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...