Monday, 19 September 2011

Third Places

Sunset view from Ha'penny Bridge, Dublin

My brief stint as a tour guide was a success--Carly & Matt loved Leeds, thanks to a nice mix of sightseeing, shopping and pub crawls. We had a great time in Dublin, too. I instantly felt at home there, just like I'd felt the first time I came to the UK. As Carly put it, Ireland & Britain have all of the great qualities of Europe but without the language barrier.

Seeing my new home through their eyes really made me appreciate it more (no surprise there--it's always the case in exchange lit). They loved the pub culture, and it got me thinking about "third places". I'd read a piece a few years ago about Starbucks' successful strategy of creating a third place--a place outside of work or home. It's a public place that's intimate enough to hold a private conversation in, which is really a pretty interesting feature. When we went to pubs in Ireland, I realised that the pub is the third place in both Irish and British culture. Coffee chains have become more popular in recent years, but they close at 5-7pm and can't compete with a pub. During the Enlightenment era, coffee house culture was huge in London, but even then, I'm sure they never really surpassed the popularity of the pub (particularly in the working class). It also got me thinking about "third places" in the rest of the world. In France, it might be the cafe; in Italy, the 'fare un giro' habit of walking around the neighborhood after dinner and chatting with friends; in some boroughs of NYC, it's the act of sitting on the stoop with neighbors on warm nights, creating a 'street party' atmosphere.

With regards to my research, the idea of 'third places' has some interesting implications for exchange students. Culture learning might be measured in part by the extent to which international students discover local third places (and use them on a regular basis). If a student goes abroad and fails to engage with locals in a "third place" outside of work or home, I think they're missing out on an important part of culture learning...

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Tour Guide

This weekend, a couple of my friends from the States are visiting. They're travelling around Europe on their honeymoon--Athens, Rome, Florence, Venice, Paris, Leeds and then we're going with them to Dublin. It's a bit of a whirlwind trip, but if you're going to fly all the way from Seattle, I suppose there's a sense of pressure to do it all in one go.
In planning a tour of Leeds, I've really had my work cut out for me. This is the first time Matt's ever been to the UK. Carly went to London once briefly and got a terrible impression (long story short, there was a very rude anti-American guy at a bookshop). So they're bypassing London and getting their entire impression of the UK from 2 nights in Leeds. It's also a bit of an exciting challenge for me, too, because this is the first time I've had American friends visiting (it's not that they don't want to--they'd love to, but it's so expensive). I've had to think long & hard about what to show them, where to take them for a true "English" or "Yorkshire" experience...

And this is where my research comes in. When showing foreigners around, do you show them the England that they're expecting, or the England that you actually experience on a daily basis? Take pubs for example--my friends are expecting an old man pub with pints of real ale and heavy, traditional food (giant Yorkshire puddings filled with sausages, potatoes, veg & gravy...very intimidating even to those of us from the land of the Supersize). Leeds definitely has places like that, but it's also got its fair share of wine bars, cocktail lounges, student watering holes, sports bars, and trendy yuppie places. Do I take them to a less-popular old man pub for an 'authentic' experience, even though all of those places are actually authentic, too? Do I take them to a chippy when curry has actually become Britain's national cuisine? Basically, do I reinforce the stereotype and give them an unrealistic impression, or do I try to be creative and risk disappointing my guests? (This choice is actually fairly easy for me, because on a typical Friday night we usually do go to a traditional pub for real ale & a burger. We're taking them to our favourite place, and what could be more authentic than that?)

To get some ideas for sightseeing around Leeds, I went back to my first entry after arriving here in Sept 2008.
It's so strange to read it now--these places feel like home, and I'd never bother to take a picture of the Town Hall anymore (even though it's still just as beautiful).
Obviously a must-see--also, the art gallery is quite good & free.
Designer boutiques in the gorgeous Victoria Quarter. Carly is an architect/artist, so she'll be into it for multiple reasons. We'll have to combine this with a trip to Leeds City Markets across the street, too--must show both posh and 'real' sides of Leeds.

