Friday, 11 April 2014

It's Not So Bad...Really!

When I first talked about doing a PhD, I was warned that it was "a lonely process". Throughout the PhD, I've seen news articles like this one about how we suffer, and this one about how doing a PhD is probably a waste of time.

Articles like these make me wonder whether I've been doing this wrong or something, because I really haven't suffered in the ways they describe, and I (naively?) don't think it's been a waste of time.

Yes, it's been challenging--as it should be. If it were easy, they wouldn't give you a title when you finish.

But it hasn't caused feelings of loneliness, isolation, depression, etc. I've had a few times when I was a bit down, a bit anti-social, but on the whole, it's been fine. It's been easier than high school, when I was desperate to get into the Ivy League and wore myself out with five AP classes, choir, extra foreign language classes, Future Business Leaders of America, National Honor Society, Science Team, and all of the other personal stresses that a seventeen year old faces (helping my mother care for her parents, crushes and heartaches, etc.). Maybe suffering back then has given me a different perspective on it now.

And I certainly don't think it's been a waste of time. I don't think education is ever a waste of time, but putting that aside, I just don't buy into this doom & gloom about the future of academia. The field will change, just like every other field does, but that doesn't mean it's not worth pursuing a career in academia. I hate being told that my dreams aren't worth pursuing because the field is too competitive, they're overproducing PhDs, etc. Professional athletes, musicians and artists don't give up on their dreams just because they're in competitive fields.

Academics are extremely privileged. They are paid to think and to express their ideas--it's incredible. If you were to talk to laborers in the developing world about "PhD Stress: Don't Suffer in Silence", they would shake their heads in disbelief (and possibly punch you in the face). It is an extremely cushy job (if you can even call it a job) and I'm tired of hearing how terrible it is.

Unless I've been doing it wrong all along, and it really should have been much more difficult...I guess we'll find out at my viva!

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Networking and Job Hunting

This article from Cancer Research UK triggered a lot of thoughts about Phil for me. It's the first time I've ever ready anyone acknowledge that just because someone makes unhealthy lifestyle choices, it doesn't mean they deserve to die from cancer. It makes sense, of course, but I'd never heard anyone reject the stigma of unhealthy lifestyle choices before. It was kind of comforting, in a strange way.

I'm still a bit touchy & defensive about Phil, particularly with the way the department has changed (the new name is a go, by the way--the School of Media and Communication, or SMaC, which is appropriate, as the change felt like a smack in the face). Next month, there's a Propaganda symposium down in Kent that I'll try to attend, organised by Mark Connelly and Jo Fox in honour of David Welch--all names I recognise from the Phil conference. I may go whether or not I get funding, as it's a great opportunity to see them again. They're great for networking, of course, but also, I just like them. I instantly felt comfortable with them and enjoyed their company. Phil had good taste in friends and colleagues.

I'm so looking forward to my next job and meeting new friends and colleagues. The job hunt is daunting, but I'm irrationally optimistic. I've been hearing horror stories about 140 applicants for 1 post, and other frightening statistics, but for whatever reason I have faith that the right job will come up at the right time. I've been rejected for 3 post-docs and a research assistantship, I'm waiting to hear back about a lectureship, and I'm working on another research assistantship application now. I went to a career centre workshop on applying for academic jobs, and it boosted my confidence a bit. There weren't any surprises and I felt more prepared and switched on than a lot of the people in the room. And after all, you don't have to be perfect you just have to be better than the other 139 applicants.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

ICS Research Seminar: 'On Being First,' Devon Powers, Drexel University

Yesterday's research seminar was very interesting but completely different from what I'd expected from the abstract. It was titled "On Being First" (also titled in the abstract 'On Firstness'), and the abstract talked about competitiveness, historicity, and the author's efforts to "develop a cultural theory of firstness". For the first time in a few months, I was looking forward to the seminar (I hadn't been attending them lately) and felt it was something that might relate to my work (merit-based competitive scholarships, historical perspectives, etc.). It wasn't really about those things, or any of the other things I thought it might be about, so I'll just reflect on my own thoughts of "firstness" here.

