Thursday, 7 November 2013

Explaining the Poppy

This morning on the way to campus, a couple of international students stopped me to ask about my poppy.
"Excuse me, but could you tell me about this flower?" She pointed to my lapel. "I see everyone wearing it."

"Oh, yeah, it's for Veterans Day--I mean, Remembrance Day. To honor veterans who died in war."

"Ah, ok. And where can I get one of these?"

"They have them in shops & pubs, usually in a box by the till."

"Ok, thank  you!"

I thought about it the rest of the walk in, and hoped I'd done a decent job of explaining it. There's so much more I could say--that Monday was the anniversary of the signing of the armistice, the end of the First World War which wasn't even called the First World War at the time. It was the "Great War" because it was on an unprecedented scale. The British people lost a generation of young men in the Great War. As you travel around Britain, in every little village and every church, you'll see memorials to those who died in the Great War--and they were updated or expanded to include the list of those who died in the Second World War. It's moving to see the size of a list in a small town, where losing so many men would have been particularly devastating. Remembrance Day, to put it simply, is a big deal in Britain.

Why do I wear the poppy? I've never been pro-military or excessively patriotic, despite (or maybe because of) having plenty of veterans in my family. I think I started wearing it when I'd been here for a couple of years and noticed that it seemed to be "what you do" here for a week in early November. When we started going to our church, I went to my first Remembrance Sunday service and found it really moving. We sang the national anthem and though I didn't know all of the verses at the time, I still felt a sense of patriotism, a sense that Britain tries to be honourable and do the right thing. I'm well aware of this country's flaws--the legacy of colonialism/imperialism, the monarchy, the lack of a constitution, the high tax rate--but I'm also aware of what these flaws contribute to the nation in the end--the empire has made this country multicultural because of commonwealth immigration and it also made English a lingua franca (thanks!), the monarchy is a tourist attraction (if nothing else), the lack of a constitution means that you don't have people distorting a constitution for their own purposes (like the NRA and the 2nd Amendment...ugh), and the high tax rate pays for a fantastic social welfare system, including the NHS which I can't praise enough.

Enough about Britain, though--it's bigger than that. Why do I wear the poppy? Because it's important to remember the real cost of war--human lives, both civilian and military. I chose to research my topic because I genuinely believe that preventing war and finding alternatives to war is the most important thing that we, as people in general, can do. In answering that girl's question this morning, I did a bit of culture sharing, a bit of the type of thing I'm preaching. Does it matter whether she goes out and buys a poppy? Not really. The point is, she learned something about British culture. This is why it's hard to measure culture learning and to determine whether these programmes are effective!

Monday, 4 November 2013

Fourth Year

In the UK system, the PhD is meant to take three years--it doesn't involve a taught component like the US system does, so it's just 3 years of independent research. In practice, the three year guideline commonly turns into 3 1/2, 4 years or even longer. I'm planning to submit mine 31 January 2014, which will be 3 years, 4 months--and objectively, I know that's completely normal and actually even quite good. But subjectively, well...I happen to know far too many people who were really impressive and finished faster. Tracey finished a couple of months before the 3 year mark and she's doing her book proposal (and she's 26), Gary finished in 3 years (and he was 24!), and Phil finished in 2 years (also just 24) and got 2 books out of his dissertation. Ugh. Since when did finishing in 3 1/3 years at the age of 28 sound so unimpressive?

There are two ways of looking at these people--you're either inspired by them or you're intimidated by them. My attitude varies depending on my mood. I'm aware of the downsides of being so successful in your career--the stress, sleepless nights, relationship difficulties, etc. At the same time, though, I've always had a thirst to prove myself. I've always wanted to be impressive.

Today I realised that Tracey, Gary, Phil and I all have something in common, actually--we're all from less-than-impressive places. Halifax, Bradford, Liverpool, Siloam Springs/Stanwood: all working-class places where going to university is not a given. And despite going into academia, all of us kept in touch with our roots and stayed down-to-earth.

This weekend, I applied to a postdoc at Oxford. Like the British Academy one that I applied for, it's competitive. Chances are, come January, I won't be invited to the second round in the process for either of them. But there's always hope. If I can make it out of Siloam, and if Tracey and Gary and Phil can transcend their northern industrial cities, then anything's possible. 

