Friday, 25 November 2011

Thanksgiving Abroad

Yesterday was my fifth Thanksgiving in England. Each year, I've celebrated it differently, so I'm not sure what this says about my culture mediation efforts...

2007--Went to London for the day, did some sightseeing (first trip to the British Museum) and some Christmas shopping. When I got back to Bath, I went to an American friend's house in the evening and had pumpkin pie and Carlsberg with a mixed international group (mostly Germany and Wales).

2008--First Thanksgiving in Leeds. After lecture, my classmates and I went to the Library pub as usual, then my Venezuelan friend and I went out for pizza at La Besi next door.

2009--Went to an American friend's place for dinner. I brought my mom's cornbread stuffing, a pumpkin pie and a pecan pie. Her French housemate loved the pecan pie and he even asked me for the recipe.

2010--Hosted my first Thanksgiving for a mixed international group of friends. I stuck to traditional American dishes (including two Paula Deen recipes-- Ol No. 7 yams and green bean casserole), although we did serve my favourite real ale (Brains). They loved it--one of my English friends asked a lot of questions about the history of Thanksgiving and what we traditionally do.

2011--Quiet dinner at home for just the two of us, although I did make a spare pecan pie and bring it into the office.

One of the questions I ask the Fulbright students is how the chose to celebrate (or not celebrate) Thanksgiving. It seems pretty innocuous, but their answers really do reveal a great deal about culture learning & mediation. Both Thanksgiving and Bonfire Night come relatively soon after the American students have arrived in the UK, so they present two early opportunities to engage in cultural mediation. If they go to a bonfire or fireworks display, do they go with host nationals or other internationals? If they have a Thanksgiving dinner, do they invite other Americans or a mixed international group? Do they make an effort to teach others about Thanksgiving, and to learn about Guy Fawkes Day? The way they choose to celebrate these holidays can tell us quite a bit about their overall attitudes towards culture learning.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Critical Theory

Once again, I'm struggling with theory--but this time, I actually have to teach it.

Last week was a general overview of theory--what theories communications scholars use, and how & why they use them. My seminars went surprisingly well, and it gave me a chance to think more about my own issues with theory.

This week, we got down to the side of theory that I really don't like: critical theory. Now, my understanding is that critical theorists one pursuit in life is to criticise everything. They question everything, 'challenge the mainstream' as the lecturer put it. I can respect that, up to a point, but I hate it when people argue for the sake of it. What's the point? Why be so miserable about everything?

Here's an example from the lecture: celebrity relief work, with the case study of the "Everybody Hurts" single for Haitian earthquake relief. Zizek is against this type of activity, because it perpetuates the system of inequality--the 'haves' giving to the 'have-nots' just reinforces the fact that the 'haves' have it to give.

Ok, so I understand his point. The system is bad. But my beef with this view is simply this: what would he have us do instead? He offers no alternative suggestions. He's just criticising charity, but I don't seem him doing anything to help (apologies if he actually does perform any aid work that I haven't read about...).

Why do I support the celebrity relief work phenomenon?
Because it actually does work.


Because it makes people pay attention--something that mainstream journalism often fails to accomplish on its own.

Because it's better to do something--even something small--than to just sit back and criticise others for not doing enough.

Academic research on celeb relief:
Goodman and Barnes. 2011. "Star/poverty space: the making of the ‘development celebrity’ " Celebrity Studies 2(1), pp. 69-85.

Samman, McAuliffe, and MacLachlan. 2009. "The role of celebrity in endorsing poverty reduction through international aid." International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing 14, pp. 137-148.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Update

For the past couple of months I've been juggling a lot of different things, and as something's gotta give...it's been this blog.

What's been on my plate?

~Teaching: leading seminars for 80 first-year students. I really do love it--they're a great group, most are really switched on & eager.

~Placements: I've taken on an admin job this year where I help arrange work experience places for ICS's Television Production students. I also take care of the paperwork for the other programmes (they arrange their own placements). It's turned out to be pretty demanding, but I like it. There's something very cool about calling up people at well-known media companies like the BBC (even if they're just admin like me...)

~Conference planning: the conference in memory of Phil Taylor is coming up very quickly, so most days I'm chasing something up on it. It's great to see the enthusiasm people have for Phil, though, so I really enjoy that work, too.

~Conference attending? I'm putting together an abstract for a conference and it's due this Friday), so fingers crossed--I might have my first conference presentation in May! Very exciting stuff...

~House-hunting: We might be moving next month before Christmas (right about the time that the Phil Taylor conference is...). Richard's doing all of the actual work with the various realtors/surveyors/mortgage lenders, but it's another thing to think about. And once we've moved in, there's a lot of work to be done--looking forward to painting!

~Wedding planning: Ten months to go, but we've already got ceremony & reception venues, the photographers & the dress. So efficient!

~Christmas shopping: finished in October. Another amazing feat.

And last but certainly not least: my PhD research.

Pros: I passed the upgrade and was granted ethical approval, and I presented my work to the first-year PhD students (first time presenting it--so exciting!)

Cons: I'm still sorting out access to interviewees for the fieldwork that should be taking place right now...But it's coming along, and I'm very grateful for the ones that I do have.

Looking over that list, it's amazing that I've been able to keep it together...Will post more research-related content in the future, time permitting!

Monday, 19 September 2011

Third Places


Sunset view from Ha'penny Bridge, Dublin

My brief stint as a tour guide was a success--Carly & Matt loved Leeds, thanks to a nice mix of sightseeing, shopping and pub crawls. We had a great time in Dublin, too. I instantly felt at home there, just like I'd felt the first time I came to the UK. As Carly put it, Ireland & Britain have all of the great qualities of Europe but without the language barrier.

Seeing my new home through their eyes really made me appreciate it more (no surprise there--it's always the case in exchange lit). They loved the pub culture, and it got me thinking about "third places". I'd read a piece a few years ago about Starbucks' successful strategy of creating a third place--a place outside of work or home. It's a public place that's intimate enough to hold a private conversation in, which is really a pretty interesting feature. When we went to pubs in Ireland, I realised that the pub is the third place in both Irish and British culture. Coffee chains have become more popular in recent years, but they close at 5-7pm and can't compete with a pub. During the Enlightenment era, coffee house culture was huge in London, but even then, I'm sure they never really surpassed the popularity of the pub (particularly in the working class). It also got me thinking about "third places" in the rest of the world. In France, it might be the cafe; in Italy, the 'fare un giro' habit of walking around the neighborhood after dinner and chatting with friends; in some boroughs of NYC, it's the act of sitting on the stoop with neighbors on warm nights, creating a 'street party' atmosphere.

With regards to my research, the idea of 'third places' has some interesting implications for exchange students. Culture learning might be measured in part by the extent to which international students discover local third places (and use them on a regular basis). If a student goes abroad and fails to engage with locals in a "third place" outside of work or home, I think they're missing out on an important part of culture learning...

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Tour Guide

This weekend, a couple of my friends from the States are visiting. They're travelling around Europe on their honeymoon--Athens, Rome, Florence, Venice, Paris, Leeds and then we're going with them to Dublin. It's a bit of a whirlwind trip, but if you're going to fly all the way from Seattle, I suppose there's a sense of pressure to do it all in one go.
In planning a tour of Leeds, I've really had my work cut out for me. This is the first time Matt's ever been to the UK. Carly went to London once briefly and got a terrible impression (long story short, there was a very rude anti-American guy at a bookshop). So they're bypassing London and getting their entire impression of the UK from 2 nights in Leeds. It's also a bit of an exciting challenge for me, too, because this is the first time I've had American friends visiting (it's not that they don't want to--they'd love to, but it's so expensive). I've had to think long & hard about what to show them, where to take them for a true "English" or "Yorkshire" experience...

