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How the TESOL CALL Interest Section Began

Reminiscences by Vance Stevens
Co-founding member and early chair of TESOL CALL-IS

Prepared at the request of Chris Sauer, CALL-IS Newsletter Editor, May 2003
and with the help of Carol Chapelle, Elizabeth Hanson-Smith, Deborah Healey, Roger Kenner, and Claire Bradin Siskin

Appeared in an email sent to all CALL-IS members in Fall 2003 via the TESOL organization.
I wrote and asked about a permanent archive but there appears to be none.

I got into computing in 1979. That was the year I sat myself down at the keyboard at the terminal connected to the room full of cabinets with spinning tape reels of a half million-dollar minicomputer recently installed in the language center where I worked in Saudi Arabia and just diddled with the keys like you would a piano. While I was trying to work out where the sound should be coming from, my director happened to pass by and, perceiving in my random gestures some precursor to expertise, called on me to head up the CAI development program he had been charged with getting under way. Back then we didn't call it CALL.

I succeeded in coordinating a team of developers in the production of the institute's first battery of computer-based drill and practice lessons only because I got to grips with the manual for the authoring system we were using and managed to stay at least one page ahead of everyone else on the team. That's essentially how I ended up as chair of the CALL interest section. It was only because I was in the right place at the right time and was only slightly further along in the manual than others who were catching up fast and could have done equally well or better at the time than I did.

(There is a lesson here for newcomers to CALL: it's a field you can get into at any time and become an expert in the latest software tool, Flash for example, faster than those with more experience can remember how to type in the code in BASIC that will get the computer to say BOO. It's a field where you break in fast just by starting out on a higher rung on the ladder than the next person down.)

In 1981 I moved to Honolulu to start in the MA program at the University of Hawaii. After struggling for a semester with typing out second and third draft revisions to an overwhelming number of papers I had to write, I bought an Apple II plus with 48K RAM (that's right, kilobytes). The computer, second floppy drive unit, and printer cost me over $3,000 (RAM has since increased, but you'll notice prices haven't changed much). Taken in perspective, the remarkable significance of the Apple was that it was the first ever mass-produced computer affordable to individuals and was thus poised to make possible the empowerment inherent in grass-roots development of a far-ranging variety of computer-based applications that most of us take for granted today. Though I only got 40 characters of type across the screen and had to track in my head that every other line would have a break when it printed on paper, I had at least put the days of re-typing behind me. I also bought a copy of Apple Pilot and steered my M.A. thesis onto a CAI topic.

One reason for my choosing Hawaii for my MA program was (the surf of course, and also) that the 1982 TESOL Conference was scheduled to be held there. This attracted a dozen presentations involving computers, notably one by David Sanders from Concordia University in Montreal on 'Design and Implementation of a Communicative CAI Program.' Joan Jamieson and Carol Chapelle also presented there, giving two skillfully choreographed back-to-back 3-hour sessions all day on Saturday, one on ESL lesson design and the other on programming in Pilot. Also at that conference, David Wyatt, whose software was on display at the ALA booth, chaired a 'Rap Session' on 'The Why, Where, and How of C.A.I.' (in addition to Carol and Joan, the panelists were Frank Otto, Anne Jackson-Muller, and Roberta Lavine).

The technology could be recalcitrant in that era. I remember Anne and Peter Muller struggling to get their program to load ten minutes into the time their presentation was due to begin while their audience grew restless with the delay, and this was typical of the way the technology could be expected to work, or not, as the case may be. I myself was not listed in the program, but my work in the ESL department at UH had earned me a cameo appearance at the video interest section's academic session. I had been playing with a crude authoring system which would cue a video cassette tape, play a segment, ask a question, and depending on response wind the tape to another frame, play that, and so on. The program required a ten-minute load to memory and even then didn't always work. In order to demonstrate it, I had to start the loadup during the change in speakers just prior to my turn, and that speaker had to endure distraction from the clicking of the disk drives and whirring of my VCR at irregular intervals during his presentation. The drives had settled down by the time it was my turn to speak. I could only hope that when I hit the Enter key, this would not be one of the times the program would be found to have aborted prematurely. To my great relief, text appeared on the screen, the tape played, and the program worked long enough for me to briefly overview it.