Thursday, 15 August 2013


Today's supervision meeting went better than I could have possibly imagined. They liked my framework and structure, and want me to keep it and flesh it out into a chapter. Talking it over with them, I realised that I've been ridiculously hard on myself.  My framework is an original contribution to knowledge, which is the whole point of the PhD, after all.

The fact that it's original is why I felt so unsure about my approach. Not being able to find any literature to explicitly support my ideas made me feel like they weren't good enough--surely somebody must have done this before. But actually, the fact that this is different doesn't mean that it's weak--it means that it's original and it's a contribution to the field. I'm capable of so much more than I believe. I need to give myself some credit for this one, and have more confidence in my work.

This chapter isn't a "dissertation-by-numbers" theory chapter. It's not about subscribing to a theoretical point of view or debating the merits of one dead white guy's views over another. It's about breaking down the literature into its main ideas--it's really more of an analytical lit review than a theory chapter.

In other news, today I've submitted my revised journal article to the wonderful folks at Ludwig-Maximilians Universitaet in Munich, so my very first publication is closer to being a reality. Beyond excited!

I was hurt by some news yesterday that confirmed what I'd been thinking about the future direction of ICS, but I'm trying to put it all behind me. There are millions of opportunities out there in the world for me, and the changes at ICS might be just the push that I needed to get out there and pursue them. I've absolutely loved my time here and the people I've met, but it's obviously not meant to be a permanent thing for me, and that's for the best.

Monday, 12 August 2013

"The Five-Year Engagement"

I watched "The Five-Year Engagement" recently, and there are a few things about it that really irritated me. Richard thinks "it's just a movie" and I shouldn't get worked up about it, but my years of hanging out with film/media studies people in ICS have taught me that it's never just a movie. It reflects attitudes about gender roles and success and family, and it ends with some pretty terrible lessons. (Spoiler alert!)

At the start of the film, when Violet (Emily Blunt) is applying to post-doc fellowships, I was thrilled--"hey, that's me, that's something I'm doing in the near future!" It feels great to be represented--it's not very often that the lead female in a rom-com is a post-doc. Students in film are usually undergrads (or high school), and grad students in films are often in law school (Legally Blonde--where your knowledge of chemical hair treatments miraculously saves your reputation as a future lawyer) or med school (Patch Adams--where the only female student gets killed).

The main conflict is the idea that Tom (Jason Segal) gives up his career (he's poised to run his own restaurant in foodie-city San Francisco) to be with fiancee Violet at her post-doc in Michigan, and while he seems cool with it at first, he quickly resents it and goes crazy, and their relationship falls apart.

The idea that the man in a relationship could make career-related sacrifices (as women have always been expected to do) is refreshingly egalitarian, yes. But the fact that he goes nuts and they break up just reinforces the original stereotypic idea that men shouldn't sacrifice their career. Moreover, Chris Parnell's character makes an absolute mockery of the stay-at-home-dad/female breadwinner household arrangement. He knits (badly) and hunts (to gain back some of his masculinity?), and is just generally ridiculous. Violet's sister is a whole other mess that I won't bother to go into--"there is no right cookie, you just pick one and take a bite!" (her advice: nobody's perfect, so settle)

My main beef with the film, though, comes with the revelation that Violet was only given her post-doc project and offered a lecturer post because the Prof (Rhys Ifans) was attracted to her.

It was at this point that I hated the film and wanted my £5 back. She was never actually successful at all. She was just pretty. What a horrible message for women in academia. Meanwhile, after the break-up, Tom started his own business and became wildly successful. Violet was just fooling herself the whole time, and should never have been so silly as to presume to be the breadwinner. Tom's original plan didn't work out, but because he's now free from his flawed, emasculating relationship with a female post-doc, he found a successful alternative.

The film ends without any clear sense of where they'll live or what she'll do for a living, but we know 2 things--they're married and he's got his awesome taco van business. And they lived happily ever after...

I generally like Judd Apatow, Jason Segal, Emily Blunt, etc. so it was a disappointment...I was really glad to hear other reviews call this film sexist, too:
Bitch Flicks: 'The Five-Year Engagement:' Exploration of Gender ...

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Separating Emotions from Work

My mood's improving since the last post--I'm cautiously optimistic about my upcoming supervision meeting and I've been working on a new plan of attack for the dissertation.

For those 4 terrible weeks, I mostly kept the struggle to myself--it was only when I started talking with Richard, my family and friends that I finally realised that I'm not a failure and I actually do know what I'm doing with my project.