And this is where my research comes in. When showing foreigners around, do you show them the England that they're expecting, or the England that you actually experience on a daily basis? Take pubs for example--my friends are expecting an old man pub with pints of real ale and heavy, traditional food (giant Yorkshire puddings filled with sausages, potatoes, veg & gravy...very intimidating even to those of us from the land of the Supersize). Leeds definitely has places like that, but it's also got its fair share of wine bars, cocktail lounges, student watering holes, sports bars, and trendy yuppie places. Do I take them to a less-popular old man pub for an 'authentic' experience, even though all of those places are actually authentic, too? Do I take them to a chippy when curry has actually become Britain's national cuisine? Basically, do I reinforce the stereotype and give them an unrealistic impression, or do I try to be creative and risk disappointing my guests? (This choice is actually fairly easy for me, because on a typical Friday night we usually do go to a traditional pub for real ale & a burger. We're taking them to our favourite place, and what could be more authentic than that?)

To get some ideas for sightseeing around Leeds, I went back to my first entry after arriving here in Sept 2008.
http://molly-sisson.blogspot.com/2008/09/exploring-leeds.html
It's so strange to read it now--these places feel like home, and I'd never bother to take a picture of the Town Hall anymore (even though it's still just as beautiful).
Obviously a must-see--also, the art gallery is quite good & free.
Designer boutiques in the gorgeous Victoria Quarter. Carly is an architect/artist, so she'll be into it for multiple reasons. We'll have to combine this with a trip to Leeds City Markets across the street, too--must show both posh and 'real' sides of Leeds.

I'm not expecting to wow them--they've just been to amazing places on the continent where English people go on holiday, so obviously we can't compete with that. I just want to give them a good impression of England, show them the things I love about Yorkshire, and give them a glimpse of the nice little life we've got here. It's not Florence or Paris, but it's home.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Another September


It's my favourite time of year again: Back to School! The weather's getting slightly cooler, some of the trees in Hyde Park are starting to change, and all of the shops are pushing art supplies and dorm cooking sets. I love the excitement of a new school year. Being in the office throughout the whole month of August hasn't taken away from the excitement--I'm really looking forward to starting my new routine. I'm teaching seminars for an intro to communications research class that every ICS freshman takes (205 students!), and there should be weekly research seminars starting up again soon, too. The Phil Taylor conference plans are coming along, and then there's also the issue of my actual PhD research (upgrade date is 10 days away!).

Maybe it's just the reflective mood of another September, but I'm really starting to see it all coming together. The other day I wrote out a month-by-month summary of my PhD research and drew a little chart showing how my thoughts on the whole project had changed over time. It's nice to see my thoughts becoming more & more mature and critical (although I worry I'm becoming too much of a realist sometimes...), and to see where my project might be going next. My goals for the first year were basically 1) Pass the upgrade and 2) Get teaching experience, if possible. (and it was!) My goals for the second year might be harder to articulate...

1) Do my fieldwork (details tbd...)
2) More work experience--TA first term, plus the placement office job
3) Present at a conference (again, details tbd...)
4) Get something published, if possible?

At any rate, I'm feeling all motivated for the new school year and embracing the process. The PhD life is pretty sweet...


Thursday, 1 September 2011

Culture Learning and Mediation

You can lead a student to a foreign culture, but you can't make them learn...

All year I've been reading up on culture learning and cultural mediation for the PhD. It's the core of the student exchange experience. You don't study abroad just to get a degree--you study abroad to live in a foreign country and learn about a foreign culture. At least, that's what I thought...
I've observed this fascinating phenomenon of international students coming to Leeds and trying to retain their home culture. Not all of them, of course, but at least some of the students I've lived with or socialised with. It seems that, for some, the decision to study abroad was based on the degree, not the desire to engage in culture learning. They don't go out to pubs or try fish & chips, Sunday roast, or other local specialties. Instead, they cook their national cuisine at home, often with compatriot friends coming over for dinner. They might go out sightseeing, but they go with compatriot friends and speak their native language most of the time, like casual tourists.

Is it wrong to hold onto your native culture abroad? No, of course not. But I can't help but feel that they're missing something. And maybe also, scholars who look at educational exchange are missing something, too.
There's so much talk about the culture learning process that we just tend to assume that all international students are willing & eager to engage in it. Culture learning is taken for granted as one of the outcomes of study abroad. But how comprehensive can a student's culture learning experience be when they still speak their native language with compatriot friends, still eat the same foods they would at home, and make little effort to establish friendships with locals?

I have to admit that I'm especially touchy on this topic, because during my years in the UK, I've been at the other end of the spectrum: full immersion. From the moment I arrived, I was keen to try every authentically English food, drink, experience, etc. In my free time between class and the pub, I watched nearly every comedy series the BBC iPlayer had to offer. I made friends with other international students, but definitely made an effort to hang out with the local Brits as much as possible. As if that wasn't enough, I even moved in with an Englishman--now that's culture learning!

I'm not saying every international student should be as keen as I was, but I think much more could be done to enhance culture learning for those who aren't that eager (field trips, social events, etc.). And mostly, I think this issue needs to be discussed in the study abroad literature. The modern trend of having a "Western degree" for vocational purposes means that students don't necessarily care about the host country at all. They just want a prestigious degree and demonstrable English language skills so they can get a career back home. Why would they bother with culture learning? Do they even have time for it, when they're busy with compatriot friends and studying for their degree (in a foreign language, which must be incredibly difficult)?

With the new academic year starting this month, we're going to be welcoming new first-year PhD's (and MA's) from all over the world. It's actually down to us, the current postgrads, to help them engage in culture learning--to show them around, to give them a good first impression of the department, the Uni, the city, the country. Very exciting times...

Monday, 15 August 2011

PD and Comedy

Last week I read about this upcoming research piece on the Beijing Olympics in American TV Comedy, and what it means for China/PD issues: http://uscpublicdiplomacy.org/index.php/newswire/cpdblog_detail/taking_comedy_seriously_in_public_diplomacy/

I'm really looking forward to seeing the full report, as political comedy is one of my favourite things in the world. I instantly knew the two shows they were talking about--South Park's episode "The China Problem" and The Daily Show. I thought South Park was particularly brilliant--Cartman was terrified by the opening ceremony, telling his friends "They outnumber us like a million to one!" Cartman is the outlandish and prejudiced foil to the voices of reason, Stan & Kyle (and presumably the rational audience members, as well?). His fear of China is a satire of very real views held by some Americans, and South Park writers put those words in Cartman's mouth to show how ridiculous the fear is. Of course, given America's newly downgraded credit rating and apparently imminent "decline & fall", maybe I need to watch that episode again...

I thought of another example of the Beijing Olympics in U.S. comedy. It's just one line, not significant enough to include in the paper, but still very funny:

I absolutely loved Michael Sheen as Wesley on 30 Rock, and this line was brilliant. I was just thinking about it recently amid all of the rioting. "We don't have that sort of control over our people..."

And funnily enough, China was thinking the same thing during the London riots!
China's reporting of the London rioting showed that they doubt London is up for the security challenges of hosting the Olympic games.

In terms of PD, the Olympics are obviously a good thing. They raise your nation's profile and give you a chance to show off the positive aspects of your culture to the world during the opening & closing ceremonies. Watching the last Winter Olympics, I was really quite impressed with Canada's ceremonies--the emphasis on First Nations, the Canadian celebrities (Neil Young? How did I not know that?), Mounties and dancing lumberjacks, etc. (The giant inflatable beavers were a bit over the top, though). I grew up about halfway between Seattle and Vancouver, and I had no idea Canada had that much going on.
Hosting the Olympics is a giant nation-branding, PR exercise (with an athletic competition taking place on the side). Beijing did the same thing before Vancouver did it, and London will do the same thing again...Can't wait to see which aspects of British culture they choose to highlight!