(My own interests at the Hawaii conference extended beyond technology. Since I was on home turf, I got someone to let me stash my surfboard under a table at registration and I skipped the plenaries to check out the breaks just a quick paddle from the beachfront of the conference hotel - when is TESOL planning to go back there, I wonder?)

Hawaii was not the first TESOL event where interest in CAI had been shown. David Wyatt had also presented on a computer-based topic in Detroit in 1981, and Joan and Carol had done a computer-based presentation as early as 1980 at TESOL in San Francisco. According to Carol "It was an introduction to CALL and authoring on PLATO. We got terminals from a Bay area PLATO rep, had phone lines installed, and taught people how to author." The following year, Carol and Joan (they had some system for continually reversing the order of their names) "looked at the benefits and limitations of three hardware/software environments for developing and using CALL: micro, mainframe, and instructional mainframe (the latter was PLATO). We had programmed the same material on the three, brought the three terminals to Detroit in my car, had phone lines installed in the conference room, and showed them live!!" Carol enjoys recalling these events: "These memories are very vivid because these events were extremely difficult to set up logistically, and they were very rewarding to conduct." Joan and Carol followed up their minicourse by sending a mailout to those involved. This was an early attempt at pulling together a community of CAI enthusiasts within TESOL, but Carol and Joan backed off from organizing further "after realizing how much secretarial work was involved!" (quoted from email 15 & 16 May 2003, with Carol's permission).

Although there were several computer-related presentations in 1982, I had the impression that most of the presenters had only recently benefited from the personal computer revolution, and, like me, had been working alone and were largely unaware of the surprising depth of interest that computers were starting to generate among language-teaching peers. What was clear at that conference was that the topic was growing in both interest and potential efficacy for language learning. Therefore, an invited symposium was scheduled for the next annual TESOL conference in Toronto, 1983, and this symposium was notable for many things that both happened and didn't happen. One important thing to happen was that John Higgins argued eloquently that the name of our endeavor should be changed forthwith to CALL, to place the emphasis on 'learning'. Someone (I think it might have been me) argued that since CAI was the term most widely used in the literature, we should retain 'instruction' in our acronym. Fortunately, John prevailed, and we eventually became the CALL interest section. One thing that didn't happen at this symposium was that, since it was an 'invited' event, a volunteer was stationed at the door to check badges against her list of invitees; thus was Earl Stevick turned away and he disappeared down the hall before anyone could reach him to invite him back.

However, the 40 some-odd people who had been invited did discuss becoming an interest section. Toward this end we went so far as to elect a chair. As David Sanders had taken the initiative to organize and convene the symposium, he was elected first chair of the interest section-to-be. Next on the agenda was election of an associate-chair. John Higgins was nominated, but he declined saying he was too busy for such an obligation and could not guarantee regular trips to TESOL conferences from the UK. Other sterling candidates were nominated: Frank Otto, Randall Jones, and Roger Kenner, but all similarly declined before Paul Hardin at last accepted his nomination. In order to make it a contest, someone nominated me as well. Paul and I left the room and on return I found that I had been elected associate chair of what we hoped would soon become an interest section in TESOL.

A steering committee was then elected, among whom was Roger Kenner, who took on the role of "Official Secretary", a job which from all appearances he has never relinquished. Roger has maintained an archive of CALL-IS history from its inception to now. His "A Short History of the Founding of the CALL-IS Interest Section" deals specifically and in greater detail than here with the behind-the-scenes leading up to the Toronto symposium and the years immediately after (see Kenner, 1996).

Despite the fact that, according to Roger's record, the symposium had been orchestrated to lead to the formation of an interest section, this was another thing that didn't happen in Toronto. We soon learned that certain steps in the procedures we would have to follow could not be taken until the next year's convention. Meanwhile, David Sanders developed other interests and his place in our lobbying efforts was assumed by his colleague at Concordia, Roger Kenner. These developments were communicated among the principles (David and Roger in Canada, the TESOL front office in Virginia, and me in Hawaii) through snail mail (what we used to call 'regular' mail).