The most difficult thing for me is to not take criticism personally. I'm very sensitive and insecure, despite looking calm & self-assured most of the time. Some friends at ICS have told me that I seem very relaxed, considering the fact that I'm submitting relatively soon. I've always been good at hiding it and smiling through difficulties. The first time I arrived in London, I got on the Tube at Heathrow and took a seat. A Canadian couple boarded and sat across from me, and asked if the train was going to London. I said that I thought so, but wasn't sure, as it was my first time here, too. They laughed and said, "oh, you looked so relaxed, like you knew what you were doing!"

When it comes to my work, I'm especially sensitive. I've been thinking about how I can separate the emotions from the work, but I'm starting to doubt that it's possible. If you really care about your project and you feel that it is what you're meant to do with your life--if it's your calling--then you can't help but be emotional about it. 

I'm only sensitive about the important things. When I worked retail for a summer during Uni, I wasn't that great at it. We were supposed to complete transactions at the till in 60 seconds or less ("60 Second Checkout", the supervisors reminded us constantly). I wasn't that fast, and I was told that I needed to speed up. Criticism at that job didn't upset me, though--I knew it was just a summer job, and it wasn't my career or my calling. 

After my presentation at the Finland conference, one of the organisers said that I'd done well, and that she'd picked up on my enthusiasm. "You love your work, I can tell!" And it's true. 

Whatever people think of my work, my interest areas, my favorite books and authors, my dream of working in academia--the important thing is that I love it. It's my calling and I truly do feel that I'm living the dream.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Not So Fast...

Morale has been very low for the past month.

At my last supervision meeting, I was asked to go away and read for a month, and write a theory chapter.

Going into the meeting, I'd been hoping for some nice, constructive, helpful feedback, and I'd expected that they would tell me to get on with the next task on the list. It was the first time I'd had any feedback from my new supervision team, and I was keen to hear what they thought.

Being told to read theory is like having to move back to the start in a board game. I went with it, agreed to take it on and after our meeting I went straight to the library to check out a range of Political/IR/Communications/Psychology theories that might be useful.  For the first two weeks, I just kept reading and taking notes. Last week, I started to write and that's when it started to get ugly.

I felt like an absolute failure. Why don't I understand theory? How did I manage to get a BA and an MA and never get a grip on theory? I must have screwed up somewhere without realising it. I've been a fraud all this time, obviously. When I sat down to write, the empty Word document with its blinking cursor just amplified all of my fears and self-doubt. A title, a subject heading, a phrase or two--I made dozens of false starts and ended each day with nothing much to show for it. When I would come up with an idea, I would just hear one of my supervisors in my head, criticising it and saying it wouldn't work, it wasn't good enough, I wouldn't pass, etc. They've never said anything like this, of course--it's just my self-doubt.

It's been very dark.

Today, I had a slight breakthrough--I was able to at least decide upon a structure and main premise of the chapter, the skeleton that I needed in order to be happy with my writing. Things are a little bit brighter--bright enough for me to write on the blog, at any rate.

I still worry that I'm not good enough, that my work isn't up to par and that I should have just listened to the people who told me that my dreams were unrealistic.

But...(there's always that hopeful 'but'...) my family & friends support me and think I can do it, even when I'm not so sure. And it's important to recognise that I'm my own worst critic, and thankfully, it's not up to me whether I pass or not--let others decide whether my best is good enough.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Submission, Viva & Graduation: Soon it will be my turn...

Last week I took my friend's dissertation to get bound & submitted. As much as I wished it was my finished dissertation in my hands, I enjoyed the opportunity to do a trial run. I was able to see just how much binding it costs, how long it takes, where you go to submit the final product, what they'll ask you, etc.

A couple of weeks back, we went to a celebration for a friend who had just had his viva. He managed to pass with no corrections, which is an absolutely brilliant result, but the viva still sounded like an agonizing 90 minutes for him. I was thrilled for him, and anxious about what my own is going to be like.

The graduation ceremonies have been taking place on campus last week, too. I love seeing the proud graduates & their families. There are just a handful of these major family occasions in life--births, graduations, weddings, funerals--and graduations are the only kind that reflect a real achievement.

Witnessing these three things, submission, viva & graduation, has reminded me that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it's really very close. On a day to day basis, I feel like this dissertation is not happening. I write and re-write and cut huge sections and re-think entire chapter formats, and my word count changes so little after so much effort. Sometimes the number even goes down, which is a heartbreaking sight.

