Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Research Trip

Mullins Library at the University of Arkansas

In terms of my actual research, this trip has been a huge success. The CU papers have had some of the key missing bits that I needed--grantee selection guidelines, BFS membership info, trip reports, etc. The interviews were brilliant. Both Prof. Woods & Prof Purvis were so interesting to talk with, and I know the material will be useful. Mostly, though, it was just really good to practice interviewing and to realise that it was easier than I'd expected. This trip's been another confidence boost, just when I needed it.

In terms of all of my personal issues about the area, the trip has been very difficult. I still feel very guilty for being here and not seeing my dad--but if I did see him, that would cause even more problems. Still, I've made a bit of an effort to see the area where my family used to live. On Sunday, when the archives were closed, I drove over to Siloam Springs, the birthplace that I don't remember. It was just one disappointment after another. I'd planned to have lunch at Taco Tico, a Mexican fast food place that my family loved. Apparently my mom used to crave it when she was pregnant with me, a fact that I've always thought was related to my Spanish fluency. When I got there, though, it was closed--permanently closed, for not paying its sales tax. Plan B was to go to a cute little old drive-in that my sister told me about, Barnett's Dairyette. It was closed on weekends. I gave up on the food front and decided to just see the hospital where I was born and then head out of town. When I went around the corner, I saw that it's in the process of being torn down. It was so sad to see it like that, half rubble and dilapidated.

It's been difficult, being alone in a place that I've been raised to dislike. At least my work is going well. Just 2 more days to go...

Friday, 18 January 2013

"Dream-makers and dream-breakers"

Over my years in FBLA, I listened to a lot of motivational speakers at conferences. As a teenager, I rolled my eyes at most of what they said. I didn't need motivating--I was an ambitious 16-year-old, taking advanced placement classes and touring Ivy League universities. This guy's job is to go around speaking to high schoolers, whereas I had set my sights higher than that.

One speaker in particular was mocked by us more than any other.  I can't remember his name, but he was middle aged and had been through some difficult experiences in his life (haven't we all?) that he wanted to share with us. The main idea in his spiel was that in our lives, there are two kinds of people that we'll encounter: dream-makers and dream-breakers. It's pretty self-explanatory--dream-makers are people who encourage us and support us in our ambitions, while dream-breakers shoot us down or put barriers in the way. In my 16-year-old eyes, it was the corniest thing I'd ever heard. He advised us to acknowledge and thank our dream-makers and to ignore any dream-breakers we might come up against. After the talk, my friends and I laughed and teased each other, "Hey, stop breaking my dreams, hahaha!" We joked with our FBLA adviser (who agreed that the talk was lame), "Mr. Colby, you're my dream-maker!" The concept of a middle aged man telling a group of ambitious teens about following their dreams seemed ludicrous. (Life coaches are hilarious for similar reasons--they're the ultimate example of the phrase 'those who can't do, teach.')

Now, a decade later, having seen a bit more of the world and experienced a bit more of life, I get it. At the time, I hadn't really encountered any dream-breakers. I was well-loved by my family and friends, didn't get bullied, teachers loved me, etc. My glowing recommendations, high grades & SAT scores predicted a brilliant future. I was surrounded by dream-makers and didn't know what it was like to have somebody discourage you from pursuing your goals. 

I've recently faced that in a couple of instances--I've met dream-breakers. Now I understand what he was going on about and I have to admit that he was right. It can be very difficult to tune them out and find the confidence and strength to defy them, especially when the 'dream-breaker' is somebody who used to be a friend, a supportive, inspiring dream-maker.

At times like this, motivational speakers don't seem so pointless after all. Thank you, whatever your name was, for a lesson that I'd only appreciate 11 years down the road. 

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

No Offense

"This department has changed so much in the past five years, it's incredible. It used to be old white guys and war--no offense, Molly."

"The public diplomacy field is so US-centric, we need to look at examples of practices outside of American public diplomacy--no offense, Molly."

When people in my department say these things, outwardly I just smile and nod. I understand why they're saying it, and yes, there's some truth to what they're saying. But on the inside, it's like getting punched in the face by my mentors, my colleagues, people who I thought supported me.

It reminds me of the 'with all due respect' moment in Talladega Nights, where Ricky Bobby aruges that he can say whatever he wants if he prefaces it with the token phrase:

I'm struggling with another crisis of confidence, worrying about my progress on my research and my slim postdoc employment options. I'm trying my hardest to snap out of it before my research trip on Monday. Wish me luck!

Friday, 11 January 2013


Mom: If you're submitting this year, when's your graduation going to be?
Me: I want to do the July 2014 one, because the other option is December this year and it's too close--it takes awhile to set up the viva & everything, so it'll probably be July 2014.
Mom: Well, that's going to be fun--Kelly & I want to do Chatsworth this time.
Me: Yeah, that'll be great! It's going to be kind of sad, though, 'cause Phil won't be there, and Robin won't be there...
Mom: Well, who is going to be there?
Me: Simon probably will, and Katrin will, so that's good. It's just sad--Phil always used to go to the graduations, and so did Robin. I'm not sure if Gary will be there or not...
Mom: Well, what did you do to these poor guys? haha!
Me: Mooooommmm....