We had managed to muster enough favorable reaction in Toronto among the higher-ups in TESOL that Roger and I were each treated to a night in the Hyatt in Houston, 1984, in order to attend a day-long TESOL leadership workshop there (Kenner, 1996, provides insights into what was going on between TESOL and the unofficial CALL interest section). Here we learned the hoops we would have to jump through in our interest section bid and how to approach them. Our proposal had to be put before each existing interest section, as each would have to decide how to direct its delegates to vote at the mid-week Interest Section Council meeting, where Roger and I would appear to make our case in person. The approval of other interest sections was crucial and fraught with politics. More interest sections meant greater subdivision of the pot of limited resources available to all interest sections (e.g. money, hence pages, for newsletters) and dilution of influence in the Interest Section Council, so that it was in the interest of the most powerful interest sections to stringently vet newcomers. However, our argument that we represented a substantive issue in TESOL backed with a groundswell of support won the day, and our petition was approved.

During the week, we met frequently with our co-conspirators in the spacious atrium of the Hyatt. When we learned we needed to quickly draft a Statement of Purpose for our group, Joan Jamieson picked up a napkin off the table and began jotting down our working notes and handed these over to Roger. Don Loritz, who was way ahead of most of us with his LISP-based parsers, happened to have brought his 'portable' with him (which in those days meant 'a kind of typewriter') so Roger went up to Don's room and clattered out the document we needed to attain the next hurdle in the ratification process.

Once an interest section is approved by the Interest Section Council its recommendation goes before the Executive Board, which meets after the conference and, assuming it supports the recommendations of the Interest Section Council, then appoints the new interest section's chair and associate chair . As our group's two spokespersons behind the scenes at the Houston convention, Roger and I made sure that the right people had our names spelled correctly, and we were informed of our appointments later in the year.

The concept of the CALL-IS Hospitality Room and its evolution into the Electronic Village is another thread that is worth pursuing in tracking the development of the interest section. As mentioned in Roger's documents, I organized the first software fair in Houston in 1984. There was no precedent for this, but those of us presenting became aware that each of us was developing software the others might like to examine at leisure. So, at the next software fair organized by Roger and I in New York in 1985, I remember that some of us stayed behind to copy our freeware onto each other's 'five-and-a-quarter inch' truly flexible floppies before the computers we had assembled could be packed away at the end of the session. Neither Roger nor I were in Anaheim in 1986, but Roger's documents state that the first 'Hospitality Room' appeared at that conference. In 1987, Macey Taylor turned a room in the convention hotel in Miami into a CALL-IS Hospitality Room. She set up her Amiga there along with some DOS PCs and Apple IIe computers and kept it open to those wishing to drop by and learn more about our interest section. Roger recalls that the following year, 1988 in Chicago, Peter Lee arranged to provide computers for a Hospitality Room and crimes had to be committed and concealed through discrete tipping to get them in and out of the conference center, past the union watchdogs.

The idea of assembling computers in one place for the purpose of presenting language learning software led to the establishment of a regular venue for sharing and exchanging it. Soon, freeware and shareware software collections for Apple, Mac, PC, Commodore, etc. were maintained by separate librarians for each different platform. The collections themselves were brought to each conference; lists were published in newsletters during the year, and copies of the software were mailed to people who sent money to cover cost of postage and diskettes. In 1989 Claire Bradin Siskin compiled a number of these lists into one big list and brought it to San Antonio with her. She remembers that "before the conference started, I ran off about 100 copies and put them in the HR. They immediately disappeared, and people kept demanding copies of it. I think that we had neither money nor time to keep on making more copies, so we took one master copy and put it at the central handouts booth. The funny thing then was that the master copy kept disappearing from the handouts booth, and they kept asking me for a new master copy! I remember taking some people's addresses and mailing the list to them after the conference. None of us had anticipated the great demand for the list, and this experience was probably what led Deborah and Norm to start the first 'official' CALL-IS list the following year." (quoted from email 17 May 2003, with Claire's permission)

Deborah Healey and Norm Johnson produced biannual print-version updates of the CALL-IS Software List from 1990 through the rest of the decade. The 1999 version is still listed in TESOL Publications <> and it was for a time a source of revenue for CALL-IS as well as TESOL. Claire recalls one important aspect of this arrangement: "When CALL-IS gave TESOL the rights to sell the printed version of the list, Deborah made sure that CALL-IS retained the rights to the electronic version. This is significant because it meant that in the many workshops that Deborah and I and others gave in the subsequent years, we could legally distribute the electronic file on a floppy disk [and] why we can have the list available on the Web today." <> (quoted from email 17 May 2003, with Claire's permission)

