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


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...