Monday, 8 August 2011

Upgrade Update

This afternoon I finally submitted my final draft of the upgrade document. It's out of my hands now...
The next step is the viva, where I'll be questioned about my research by 2 members of staff (which two, I'm not sure at this point...). I'm not actually too nervous about the viva. Thanks to having done my MA here, I've spoken with nearly every member of staff before (if not about my research, then at least socially), so at least I won't be facing strangers. What's more, I actually like talking about my research. I think it's pretty interesting stuff--that's why I decided to spend 3 years of my life reading and writing about it.
A few of my first-year colleagues have already done their upgrades, and two of them passed with no corrections, which is really impressive and slightly intimidating. I know you can't compare your PhD process with others, but it's so easy to do (especially in a shared office...).

In other news, we've made a lot of progress on organising the Propaganda conference in memory of Phil Taylor this December. It's really shaping up and there's been a lot of interest and enthusiasm. Prof. Rawnsley has asked some of us to contribute to the student perspective portion, reflecting on Phil's impact on our work/life. While I'm really pleased & proud to be able to contribute, it's more than a little intimidating. I never wrote anything for Phil's tributes website. Every time I started to draft something, I'd start crying and just couldn't do it. I didn't know what to say. How can you sum up a person's impact on your life without resorting to cliches? And I knew that anything I had to say would seem insignificant compared to the contributions of people who knew him better & longer than I had. I only met him when I came to Leeds for the MA in 2008, so I only knew him for 2 years before he passed away. When I looked over my module options the summer before the MA, I remember thinking that his courses sounded really interesting--I signed up for both of them and just hoped that I would like the professor, because I'd be with him all year.
When I was in his classes, I instantly liked him--his style, his take on the subjects, his sense of humor. But I sat quietly taking notes and never once asked a question (that's the kind of student I am...shy & absorbent!). The first time I actually said more than a dozen words to him was when I visited his office to discuss the possibility of a PhD. He was encouraging but realistic, telling me that the PhD would be a lonely process, and very expensive, so only do it for the right reasons. I told him that I wanted to be an academic and he said that was the right answer. We talked about teaching--we had both started out Uni intending to teach secondary school. We talked about Vanderbilt, where I first attended Uni (briefly) and where he'd spent time in the 80's as a Visiting Professor. We talked about Blair and Bush, Obama, the Special Relationship, British politics, public diplomacy, Richard Curtis films, etc. We threw around ideas about research topics and I gained insight into the workplace politics of academia. Like many other students have noticed, our conversations were all over the place and they were endlessly fascinating. He was the kind of professor you wanted to have a pint with (and I didn't even know you could drink in front of your professors until I came to England). He was brilliant, of course, but most of all he was just a really nice guy to spend time with.
There have been so many times in the past few months when I wished I could talk with him--not just about my research, but about everything--current events, politics, my personal life. It's been extremely hard to work on this PhD that we started on together without his continued guidance and input. When Phil said it would be a lonely process, he didn't mean it would be like this.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Revisiting theory...

I've worked out why I don't like theory.
It makes me feel stupid.

My supervisor suggested I look at Bourdieu's work on reproduction of elites through education, and I naively went down to the library, checked out 3 of his books and went to Starbucks for a bit of reading. When I'd settled in with my coffee, I opened up "Reproduction: In Education, Society and Culture" and found this:

"Finally, because his reaction against artificialist conceptions of the social order leads Durkheim to emphasize the externality of constraint, whereas Marx, concerned to revel the relations of violence underlying the ideologies of legitimacy, tends in his analysis of the effects of the dominant ideology to minimize the real efficacy of the symbolic strengthening of power relations (rapports de force) that is implied in the recognition by the dominated of the legitimacy of domination, Weber is opposed to both Durkheim and Marx in that he is the only one who explicitly takes as his object the specific contribution that representations of legitimacy make to the exercise and perpetuation of power, even if, confined within a psycho-sociological conception of those representations, he cannot, as Marx does, inquire into the functions fulfilled in social relations by misrecognition (meconnaissance) of the objective truth of those relations as power relations." (Bourdieu, 1977, p. 4-5)

That's one sentence.

And it's just the introduction. It gets worse, when he goes into the "insofar" statements...

"Insofar as it is symbolic violence, pedagogic action can produce its own specifically symbolic effect only when provided with the social conditions for imposition and inculcation, i.e. the power relations that are not implied in a formal definition of communication."

What have I gotten myself into?

To be fair, only the first 68 pages are like this. The rest of the book has data charts and slightly more accessible language...

But overall, this foray into Bourdieu is a serious blow to my confidence...
"Are you sure you want to be an academic?"

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Moral Economies of Creative Labour Conference

Last week, I helped out with another conference in ICS. When I signed up to help out, I thought I would be done with my upgrade document before the conference...that was overly optimistic, as usual. Still, I attended most of the talks and worked on my PhD before and after sessions.
Since the topic of the conference isn't related to my field, I didn't expect it to really help my research. But just talking about my work with other academics was surprisingly helpful, and I even got some interesting points out of the presentations that could be applied to my work. Discussions of methodology were useful, too--it's always good to hear about research techniques, regardless of the topic.
I had a chat with Dr. Sabina Siebert from the University of Glasgow about my research project, and she recommended that I look at Kirkpatrick's model of learning evaluation. Now that I've read up on it, I can't see why it hasn't been used in evaluations of the Fulbright Program. How have I never seen this before?
This model provides a systematic process for assessing programme outcomes, regardless of whether it's business training or something like the Fulbright Program. For my research, business language can be replaced with "culture learning" language. The objective for Level 2--Knowledge, for example, can be changed to "Measure changes in cultural knowledge, cross-cultural communication skills, and attitudes towards the host nation".
Getting such a useful new tool for my project makes me feel a bit better about spending time mingling with academics instead of working on the upgrade...

Friday, 8 July 2011

4th of July Abroad

It goes without saying really, but the 4th of July abroad is just the 4th of July--the day between the 3rd and the 5th. This year, it landed on a Monday so I chose not to even try to host a party. On my very first 4th of July in the UK, I had a BBQ in the park near campus with a very mixed international group of friends (but no other Americans--my American coursemates all happened to be back in the States at the time). It was great--I baked chocolate chip cookies and we had hot dogs, corn-on-the-cob, etc. I never drink it, but I bought some Budweiser just for the occasion. I wore my Bruce Springsteen t-shirt with the "Born in the U.S.A." album cover on it. That day, surrounded by friends from India, China, Venezuela, Libya and Britain, all wishing me a happy Independence Day--well, it was awesome.
It was a perfect example of cultural mediation in educational exchange, too: sharing your cultural traditions with other international students. They asked me questions about typical Independence Day celebrations and I learned about their national days. It's all about the 2-way exchange, communicating and working towards mutual understanding--getting some empathy established between people of different cultural backgrounds.
This year, being a Monday, we just went to T.G.I.Friday's for an American dinner. I didn't feel nearly as patriotic as I usually do on the 4th, but it was nice to have a taste of home. Spending Independence Day in Britain always feels a bit like I'm fraternising with the enemy, though...What would our founding fathers think?

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

McHale's Speech

"Strengthening U.S. Engagement with the World: A Review of U.S. Public Diplomacy"
Undersecretary for PD & Public Affairs Judith McHale's opening remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations yesterday in NYC.

