Friday, 20 May 2016

What working from home really looks like...

The baby's sleeping on me in the Ergo, leaving my hands free to type and the cat is sat on the side of the laptop. She'll ignore me all day until I try to get some work done...

Today I had a working from home breakthrough: I left the baby to play on the floor by himself while I answered a few emails. Yes, he pulled all of the contents of the shelving unit out and yes, he put a lot of inedible things in his mouth, but amazingly, nothing was broken or damaged. It was just messy, and for once I just let him make a mess instead of trying to clean up after him constantly (which is futile). And even though I feared that I might be neglecting him, George was having a great time--he's not as needy as I assumed. When I was done with my emails, I tidied up and we went for a walk. I was able to enjoy spending time with him more now that I had a zero inbox and nothing hanging over my head.

I'm loving this age--he's finally able to entertain himself for a bit. He's sleeping better now, too, which means I'm sleeping better and am finally able to think again. We're only up once in the night now, around 4 am, which still sounds horrible but trust me, it's a huge improvement. I'm starting to feel a little bit optimistic about getting back to writing again.

Now if I can just get the cat to stop sitting on my notes...

Monday, 11 April 2016

2016 Primaries...View from Britain

I've had a few people ask me recently for my thoughts on Trump and the primaries in general.

The US 2016 Presidential Election is shaping up to be a fascinating train wreck. The Republicans started the primaries with a massive field of candidates, some with serious credentials and some hard to take seriously. The early debates, with over a dozen participants, were fun to watch and laugh at, at first. Behind the late night TV jokes, though, there is the chilling reality that these candidates actually believe the outrageous things they say, and some (very few but vocal) Americans actually agree with them. Bigotry, homophobia, Islamophobia, racism, sexism, ableism, anti-immigration...Even though Donald Trump is the most visible bigot of the group, he's not the only one with these ideas. Other candidates who aren't getting as much coverage have similarly offensive positions. Ted Cruz wants to build a wall, end funding for Planned Parenthood, believes in an "America-first foreign policy" and has defended the Second Amendment in Supreme Court cases as an attorney. I'm with Lindsey Graham, who said choosing between Trump and Cruz is like choosing between being shot or poisoned.

The Democrats started with just Hillary Clinton--the one we didn't pick in 2008, but she got the consolation prize of being Secretary of State and having the chance to run again in 2016. I'm 100% certain that she thought she would just walk to the DNC this summer and accept the nomination. She must be so irritated by Bernie Sanders' success. At the moment, she still leads in the delegate count and she may still get the nomination--but it certainly hasn't been the easy journey she expected. Bernie Sanders is hugely popular with the kids, the hipsters and the Democrats Abroad. He's a Democratic Socialist, and many Americans abroad know what it's like to live in places with the types of programs he's proposing, like universal healthcare and free tuition. We know how his ideas work in practice--we know that they can and do work, and that they're not just the rantings of a crazy old man.

At the moment, I'm not ready to make any precise predictions, but I will say this: whether it's Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders against either Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, I genuinely think the Democrats are going to win. The U.S. economy is doing well--unemployment is half of what it was when Obama took office, gas prices are less than half of what they were then, and I saw a headline the other day saying the economy is like it was in the boom times of 1998/99 under Bill Clinton. When the economy is doing well, the incumbents win. Also, the GOP is increasingly divided, with a lot of animosity directed to both Trump and Cruz. Neither of them are going to get enough support to win in the general election. I'm nervous but cautiously optimistic about November...

Monday, 7 March 2016

PhD and Motherhood

I've accidentally become a feminist scholar. It happened in the early stages of pregnancy, when I was so tired I couldn't keep my eyes open in the library. It happened when I brought my 9 week old baby to a conference and had to spend every coffee break breastfeeding and pumping (simultaneously) instead of networking. It happened when I realized that I'm still doing most of the domestic work even on days when I work outside the home (the so-called 'second shift') and that I have to get up with the baby all night whether I work the next day or not. As a married couple, we're about as first-world, middle class, egalitarian and liberal as they get, yet these inequalities are still there.

My students and colleagues from China have also really opened my eyes to the need for feminism. The first time I met one of my MA students, she said "I heard you were married--wow, that's great!" as if I had accomplished something really remarkable. (Also, who's telling students my marital status? Haha!) When I announced my pregnancy to a Chinese friend, he was very happy for me and said that in China, a woman is considered "complete" once she has a baby. Yikes...I knew it was meant well, but it seemed to discount other achievements. To be honest, I don't think of marriage or motherhood as an achievement. Marriage can't be considered an accomplishment when the divorce rate is so high, and having kids can't be considered an accomplishment when teen pregnancy rates are so high.

That said, motherhood impacts your career like no other life choice. It's well documented in the literature that having children impacts women's careers in academia. "Women who have children soon after receiving their PhD are much less likely to achieve tenure than men who have children at the same point in their career" (Williams, 2005, p. 91). It's unusual for PhD moms to completely stay at home, though---this Pew study found only 6% of mothers with PhDs are opting out of the workforce. The most common path seems to be the one of non-tenure track and part-time positions, like my temporary part-time contract. It works for my family situation at the moment, but I would love to have a full-time position (and I'll continue looking for one in the meantime).