But, in the grand scheme of things, it's almost done. Really, whether or not I'm happy with every single word and idea, it will be finished and submitted, sooner rather than later. Ideally by 1 October. The end is nigh!

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Fulbright WAGs

I'm working on my grantee experience chapter this week. Although the Fulbright Program has always been open to women, most of the early grantees were men. There's no indication that the selection process was biased or discriminatory--it's just that the applicant pool had more men than women in it. For every Sylvia Plath (1955-57, Cambridge), there's a Joseph Heller and a John Updike.

That said, there have been plenty of women accompanying grantees. I've found a few interesting bits in the archives about wives of Fulbrighters in Egypt, India and Iraq during the early days, and would love to incorporate them somehow into the chapter. The tone can be a bit 1960's at times, but I think it shows that dependents have an important role to play in the Fulbright experience. They make friends of their own and connect with the community, interacting with people that the grantee would not otherwise meet. In my favourite passage, the researchers seem surprised that wives are more than "only an asset or a handicap" to the grantee--fancy that!

“Several American wives undertook almost full-time activity as public lecturers, classroom teachers, or consultants in educational work. Others joined charitable or church organizations or served in the welfare programs of village development organizations. Reports from the educational foundations highly commend the influence of these women on the Indian community. The record of these wives and the depth of their understanding of India leads to the conclusion that grantees’ wives are not only an asset or a handicap. Their contributions to communities of countries like India can become highly significant.” (MacGregor, 1962, p. 40; U Ark MC 468, 103-6).

The little dears can make themselves useful, after all! :) 

Senator Fulbright, for his part, didn't believe in paying for a grantee's family to tag along."The original idea, which is still sound, I think, is to take your best American graduate students, not their families...Too much is spent on sending professors and their families over." (Sussman, 1992, p. 56). I take his criticism as a defensive measure, trying to get the most out of the programme's limited funds. Senator Fulbright fought a constant battle for adequate funding, and he recognised that two or even three junior scholars could be sent overseas for the price of just one senior professor with a family.

That said, which is the better investment? For the aims of the Fulbright Program, so much depends on individual personalities and attitudes. Will those 2-3 junior researchers be insular or outgoing? Will the professor's family give locals a good impression--and how can you vet them during the selection process? Essentially, you can't--Fulbright WAGs are a wildcard.

Friday, 31 May 2013

Uncomfortable small talk doesn't do anything for mutual understanding

Invigilators arrive in the exam venue 45 minutes early to set up and make sure we have everything we need. Setting up only takes 10 minutes, though, so most of that time is filled with small talk. Postgrad Invigilators chat about their PhD topics, the Professional Invigilators tell us about their former careers (they're now retired and just do things like invigilation a few times a year for kicks). I usually get faced with the following questions: "What part of the States are you from?", "What are you studying?", "What are you planning on doing after the PhD?" After that, I ask them about their research, we exchange remarks about the weather, and then it's time to let the students in. I find it really tiresome, having to repeat the same answers to 2 groups of people a day for 2 weeks straight.

Yesterday, a particularly curious guy asked me so many questions--about why I came to Leeds, where I'm from, whether I miss Seattle, what my husband does, where I went to undergrad, what I'm doing after the PhD, etc. At one point, he said "So you're going to be making more money than your husband?" I was so taken aback that I just awkwardly said, "yeah, I guess that's the plan..." But for the rest of the day I was thinking of things I should have said. Firstly, it's none of his business how much I earn or how much my husband earns. He's a total stranger and our household finances are none of his concern. Secondly, he's a sexist pig because nobody would ever say the same comment to a man--"So you're going to be making more money than your wife?" And thirdly, yes, I'll make more than him for some of our years together, but there are always different scenarios at different time periods throughout life. He's been the breadwinner so far, while I've been in school, and he'll still be earning more than me during the post-doc stage, at least. He's willing to support me when we have kids, so I can stay at home with them and/or go back to work part-time--maybe even, shock-horror, he could be a stay at home dad and I could go back to work full time. He's 7 years older than me, so when my career is well-established in my 50's, he can retire and I'll be the breadwinner. Whatever financial arrangements we do make throughout our life together, it's none of this stranger's business!