It's not every day that a nice primary source for the PhD gets handed to you like this. The public diplomacy online network was all excited about McHale's speech--I saw it reposted, Tweeted & Facebooked in several places, by scholars & organisations. My favorite comment happened to be from my supervisor's tweet "turns out she got her ideas from Bono". Seriously. When I read the opening lines and saw Bono's name referenced (twice!), I really struggled to read the rest of the speech with an open mind. Bono? Really? U2's Bono, with the sunglasses? I had to look up the article she was referring to--it's at the link below, and I had to keep in mind that she was referring specifically to this photo:



She used Bono's inverted pyramid to discuss the role of foreign publics in foreign policy making.
Starting out with Bono wasn't very promising, but I was happy to see that the rest of the speech contained the usual PD rhetoric. She argued that we need to position U.S. public diplomacy within the "marketplace of ideas"--that is, "tell our own story where others are telling stories about us." It's about entering a conversation that's already taking place among foreign publics. She discussed Tunisia at some length, emphasising the fact that the recent uprising was driven by Tunisian citizens rather than the "small set of voices [that] once determined the direction of the country." This case, and the others that soon followed, showed how important it is for PD to engage with a broad audience, moving beyond the elite decision-makers we once exclusively targeted. Overall, the speech was very much in line with all the PD lit I've been reading over the past couple of years...

There's one idea in her speech (and in the lit) that I'm not quite sure about. She takes it as a given that the diffusion of power in the information age means that PD has more work to do. "In a world where power and influence truly belongs to the many, we must engage with more people in more places. That is the essential truth of public diplomacy in the internet age." This idea has been touched upon by various scholars in the past few years--actually, when any new technology starts to change international communication, this idea comes up. But does this diffusion of power in the internet age really necessitate greater engagement, or has it all simply shifted towards a new kind of engagement? People-to-people engagement online, with social networking and blogs, for example. Just to name a couple of cases from the parenting blogosphere, Matt Logelin and Heather and Mike Spohr are bloggers based in Southern California, but attract hits and comments from all over the world. They discuss parenting issues, tell funny stories about their kids, post photos, vent their frustrations, etc. Both of these families have lost loved ones, so themes of grief often come up in the blogs and their global readers offer words of comfort. Of course, parenting blogs are just one example, and there are countless other ways the internet is being used to connect people globally. Is it appropriate to talk about a new need to engage people when they're already choosing to seek each other out online?

Monday, 20 June 2011

ICS PhD Conference: Thoughts on the theme

This year's conference theme was "Constructing and Deconstructing Identity:Challenges to Communicating Who We Are." As mentioned in the plenary session at the end of the day, we chose the theme for a number of reasons. Firstly, we felt the theme needed to be broad enough to attract interest from across several academic disciplines, not simply communications studies. Opening the conference up to students in history, political science, psychology, sociology, etc. was important to us (and interdisciplinary studies are also important to research councils, so might as well start thinking across academic borders now!). Secondly, we wanted to choose an original theme, so we avoided the topics that had been used in previous year's conferences (new media, media & politics, etc.). Finally, we liked the way it sounded when it was all put together, especially the "challenges to communicating who we are" part. It sounded like an academic conference theme--broad enough without being overly broad, intellectual but accessible.

Throughout the planning process, I really didn't think my research project had any relation whatsoever to the topic. On the day, though, as I sat listening to the papers and keynotes, I came up with an identity angle for my work. Student exchange participants often report "life changing" experiences, and this could include a reshaping or reconstruction of identity. Some Fulbrighters have talked about how their time abroad made them more patriotic--it enhanced their sense of national identity. Others have talked about how it reshaped their world view--it shifted their identity towards a "citizen of the world" sentiment. One of the most commonly reported changes was the idea of "finding yourself"--a realisation of identity full stop. As an aside, a couple of years ago I had a look at the online profiles for my mom's 40th high school reunion, and noticed that the people who mentioned that they'd taken time off to travel and "find themselves" now looked much older and more haggard than those who didn't "find themselves". My mom was too busy having a life to "find herself", by the way, and she looks great. (For more on finding yourself, see Stuff White People Like #120)

To sum up the findings of the conference in terms of my research project, the Fulbright experience can indeed reshape a participant's identity. A former Fulbrighter will always include their grant on his/her CV, and might name-drop the programme in social or academic situations. But it can also reshape how they identify themselves, as an American or a citizen of the world, as a liberal or a conservative, as a researcher or student, etc.
The big problem I'm running into now, however, is how this shift in identity can be accurately, scientifically measured...

Sunday, 19 June 2011

ICS PhD Conference 2011: Thoughts on Organising Conferences...

This past Thursday and Friday, my colleagues & I pulled it off--we held a conference and people actually came, and it mostly went according to plan! It's such a relief to have it all over with, and such a source of pride that it actually went well...
After the conference was over, I realised that this was my first conference. Not just the first conference I'd ever organised, but the first conference I'd ever even attended!
I'd been to FBLA conferences in high school, but that doesn't exactly count. We were 15 year-olds in blazers, playing conference. Our keynote were always "motivational speakers", and we all rolled our eyes as they told us to follow our dreams (we joked about what the motivational speakers once dreamed of becoming).
This conference was a real conference. Our speakers were actual established, published, real academics with something interesting to contribute. Our attendees were grown-ups, too, and they had some great insights and contributions. When I was running around sorting things out during coffee breaks, I heard this lively buzz of people talking and that sound told me it was going well. People were showing up and mingling and having a good time.
The sound of success...

ICS has this tradition of having its first-year PhD students organise the PhD Conference. I thought it was simply "grunt work" that they made us take care of--like having to prove yourself as an apprentice academic. I went along with it because I figured it would be good experience, look good on the CV, etc. Now that it's all over, I realise that there are other reasons we first-years have to (get to) do it. 1) The PhD Conference is just about the only way to get first-years involved in conferences at this stage in their academic career--we can't present anything yet, so it's a nice way to feel involved. 2) It's a small enough conference for us inexperienced planners to handle. We can manage to pull it off, and that's going to boost our confidence. 3) That confidence boost will make us feel up for presenting at conferences next year (raising the overall profile of ICS and adding to next year's conference) 4) Unlike the more advanced PhD students, we'll still be around to help next year's conference planning committee 5) Yes, it will look good on the CV...especially since first-years don't have much else to put on the CV.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Upgrade

The first major milestone of the PhD process is coming up very soon: the transfer from provisional PhD student to actual PhD candidate. You have to complete the transfer by the end of the first year, and we've been told to get the process rolling by month 9 or 10. I'd really wanted to finish my upgrade document before my trip to the States last month, but it just didn't happen. I struggled with writer's block and wasn't sure how to make sense of the past 9 months of reading and writing that was swimming around in my head. The three week trip to D.C. to help out with my new little nephew was a great change of pace, but when I got back to the office, I realised I hadn't accomplished anything in those three weeks. Yikes. My welcome back meeting with my supervisor went well, though, and I was pretty confident about getting the upgrade written in one week.

But it was a week of exam invigilation. I was up & reporting for duty every day at 8 am, and just felt too exhausted to write anything useful. I think I did about 5,000 words that week (about half of which were good). As May Bank (Memorial Day) weekend approached, I was sure I'd be able to finish it by Friday. When Friday slipped by, I sent an e-mail to my supervisor saying I'd get it to him later in the next week. And then on Monday my personal life got in the way of all academic progress...

For our 2nd anniversary, my boyfriend and I went to Kent so I could see where he grew up. After a lovely day of walking around town, meeting one of his old friends for a pint, and having an amazing Italian dinner, we went for a walk along the harbour wall. I should've guessed something was up, because he was really eager to continue our walk despite the fact that it was cold, dark and starting to rain. He was put off by a group of people fishing off the harbour wall, so we went up to the clifftop where we found a Victorian bandstand, perfect for getting shelter from the rain. Now I really should've known something was going on, but I fought back any suspicions because I thought there was no way he'd be doing this now...And then he did. Like the true gentleman he is, he pulled out a little box, got down on one knee, and asked me to marry him. I said yes and we went out for a celebratory pint :)
The next few days were spent telling family and friends and making provisional wedding plans. I thought about the upgrade occasionally, but progress was slow. Finally, after working on it all this week, I've actually finished writing it and submitted it to my supervisor.

