lower than your hips. This works on the same principle as the kneeling chairs you may have seen – by making you tilt your pelvis slightly forward, your spine settles into a more natural position than if you’re sitting on a dead flat surface, where the tendency is to tip the pelvis back into a slouch. I use the very slightest hint of a tilt most of the time when I’m working, but tilt back if I’m say reading a long text or watching a webinar.
For more about possible chair adjustments check out the posturite website.

There’s no point in having a great chair though if you don’t sit on it properly! Working comfortably is not just about knowing good posture, but maintaining it day in, day out. Again, the posturite website has good solid advice about how to set up your workstation correctly (whether you’re using a desktop or laptop) and how to sit at your desk. Most importantly, you need to be sitting back in your chair with your spine in a comfortable upright position – not ramrod straight or overextended like a gymnast, but not slouched or hunched over either. Realistically, when you’re typing, you’re probably not going to lean right back on the back of the chair, but I try to lean back and let the chair take the strain as often as possible, when I’m reading something or just thinking. In my office, I actually have a full-length mirror right in line with my desk, so if I glance sideways, I can see my posture – I didn’t put it there intentionally, but it makes a really good reminder! Everyone has different tendencies, so trying to keep an eye on how you’re sitting, especially when you’ve got engrossed in a piece of work is really important.  Personally, I often find myself creeping forward on my chair, so I’m sitting right on the edge, leaning forward with my back arched (I blame too many ballet lessons when I was young!). I’ve also developed a habit of leaning the elbow of my non-mouse hand (in my case, my right) on the desk, creating a horrible twist in my spine.

Postural habits are very hard to break, but if you try and make yourself more aware of what you’re doing, then at least when you catch yourself, you can reset your position back into a more healthy posture.

And as I’ve said many times before, taking frequent breaks, where you get up from your desk, even just for a couple of minutes, to change your posture, relax your muscles and just move around a bit is absolutely vital in avoiding the tense, fixed postures that can lead to all kinds of health problems. So go on, get up and make yourself a cup of tea now and give yourself a break …

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Monday, February 10, 2014

A love of letters

With the start of the Winter Olympics, not only am I loving the snowboarding commentary (a whole new language!), but I’ve been reminded of how much I like the Cyrillic alphabet … let me explain …

In my first year as an undergraduate, I did a Russian language course for a year. I was absolutely rubbish and I don’t think I really learnt to say anything useful. I’m not sure if that was down to the rather uninspired grammar-translation style course or more likely, just me being a sulky, disinterested teenager!

The only part of the course I did enjoy was learning the Cyrillic alphabet.  Like any alphabet, the printed text is slightly different from the handwritten form, so as part of our studies, we had to do handwriting practice. I spent many a happy hour neatly copying out words and phrases into my little workbook – about the only part of the course I had a talent for!

I also loved the aspect of learning to decipher a kind of secret code. I still get excited when I manage to work out the pronunciation of something written in Cyrillic – especially if it’s a name or something else I recognise. Which brings me back to Sochi, or rather should I say СОЧИ, because in Cyrillic, the ‘ch’ sound has its own character, Ч, which has a certain neatness that appeals too. And then there’re the exotic, curly Ж (zh) and Щ (shch)… or maybe it’s just me …

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