He also shared his background, bragging about his Masters experience at Oxford and trying to impress me with stories of the fantastic house system:
He says: "We get three course meals for £3!"
I say: "Oh..."
He: "Made by Michelin-star chefs!"
I: "Oh..."
He seemed confused as to why I wasn't more impressed, so I explained--"A couple of weeks ago I was just there for a conference, and to be honest, I'm not a huge fan of Oxford. (stunned look on his face, so I went on) It felt cold and elitist, like the Ivy League in the States. I prefer the North--people here are friendlier and more down-to-earth."
He says: "So I take it you didn't go to an Ivy League, then?" Ugh.

Quite appropriately, I've been working on a section about interpersonal communication and the emphasis that PD puts on face-to-face conversations. They're supposed to lead to increased understanding, but I think my experience yesterday illustrates that outcomes are not always positive.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Oxford Conference

Last week, I presented my work at "Global Knowledge", a PhD/early career conference run by Oxford University's Transnational and Global History research group. Most of the other speakers were doing Colonial/post-Colonial history (either British or French empires, with a little discussion of Spain/Portugal thrown in for good measure). I was on a panel with another American, David Olson of Boston College, whose research on UNESCO was really interesting (and one of the few papers there where I recognised citations, like Ninkovich's The Diplomacy of Ideas!).

Overall, the conference was great--learned a great deal about archival research and how to think about history, and just had a really lovely time. I made friends and connections, and remembered to hand out my business card. It's the last conference I have planned for the foreseeable future, so I definitely thought about networking.

Being at Oxford got me thinking about my thesis chapter (as yet unwritten) on the way that the Fulbright Program alumni feed back into the program (volunteering, writing, funding, lobbying, etc.) and reproduce future generations of Fulbrighters.  It's all about elite institutions and elite people--"future leaders." I've written here before about my struggles with reading Bourdieu, but being at Oxford for the weekend has inspired me to give it another go. There is something fascinating about these people, their view of the world...It's hard for me to articulate it, but I'm going to have to if I want to include it in the thesis.

Here's an example: on the morning of the conference, I posted a Facebook status about how presenting at Oxford was beyond my wildest dreams, growing up in rural Stanwood & being born in Siloam Springs. I said that being around people who attend these schools sometimes makes me forget how amazing it is. I had my friend Tracey in mind. Although she's from Halifax, West Yorkshire and is refreshingly down-to-earth and lovely, she is also brilliant and read history at Oxford. She even did a study abroad at Princeton, the Ivy League school that I'd applied to, early decision, and was rejected by. Tracey makes my accomplishments far less special. She's amazing. The point of my status update was that, while sometimes amazing people like Tracey make me feel like I'm not 'enough', I should be proud of myself for presenting at Oxford. It's an accomplishment that the 15-year-old me in Stanwood would have been proud of--the kid who had never met anyone who went to Oxford or Princeton.

And, as often happens in social media, the status update didn't go down like I'd hoped it would. In just a few minutes, I had a comment from Tracey. She said "Awww, I love it!" and then went on about her time there. I didn't want that. I felt her "aww" was a bit patronising, as though she thought it was 'cute' that I was excited. She didn't know that I would take it that way, and she certainly didn't mean it in a negative way at all. But the point is, she didn't get my point. And that, essentially, is what my whole elite institution angle on the Fulbright Program is all about. They don't get it. They are elites being given grants to become more elite, and they don't see it that way at all.

I'm still trying to articulate these thoughts more clearly, but there's something important going on here. The main reason I haven't said it is because I'm afraid of sounding bitter--like I just have a big chip on my shoulder because of my non-Ivy League/Oxbridge background. I don't want to come across like an anti-elitist, because obviously I've been working hard all of these years to become an elite (a PhD in much more elite can a working-class American get?). I like touring stately homes, eating brie and drinking port, but I also love Wal-Mart and Mexican food.

I hope that I never lose touch with my working-class roots, and never lose that sense of wonder & appreciation, no matter how many times I present my work at elite institutions.


Friday, 3 May 2013

Post-Conference Thoughts & Shopping Culture

Despite all of my worrying, the Finland conference went well. My presentation was ok--not brilliant, but not too bad either. They scheduled me in the last panel of the day (6-7pm!) so I spoke to a small, tired audience. I was also asked to keep it brief, which was fine by me. I skipped over a couple of slides to cut it from 20 min to 15 min, and then of course the only question I got from the audience was related to the bit that I'd skipped. The fact that I only had one person with a question or comment was disheartening. Even Nick Cull didn't ask anything--he smiled & nodded encouragingly throughout, which was nice, but I would have appreciated feedback. It was only my second conference, and I really worked hard on the paper...

