Thursday, 27 January 2011


This morning I led my very first seminars as a teaching assistant, and they actually went fairly well! It's a strange experience, and feels very grown up--being on the other side of the equation and having a room full of people listen to you. Whenever I had to do presentations in the past, I got stage fright--hands shaking, talking too fast, forgetting what I was saying, etc. But for some strange reason, I didn't have any of that today. I think it might have been because they weren't my peers--they were undergrads (mostly freshmen), and I'm not really concerned about looking good or sounding intelligent in front of them...The pressure is off!

I think I did a decent job, considering it was my first time. I got them to talk, which is much harder than you'd think, and they all seemed to understand the assignment...we'll see how they do next week! In the meantime, I need to get some work done on this PhD. Between the exam invigilating, conference planning, and leading the seminars, I don't feel like I've accomplished much on the actual PhD research lately. I'm still working on the next writing assignment ('conceptualizing the student experience') and reading those essays by Fulbrighters. Some of this year's cohort have responded to my online questionnaire now, so that's a great development. A few have left some critical comments that were a bit painful to read, but I suppose that's part of the 'pilot study' process--working out which questions to ask and how to ask them best, etc.

All in all, it's coming along nicely and I'm still enjoying the PhD life :)

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Exam Invigilation

Over the past couple of weeks, I've had a lot of time to think: 2-3 hours of silence a day, pacing around exam rooms and watching out for attempts to cheat (nobody even came close to cheating). As a student, I was always a bit in awe of the exam proctors (or as they're called here, invigilators). They seemed so authoritative and serious. As a proctor myself this time around, I tried to just smile and be a bit more casual & friendly--the students are under enough stress as it is!

Invigilators aren't allowed to talk, read, write, listen to music, eat, drink coffee, etc. How did I fill up those 2-3 hours of silence? 1) Daydreaming, which really got old fast, and 2) Analysing the demographics of the students. It was actually really interesting to see the numbers of boys/girls by subject. In Linguistics, for example, men made up only 18% of the class. In Engineering, women made up 20%. For as much as people go on about the dearth of women in engineering, mathematics and the natural sciences, people rarely criticise the absence of men in linguistics, foreign languages and literature. Is this because it is a non-vocational "soft" option? Or is it simply down to personal preference? I know in my own case, it was a matter of preference. I had the ability to do well in math & science classes (I loved and aced biology), but my interests were more geared towards history, literature, politics & foreign languages. Does this mean I "let down" the feminist cause? Not at all--to be truly 'feminist' and empowered is to choose what you want for yourself. So I don't think the gender gap between these linguistics and engineering students is cause for alarm...

The nationality/race gap in another area, however, was more troubling. I invigilated one exam where three separate exams were being held in the same venue: 2 engineering and one English literature. The literature students filled up most of the middle of the room, while the other 2 smaller groups were seated on either side. I hate to say this, and I feel somewhat ashamed for having noticed it, but it looked as though we'd segregated the room by race. Among the engineering sections, there was not a single white student. In the literature area, there was not a single non-white student. In terms of gender, the groups were fairly evenly mixed--both engineering sections had about an equal number of men and women, while the literature group was about a 60/40 split in favor of women. It's another case of the non-vocational versus vocational, I feel. Those from minority backgrounds, here and in the States, tend to pursue degrees in vocational fields. I spoke with a colleague who commented that "the white kids can study whatever they want, it doesn't matter--they'll still get a job at their parent's company." If not their parent's company/law firm, etc., then at least via other 'connections' that 'white kids' are assumed to have...

Another less obvious demographic was the 'jock' type, taking a sports med exam. Not a single student in the room was even slightly overweight. More than half of them were wearing some type of sports-related gear (sweatpants, hoodies, t-shirts with team logos, etc.). Hardly surprising, but interesting at any rate...

My colleagues and I are organising our department's 5th annual PhD conference. The theme is "Constructing and Deconstructing Identity: Challenges to Communicating Who We Are." My observations about demographics during the exam period have really made me think even more about identity. Why do we choose the courses we choose? It relates to my PhD research, as well--how is my experience as an American in England different from that of other students? Other visitors? What effect does my being a white, female, native English-speaker have on my experience as a foreign student? What advantages or disadvantages do I have?