I'm happy with it, too. It's an amazing accomplishment when I'm actually happy about something I've written. Due to word count limitations, the introduction is terribly brief (but I don't really mind that--I prefer to just get to the point). The main body of the piece is about the history of the Fulbright Program, followed by a sort of summary of the main debates in the literature. I chose three, for the sake of flow (and out of habit--we were always taught to write three body paragraphs)--the relationship between educational exchange and propaganda, the challenge of measuring effectiveness, and the issue of relevancy. Last night before submitting it, I printed it out to edit with my ruthless red pen, and I realised just how happy I am with it. All I can do now is hope that the members of my upgrade panel are as into it as I am...

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Theory

The further up the academic ladder you go, the more theory work you encounter. I'm not a theory person. It's always irritated me when people name drop a theorist in non-academic discussions (particularly in the pub). Maybe it's my own insecurity, as it's usually a name of someone I've heard of but never actually read. Somehow, I managed to get through undergrad without having to read much theory--but now I feel a bit like an English major who's never read Shakespeare. I read a bit of Habermas and Derrida, but as a European Studies major, the reading was about the Old Europe/New Europe paradigm--current events in 2007/8, not exactly the "theory" pieces that made them famous.

Fun fact: When you google image search their names, you get the same image--an old white man posing in front of a bookcase...
Habermas
Derrida
Claude Levi-Strauss
Bourdieu

Theory doesn't exactly come into my research project, and I'm not sure what to do about that. Phil Taylor used to get irritated by scholars who talked about public diplomacy theory. He said "Public diplomacy is a practice, not a theory." He was right--there is no theory of PD. There are, however, some scholars who think the field needs theory. I recently re-read Eytan Gilboa's "Searching for a theory of public diplomacy" (Annals, 2008, 616). He shoots down every attempt that scholars have made to relate theories and models to public diplomacy. After criticising the field for about 20 pages, he notes that "some progress can be found", and points to his own models among a handful of examples. He closes with the call-to-action statement that the field needs theory design and implementation--but I'm left wondering where to start, after seeing him disparage nearly every approach out there!

Personally, I don't think anyone needs to formulate a single theory for PD. Its interdisciplinary nature means that "PD theory" can be borrowed from existing theories in these other disciplines--international relations theories, communications theories, etc. Although that means I'll have to read some theory literature in all of these fields now...

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

On death and viral communication...

I found out about Bin Laden's death via my morning Facebook check. Several of my friends had posted about it, and some of the organisations I've "liked" posted, too--my newsfeed was filled with it, just like when Michael Jackson died. Over the next day or so, I kept seeing this Martin Luther King Jr. quote posted over & over--and it turns out to not even really be a MLK Jr. quote. I love how things go viral and unverified so quickly on the internet.
http://tumblr.thedailywh.at/post/5150689971/misattributed-quote-of-the-day-i-mourn-the-loss
Just because it isn't really MLK Jr.'s words doesn't mean it isn't true, though. Celebrating the death of our enemy brings us down to their level.

President Obama has approached this entire operation with caution & restraint, and his reaction to the outcome was just as measured & restrained. He has so much more dignity and class than we've seen in the past administration, with its swagger & cockiness marred by failure to achieve their objective of capturing Osama bin Laden.

Images of crowds gathering at Ground Zero chanting "USA! USA!" after hearing the news just show the worst side of America--the mob mentality, saying "we're number one because we killed the bad guy," etc. But the popularity of this misattributed quote says something about the best side of America--sharing a voice of calm and reason, reflecting on the meaning of an event rather than waving flags and chanting mindlessly, and looking to our heroes for inspiration and guidance--even if it wasn't really our hero's words at all.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Mixed feelings on the U.S. image

The Pew Global Attitudes Project shows 2 basic trends for most countries involved--when Bush was President, the U.S. favourability rating dropped, and when Obama was elected, it recovered. Is it wrong to suggest that this had nothing to do with public diplomacy efforts, and everything to do with a perceived change in unpopular policies?

Note how I said a "perceived" change--if the policies don't actually change, i.e. if the prison at Guantanamo Bay doesn't actually close down soon, then those "gains may be fragile" like this report from last year notes. So far, it looks like the gains are holding up--if anything, the title of another 2010 report suggests that he's "more popular abroad than at home". Maybe the U.S. image crisis doesn't exist anymore, and the real 'image problems' are domestic...

One of my big questions that keeps coming up: do student exchanges like Fulbright even matter any more?
1) America is actually globally popular now--no image crisis to resolve, no 'hearts and minds' to win over
2) Students can go abroad without the help of the State Dept.--international study just isn't as special & expensive as it used to be
3) The internet gives us the tools to interact with foreign publics & communicate globally without even going abroad

I feel like such a traitor saying these things, though, because all of the literature sings the praises of the Fulbright Program and student exchange. It will create mutual understanding and world peace, it doesn't cost that much compared to what we spend on defense, etc. And on a personal level, I don't think it should be abolished. I think it's still nice that we spend taxpayer dollars on international education, even though students could just take out loans like I'm doing. But when the annual budget is being drawn up, how do you decide between something that's "nice" to do, and something that should be prioritised?

Monday, 11 April 2011

Going Native

Since I've been in the UK off and on for 3 1/2 years now, I often think of myself as having "gone native." I don't feel like a tourist anymore. I have 'a local' to call home, as well as favourite cafes and shops around town. I understand most British pop culture references, but sometimes I don't get American ones (Beiber fever, for example...I was completely clueless on that phenomenon until I looked it up). I'm not entirely sure when the shift happened, but it was probably when I stopped living with international students and started living with a real live English person. My culture learning became "immersive", 24/7 contact with the culture and I no longer had an international "bubble" to live in. It's been about 18 months now, and I definitely feel more & more English.

Last week, however, I went to London and realised that I was wrong. I hadn't "gone native" to Britain--I had "gone native" to the North. It's really gotten me thinking about the stereotypes of Northerners and Southerners (there's a long history of this...Gaskell wasn't the first nor the last to notice differences between the two).

I found myself getting annoyed with Southerners. Heads down, bumping into me as they push past on the pavement, their cold stares answering my smile...What a bunch of miserable people. At the British Museum, I mostly just ran into tourists-- Americans, French, Germans and Italians. But in the rest of Bloomsbury and Holborn, I saw locals being miserable. They'd bang right into you and you'd say sorry and they wouldn't say anything--but English culture dictates that you both say sorry. In the pubs, their behaviour was worse--we actually saw a man drinking a pint from a straw. Who does that??? He was also unacceptably boisterous and irritating, throwing chairs about and being a nuisance. If that had happened in a pub in Headingley, he would've been kicked out. In another pub the next night, the waitress was very rude when I ordered a pint. She took Richard's order and then when I asked for an IPA she didn't believe me. "You want ale?" I smiled and said yes, an IPA. "Are you sure?" Ummm...yes? I drink pints. Is that so hard to believe? Eventually she got it and brought us our pints. While she was gone, I looked around and noticed that among all the suits in the pub, all the men were drinking pints (mostly lagers), and all the women were drinking white wine. It suddenly made sense--as a girl, I "shouldn't" like ale. Well, up north, I never get asked "are you sure?". They just give me what I ask for, which is much more in line with the American customer service ethic, 'the customer is always right.' Besides, up north, women are 'allowed' to drink pints ;)
As a disclaimer, the other pubs we went to weren't full of suits, and nobody thought it was odd that I ordered a pint there. There were also Southerners who didn't shove past on the pavement, who smiled when I smiled, and weren't drinking pints from straws. But, it's easier to remember the outliers than the commonplace ones. This is especially important to keep in mind when I do my research and try to interpret student experiences...