The dinner & drinks after the conference was nice, but it carried on a bit too long. I had to catch the bus from Turku to Helsinki at 4am for my early morning flight, so I stayed out with the conference lot. We had a good time for the most part, but there were a few crappy moments. A couple of them made fun of me for liking Leeds (I'm a bit defensive of the North--I love it here) and for having a set weekly routine (it might seem dull to others, but I love my life!). I don't think they realised that they were hurting my feelings, and as much as I wanted to leave, I didn't really want to go to my hotel and risk falling asleep and missing my bus to the airport.

In general, though, Finland was interesting. It's a strange mix of East meets West--some of the architecture looks Russian and some looks Neo-Classical. Some aspects, like the food, reminded me of Sweden and others, like the massive department store Stockmann, were American. I had an idea for a project, if I ever want to go back--Helsinki as the last frontier of shopping during the Cold War. Apparently Westerners based in Moscow used to order the goods that they couldn't get in the Soviet Union from Stockmann in Helsinki. 
"Stockmann, Helsinki's largest department store, maintains a 15-member export staff that handled about $5 million in sales this year to buyers in the Soviet Union...Sales clerks have standing instructions to put export shoppers at the head of any line and completion of a purchase requires only a signature on a blank order form...The biggest buyers are embassies in Moscow. Miss Bergholm [divisional sales manager] said that Stockmann sends everything from milk to flowers to winter tires to diplomatic missions. Some foreigners prefer to order milk from Finland because Soviet milk is not homogenized, and they also fear that it may be inadequately sterilized." (Philip Taubman, "To Banish the Moscow Blahs, Finns Say 'Try Us'", The New York Times, 25 Dec 1985, p. 2)
Stockmann was lovely--the salespeople don't bother you while shopping, and they don't engage in small talk at the tills, either. I only knew "hei hei" and "kiitos" (hello & thank you), and that's all I needed to shop. The Finnish stereotype of being taciturn was true, and I didn't mind at all. When I went to the States in January, shopping felt so different--American salespeople are instructed to talk to anybody who comes within a 5-foot radius. I remember this from my summer of working in retail--greet them, ask if they need any help, and if they say no, you say "ok, well, let me know if you need anything!" It sounds lovely and friendly, but in practice it's irritating. You can't just browse in peace, because you're always being greeted and 'helped.' On the spectrum of customer service, Finland is slightly friendlier than Italy, where I've found salespeople to be a bit impatient. I absolutely love the place--the language, the architecture, the food, the wine, etc.--but shopping in Italy hasn't been a great experience for me. The chart below illustrates my international shopping experiences. It's limited in scope and based on a small number of trials, but I hope to do more fieldwork and add to it in the future...

Friday, 19 April 2013

Getting it done and turned in on time...

My lit review is a month late.

It's still not done. I've reworked it several times and I've reread a lot of books and articles, hoping for ideas to jump out at me. Each time I rewrite it, it gets better but at some point I need to just consider it done and submit it.

80% of life is getting it done and turned in on time.--Woody Allen

Well, at this point it's no longer possible to be on time, but I need to just get it done.

I had a look back at old notes from my research seminars and found the one about writing a lit review. They recommended going for quality over quantity--limit it to the seminal works and analyse them in depth. Don't make a laundry list of what you've read, they told us first-year PhD students.

So, I went back to my draft and deleted the unnecessary works (the laundry list contained some that aren't really related to my PhD's central arguments/research questions). That left it quite short and sad, around 3,000 words.

For whatever reason, I had 10,000 in mind. I realise now that 10,000 won't happen at this rate. I'm extremely disappointed in myself. My failure to meet deadlines has a very ugly, self-perpetuating effect--I get depressed and struggle to focus, which then keeps me from making progress on my writing.

