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


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!