In terms of my research, this observation shows how important context is to a student's experience. Regional differences become cultural differences--someone who just went to Leeds would say women drinking pints is acceptable in the UK, while someone who went only to London would say it's frowned upon in the UK. The important thing to do is to get as many experiences/views as possible, so that we can get some generalisable results that go beyond stereotypes.

For the next couple of weeks, I'll be working on my upgrade document. As always happens when I'm trying to write something, though, I keep finding more and more vital, seminal literature to read. Just today I found 2 more in the library: the 1976 book The World's Students in the United States by Spaulding & Flack, et al., and Students as Links between Cultures, a UNESCO publication from 1970, edited by Ingrid Eide. Tomorrow might be spent in the library...

Monday, 4 April 2011

Viral disillusionment

http://www.economist.com/node/17723223?story_id=17723223

Several of my old Euromasters colleagues have been posting this article on Facebook. I read it in the print edition when flying back after Christmas break (The Economist is one of my usual in-flight reads--along with Cosmo). When I skimmed it at the time, I just thought it was really depressing. The subtitle reads "Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time"--and here I was reading this in my 3rd month as a PhD student. I thought I was starting out on this great academic career, and then this article shot that dream down. I was so disillusioned...but now, reading it again only a few months later, I've come to appreciate some of its points and take the article not as a dream-breaker, but as a word of caution.

One major point is that students should only choose to do a PhD for the right reasons, i.e. if it will actually materially benefit them in their future careers. "In one study of British PhD graduates, about a third admitted that they were doing their doctorate partly to go on being a student, or put off job hunting." That's a pretty lousy excuse to spend three years accumulating student loan debt. The first time I approached Phil Taylor about doing a PhD, he asked me why I wanted to do it. I said that I wanted to stay in academia and become a lecturer, and he said that's the right answer. He warned me that in order to successfully complete a PhD, you have to be sure--sure that you want to do this particular topic, that you want to be an academic, that there's nothing else you'd rather spend 3 years doing, etc. The article is basically giving the same advice he did, but in a much harsher way by saying that the "PhD is often a waste of time"--it's a waste of time for people who go into it for the wrong reasons.

There was one passage that I really disagreed with, though : "One thing many PhD students have in common is dissatisfaction. Some describe their work as “slave labour”. Seven-day weeks, ten-hour days, low pay and uncertain prospects are widespread." How can the Economist of all magazines possibly call PhD work "slave labour"??? Other articles in the same magazine discuss countries that actually have slave labour--agricultural laborers working sunrise to sunset in the fields, children in sweatshops making athletic shoes and carpets and hand-embroidered dresses. And they have the audacity to call TA-ing, grading essays and reading academic journals "slave labour"? When I'm drinking my caramel macchiato and typing up notes in a netbook, I don't exactly feel like a slave.

I get the main argument. There is an oversupply of PhD's. It will be hard to get a job when I graduate. Fair enough--but since the PhD is often a prerequisite for a job in academia, not doing the PhD would make it even more impossible to do what I want to do.

If we were all to follow this author's advice and not take the steps required to do what we've dreamed of doing because it's statistically very difficult, then there would be no artists, no professional athletes, no poets, no novelists--and no journalists writing for The Economist!

Thursday, 31 March 2011

Summing up the TA Experience


I led my final seminars of the term yesterday, so I thought I'd write-up a few thoughts on my first TA-ship.
1) I learned so much. It made me really think about getting students to talk, about keeping them on task, about teaching in general. There were definitely times when I thought to myself, "They're all just staring, and nobody's saying anything. What do they want from me?!" But now I think I've figured that out: they all want different things. You have to learn the dynamics of the class and cater to their style. What worked in my morning group would fail to engage my afternoon group, so I learned to change the lesson (and my overall style) a bit for them.

2) First-years need some basic instructions, but they really will rise to the occasion when challenged. It's about finding a balance--don't go too easy on them because they're only 18, but don't expect them to be at a postgrad level, either. I think that once you've set guidelines and instructions, they really can surprise you with great responses. They just don't know what you're looking for until you tell them--it's their first year!

3) I definitely want to stay in academia. Even when it wasn't easy, it was always rewarding, and the whole experience has convinced me that I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing. My favourite teachers throughout the years all had one thing in common: they loved teaching. They were brilliant at it, and that's why students got so much from their classes, but at the end of the day, it was their passion that made them such great teachers. Mr. Johnson, one of my favourite high school teachers, wrote on his Facebook wall the other day to a former student that in his 35+ years of teaching, he never went to work one day--he went to school. I love that idea...

And, if this all seems way too positive, it's because I'm trying to keep it professional. Yes, some students did frustrate me, but I'm keeping those rants private. Unlike this woman--http://abcnews.go.com/US/pennsylvania-teacher-wrote-insulting-blog-posts-students-suspended/story?id=12929001
This high school English teacher blogged her frustrations and went way beyond "unprofessional", calling students "rude, lazy, disengaged whiners." Now she's suspended during an investigation. Yikes!

Monday, 28 March 2011

World's Strictest Parents



I've been watching BBC's The World's Strictest Parents this season, and I just realised this morning that it actually relates to my research. It's like a week-long exchange of persons program!
Basically, two teenagers are sent to live abroad with a strict family for a week. They're usually spoiled, not in school and not working, and they treat their parents like crap (and the parents throw their hands up and say 'I don't know what to do anymore!'). They always start out all defiant & rude, and then they always have some kind of breakdown, and end up learning so much about life and want to be better and more respectful of their parents. A lot of them are from single-parent households, and there are a disproportionate number of teens on the show from Essex.

I love working out the producers' thought process--why choose this family and this country for this kid? What is it about the context that will help this particular kid sort out his/her problems? For example, there was a girl with serious anger management problems, and she went to Sri Lanka where the Buddhist family introduced her to meditation and it changed her life. On another episode, they took 2 school drop-out, party-types to the Netherlands, where it was legal for them to drink and smoke pot, but where they met teens who took their education very seriously. My favourite episodes (where kids change the most) are the ones in developing nations. They stay with wealthy families in the host countries, but 'wealthy' in the developing world is middle-class in the UK (and these kids are spoiled), and they also usually have to do some charity work where they'll have contact with the poorer groups in the host country.

Last summer when I was back in the States, I caught a few episodes of the American version on CMT, but it's different. The unruly teens don't go abroad--they just live with stricter parents somewhere else in the States. The process and results look the same as the BBC version--the kids act up, have a breakdown, and come home changed for the better. But I still think the BBC version probably results in a more drastic change, and possibly a longer lasting one. It would be interesting to see these kids over time, and compare how the CMT and BBC ones changed over time.

On a side note, I get annoyed with the emphasis on naughty kids being raised by single moms. The narrator on the show always shows their bad behaviour, and then says "His father left when he was 3", or "She was brought up by her hardworking single mum", as if that explains everything. In their interviews, too, the kids blame everything on their absent father. I don't do that. I was raised by a single mom, and while I did have my rebellious stage like all teens, I was still a good kid. I stayed in school, aced my AP classes, got into great universities, etc. I didn't get expelled, or pregnant, or arrested. These kids are just using their absent dads as a cop-out. It's easy to blame someone who's not around to deny it...

