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!

Monday, 30 January 2017

The Fulbright Resolution and American Sovereignty

While all eyes have been on Trump and his executive orders, this House bill proposing that the US should leave the UN hasn't received much attention. 





The bill was introduced by Representative Mike Rogers of Alabama, who's been talking about this proposal since the Brexit vote took place last June. He's also a co-sponsor of the "Stop Dangerous Sanctuary Cities Act", "Defund Planned Parenthood Act" and "Prohibiting the Usurpation of Bathroom Laws through Independent Choice School Act (PUBLIC School Act) of 2016"--a bill that says federal funding can't be denied to institutions that adhere to anti-transgender bathroom laws--as well as various other bills that you would assume an Alabama Republican would support (pro-gun, pro-flag, anti-abortion, anti-tax, etc.).

I was upset but not surprised by the bill. The thing that irks me the most is its use of "sovereignty". The United Nations does not impinge upon the sovereignty of its members. What do they think the UN is? It's very interesting, because sovereignty came up frequently in the rhetoric of the Leave campaign, as well as Trump's campaign. Supporters (of Brexit & Trump alike) talked about "taking our country back"--but from what?

"Many talk of being sovereign as if it were like being pregnant: one either is or is not. The truth is more complex. A country can be wholly sovereign yet have little influence. Britain has signed some 700 international treaties that impinge on sovereignty. Although the EU has the biggest impact, others count a lot: membership of NATO, for example, creates an obligation to go to war if another member country is attacked. It can be worth ceding this independence to gain influence." (The Economist)

Trump has talked about leaving NATO, too, ignoring the fact that the only time Article 5 was invoked was after 9/11--drawing America's European allies into war in Afghanistan. The United States has only benefitted from that particular 'loss of sovereignty'. 

The other thing that upset me about the bill was the fact that US membership in the UN was part of Senator Fulbright's legacy. The so-called Fulbright Resolution, House Congressional Resolution 25, was introduced by the junior Representative in 1943, just six months into his three decade long Congressional career. It pledged the US to join a postwar international organisation, with the precise form & details of that organisation to-be-determined.

In his statement to the House, available online from the University of Arkansas, Representative Fulbright reminded his colleagues of the importance of achieving a lasting peace this time, after having failed to do so in the aftermath of the First World War.

"To do nothing as we did in 1920 will be a decision in favor of international anarchy...All of our experience indicates that it is absolutely necessary that some positive, affirmative action be taken before the fighting is over, if we are to achieve anything of lasting value from this war."

It's essentially a commitment to internationalism, as he speaks out strongly against isolationism. The wording and content of the resolution is simple and innocuous, but it's an important statement to the world. It declares that the US is ready and willing to play its part in establishing the postwar world order, not to retreat and isolate itself as it did after the First World War. He kept the wording simple so that debates and disagreements over the details could be avoided at this early stage.

"Let us not forget that it was just such haggling and misunderstandings by the Senate in 1920, by both parties, over reservations and restrictions, many of them of little importance, that led to our renunciation of any responsibility for world order, and in a very real sense prepared the way for the savage total war of today."

It's been a tough ten days (it's only been 10 days!) of Trump being in office, with each morning's headlines documenting yet another outrageous executive order or unqualified cabinet member or 'alternative facts' from the new press secretary. It's been absolutely wonderful and affirming to see the resistance, though--from the millions who participated in womens' marches around the world to Greenpeace's Resist banner hanging from a crane above the White House, to the ACLU's legal challenge of the immigration ban and the thousands who are demonstrating against it at airports and in city centres. Tonight there are protests again--even in Leeds--and over 1 million people in the UK have signed a petition against Trump's proposed state visit. I love that people are standing up to the craziness, that the press is not backing down and accepting 'alternative facts'. About an hour ago he called the media "the opposition party" on Twitter. He means it in a derogatory way, but they should embrace it. I prefer the British term, 'her Majesty's loyal opposition'--i.e. the media is loyal to the country, and they are the opposition because of that loyalty. You can be an opposition party in service to the country--and that's just what the US media are doing right now. Let's hope they keep it up!

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Initial Election Thoughts

I was absolutely shocked and devastated by the election results on Tuesday night into Wednesday morning, but now it's clear that we all should have seen it coming. It was Brexit all over again--the same divisive, angry rhetoric on both sides, the same class and race dividing lines, and of course, the same result.

I've been reading a lot of pieces that try to explain it, try to make sense of what happened, why the pollsters got it wrong again, and what happens next. I don't claim to understand it all, and I'm sure there isn't one single, simple explanation. Class, race and education seem to play a huge part in the new alt-right populist politics.  The media tends to focus on the working class, uneducated voters who support Trump and have certain lower socio-economic indicators--even the "Make America Great Again" hat is a class marker--it's a so-called "trucker hat". For Brexit, we saw the same type of media portrayal--voters who lived near closed-down factories and industries, like Stoke or Wales for instance, where there was high unemployment, went for Leave. But in both cases, there was a gap between the media portrayal and the reality as shown in exit polling. The majority of Americans who earned less than $50,000 a year voted for Clinton, and many Brexit supporters were retirees living in rural areas and villages in detached homes--not exactly poor or working class.

Many people have noted that these two elections have exposed an undercurrent of racism and bigotry in society. In the aftermath of Brexit, there was a spike in hate crimes and in the days leading up to the U.S. election, I feared a repeat of that--no matter who won. There have already been stories circulating on social media about racist and anti-Semitic vandalism, harrassment, verbal abuse, sexual assault, and other forms of hate crimes.

I'm not quite ready to make peace with this new reality. I'm disappointed that Clinton won the popular vote and lost the electoral college--it's like 2000 Gore v. Bush all over again, but without the Supreme Court decision. I'm going to struggle explaining it to my students. I can't picture Inauguration Day, or a State of the Union address with Trump not just taking part, but playing the starring role. I never watched The Apprentice and I don't want to watch him on C-Span, either.