I'm not expecting to wow them--they've just been to amazing places on the continent where English people go on holiday, so obviously we can't compete with that. I just want to give them a good impression of England, show them the things I love about Yorkshire, and give them a glimpse of the nice little life we've got here. It's not Florence or Paris, but it's home.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Another September

It's my favourite time of year again: Back to School! The weather's getting slightly cooler, some of the trees in Hyde Park are starting to change, and all of the shops are pushing art supplies and dorm cooking sets. I love the excitement of a new school year. Being in the office throughout the whole month of August hasn't taken away from the excitement--I'm really looking forward to starting my new routine. I'm teaching seminars for an intro to communications research class that every ICS freshman takes (205 students!), and there should be weekly research seminars starting up again soon, too. The Phil Taylor conference plans are coming along, and then there's also the issue of my actual PhD research (upgrade date is 10 days away!).

Maybe it's just the reflective mood of another September, but I'm really starting to see it all coming together. The other day I wrote out a month-by-month summary of my PhD research and drew a little chart showing how my thoughts on the whole project had changed over time. It's nice to see my thoughts becoming more & more mature and critical (although I worry I'm becoming too much of a realist sometimes...), and to see where my project might be going next. My goals for the first year were basically 1) Pass the upgrade and 2) Get teaching experience, if possible. (and it was!) My goals for the second year might be harder to articulate...

1) Do my fieldwork (details tbd...)
2) More work experience--TA first term, plus the placement office job
3) Present at a conference (again, details tbd...)
4) Get something published, if possible?

At any rate, I'm feeling all motivated for the new school year and embracing the process. The PhD life is pretty sweet...

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Culture Learning and Mediation

You can lead a student to a foreign culture, but you can't make them learn...

All year I've been reading up on culture learning and cultural mediation for the PhD. It's the core of the student exchange experience. You don't study abroad just to get a degree--you study abroad to live in a foreign country and learn about a foreign culture. At least, that's what I thought...
I've observed this fascinating phenomenon of international students coming to Leeds and trying to retain their home culture. Not all of them, of course, but at least some of the students I've lived with or socialised with. It seems that, for some, the decision to study abroad was based on the degree, not the desire to engage in culture learning. They don't go out to pubs or try fish & chips, Sunday roast, or other local specialties. Instead, they cook their national cuisine at home, often with compatriot friends coming over for dinner. They might go out sightseeing, but they go with compatriot friends and speak their native language most of the time, like casual tourists.

Is it wrong to hold onto your native culture abroad? No, of course not. But I can't help but feel that they're missing something. And maybe also, scholars who look at educational exchange are missing something, too.
There's so much talk about the culture learning process that we just tend to assume that all international students are willing & eager to engage in it. Culture learning is taken for granted as one of the outcomes of study abroad. But how comprehensive can a student's culture learning experience be when they still speak their native language with compatriot friends, still eat the same foods they would at home, and make little effort to establish friendships with locals?

I have to admit that I'm especially touchy on this topic, because during my years in the UK, I've been at the other end of the spectrum: full immersion. From the moment I arrived, I was keen to try every authentically English food, drink, experience, etc. In my free time between class and the pub, I watched nearly every comedy series the BBC iPlayer had to offer. I made friends with other international students, but definitely made an effort to hang out with the local Brits as much as possible. As if that wasn't enough, I even moved in with an Englishman--now that's culture learning!

I'm not saying every international student should be as keen as I was, but I think much more could be done to enhance culture learning for those who aren't that eager (field trips, social events, etc.). And mostly, I think this issue needs to be discussed in the study abroad literature. The modern trend of having a "Western degree" for vocational purposes means that students don't necessarily care about the host country at all. They just want a prestigious degree and demonstrable English language skills so they can get a career back home. Why would they bother with culture learning? Do they even have time for it, when they're busy with compatriot friends and studying for their degree (in a foreign language, which must be incredibly difficult)?

With the new academic year starting this month, we're going to be welcoming new first-year PhD's (and MA's) from all over the world. It's actually down to us, the current postgrads, to help them engage in culture learning--to show them around, to give them a good first impression of the department, the Uni, the city, the country. Very exciting times...