A few posts ago I promised to dish the dirt on the world of the reviews of English teaching materials, a part of the biz that I have been involved in in various ways for 8 years or so now. Apart from the difficulty of knowing how much that person’s opinion should matter to you in your teaching situation (something reviewers can try to deal with by stating at the end of the review who the materials might be suitable for, but that of course is just an opinion too), if you don’t know much about the person writing the review and/ or the publication it is in it isn’t as easy to choose the suitable pinch of salt as it is when reading the Guardian (take all their views, move 15 degrees to the right and there you have the truth) or right wing radio shows (mirror image of same). Here are some of my own experiences that might give you some idea of how that kind of research might be worth your while before trusting the reviewer and buying a new textbook:
In the worst example I have been personally involved in, a well known TEFL magazine contacted me to ask me if I would be interested in reviewing a piece of software as the publishers had recommended me as someone who knew the software well already because I had done some pre-publication testing on it for them. That explanation seemed to make sense until just after I had said yes, at which point it occurred to me that another way of looking at it is “As we know the publishers have paid you to work on this software, we think you would be the best person to write an independant review on it”.
Looking back, maybe I just should have refused, but instead resolved just not to let it influence my opinion- although that could be construed as a classic example of the “I did take bribes from all sides, but I never let it change my mind” argument. Anyhow, the publishing industry is such as small place that now I have done paid work of one sort or another for almost all the big publishers, so being too strict on myself would leave totally unable to be a Reviews Editor anymore. At least now everyone can have a look at my list of publications here if they ever doubt my judgement as a reviewer or reviews editor.
If I was the editor of that magazine, I think I would have mentioned my previous connection to the software in my mini-biog and left it at that (it did take me 7 years or so to come up with solution though!) Another example of where such a warning might have made the difference is one reasonably well known TEFL site that publishes reviews of textbooks etc, some of which are written by people in a school very closely related to the site. The reviews could well be totally fair nonetheless, but a bit of disclosure wouldn’t hurt.
More subtle but also well worth looking out for are reviewers that are so intellectually linked to the authors of the books they are reviewing that you might need a whole fist full of sodium chloride to see what an average punter like you should think of it. The classic example is the Pilgrims Humanistic Language Teaching Mafia*, who when they are reviewing a book by a fellow believer are unlikely to say “Then again, I’ve been in therapy for 35 years so I’m the kind of person who is always going to like this kind of thing”.
So, my completely even-handed opinion on how you can avoid such biases and get a totally independant view of TEFL textbooks and the like is to only read the TEFL.net review pages, where 99% of the reviewers are ordinary teachers with no connection to publishing at all. In fact, the only person I can denounce is myself…
If you are a teacher of English, you can be a reviewer too. It doesn’t matter how long you have been teaching, if you are a native speaker or not, what your training is or anything else. The only person who can say how suitable a certain book for someone in your situation is you, and we want to hear your opinion.
*I know this a bit like laughing at my own jokes (well, someone has to), but I do find the mental picture of a Humanistic Mafia very amusing. I can imagine them tying you to one of those chairs with little flaps your books keep falling off that they are responsible for, and shouting “Talk!”. “Okay”, you reply “it was me, I went squealing to the police”. “No, no” they answer “talk about your relationship with your mother!”