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.