During my struggle with the actual writing-it-all-out bit of my PhD, I've been thinking about all of the little extra bits that I hadn't really considered until now--the table of contents, the acknowledgments, the abstract, etc. Acknowledgments are tricky in my case. I don't actually want to thank the Fulbright Program in Washington, because they didn't help. Early on, I sent an email asking about obtaining copies of annual reports that was never answered, and another asking about archives that received a quick reply--they don't keep archives (they didn't tell me about the State Department collection at the annex in College Park, or the CU collection in Fayetteville...it would've been good to know about those a couple of years ago). I don't want to sound bitter, but I also don't want to give the impression that the Fulbright Program was involved in my work. It really wasn't. The US-UK Fulbright Commission in London, however, deserves a thank you for its help with my pilot study. They were lovely--it's just a shame that the pilot study never turned into a proper study, as there weren't enough respondents. How do you thank them for helping when you didn't end up using their help? I guess I'll just keep it short & sweet, and say they were very helpful 'in the early stages,' which is true.
Thanking my supervisors has become complicated, too...Obviously I have to thank Phil, because he introduced me to the world of PD and we put this project together in the first place. I have to thank Robin, too, for being a great supervisor and getting me through the transfer & fieldwork & conferences & various chapters. But now that Robin's leaving the department, I have two more supervisors to add to the acknowledgments. I'm looking forward to getting feedback and seeing how their input changes my project. I'm hugely grateful to them for seeing my PhD through to the end, but at the same time, it would've been easier for everybody involved if Phil had just quit smoking at some point in the 1980's, and then he could still be here.   
In some books, I've seen people thank individual archivists--unfortunately, although these people are vitally important to the research process, they're difficult to thank. I can't remember a single name of anybody at the National Archives--it was all business, not very friendly, and I think the security guards were the only people who actually chatted with me. The easiest acknowledgments are those who have had the least to do with my actual research--my supportive husband, my number-one-fan mom, and my study-buddy cat (we've been working on homework together since 3rd grade--Mrs. Lundberg's class, 1995). None of them have read my work, but they've all heard me rant and think-aloud about it enough that they might as well have read it (particularly the cat...).

Monday, 7 January 2013

Case in Point

Sometimes during the PhD research process, you get bogged down by the opinions of others and distracted by number-crunching and sidetracked by life, and it's easy to lose sight of what your research is really about. Sure, there's the cocktail party 2-sentence summary that you can use, but what's the real point of your research?

One of my colleagues, another international student, hates it here. She thinks Leeds is full of rude, negative people, drunken students, bad food & drink, etc. She shares news stories on Facebook about racism in the UK, and says that she has experienced abuse first-hand here in Leeds. Since I've been working from home so much this term, and she only arrived in October, I haven't talked this over with her. To be honest, I wouldn't know how to talk about it. Everyone who knows me knows that I'm an Anglophile. I see Leeds through rose-tinted glasses. I'm well aware that it has it's faults--the city centre can get rough on a Saturday night, so we go out on Friday instead.  Our favorite pubs are old-man pubs and we love real ale and pub classics like bangers & mash and steak & ale pie. You're not going to run into obnoxious students or racists in these places. We avoid dodgy areas of town, too, but I guess this is knowledge that comes with experience.

At any rate, her experience and mine represent the heart of my research. In order to understand the role of student exchange in public diplomacy practices, we must understand the nature of the international student experience.  Results and effects of the exchange experience are largely determined by background factors--personality, motivation, etc. The student who hates it here, well, she's probably going to keep on hating it because her early experiences reinforced her preconceived notions of the UK as a place where people were rude, negative and racist. I love it here because my early experiences reinforced my ideas of the UK as a place of history, culture and attractive accents (the food took some getting used to, to be fair). My own observations are confirmed by this passage that I came across in some old notes today:

Otto Klineberg, "Psychological Aspects of Student Exchange" in Eide, 1970 Students as Links Between Cultures (UNESCO study)

Motivations for studying abroad:
-desire to learn, to acquire a particular competence or speciality
--interest in the foreign or exotic in general or in one foreign culture in particular
--the hope of increasing one's status, prestige, earning capacity
--failure to be admitted to a local university (Ouch!)
--the urge to escape from an unpleasant situation or a constraining home environment
--acquiescence in ambitions held by parents
--a higher evaluation of what is 'foreign' compared with what is domestic.

"The nature of the motivation may have an influence on the whole course of the sojourn abroad, and in particular on the role of the student as a bridge between two cultures." (p. 33)

Klineberg's list, while not exhaustive, shows the wide range of possible reasons why students choose to go abroad. If a student is miserable here, the knee-jerk reaction is to suggest that they go home (or at least, go somewhere where they'd be less miserable?). But that reaction disregards their motivations. Perhaps they have a scholarship, or are working with an expert in their chosen field, or have some other important reason for being here.

Reading her posts on Facebook takes me back to freshman year, autumn 2004 at Vanderbilt University. I absolutely hated it. Like this woman, I faced rejection and comments, and witnessed the drunken frat party scene with disgust. After just 1 semester, I gave up my $23,000/year grant and transferred to UW back home, despite the fact that my mom advised me to stick it out for at least the first year. It turned out to be the  right decision for me.

I hope that my colleague finds the right decision for her, whatever it may be. I hope that, if she does stay, she sees some of the things I see in Leeds. That's what mutual understanding is all about, at the end of the day.