Friday, 25 March 2011

International Students and the Coalition Government




BBC News article: Germany top for foreign students

Apparently Germany is the place to go to university--even if you only speak English. They have entire degree courses taught in English, and they've just been rated the most supportive country for international students on a league table. Another bonus: they don't charge tuition fees, even for international students.
Meanwhile, UK universities are raising fees for home and foreign students, and the government is trying to reduce the numbers of student visas--despite the fact that international students contribute huge £££ and make up huge numbers of postgrad students (the postgrads in my own department are mostly international, and the same thing is going on over at the business school, just to name a couple of examples here at Leeds).

Public diplomacy organisations, like the British Council, understand the value of foreign students. The article quotes the Council's director of higher education:

"an increase in international partnerships between universities has become a global trend. These partnerships can then become pathways, establishing a route for exchanges between students and staff.

For the UK's universities, she says overseas students are becoming particularly important for postgraduate courses.

"It's a hugely important trend, bringing students to the UK and supporting the research base. It's internationalising the whole system, she says.

It's a picture in which globalisation will "intensify" she says, expecting both more competition and collaboration between university systems."

And by 'supporting the research base', I think they mean 'contributing lots of money'...

So why the disparity on views of foreign students between the coalition government and the British Council? From a public diplomacy standpoint, foreign students are valuable--they encourage positive relationships between countries & mutual understanding between peoples of different countries. From an economic standpoint, foreign students are valuable--they pay more in fees than domestic students. Even if you don't charge fees, as is the case in Germany, they're still contributing to the economy simply by spending their foreign money to live in your country. I really don't understand what's going on here. What's the motivation against foreign students? What are the downsides to letting them come study in the UK? Are there British postgraduate applicants who are getting turned down because foreign students are taking their places? Somehow I don't think that's the case...

A few weeks ago PM David Cameron said he agreed with German Chancellor Angela Merkel's assessment that 'multiculturalism has failed.' His comments were directed at certain elements of radical Islam, like the homegrown terrorists behind the 7/7 London tube bombings. But the same day he made his comments, the English Defence League was holding a demonstration in Luton. (For those outside the UK, the EDL thinks if you're not white, then you're not English--and Luton is an ethnically-diverse area north of London). It might be a terrible coincidence that the event was taking place at the time that Cameron made his comments, but for a PR-savvy man like Cameron is, it seemed more like bad taste rather than bad timing. Are the coalition's proposed visa changes protectionist (creating more spaces for British students), or are they representative of a larger ideology that distrusts multiculturalism?

Monday, 21 March 2011

While you were out...

My supervisor Robin Brown was at a conference in Montreal last week (and I went on a long weekend to Venice...we're such jet-setters). I've had a read through his paper and thought I'd write up a few thoughts from it--concrete proof that I read his blog and that I'm still getting some work done on the PhD. Of course, knowing he might read my blog, the pressure is on to get it right...

His paper, Public Diplomacy and Social Networks, looked at some of the current challenges in PD studies and argued for a social network approach to PD studies. There were quite a few points that really hit home for my research--instead of reviewing his paper, I'll just outline those.

3 challenges in PD studies:
--The first challenge he named was "de-Americanising PDS", and its one that I really have to come to grips with myself. PD is an American term, and obviously my own background makes it hard for me to be critical of the US-based approach to PD. America's approach often just seems intuitive to me. I need to learn to take it out of context and think critically.
--The second challenge Robin mentioned was structuring the research agenda, and in this section, his point about evaluation really caught my attention. He pointed out the need to understand successes and failures of PD in different contexts--i.e. what works for one country doesn't necessarily work for another. This is an important point to consider in my research. Fulbrighters are unique individuals, going to unique destinations, and their experiences and outcomes should be expected to vary as such. My research should consider PD successes & failures in these varied contexts, and seek to derive some overall advice for student exchange PD 'best practice'.
--His third challenge was about bridging the gap between international relations and communications studies within PDS. This is something I've struggled with before--really, ever since starting the lit review. My project has a couple more disciplines thrown into the mix, with education and psychology lit, but his point remains the same: there needs to be more comprehensive, interdisciplinary work done in the field. Of course, I wholeheartedly agree with his assessment, and I'm definitely going to take some of his citations as reading suggestions now. One author he mentioned in the next section, R.S. Zaharna, is already in my long annotated bibliography. She's written a few pieces on relational frameworks that I've really liked.

His argument for using social network analysis was convincing (all the more so because I'd already heard it from him in seminar). As far as I know, nobody has studied the social networks of student exchange participants. Yet they are a prime subject for it--one of the objectives Fulbright himself put forward was the establishment of international peer networks. There are so many unasked questions relating to the social networks of Fulbrighters--do they make friends with host country peers, do they maintain friendships over time, how strong are their relationships, do they use them for personal reasons (friendship) or career functions (networking), etc. At this point, I'm not sure where it will all fit in with my research...but it's an interesting and original direction.

In terms of my research process, I'm starting to think more about the upgrade document. Apparently it should be a chapter-size piece of the dissertation, dealing with your theoretical basis, literature and research questions, and in some ways that's easier than the proposal (5,000 word summary of every bit of your proposed project!). One idea I've had about this chapter has been to do some work on the debate about the role of PD in student exchange. After all, that's kind of my whole jumping off point when I started the project--I didn't know PD came into student exchange at all, and the idea that governments spent money in this way really surprised me. The debate is essentially arguing over the extent to which foreign policy should or should not come into student exchange. There are other questions, too: If it's such a long-term practice, how can it be of any use to short-term foreign policy interests? Where does strategy come into it, if at all? Should taxpayers pay for a student to go to country X or country Y, or both or neither? All in all, I'm actually looking forward to the upgrade. It'll be great to get it out of the way, and if/when I pass, I'll be a real PhD candidate and I'll be eligible for travel grants so I can go to conferences...just like a real academic.

One of those days...

This weekend, after watching Comic Relief, I had this 1st world guilt where I questioned my chosen life path. What's the point of doing a PhD in order to teach posh kids about communications when babies are dying of malaria in Africa every damn day? Why am I not down there right now doing something to help? What good am I doing?

I really don't have any answers for this.
I just donated money, because I couldn't think of anything else to do.

To be honest, most people aren't doing anything either. The Peace Corps currently has 8,655 volunteers serving--which means about 306,997,895 Americans are not in the Peace Corps (obviously there could be people in other organisations, but you can get my point). Most of the time, people are just too damn busy to pay attention to the problems of the world. Day to day demands on their attention, their finances, their sanity, etc. keep them from doing something charitable.

What does this have to do with my PhD? Not much. My research has nothing to do with the plight of developing countries. It's all about privileged kids becoming more privileged through government-funded higher education travel opportunities. There are so many more important things for the government to be spending its money on. A year's tuition for a kid in Kenya is $260. A Fulbright grantee's tuition & living expenses here at Leeds is about 160 times that ($42,000). How disgusting.

I hate myself for researching this now. Thanks a lot, Comic Relief...you've made me disillusioned with my entire project.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

International Women's Day and Work-Life Balance

Who cooks in heels?

Secretary Clinton's remarks on the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day: http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2011/03/157647.htm

Yesterday I attended a lecture in the Business School for International Women's Day. The speaker, Heather Jackson, was the founder of "The 2% Club", an organisation of senior executive women that encourages women in business. Although it was aimed at students going into the corporate world, a lot of her points could apply to women in any career. She spoke about the challenges of finding a work-life balance, of the desire to 'have it all' and be Superwoman, successfully juggling work, spouse & kids without letting any of those things fall by the wayside.