Not sure what to do, but for now, I'll focus on my Woody Allen mantra and try to get it done.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Listening Skills

Yesterday after the PhD research seminar, my colleague told me that I was a great person to have in the audience when you're presenting your work, because I listen & smile & nod. When he lost his train of thought or thought people weren't following his ideas, he said he'd look at me and I'd be listening. It's a lovely compliment, and one that I've heard before actually. My 10th grade world history teacher picked up on it once, saying that he liked having me in the front row because my smiling & nodding encouraged him. He said it was "motherly"--very embarrassing to have a teacher call you that in front of the whole class, but he meant well. My Spanish teacher put it in a much nicer way, telling my mom at graduation that he appreciated my enthusiasm and engagement in class, and that he wished he could have "a whole class full of Molly Sissons."

Listening in class or a seminar presentation has always just come naturally for me--I've always seen it as a matter of being polite and treating others how you'd like to be treated. I know that I'd feel demoralised if I were giving a talk and the audience was sleeping or texting or passing notes, etc. Public speaking is daunting enough without a disengaged peanut gallery for an audience. During these talks, I'm usually too busy looking at the speaker to notice what others around me are doing, but since my colleague brought it to my attention with his compliment, I had a look around the seminar later that afternoon. To be fair, most people were active listeners--looking at the speaker, taking notes, no looking at phones, etc. But there were some who glazed over, especially near the end of the talk. I'm not saying I was a perfect audience member--I took 1 page of notes about the talk but also jotted down about a page of ideas for the chapter I'm working on at the moment--but I think listening skills in general are undervalued. Maybe it's because they don't think it's rude to do those things, to be a multitasking audience member.     

How do you teach listening skills? Is there something lecturers can do to encourage active listening (apart from just being fascinating speakers), or is it too late by the time these kids get to uni? Is it all down to our multitasking, multiscreen lifestyle that discourages giving your full attention to any single thing? Or can we relearn how to listen, despite the gadgets?

Monday, 15 April 2013

Journalism, Ethics and Student Exchange

The story of BBC Panorama journalists posing as LSE students to get into North Korea has made me think about the way that educational exchange can be used and misused. Students are a "safe" category, considered to be pretty harmless and free of controversy. This good reputation can help students gain access to places, people & things needed for educational purposes. Unfortunately, the guise of "educational purposes" can be used to cover up other uses. The journalists posed as students to gain access to North Korea--despite the fact that the North Korean government does allow Western journalists to get a journalist visa (no doubt it demands more paperwork and time, but it does exist). By lying about their status, they endangered the students who travelled with them, the North Korean tour guides, and damaged the reputation of the BBC, LSE, and Western journalists in general. For a paranoid country like North Korea, this act just reinforced all of their fears. 

I think that what upsets me most is the fact they were from the BBC. Putting aside the huge fact that the BBC is publicly funded, the BBC is considered to be the standard bearer for journalism & ethical practices. When stories about wiretapping and hacking come out, it's Murdoch, not the BBC, behind it. The Jimmy Savile cover-up damaged the BBC's reputation a bit, but it's still a surprise to see stories like this. Have standards fallen at the BBC? And if so, why?

On the other hand, it's possible that both the Savile story and this one were both encouraged in the media, in order to make the BBC look bad on purpose. The Conservatives don't like the BBC or the NHS, and even though they are stuck with both institutions due to overwhelming public support, they're not happy about it.  Stories like this one, and NHS-related scandals, are the only way they can chip away at these institutions, because they diminish public support.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Maggie's Legacy

Margaret Thatcher's death has been all over the news here in Britain. It's amazing how fast the media gets saturated--I found out on Facebook in the early afternoon, and all of the news sites already had the story on the front page. By 8:30pm, BBC One was showing a special about her. I wonder how long they've been putting that together. It must be upsetting to be a friend/relative of an aging celebrity and be asked to contribute to a documentary like this, before they're gone--before they're even ill.

Today the American version of Huffington Post has moved on, but on the UK version Thatcher completely covers the front page with coverage of reactions, reflections on her life, discussions of her legacy, etc. 

For me, as an American and as somebody under the age of 30, I don't feel I can add much to the discussion. I didn't live in 'Thatcher's Britain.' Until I came to the UK, in fact, I didn't know anything about her policies. I knew she was conservative, and had a good friendship with Reagan (who my firmly Democratic family actually liked, too), but above all else, I knew that she was the first female Prime Minister.

I can clearly remember being told about Britain as a little girl--age 4 or 5, because it was when we were still living in Missouri--and I remember being in awe of the fact that Britain had a Queen and a female Prime Minister. To a little girl being raised by a divorced mom and older sisters, this fact made Britain seem amazing. As the years went on, I admired Britain for electing a woman, and thought the US couldn't be far behind.   