Balancing my new responsibilities is tough, but parenthood isn't the terribly difficult ordeal that so much comedy makes it out to be. Really. The hard parts--childbirth, sleepless nights, cleaning up bodily fluids, etc.--are just a normal part of the job description. We knew what we were getting ourselves into, and we can't complain because we chose to do it. Our parents did it for us and now it's our turn to do it for the next generation. It really doesn't have to be so awful!

It's ok, you don't have to be a tired octopus to be a good parent.

Humor like this perpetuates the damaging, sexist "mommy brain" stereotype

Besides, there are definitely more ups than downs. He makes me smile and laugh every single day and I love watching him grow and learn new skills, and seeing his personality starting to take shape. The film "Inside Out" really influenced my thinking about parenting, actually--I was watching it on a flight while holding my sleeping 10-week old, and I kept thinking about how his experiences are going to shape him, just as my childhood shaped me. It's a lot of pressure, of course, to think that you're responsible for building your kid's mental "Goofball Island" and "Family Island", but it's a pretty amazing thing, too.

I'm just not sure how we can ever resolve the "second shift" and tenure-track problems, though...

Teaching reflections

Now that I'm on the other side of the student-teacher dyad, I've realized that my teachers always knew when I wasn't giving them my best work. All through school, I really thought that I'd pulled it off--the term papers written the night before the deadline, the projects thrown together after weeks of procrastination, the MA dissertation that I wrote in about 3 weeks--I thought I had them fooled because my grades were decent. But now that I've had a student do it to me, submit something well below what he/she is capable of, I realize that they must have seen through me, too. I really felt disappointed (even slightly insulted--did he/she think I couldn't tell it had been carelessly thrown together?) and had a hard time figuring out how to word my feedback. In the end, I kept it brief and gave specific instructions for our next meeting. Let's move on and pretend that weak effort didn't happen--just make it better next time.

Overall I loved my extended student years and I don't regret much, but I do regret not consistently giving my best. I used to try harder for teachers I liked, for example, or for subjects that I liked better than others. In practice, this meant I gave brilliant book reports in AP Spanish literature while I scored a one (failing grade) on the AP Calculus exam. In my first term at UW, I scraped through linguistics with a TA I didn't like and I aced a history of science elective with a lovely British professor.

What if I'm teaching the class the student doesn't like? What if I'm the teacher they don't like? How do I get them to do their best work while also staying likable and approachable? This is  much more reflective experience than I ever thought it would be. I love working with students again, and it's teaching me a lot about education & life in general.

In other news, today I've submitted an abstract for a symposium at University of York. My proposed paper is on the political impacts of study abroad participation. I got quite into it when I was coming up with the abstract so I'm going to turn it into an actual research project, whether or not it gets accepted for the symposium.  I was recently rejected for the Oxford Junior Research Fellowship and a Sheffield postdoc position, so I've been meaning to come up with a new research project proposal and this one sounds quite interesting so far.

Monday, 15 February 2016

Students as Customers

Last Monday I went to Brotherton library with my new staff card and read academic literature, taking proper notes and everything, for the first time in ages. It was wonderful. There's something about having less time that really makes you take advantage of the limited time you do have. In my student days, my attention would wander and I'd get distracted from my reading, because I had little else to do that day. Now, my 2-hour trip to the library is the only time I have to go there, and I needed to get some reading done because I knew it would be my only chance all week (and it has been--I checked out 3 books and haven't looked at them again since!). I was more focused than I had been in years!

Another reason for this improved attention span and dedication to my work is that my free time now costs real money. Going to the library means paying somebody else to look after George, and my one day a week of childcare costs £48. I have to make the most of that time and get as much done as possible to make it worthwhile. It's costing me a lot to study now, which got me thinking about our students under the new £9,000/year fees.

Over the past couple of years, since the £9k tuition fee was introduced, there's been a noticeable increase in the 'student as customer' mentality. It's prevalent amongst students, their parents, higher education administrators, and even some educators. Students demand more when they think of themselves as customers. They want course readings to be scanned as PDFs instead of having to find them in the library, they want lectures to be recorded and put online (along with the powerpoint slides), and most significantly, they don't want to study any material that won't be assessed. The other day on the bus, I overheard a student complaining to a friend, "I wish they would just teach us what's on the exam." I wanted to say something, but didn't know where to start...

In America, the mentality of student-customers has been around for many years. It's not all bad--I've seen it used to encourage attendance, in fact. Some professors remind their students that each lecture is costing them $100+, so they'd better attend in order to get their money's worth. If only our students looked at it that way, rather than demanding customer satisfaction...

Monday, 19 October 2015


When I started my research, I essentially was interested in what others like me had experienced--what did other Americans think about their time spent studying overseas? How did it change their lives? I thought the case of Americans in Britain was particularly interesting, because of the "special relationship", common language, shared culture, etc. How are the experiences of Americans different from other international students, those who don't speak English as a native language, those who may not "blend in" as well as Americans (particularly white Americans)? For example, on my first day in the UK as an exchange student, I got asked for directions. When I said what I thought the right answer was, and explained it was my first time here, too, they said "Oh, sorry, you looked like you knew what you were doing!" During my time in the UK, I've been asked for directions countless times in London, Liverpool, Bath, Manchester, Leeds, etc. I blend in--I "pass" for a local until I open my mouth. I'm privileged to pass, and now that I've been here for so many years and finished my research, I've finally recognised that privilege.

