The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Monday, June 20, 2016


I'm on the train on my way home from a great weekend in Liverpool for the MATSDA (Materials Development Association) conference and reflecting on the similarities and differences between the MaWSIG crew who I usually hang out with and the MATSDA crowd ... or at least I'm trying to over a rather raucous hen party who I'll be sharing my journey with as far as Wolverhampton!

I was invited to speak at the conference as a step towards encouraging more cooperation between the two groups. We're both involved in working on ELT materials, after all, so there should be lots of overlap. So what did I notice?

Well, I think the first clue is perhaps in the name - materials writers vs materials developers. The difference may seem a subtle one, but it came out quite clearly in a number of ways. As I looked down the programme of presenters, only 5 out of 53 (including myself) weren't representing universities. This gave the event a much more academic feel than the average MaWSIG gathering which is typically dominated by freelancers who work on projects for commercial publishers.

This academic bent also came through in the sessions. Many had a fairly abstract focus on pedagogy and were peppered with references to academic research, others were about individual research projects, presenting or evaluating materials developed for very specific, generally small-scale, contexts (South Korean tour guides, German police officers, Malaysian university students). MaWSIG events tend to focus more on the work of materials writing; the constraints and issues around working with publishers, the practicalities of being freelance. That's not to say that they don't address pedagogical issues too sometimes, but they tend to come at them from a slightly different perspective.

One of the other things that really struck me was the international nature of MATSDA, with probably more people from outside of the UK than inside. There were people who'd come from Asia, Africa and South America just for the two-day event, which was both impressive and made for some fascinating insights. This perhaps comes back to the fact that most of the delegates were funded by their institutions, an option not open to self-employed freelancers who typically have to self-fund any trips. My experience of most MaWSIG events is a largely British crowd either based in the UK or travelling in from Europe (on budget airlines!), rarely from any further afield.

So what am I taking away from the weekend? Well, when I joined MaWSIG, it was great to meet up with a group of people who did the same thing as me, who understood the joys and frustrations of being a freelance writer, people with whom I could share ideas, problems, advice or just have a laugh. Although many of the MATSDA members didn't quite share my professional context, we still found plenty we had in common and we still had a laugh. I found it really useful to forget about commercial constraints and the woes of the publishing industry for a while and to get back to thinking about the basics of what materials writing's about at its heart; helping teachers to teach and students to learn in the most effective, engaging way possible. It felt like a bit of a luxury that I rarely get time for and it was much more fun being involved in informal, interactive sessions with academics than trying to keep up with 'the literature'!

I also found it really fascinating to meet people working in so many different contexts. Although I get to meet teachers from around the world when I'm giving talks and workshops, it was interesting to get a slightly different take from folks who are developing materials independently; a world away from the large-scale, global projects I'm generally involved in. I came away with a number of ideas that I think I can transfer to my own work in some form.

So there are lots of things that I think other MaWSIG members like myself could get from dipping a toe into MATSDA territory every now and then. But what could MATSDA members gain from exploring what MaWSIG has to offer? As well as insights into the world of commercial publishing, I think the main thing they might gain is more practical hands-on ideas that they can take away and make use of. Although the MATSDA sessions provided plenty of food for thought, I didn't come away with concrete things to try out, links to follow, tools to play with in the same way that I often do after a MaWSIG event.

Overall, I think there's definitely room for both groups to continue looking at the world of ELT materials from their slightly different perspectives, but I also think there's lots of scope for overlap and sharing too.
If you're interested in finding out more about either group:
MATSDA:  https://www.matsda.org/

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Blogger The Toblerone Twins said...

A comment from Brian Tomlinson (Sorry, you had trouble posting your comment):

Glad you enjoyed the MATSDA conference Julie and we were delighted to have you with us. Just so there's no misunderstanding, MATSDA is not just for 'developers' and it's not 'v writers'. If you go to our website you'll find a statement which says.' MATSDA (Materials Development Association) is a not-for-profit international association, founded in 1993 by Brian Tomlinson to bring together researchers, publishers, writers and teachers to work towards the development of high quality materials for the learning of languages'. At our early conferences we had numerous presentations by writers, publishers and teachers but unfortunately (as you say) funding is difficult to obtain these days and more and more contributors are coming from overseas institutions willing to fund them. We really wouldn't like to be labelled as 'academic'. We welcome practical presentations from writers, we publish a journal, Folio, which has many practical articles and we run workshops at which the main objective is to write materials for the classroom. The reason we use the term materials development is because our focus is on evaluation, adaptation and exploitation of materials as well as on materials writing.

Hope to see you again at a future conference and we'd certainly welcome contributions from MAWSIG members on practical issues.


Brian Tomlinson
President of MATSDA

2:00 pm  
Blogger Tyson Seburn said...

I share some of your findings between the two groups as I have increasingly attended intra-university PD sessions with writing TAs, faculty from other departments, and administrators throughout the campus (none of which are ELT-focussed at all, but all of whom share the responsibility of teaching an increasingly international population). What I have found echoes some of your sentiments e.g. pedagogical underpinnings rather than practical, academic-focus rather than language classroom-focussed, etc. How valuable I find embedding myself in both crowds and likewise encourage others to do so if afforded.

8:37 pm  
Blogger The Toblerone Twins said...

Exactly, Tyson, I think it's always good to have a foot in more than one camp :)

11:00 pm  

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