Now imagine my disappointment when I came to the UK and found out that Thatcher was not a feminist, and that her policies did a lot of damage. She was especially hard on the north, my adopted home. 

In many ways, Thatcher made the UK more like the US--and not in good ways, either. Privatisation is the most obvious example of Americanisation under Thatcher. She privatised British Gas, which is why the utility companies reported record profits last year. She privatised the National Rail and that's why travelling by train on the continent is so much better & cheaper than it is here. Tories don't use public transport, apparently--maybe they don't like to ride amongst the great unwashed. (I kid, I kid...)

One of my loveliest British friends is a very active member of the Conservative party, and a leader in the youth branch Conservative Future. She met Baroness Thatcher at a reception a couple of years ago, and my heart goes out to her at this time. There were people celebrating Thatcher's death in Brixton and Glasgow, and a handful of places across the country last night. I know that must be hard for Thatcher's supporters to see. I'm genuinely sorry for Thatcher's family & friends, because death is painful for those left behind. It must be all the more painful when the media is saturated with it, too. 

Monday, 8 April 2013

Finland Conference

The current main cause of my performance anxiety is this upcoming conference. To be honest, I didn’t know anything about Finland going into this. I’ve only met one Finnish person ever, a friend’s housemate when we were studying in Bath. She was nice, and we shared a mutual interest in Colin Firth, but we really didn’t get to know each other. My knowledge of Finland doesn’t go much beyond its geography—it’s between Russia & Sweden, it has forests & lakes, and looks a bit like Minnesota, where lots of Scandinavians have settled in the US. That’s really about it. My grandmother was Swedish—close, but no cigar.

Since I heard that there was going to be a conference there in my field, with some big name keynotes, I’ve been learning more than I ever wanted to know about Finland. Did you know its public education system is the best in the world? And it’s been rated as the least corrupt country? And Finnish doesn’t use genders for its nouns, but it does have fifteen cases? Amazing facts, all of which are useless when it comes to my actual conference paper and presentation.

My paper was a struggle--I seriously don't think I've worked that hard on writing since my undergrad days. It's very difficult to write about something completely unfamiliar to you. In writing this paper, I went against the classic "write what you know" advice. I went to sections of the library that I'd never used--the Scandinavian section of Modern History for a better understanding of Cold War neutrality, for instance, and Geography for a look at Finnish culture. It was a bit like my undergrad research paper on television in Uzbekistan (fascinating stuff, and even more obscure than this topic).

As a PhD student, you really have it easy when it comes to writing. You get three years to research, write and rehash the same topic over and over again. It's really luxurious, actually, and I've never appreciated it until now. Still, this conference paper has been a good challenge, and it's nice to know I can still blag my way through writing a research paper on something completely unknown...

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Performance Anxiety

 When I started the PhD & created this blog, I planned on using it as a research diary. I imagined that, 3 years hence, I’d have a record of the whole PhD process. That hasn’t happened, unfortunately—I haven’t been keeping it up nearly enough. It’s not that I don’t write because I don’t have time. I have plenty of time—I talk to my family for an hour or so every day, and I waste plenty of time on Facebook and YouTube.

I don’t update the blog because I have a bit of academic performance anxiety. I’ve only recently noticed it, and it’s definitely become an issue for me. Basically, I’m afraid of sounding stupid, or naive, or just plain being wrong. Looking back on my K-12 years, I’ve always had this problem. I never volunteered in class, I hated public speaking, and I was always afraid of looking stupid. But then, ironically, when I was recognised for being bright, I was shy about getting positive attention, too. I can’t win—I’m anxious either way. 

For some people, going online can be an outlet for this IRL problem. You can be anybody online, which is a very freeing thought. For me, though, and for this blog, it’s not really freeing. I have very few readers/followers, and they’re people who know my research field intimately. They’ll know when I get things wrong and this thought heightens my insecurities and keeps me from writing.

I’m working on getting over it. For too long now, I’ve been keeping my head down writing and not making enough progress. Something needs to change, obviously, and I think updating the blog more frequently might be a step in the right direction.

5 months to go before hand-in. 2 conferences coming up in the next few weeks. Several papers and chapters are late (another reason I don’t write on the blog—I always feel that I should be writing these papers and chapters, not blogging, especially when my supervisor will see it...very tricky situation!).

Time to get crackin’.