By now commercial vendors at TESOL had begun to take what was by-and-large a healthy interest in CALL-IS and the librarians were becoming heir to boxes of donated commercial software that had to be stored between conferences and then shipped to the next venue. In 1993, Deborah Healey and Jim Buell greatly aided the management of this situation by arranging through Lloyd Holliday at La Trobe University in Australia for the CALL-IS public domain, shareware, and commercial demo software collections (and the electronic version of the CALL-IS Software List ) to become available via FTP from CELIA (Computer Enhanced Language Instruction Archive, no longer available at Then in 1996, with the instigation of Elizabeth Hanson-Smith, these materials were ported to a CD-ROM which was published by TESOL. <>

As the Hospitality Room grew into a place where conference delegates could come each year to try out a growing collection of commercial and non-commercial software in a setting free of promotion and bias, the job of arranging for the computers at each conference, installing software on them, and maintaining and networking them grew increasingly complex and labor-intensive. Roger mentions the guitar jams we used to have late at night in the CALL Hospitality Rooms. These occurred because CALL-IS volunteers and steering committee members used to have to work late nights after each conference day to maintain the computer software and networking in the HR (networking was a late development - initially we resorted to 'sneaker-net' - and Deborah nostalgically recalls hours happily "spent copying those damn shareware floppies" (quoted from email 16 May 2003, with Deborah's permission). We would keep our guitars under the tables during the day and send out for food and drinks as darkness fell. Early to late evening we'd maintain and copy, and man you shoulda heard us, just about midnight.

Roger notes that 1997 in Orlando was the year that the HR became known as the EV, or Electronic Village. By now the CALL-IS has succeeded in getting TESOL to contract out for setup and maintenance, and network administration, of the EV, and CALL-IS organizers can walk away from the conference like everyone else after the last discussion session has wrapped up. This has led to marked improvements in the stress and sleep deprivation levels of the organizers, but has also to loss of what used to be a great source of entertainment and community spirit in what was once a much smaller and very close knit CALL-IS. But size has its advantages as well, and it is gratifying to see events set in motion 20 years ago develop into an interest section whose many offshoots have become institutionalized for the benefit to so many people.

And that is how CALL IS began. But there's a lot more, much of it recorded in Roger's "The CALL Interest Section Community History" (Kenner, 2000, 2003). If you read through this, you can't fail to notice first that Roger has taken great pains to document our beginnings and maintain that record. You also can't fail to notice that as the years go on, the documentation gets sparser. Who is going to fill in the gaps and refresh the record before memory fades? Could it be you?


CELIA (Computer Enhanced Language Instruction Archive). Retrieved May 15, 2003 from <> (timing out May 20, 2003)

Healey, D. and Johnson, N. (1999). CALL IS Software List Produced by the TESOL CALL Interest Section. Alexandra VA: TESOL. Electronic version retrieved May 20, 2003 from

Kenner, R. (2000, 2003). The CALL Interest Section Community History. Retrieved February 26, 2011 from

Kenner, R. (1996). A Short History of the Founding of the CALL-IS Interest Section. Retrieved February 26, 2011 from; another version was retrieved February 26, 2011 from

TESOL CALL-IS Computer-Assisted Language Learning Interest Section. (2003). Retrieved February 26, 2011 from

TESOL / CELIA '96 CD-ROM: Computer-enhanced language instruction archive. (1996). TESOL/CALL-IS/La Trobe University CD-ROM. Alexandra VA: TESOL.

TESOL Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages. (2003). Technology. Retrieved May 20, 2003 from


This is the version of this article that was submitted to CALL-IS Newsletter editor Chris Saur in 2003. The article has since been reprinted and in 2015 was updated. 

Stevens, V. (2015). How the TESOL CALL Interest Section began (updated). On CALL (Sept 2015). Available:

A Google Doc version of the updated article appears here:

The original and reprinted versions are available online:

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Updated: February 26, 2011 and September 7, 2015

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