First, though, the seminar was actually about phenomenons like "FIRST!" comments on internet articles, being the first music review blog site to post an unknown artist, the contestation of 'first's (an example she used was that Tyra Banks was the first black woman on the swimsuit edition cover of Sports Illustrated, and Beyonce was the first black non-model woman to make the cover a few years later--her point was that there are too many 'firsts' being measured). 

On that last point, she didn't bring up sports statistics or political ones, but they offer so many examples! Seattle was so excited about the Seahawks winning their first Superbowl game this year, but in 2006, Seattle was equally thrilled to be competing in their first Superbowl game. When they made it to the Superbowl this time, they didn't say, "it's our second Superbowl game!" They focused on the current line-up, on their chances against the Broncos, etc. The term "second" wasn't used, because only "first" makes a good headline. 

In terms of political examples of celebrating 'firstness', there are tons of examples, best illustrated in this cartoon: 

My favourite part about this comic is that they don't even mention the fact that Obama was the first African-American President--no, he's the first Democrat to win without Missouri, and the first Democratic incumbent to beat a taller challenger. (Also, Reagan was really the first lefty?!)

Another interesting political first that I'd thought about was Margaret Thatcher. Growing up in the States, I only ever knew her as the first female Prime Minister of the UK. I never heard anything about the mining industry, the IRA, the privatisation agenda--I didn't even know which party she was in (the blue dresses weren't a clue, either, as US Democrats use blue). Of course, it didn't take long for me to learn about the Thatcher legacy once I lived in the North of England--the 'Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher' story is my favourite example of her evil deeds. I remember getting free milk in Head Start--it's a step too far, even for the uber-capitalistic US! At any rate, when Thatcher died, all my family remembered was that she was the first female Prime Minister of the UK. They didn't understand the criticism and downright hatred being expressed in the media, and I found it hard to explain the whole context (they did agree that the milk snatching was terrible, though). It's an example of how "firstness" can be a trivia game summary version of a much more complex, multifaceted story.

Devon Powers also brought up the concept of firstness as a form of promotion, i.e. best of lists and 'top ten' lists. That one made me think of further examples, like the way that Google search results appear in order of (paid advertising and then) popularity.

As she mentioned in the Q&A, this project really could go in many different directions. Even though it didn't go in the directions I thought it would, it was definitely interesting and it was nice to be back at the research seminars again. Next week's involves the world of 'homemade' handicrafts on sites like Etsy. As a fan of "Regretsy", a now-defunct blog by the brilliant April Winchell that mocked the 'fails' (why can't they just use 'failures'?) of Etsy, I'm looking forward to that one, too!

Saturday, 15 March 2014

The Language of (Public) Diplomacy

The U.S. ambassador to Nigeria is trying to pick up Pidgin English, and although the NPR article doesn't mention the term "public diplomacy", that's exactly what he's doing--reaching out to the public of Nigeria with accessible language.

"...though it may not be the language of diplomacy, it reaches people at the grassroots level."

 One thing that struck me about the article was that they call it "broken English", but it's clearly not "broken"--it just follows rules of its own. Broken, to me, implies that they're struggling with it. Their speech is stilted, full of pauses and "how do you say...???"Any English-speaker can speak "broken English" by making a few mistakes with subject-verb agreement, pluralisation and gender (think Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat-speak). This article was the first time I'd seen Nigerian Pidgin English in print, and it's definitely not like Borat. It's much more deliberate, nuanced--the idea that "to like" something would be "sweet their belle"--that's not the kind of mistake that speakers of broken English would make. (As an aside, when I lived in the dorms, I had a Nigerian housemate who spoke British English with me and Pidgin English with her friends--both languages fluently, not 'broken').

