Tuesday, 10 July 2018

New Research Blog

I'm coming up to the end of my contract at Leeds, so it feels like a good time to make a fresh start with a new (hopefully more frequently updated) research blog:


Friday, 9 February 2018

The New Crisis of Public Communication

This Wednesday we had our department's Jay Blumler Lecture, given this year by Silvio Waisbord of George Washington University. The annual lectures always connect in some way with Professor Blumler's work--in this case, it was a revisiting of his book with Michael Gurevitch, The Crisis in Public Communication. Waisbord's talk explored the current version of populism and its accompanying breakdown in public communication. Although social media has a great deal of potential to act as a public sphere, where users can engage in deliberative democracy, like a virtual Greek forum, that hasn't happened. Instead, there's been a phenomenon of partisan bubbles in which we only talk about politics with like-minded friends & family (with occasional interruptions by an argumentative uncle or former schoolmate, etc.).

The part that struck me as most interesting was his description of the characteristics of populist communication (or lack thereof)--they see political discussion as a shouting match rather than a rational exchange of ideas, they reject facts and science, and they don't seek consensus. This attitude means they simply don't want to participate in classical "public sphere" forms of deliberation. At the end of the lecture, I was left wondering what we're supposed to do--how do we get Breitbart readers, for example, to engage in fact-based, consensus-seeking discussion with people who read mainstream press sources? How do you get them to see the value in scientific proof and facts? It just reminded me of the phrase, "Facts have a well-known liberal bias", used by political satirist Rob Corddry back in 2004 when we didn't even realize how far this trend would go.

Waisbord encouraged us to look for "virtuous cases"--examples of countries/regions where people do engage in rational, fact-based discussion and reject the populist, anti-fact mentality we've seen recently (Trump, Brexit, Le Pen, Wilders, Duterte, etc.). One example might be Finland, where the fight against "fake news" was featured in this clip from Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. Part of their solution is educating the people on how to be critical consumers of news--everyone from political leaders to school kids is taught how to spot fake news and distinguish it from reliable sources.

I'm still not 100% convinced that there is a solution to the new crisis of public communication, but education always sounds like our best hope.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Cruz Ramirez and Belonging

We went to see Cars 3 the other day and, much like Inside Out or Toy Story 3, it was very poignant and moving, and it made me think about a range of deep issues--seasons of life, ageing, mentors, believing in yourself, belonging, etc. I've been struggling for years with finding a sense of belonging and direction in academia. On the one hand, it's what I love and what I feel called to do, but on the other hand, I've had many, many times where I've felt that I don't belong, that I'm not good enough, that I don't have the same mental energy that my colleagues seem to have. I worry that I'm not cut out for academia, but then I know I'm not qualified to do much else (with a PhD and no experience in any type of industry...), so I feel a bit stuck in the field that I love. I've spent far too much time reading self-help books and websites and watching inspirational talks--and where has it gotten me? I'm still struggling.

This morning I had an interview for a part-time lectureship in my department--basically the same job I've been doing, but now with a proper title of "lecturer" instead of "tutor" and a solid 50% FTE instead of the cobbled-together 10%, raised to 45%, raised to 48% contract I've had for the past 2 years. The panel included one member of staff who I've known for years and who I've always struggled with--I like this person and I admire their work, but I always seem to say something stupid in front of them. Does everybody have a colleague like that? Someone who intimidates them into sounding like an idiot?

This is where Cars 3 comes in. Jackson Storm is a new challenger on the racing scene, and his success has made Lightning McQueen question himself--is he too old, no longer competitive, not cut out for racing anymore? Lightning's sponsor makes him work with a trainer, Cruz Ramirez, who tries to get him back in top form for a high-stakes upcoming race. As their friendship develops, we learn that Cruz wanted to be a racecar, too, but became a trainer because when she tried racing once, she looked around at the other cars and felt like she didn't belong. I won't include any spoilers here--it's a brilliant film & highly recommended--but suffice it to say that this kind of self-doubt really hit home for me. 

Leaving the theatre, my first reaction was that it was a brilliant feminist message. Cruz wasn't a love interest, she was a professional, a colleague, a racer--there was no direct reference to her gender. That's true gender equality right there. This piece in Romper did a great job of acknowledging the limitations of a feminist reading of the film, so I won't go into it here. But I do think this message is pretty universal and goes beyond *just* women.

