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.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Cultural Contexts

Last week, we had a postgraduate seminar on conducting research in different cultural contexts. I participated more than I usually do, because this is my area--I'm researching people who are researching in a different cultural context (i.e. study abroad students). The discussion topics were the very questions I'm asking my interviewees--the obstacles they face, the disadvantages and advantages of being a 'foreigner', the risks/benefits of 'going native', etc.

Our professor mentioned a book on Chinese culture that helped him with difficulties when conducting research in China. I didn't bring it up at the time, but Kate Fox's Watching the English has been a really useful resource for me. It's pop anthropology--a very readable study of the English culture that I picked up on a whim from the best-seller section of Borders. It's aimed at an English audience, so it's more social commentary than a guide for foreigners. But its explanations of language and customs have actually been really useful for me. I learned the importance of discussing the weather (can be used to initiate small talk or fill awkward silences--they're not really obsessed with the weather, they just don't want to have awkward conversations). As a non-research related side-note, Kate Fox also deserves some credit for my love life--the chapter on dating customs was very useful, and I still turn to it occasionally when I want to figure out my English partner's behaviour! (Sometimes it's an English thing, and sometimes it's just a guy thing...)

Apart from its implications for my own research, the seminar was interesting just because of the different perspectives in the room. We were nearly all foreign students researching our own countries, studying in the UK but conducting field research in our home countries. The Chinese students are all doing topics related to China, the American/Canadian-American students were doing UK/US -related topics, the Ghanaian student was researching Ghanaian journalism, etc. It was interesting to see how we all felt about critical distance in our research. I think the geographic distance of studying in the UK helps to some extent--allows us to look at our home country from a different perspective. But I find it really interesting that we tend to incorporate our home countries into our research projects. Is it simply a case of 'write what you know'? If we researched another country, could we be as effective? How would we know what questions to ask, or how to ask them in order to get what we want? This all circles back to the reflexivity issue raised in Alford's Craft of Inquiry that I mentioned.

On an unrelated note, I've drawn some more conclusions from my quantitative data sets.

1) Popular destinations are the same for Fulbright and non-Fulbright students, judging by the numbers of Fulbright applications to each region, and the number of total (non-Fulbright) U.S. study abroad participants for each country. Europe is, in both cases, by far the most popular region for U.S. students. This is followed by Asia and Latin America, for both groups. I find it really interesting that the patterns are so similar--what influences are shaping them? Is it language education in U.S. high schools? Is it the prestige of institutions in Europe? Or do they just offer strong programmes in areas that U.S. students prefer?

2)I've answered the question of Germany's high popularity: Funding. They offer the most grants because they have the most resources. U.S. State Department contributes only 28% of the funding for exchanges between the U.S. and Germany--the rest of the bill is paid by a combination of German government & private contributions. It is an anomaly among the various Fulbright bilateral agreements, and an interesting case to consider. Why does Germany contribute so much, and conversely, why don't other countries contribute funds to this extent?

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Number crunching

This week, I've been looking at the quantitative aspect of the Fulbright Program. Generally, I'm not a numbers person--it's a bit too dry and abstract, and making charts & tables isn't really my thing. But after weeks of working on the qualitative side (plugging away through 80+ Fulbrighter essays), it was a nice change of pace.

I'm looking for the strategic element of Fulbright--why we send who we send, how many we send, and where we send them. (That was about as clear as Donald Rumsfeld's unknown unknowns...) There are three main data sets that I'm merging: Fulbright U.S. students by destination country, Open Doors non-Fulbright study abroad U.S. students by destination country, and Pew Global Attitudes Project U.S. favorability ratings. And these are all going back to 1995 (the furthest back for all data sets, aka common denominator). I'm hoping that this will show some sort of strategic element...The difference between Fulbright and non-Fulbright destinations, or maybe it will show a lack of strategy (popular countries are popular for Fulbright and non-Fulbright, and they have favorable views of the U.S., too!). I'm not expecting to see drastically improved public opinion of the U.S. following increased numbers of Fulbrighters--public diplomacy is a long-term strategy, and we can't expect overnight results (i.e., within a decade). But maybe the favourability ratings will show something else about student numbers--like why students might choose to study in a friendlier country.

So far I have little analysis to present, but I'll update it next week. For now, here are a few observations:
1) Since 1995, the U.S. has sent 13-22 students every year to Canada. No offense to Canada, but in terms of 'mutual understanding', I don't think there's much work to be done there...we already understand each other (as it says on the Peace Arch between WA and B.C., we're 'children of a common mother').

2) In 2002-2003, the number of students going to Jordan jumped from 8 to 17. This also happens to be the year when U.S. favorability ratings in Jordan fell from 25% in 2002 to 1% in 2003. What are some possible explanations for this? Did the Iraq War both increase interest in the Middle East among U.S. students and inspire hatred of the U.S. in Jordan? Really interesting case!

3) The program to Russia started in 2000, almost a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union. Ever since, it's been one of the more popular destinations, sending 20-30 students per year. U.S. favorability ratings have improved, too--from 37% in 2000 to 57% in 2010. What took so long?