I think the stigma of learning and speaking 'broken English' is the only explanation for why ambassadors haven't been doing this before now. It makes sense. As the article points out, Pidgin English is a common second language for millions of West Africans. Ambassadors (and public diplomacy officials) don't have the resources to learn and use the hundreds of local languages--learning Pidgin English would be an efficient move!

I haven't been using this blog to talk about PD, really, but now that I'm finishing up and looking ahead, I'll try to start commenting on PD in the news.

Friday, 28 February 2014

My Study Buddy

Biscuit's keeping me on task--I don't want to disturb a sleepy kitten, so I just keep typing away!

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Learning from my students

In this round of marking, one of the essay topics was Americanisation. When we had the lecture & seminars on this, I have to admit that as an American who was pretty well versed in 20th century history, I didn't really get much out of it. America had done some bad things in the world, yes, but we're generally decent people, right? I admired presidents like Lincoln and Wilson--the eloquent, inspirational ones who believed in equality, self-determination, human rights, etc. I never really saw faults in capitalism, either. Growing up in the Seattle area, I was always quite proud of our big, global brands--Microsoft, Starbucks, Costco, Boeing, Amazon, etc. Seattle attracted a lot of clever, innovative, well-educated people from around the world with those companies, so I never thought there could be a downside. I even felt a bit defensive--I don't eat at McDonald's in Leeds. It's not my fault that it's popular here, therefore it's not America's fault that English people like to eat this crap, either. America will sell whatever sells. It's as simple as supply and demand, end of.

Some of these essays on Americanization have been a bit of a wake-up call, though. It's very humbling to read about your country through the eyes of others. These kids were born in the mid-1990's. They barely remember Clinton, and have mostly known George W. Bush's America. The America that brought their country into the Iraq War. The American TV shows like Friends and Frasier, The Wire and Breaking Bad. American tech companies like Facebook and Google, all based in Silicon Valley. The American brands that have spread substantially, even in the 7 years since I first came to Britain. I used to have a hard time finding certain American foods, and now the supermarkets are carrying them. There are several Starbucks locations in the city centre (although my favourite one in Headingley did close a couple of years ago, to be fair).It's fairly easy for me to feel at home here, and until I read these essays, I never realised that could offend others...that the growing reach of U.S.-based companies could damage local economies, that it could stifle the very qualities of creativity and innovation that I loved about Seattle. I never saw that the rules of international trade and global economics were so much more complicated than supply and demand.

As much as I like to laugh at some of the hilarious things students write in their essays, I have to admit that, on this point, I'm the humble student who's learning from them. And, in terms of the Fulbright Program, I just want to point out that it's taken me 7 years of living outside the US to learn this lesson--am I just a slow learner, or can 9-12 months abroad as a Fulbrighter really achieve the same impacts?

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Exam Invigilation Round 7

It's that time of year again--exam invigilation! Time to brush up on my pacing skills and get my spare pens, erasers and tissues out. We're under-staffed this time, so I'm working all day, every day for both weeks (I get an afternoon off on the last day).

I really do enjoy it, as boring as it sounds--it's interesting to see a different side of the University, and to see what else is going on around here. I like to help the students and try to make them feel relaxed. So many of the invigilators are too harsh & cold, but I always smile at them and say please & thank you. Also, it's easy money and only comes round twice a year. I'm grateful for the opportunity to get a bit of extra work.

I can't believe it's my 4th year of doing this. The exams office has had a hiring freeze for the past couple of years, so those of us who are working this time are all quite seasoned pros. Everything seems to be running much more smoothly this time, as we all know what we're doing. Experience makes a huge difference.

The only downside to the whole invigilation thing is the fact that this month is just ridiculously busy (submitting my dissertation, getting our kitten, working on a visa application) and I'm working full time for 2 weeks of it. I thrive under pressure, though, so I'm going to be brilliant this month! But it might just take all of February to recover...