I think every woman, every person of colour, every LGBTQ+ person--everyone who's not a white, Western, Christian, heterosexual, cisgender man--can relate to that feeling of looking around at your colleagues or peers and not feeling good enough, of feeling like you don't belong for whatever reason. Maybe you are a white/Western/Christian/heterosexual/cisgendered man but you grew up poor or in a dysfunctional family and your class and background made you feel like you didn't belong. Maybe there was a particular bully in your life who made you feel that way--your own personal Jackson Storm--or a well-meaning colleague like mine who wasn't a bully but still made you doubt yourself for some strange reason.

So just as Cruz tells herself, "I am a racer", I'll keep telling myself "I am an academic."

Monday, 24 July 2017

Embodied Sociality, aka Down the Pub with Mates

This weekend I read an article that confirmed what I've always suspected: the best intercultural communication takes place amongst friends over drinks.

International education researchers Kati Tonkin and Chantal Bourgault du Coudray from the University of Western Australia observed a group of Australian study abroad students and their use of a blog that was designed to get them to engage in intercultural learning & peer-learning. There have been a lot of studies looking at study abroad 'best practice'--how we can get students to master foreign languages, to engage in culture learning, to not just treat it as a vacation, etc. This one tested the idea that online interaction could improve students' intercultural learning outcomes. By exposing them to theories of culture-learning in the pre-departure stage and supporting their experience with a guided reflection exercise (including a peer-learning element to the blog), it was thought that students would report better culture learning experiences.

They found that students didn't really critically engage with the blogs or comment on their peers' blog posts. The much more important factor in terms of culture learning, they found in re-entry interviews with the students, was face-to-face socialisation--namely, social drinking. The Australian students found their German counterparts to have more mature, moderate attitudes towards alcohol consumption--they commented on the lack of drunken violence in Stuttgart, the "mature" attitude of young people towards alcohol (i.e. having a beer while socialising, not just binging on spirits). The authors concluded that "peer learning occurred not online but through embodied interactions in the shared social context of the study abroad experience." (p. 115)

I loved this article because it's what my friends and I experienced and what I've observed amongst my international students. You can't force students to engage in culture learning--it just happens naturally as a result of these 'embodied social interactions'. It's supported by friendship research on international students, as well (Ward, Bochner and Furnham, 2001). If they don't interact, if they are insular and spend all of their time with compatriots, or alone in the library, they're missing out on culture learning experiences.

It also confirms what I've seen when I've looked at study abroad blogs. Many years ago, I thought I might analyse study abroad blogs, because I had a colleague who researched blogs in a different subject and it seemed interesting. An initial search and browse around the internet quickly showed me that it would never work as a research project. They are the most neglected blogs--started with good intentions in the pre-departure stage, with enthusiastic on-arrival posts, and then they're seldom (if ever) updated during the rest of the stay. Students are too busy engaging with the host culture to post about it--and that's a good thing, in terms of the culture learning we're trying to analyse.

Tonkin, K. and Bourgault du Coudray, C. 2016. Not blogging, drinking: Peer learning, sociality and intercultural learning in study abroad. Journal of Research in International Education. 15(2), pp. 106-119.

Ward, C., Bochner, S., and Furnham, A. 2001. The Psychology of Culture Shock. London: Routledge.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Implicit Bias and Progress

Yesterday I took part in a workshop on implicit (unconscious) bias--it was fascinating & engaging, and I'm so glad I went. The statistics on implicit bias are depressing but so eye-opening.  One that jumped out at me was a study that showed how the representation of women authors in an academic journal increased bu 30% after anonymous review was introduced. Implicit bias has been linked to police killings of unarmed African Americans, discriminatory hiring practices, and even online dating racism.

A recent BBC article discusses the debates surrounding implicit bias, without really coming to any solid conclusions, but I think it's a very important concept. The article mentions how Hillary Clinton referred to implicit bias in one of the debates--and that Donald Trump misinterpreted it as her claiming that everybody is racist. That's the kind of rhetoric that gets Trump supporters riled up--they equate the complex concept of implicit bias with simple, ugly racism, and then get defensive when they're told they have implicit biases. Research suggests that 98% of people have implicit biases. It's not the same as racism.

Obviously, after the workshop, I wanted to check out my biases--I took one on gender and careers and another on age. I had a moderate association of men-careers and women-families, like about 1/3 of people, and a moderate preference of old people over young people, like only 2% of respondents. Harvard's Implicit Association Test is here, but bear in mind that knowing what your implicit biases doesn't really address the problem. Research has shown that awareness doesn't improve behavioural outcomes, as you might think it would. The key to making real progress is systemic change--anonymisation of CVs and applications, anonymised marking, diversification of the curriculum, etc.