Her main message was one of confidence. When you're in your early 20's, single and ambitious, you're full of confidence. You're certain that nothing is going to stop you in your career, not a man, not kids, not sexist managers--nothing. But then, when those things come into your life (as they often do), you lose your confidence. It could be a comment or a judgmental look from another mom at your kid's school, or a conversation with your spouse about finances, or criticism from your mother-in-law (she gave a terrible example of this one, haha!). Whatever it is, you shouldn't let it destroy your confidence and let it stop you from following your dreams.

Even though Heather Jackson's comments were directed to an audience that does want a career, they'd be appropriate for the reverse--women who want to stay at home with their kids. They can be the object of criticism from career women, too. My sister works part-time (weekends only, so her husband can stay with the kid), and while I think that's a great compromise (keeping your foot in the door, staying up to date in your field, etc.), she gets criticised from both career women and stay-at-home moms. The career women gasp and say, "ugh, I can't imagine staying at home all day, every day with a baby--that must be so boring", while the stay-at-home moms cry, "oh, I can't imagine going to work and leaving my baby! That's awful!"

On a drastically different note, last week I watched part of the Comic Relief coverage of Kibera, Kenya, Africa's largest slum, and one woman in particular was really amazing. She lived in this shanty town, with tiny rooms, open sewers and corrugated metal roofing, etc. A single mom, she supported her three sons by going out to the roadside every morning and asking for washing jobs to do. On this particular day with the camera crew, she had to walk a couple of miles to a housing estate (where wealthier people live) and finally got a job to do--4 1/2 hours of washing clothes, linens, etc. and she made about £1.60. Some days, when she can't find a job, she makes the same amount of money by prostitution. There's no moral judgment on selling her body--she needs to feed her children and give them an education so their lives will be better someday. Stories like hers make the whole "work-life balance" debate seem very shallow. Wealthy women complain about having to give up a career to take care of their children, and this woman in Kenya would love to have that luxury.

In terms of my own life, the main point that I take away from this all is that there is no right answer to the questions of work-life balance. It's all about what works for you and your situation, and taking care of the things that truly matter to you. And maybe on International Women's Day, women should remember to support each other and stop judging the life choices of other women.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Losing the Information War

Sec. of State Hillary Clinton: Al Jazeera is 'Real News', U.S. Losing 'Information War' - Political Punch

"“We are in information war and we cannot assume that this youth bulge that exists not just in the middle east but in so many parts of the world really knows much about us. I mean we think they know us and reject us, I would argue they really don’t know very much about who we are,” she said, noting that America’s legacy of the Cold War, World War Two, and President Kennedy are lost on newer generations.

Clinton’s State Department has tried to keep up, especially on social media, where this year they have started Tweeting in Arabic, Farsi, and other languages. Secretary Clinton last week held a web chat with a popular Egyptian site that was able to gather 6,500 questions for her in just two days.

“We are really trying to play in that arena as best we can,” she said. "


It's so interesting and exciting for me when pieces like this appear in the news--something actually related to what I'm researching. It's not often that PhD students see news stories that fit their research as well as this one fits mine. That's not to say that this is directly related to my research--true, it's not about student exchanges. But it's about the bigger picture that student exchange fits into: the idea of correcting misconceptions and telling the world who we are. I remember Phil Taylor saying that if we don't tell our story to the world, someone else will do it for us. The implication here is that 'someone else' will get it wrong, either accidentally or deliberately. (His actual quote was "If America does not define itself, the extremists will do it for us."--obviously there would be deliberate distortion in that case!) The idea of foreign youth (particularly in youth bulge countries, which is another fascinating topic of its own) not knowing much about us is interesting. Isn't America everywhere? Anti-Globalisation protesters claim it is. They say what a travesty it is that American consumer products and pop culture have spread to every corner of the world. But here's the Secretary of State saying that's not true, that those foreign youth don't know that much about America. Is she making a distinction between America's ubiquitous cultural exports and the 'true America', who we really are?

Although student exchange isn't mentioned, it's related. Public diplomacy tools, including student exchange, respond to this challenge of teaching foreign audiences 'about who we are'. Students abroad, whether they're aware of it or not, become ambassadors of their home country. Their views and opinions are seen as those of 'the average American', 'a typical German', 'most Venezuelans', etc. Over the years, my friendships with other foreign students have given me favourable (or unfavourable) impressions of a dozen countries that I've never visited. I know that the impressions might not play out if/when I ever go to these countries, but the point is, my reaction to world events and foreign policy decisions is influenced by these friendships, for better or worse. This is especially salient for me right now, as I have a Libyan friend from the MA programme. He is currently studying in Durham, so he is out of harm's way--but what about his family and friends? I feel for them and all the people of this country that I've never visited, simply because I met a student abroad.

On a more positive note, I really am excited about the State Department's social media engagement. Whether or not it will actually have an impact remains to be seen, but it's a step in the right direction. The U.S. State Department has so many resources to engage with foreign audiences now, compared to even 10 or 15 years ago. It's great to see that they're utilising them.

Monday, 28 February 2011

Conceptualising the Student Experience

Study Abroad Style Diary: 5 Lessons from My First Month – College Fashion

This post from College Fashion came up on a Google search for study abroad images, and even though fashion is seemingly unrelated to my research, the blogger does a lovely job of summing up the student experience. Coincidentally, that's exactly what I'm trying to do at the moment (albeit from a less fashion-oriented point of view).

My latest project (or "section of the final dissertation", if you want to make it sound ambitious) is the task of 'conceptualising the student experience'.
When I was going through the literature at the beginning, I noticed that there was a real need to bring it all together--to unite the various threads of the student experience into a single concept that could be analysed by my research project. Conceptualising is about deriving meaning--what does the student experience mean? What's the point of looking at it? The relevant lit includes everything from the education research on study abroad, to anecdotes from former grantees scattered throughout various disciplines of lit, to the psychological effects of intercultural behaviour. It's proven to be very tricky, and it's turning into a very important part of the whole project.

So far, I've created an outline of the various chronological stages in the 'student experience,' and written a bit on each part of the process. Looking at the previous research & anecdotes, students tend to go through 6 key stages:
1) Decision to apply
--Self-explanatory: a student decides to study abroad. Motivations to do this might include academic/career goals, learning a foreign language (obviously not the case for US-UK, but true for the majority of US students going abroad), or simply the desire to live and study in another country for the fun of it. For Fulbrighters, there's the added motivation of resume/CV-building--many Fulbrighters cite the brand as a reason to apply in the first place.
2) Selection
--In the case of Fulbright, this is a really interesting section. It's not just a matter of filling out a form or writing an essay--there are a lot of behind-the-scenes IR factors that influence the selection process. For instance, students applying to go to certain countries are advised not to propose political research projects. The numbers come in to this section, with application data and acceptance rates, as well as the most popular destinations over time.
3) Arrival
--This is where the psychology literature becomes useful. Intercultural communication theories, particularly regarding culture shock, provide some insight into the behaviour of study abroad participants, and how this might affect their overall experiences.
4) Midpoint
--This section is mostly informed by the education literature on study abroad, although psych continues to play a role at this stage, too. The education literature does an excellent job of explaining just what it is that study abroad students actually do, both in their academic and personal lives.
5) Departure
--The psych concept of 're-entry shock' will be briefly described here, as well as the anecdotal evidence from Fulbright alums talking about their mixed emotions upon leaving. After being in this host country for a year, it really does become a 'second home,' and many students report a bittersweet re-entry experience.
6) Reflection
--This section will mostly be made up of the anecdotal evidence from Fulbrighter essays. I'm looking at the long-term impacts, observed by alumni reflecting on the experience years afterwards. This is actually the most relevant in terms of public diplomacy--it's a long-term strategy, so it makes the most sense to look at the long-term effects.

I think that mostly sums it up...So far I'm at 3,200 words, which is miles ahead of my usual word count 5 days before the due date. Just a few more coffees and I'll be happy with it.