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

The Big Picture

I can't believe this book even exists...

And no, I'm not reading it.

For awhile now, I've been approaching the PhD as an incremental, step-by-step process. A 3rd year PhD friend of mine advised me to do that--"Just focus on one thing at a time. If you think about the big picture, it's too overwhelming and you won't get anything done." Great advice, and it definitely helped keep me plugging away for a few weeks.
But then I met with my supervisor, and he asked me to define my research question. Uh oh--that's the big picture! I wasn't ready for that...but of course I need to get it sorted now, because I have to get ready for the upgrade this summer. Actually, upgrade aside, I need to get it sorted now because doing research without the big picture in mind is a waste of time. The big picture (and a good research question) will help me decide what to read/write, which sidetracks are worth pursuing and which are just distractions, etc.

So this week, I've been writing up an outline for the dissertation, with a paragraph for each chapter explaining what its contents will be. Writing about the lit review is the hardest part, because there's a lot to cover and so many ways to organise it (chronologically, thematically). It doesn't help that my project is a bit interdisciplinary, so the primary areas of literature each have their own little subtopics.

Overall, though, I think looking at the big picture this week has been helpful. I'm fairly happy with my revised research question.

Before: "In this empirical study of American students in Britain, I will assess the extent to which foreign students fulfil public diplomacy aims during their academic sojourns." (from my original PhD proposal)

Now: "What is the role of American Fulbright Program participants in the contemporary conduct of U.S. public diplomacy?"

This is more focused on the public diplomacy side, rather than the student experience side. The PD lit was more interesting to me, and looking over the study abroad lit, this new question is more original. I remember Phil Taylor telling me, when I first suggested the topic, that I'd get "points for originality, no matter how it turns out." I'd like to think he'd approve of the new question, too.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Fulbright Lit: Epiphany No. 2

Another nearly universal theme across the Fulbrighter essays was the idea of transformation. It changed their lives, their careers, their perspectives. It broadened their horizons. It altered their life trajectory.

(image from)

"The Fulbright Program is many things to many fortunate people. For me, the Fulbright experience clearly shaped the broad framework of my life." (Experience, p. 273)

"When we returned, we had been enriched and that enrichment could be passed on to our American students." (Experience, p. 143)

"From beginning to end, that Fulbright year taught me lessons that have made me see the world differently." (Difference, p. 288)

"My three Fulbright experiences have changed my life, not so much in the character of behavior, but in the character of thought." (Difference, p. 299)

"All this my Fulbright year helped nurture and build; so many things began to take shape in Cincinnati." (Difference, p. 214) (Who knew Ohio could be so life-changing?)

When I analyse these essays, it's tempting to count just how many times "change" appears in the text. But what would that show, apart from the word choice of Fulbrighters? What's more important is to assess how these changes occurred. Why did the experience change their career path? What does a personal 'life-changing' experience contribute to the overall practice of public diplomacy? Is it just the sum of all of these changed lives, these returned grantees who are now teaching, working, living around the world?

Fulbright Lit: Epiphany No. 1

I've finally finished reading The Fulbright Experience and The Fulbright Difference, the two volumes of essays written by Fulbrighters that I mentioned last month. When I started reading them, I was comparing them to other study abroad lit that I'd read. I hoped that the Fulbrighters would have different experiences, that there would be some unique quality about the experiences of Fulbright grantees that set them apart from other people who'd studied abroad, outside the realm of public diplomacy.

That quality doesn't seem to exist. Fulbrighters have all the same 'life-changing' experiences that other study abroad students have. A few of them mentioned the prestige of the name as an added benefit, but for the most part, their experiences were like so many others I've already pored through. Their essays were interesting, but they seemed to all have the same sort of epiphanies--and they couch them in the same terms.

The first 'epiphany' is the idea that being abroad helps you understand your own country better.

"I discovered that it is very useful to view one's society and its institutions from afar." (Experience, p. 87)

"I began to know my own country better." (Experience, p. 119)

"My own understanding of American literature has been broadened, and my commitment to American traditions and institutions has been strengthened by the Fulbright experience." (Experience, p. 171-172)

"The Fulbright experience has led us first to what might be called the otherness and strangeness of the other; but this experience in turn has led us to wonder more about the onlookers themselves, which is to say that we now have a more intense wonder about, a sense of strangeness concerning, ourselves, Americans, as a people." (Difference, p. 383)

"The Fulbright gave me a chance to explore more fully what people are and what culture means...Ironically, while gaining what is Iceland I also have found a better milieu for expressing my Americanism." (Experience, p. 296)

There's actually nothing ironic about it. Irony is a discrepancy between what is and what should be--and after reading the same reports from all the other Fulbrighters, it seems that being in another country should aid the personal expression of Americanism, should teach the participant more about his or her own country.

It makes perfect sense to me. How can you know what your culture is if you've never compared it to any alternative culture? It's not an epiphany, it's just reflexivity...