I did notice some encouraging signs from the workshop, like the fact that there were a few white guys in the room, and that when asked to brainstorm groups that might be affected by implicit biases, we came up with an impressive range, acknowledging how widespread and important the problem is. It wasn't just women and POC, but those with disabilities, people from lower socioeconomic classes, people with mental health disorders, religious groups, occupations, age (youth and elderly are both subject to implicit bias), etc.

This morning I came across a great quote that made me think about the progress that's been made--how important it is to understand and appreciate it, and to fiercely protect it from attempts to rollback that progress. It's from M. J. Hardman, a linguistic anthropologist and Emeritus Professor at University of Florida. She also happened to be the first Fulbright student to Peru in 1958, and held a Fulbright lectureship to Bolivia in 1965. She's had an absolutely fascinating career and personal life, and I'm trying to find a place for her in my Fulbright women book chapter edits.

"My greatest fear is that the young do not know what it has cost us to open the doors through which they now said. There is always the danger that those doors may close behind them." 

(Hardman, M.J., 2013, On the 50th Anniversary of the Publication of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, Women and Language, 36(1), pp. 57-61).

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Future Directions for Higher Education

In my application for HEA fellowship that I finished yesterday (yay!), one of the areas of professional values was "acknowledge the wider context in which higher education operates, recognising the implications for professional practice." I talked about the rise of international recruitment, as that's the area I know best from my research & my work with the University marketing department's International Office. This morning I came across another, more expansive consideration of this context--our society's future HE needs in the new economy. 

Former US Ambassador to Australia and Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board chair Jeffrey Bleich gave this keynote address back in March--it's a bit long but worth the read. He offers a compelling explanation for last year's political shifts (Brexit & Trump, among others), and moves on to describe a broader vision for the future global economy. With regards to higher education specifically, he notes that if people are going to be trained to use current technology, they are also going to need retraining throughout their lives to keep up with the constant technological advancements and changes--especially if they are going to live longer and work longer. 

"Universities may become less a way station for youth, than a life-long subscription service, with frequent retrainings."

I love this concept, not least because I've always loved school and can't imagine anything better than going back to it for the rest of my life. The concept of life-long learning is something my grandfather demonstrated to me from an early age. He loved--and used--the dictionary, thesaurus and encyclopedia. He watched BBC World Service on PBS and listened to Seattle's classical music radio station. He would've loved Wikipedia.

Bleich's concept aligns with what we're seeing in a lot of people's careers in the modern economy--people don't just do one thing, follow one career path anymore. It's increasingly rare to see someone work for the same company for 40 years. Trump and his supporters think that was a good system, that 40 years of mining was a great career, rather than a cause of black lung disease. I saw an interview where his supporters in Pennsylvania were excited about the new Acosta coal mine. They echoed the same ideas about hope that Bleich mentioned in his address:

"We feel like we've been thrown away. Our children don't matter, our grandchildren don't matter. And when Trump mentioned us, that was awesome."

I feel for the coal communities--I've been there, my grandfather grew up in West Virginia, and I get it--but going back to coal mining isn't the solution. This new mine is expected to provide 70-150 jobs--that's not going to restore a community that's been hit by thousands of layoffs. And how long is it going to last? They need long-term, sustainable solutions to their employment problems, not a short-term, partial resurrection of a dead industry.
--Investment in green technologies
--Retraining for green jobs
--Infrastructure (one of the interviewees mentioned their broadband infrastructure, among others)

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

I should be writing...

I just had my first staff developmental review and it really was helpful--I wish I'd had one of these during the PhD (although maybe that's what my supervision meetings were supposed to cover...)

The biggest thing I took away from it is the ubiquitous advice that I should be writing. Not just "write more" but seriously, write for 10 minutes here and there when you get a chance, carry a journal article in your bag to read when you're waiting in a queue, always have a writing task list going, etc. They basically explained that they don't take lunch breaks and they're constantly working and thinking. When I mentioned my teaching workload last term meant I never got anything done, as I was with students 10am-4pm, I could tell that they saw that as 2 hours of wasted time. Why wasn't I writing  9-10am and 4-5pm, when George was still at nursery? Because I was exhausted. Being switched on and student-facing for 6 hours straight is mentally exhausting.

(actually, even just being around people for 6 hours is pretty exhausting for an introvert)

They explained the reality of academia to me. They don't do what I do--they don't relax and recharge. They get up early and stay up late to read and write. It's very depressing and it's fuelled my self-doubt even more now.

I'm going to have a research mentor & try to have some accountability with my writing--weekly check-ins, maybe? This blog hasn't really helped me establish better writing habits--it might work for some people, but I just find it's too easy to ignore it for long stretches of time.

Trying not to get too depressed about this realisation...at least now I know why I'm failing as an academic. It's because I'm enjoying my life!