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--
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'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:

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.