On an identity-related note, I've just started reading Alford's "The Craft of Inquiry", on the research process & being a social scientist (the head of the dept recommended it, and he was right--it's really good!). One of his first steps in the process was asking why you want to do this project--what is it about your personal background, interests, identity, etc. that makes you want to research this particular topic? It's more complicated than it seems...The easy answer is that Phil Taylor's lectures inspired me to learn more about public diplomacy and student exchange. Before his class, I'd never realized that exchange programs like Fulbright were connected to the government (State Department) and foreign policy. That link between education and politics really caught my interest--even more so because it involved international relations, and I was already into that. That's where the more complex answer comes in--why did I find that lecture interesting? What is it about me and my personality that makes me do this PhD rather than, say, become an engineer? Really interesting stuff!

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Lit Review: The Fulbright Experience

Over the break, I picked up a few books that had been delivered to my mom's place--out-of-print, impossible to find in the UK, but seminal stuff that I needed for the PhD. Since I've been back in Leeds, I've only had time to read one of them (I'm invigilating exams every day, and we're not allowed to read--constant vigilance!). It's a compilation of essays written by Fulbright alums about their experience, aptly titled The Fulbright Experience.

My favourite chapter dealt with the experience of a Danish-American who first visited the "old country" when he did a Fulbright in Denmark. His upbringing was heavily influenced by his family's Danish culture, and he'd married a Danish-American woman. But actually going to Denmark was eye-opening--there were huge gaps between expectations and actual experiences. He realized that he was more American than he'd thought, and that his romantic notions of the Denmark his ancestors had left behind beared little resemblance to contemporary Denmark today. I really related to this author--I grew up in an Anglophile household, and really over romanticised Britain before coming here. When I actually saw London, Bath, Liverpool, Leeds, etc. it was strange. The language was a bit like it was in the movies, but it varied--sometimes it was hard to understand and I no longer felt like a native speaker. The Georgian architecture of central Bath couldn't be more different than the concrete 60's university campus at the University of Bath just up the hill. I could go on with more examples, but let's just say there were gaps between expectations and experiences. But, for both myself and the author of this chapter, those gaps didn't detract from the experience. On the contrary, we both loved our host countries. So do those gaps matter, in the end?

My least favourite chapter was about this man's experience joining a German fencing fraternity. An interesting enough premise, but it read like an advert. All he could do was praise and defend the fraternity and fencing. There was very little about Germany, or German culture (they're not exactly known for fencing), and nothing at all about how the experience made the author feel about his home country upon return. Instead, I learned all about the intricacies, rules and procedures of fraternity life and different types of fencing. I appreciate that the fencing fraternity was a positive and valuable aspect of the Fulbright experience, but it felt like it was the only thing he did that year...

I have a 2nd volume, The Fulbright Difference, with 41 more essays to read. I think I'll use the 2 together to write up an essay for my next task, 'conceptualizing the student experience' as my supervisor put it.

It's been a rough week, but I think it's coming along alright. Next week I have more exam invigilating, and then the following week my very first TA job starts :) Really looking forward to it. I've dreamed about this since I was in high school...

Friday, 7 January 2011

New Year's Research Resolutions

10. I will get in to the office no later than 10 am (not having a fixed schedule, it's tempting to wander in at 10:30 or 11...and then take a long lunch at 12, haha)
9. I will be open to more opportunities for CV-building--teaching, conferences, etc.
8. I won't let myself get distracted by non-research-related websites during office hours (this means you, Facebook...)
7. I will actually read the library books stacked on my desk, instead of skimming them and leaving them in a pile until they're due back...
6. And on a related note, I'll be a better library patron and only check out what I intend to read in a week's time (3-4 books a week?)
5. I will start bringing lunch to work more often, as it cuts down on the lunch break length and gives me a chance to hang out with other PhDs & staff
4. I will write longer, better essays for my supervisor
3. I will pass my upgrade this summer!
2. I will update this blog at least once a week, because it helps me stay on track & refocus my thoughts
1. Finally, I resolve to enjoy the process and treat my PhD like the amazing opportunity it is.