One of my more academic insights into parenting (almost 4 months now!) has been that I want George to acknowledge his privilege. He is white, male, a dual citizen of the US and the UK, born to married, home-owning parents who both hold postgraduate degrees. He has a passport and has already used it. When he learns to speak, it will be in English, giving him an advantage in the international job market. His first-rate medical care has been provided by the internationally renowned NHS since before he was born. He is incredibly privileged (not part of the 1% or anything, but still, very privileged). I want him to know that these things are completely up to chance, and he could have just as easily been born in Syria. He could have been born a girl in a culture that doesn't value them, and gone without medical care or an education simply due to being a girl. He could have been born into a single parent situation, as his parents both were, or a lower middle-class family without health insurance in America, as I was. He could have been born another race and faced discrimination simply based on the colour of his skin.

As a parent, you walk a fine line between wanting the best for your children and trying not to spoil them. Statistically, he's already spoilt from day 1. I want the best for him, but I also desperately want to teach him to use his privilege for good in the world. He has a voice that many people don't have, simply because of the color of his skin, his sex and his nationality. I hope he uses it well. (Very heavy expectations for a kid that can't even roll over yet, but there you go!)

Monday, 28 September 2015

Fulbright Legacy Conference

On 1-2 Sept, I attended a brilliant conference at the University of Arkansas:

J. William Fulbright in International Perspective: Liberal Internationalism and U.S. Global Influence

I'd been looking forward to this one for a long time--not only is the topic a perfect fit for my research, but there are a lot of names amongst the organizers and attendees that I couldn't wait to meet. I was hoping to get some good ideas for my book revisions, too. I'm ashamed that I haven't submitted my manuscript to the publishers yet, but at the same time, this was a great opportunity to get more final bits and pieces to add!

In the subtopics on the call for papers there were two bits that jumped out at me-- "particular southern variants of mid-century internationalism[;] racial, class, and gender aspects of liberal internationalism or the Fulbright exchange program". For my paper, I combined the specific concern with the South and the subtopic of gender aspects of the exchange program, and looked into Southern attitudes towards women's education, and connected these ideas to the Fulbright Program.

I started working on the paper over a year ago, after submitting the PhD but before my viva. Having something new to work on during that awkward downtime really inspired me and got me excited about research again. It turned out to be quite a big topic with a lot of different aspects that I hadn't considered--the social and economic hierarchical structures in the South, the highly variable curriculum at different women's higher education institutions, the experiences of Southern women at Northern women's colleges, the foreign and domestic activities of Fulbright participants' wives and children as an example of the multiplier effect, the contributions of Fulbright women in academia, women as exchange program administrators, etc. So many different angles and subtopics I had to discard! It's certainly original, too--there's been very little done at all on race or gender in educational exchanges.

The "Southern Belle Paradox," a term I borrow from historian Christie Anne Farnham's excellent book, The Education of the Southern Belle, is the idea that the antebellum South was home to pioneering efforts in women's education, yet these young ladies were educated primarily with the aim of marrying well. There is a juxtaposition of progressive attitudes towards women's education and conservative attitudes towards their place in a patriarchal social structure. The first full women's college in the United States was founded in Macon, Georgia in 1837--thirty years (and more) before the well-known Northern women's colleges, the Seven Sisters to the Ivy League, were established. Southern women's colleges often offered a curriculum equal to that of men's colleges--Latin, mathematics, natural sciences, etc. Many of them were far from the stereotype of 'finishing schools'. Yet when you look at the reasoning behind their curriculum, they no longer seem progressive--women were given this level of education not to compete with men, but to be their companions. The Southern belle strove to be 'fascinating,' to be able to provide intelligent conversation to her future husband. It's a bit like the geisha idea, though perhaps not quite as submissive. Education also maintained the hierarchy of Southern society, setting the upper class young women above the uneducated lower classes, both whites and slaves.

Connecting this concept to the Fulbright Program--my main argument is that both feature an appreciation for the social and cultural capital that education endows, rather than seeing education as a vocational prep activity. Senator Fulbright originally excluded medical students from the program and emphasised the liberal arts and humanities. He saw his program as being more about forging connections and understanding between people of different nationalities, rather than simply paying for a participant's professional development. The connection isn't that strong or relevant, though, so I'm planning on quite a lot of revising before the paper is considered for the conference publication next year. There hasn't been any research on gender and the Fulbright Program, so at any rate, my work is original and there are a lot of new angles to explore in my revisions!

Just before the conference, I found a modern day version of the Southern Belle Paradox in the news. There's been a trend of female medical students in Pakistan who become doctors, but never actually practice medicine--they get the degree for the social capital and improved marriage prospects. So interesting that women's education still has these progressive-meets-conservative features!