Thursday, 4 December 2014

New Deadlines, New Projects

Five months after the PhD viva and the job search continues...It's disheartening to see rejections coming in, but I'm keeping myself busy with applications, writing and other projects. I'm aware that I really need to get some publications on my CV if I ever want to be invited for an interview. I've been watching jobs sites, but I know the real strategy is to strengthen my application, rather than just keep making weak ones.

I have a list of five more publications, in various states of completion, with submission deadlines over the next six months. Another major deadline is on the horizon in six months' time, too, as I'm having a baby! Richard and I and our families are thrilled. We were quite strategic with our timing, holding off on starting a family until after the PhD was finished, but hoping it would happen as soon as possible after the PhD. My decision was based on 2 main points:

1) It takes about 5 years to get established in academia, with publications and post-docs and research positions. Might as well use some of this instability to have the first kid, then establish your career in earnest. I'm more comfortable with that than with getting a job and then going on maternity leave after a few months--it just seems dishonest to me.

2) I want to have 2 kids, about 4-5 years apart, preferably before I'm declared "advanced maternal age" or a "geriatric mother" (!) by the medical establishment at the age of 35.

Many women in academia talk about how having kids held them back or how they sacrificed having kids for their career, but I've always thought academia is one of the most child-friendly fields to work in. I've seen a lot of women and men at the University using flextime and working from home--I had a lecturer who sent e-mails stamped at 4am when he was up with the baby. I'm not saying it's easy, I'm just saying it's easier than it would be in a lot of other fields. Nurses like my mom, grandma and sister, for example, couldn't work at home or take flextime to nurse their own sick child back to health, and they always have to work holidays. The University gives its employees 25 days of annual leave a year, in addition to a week at Christmas/New Year and a 5-day weekend at Easter. It's a pretty sweet deal--and part of why I pursued this path in the first place. No doubt I'll have some repercussions for taking maternity leave twice (hopefully) in my career, but in the long run, it's only a few months out of a 40+ year career.

The first trimester has been pretty rough and I haven't managed to do much writing at all since October. I'm starting to feel better, though, so hopefully I can make some real progress before my trip to the States for Christmas. I've extended my trip to include a visit to the Fulbright archives again--staying for two weeks this time and hoping I'll be able to find enough material to make my thesis into a publishable monograph. My old deadline for the final revised version was June 2015, but now with the new archival material being added and whole sections being rewritten, I'm hoping to submit my first revised draft in March/April 2015.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

International Student Welcome Week

For the past couple of years, I'd wanted to work with the International Student Welcome Team but was always away from Leeds in September. This year, I was available, and I'm so glad I did it--it was brilliant! The University of Leeds has the highest ranked "Welcome Experience" for international students in the UK. Now that I've been part of the Welcome Team staff, I can see why.
It's competitive, with 150 applicants for just 27 positions. All of us are well-trained, going through a full week of training for just two weeks of work. At the Information Point, we're very well-staffed--there are often four or five of us, which allows us to really help students on a one-on-one basis and it keeps wait times down, too. We provide so much support and information, from helping with online registration to recommending shops, pubs and restaurants.
This gig has been so interesting in terms of my research. I've had a glimpse of the new arrival experience for literally thousands of students. Students experiencing all of the different manifestations of culture shock--confusion, anger, nervous laughter, exhaustion, etc.--have come through the doors to our Information Point, and it's been our responsibility to answer their questions and calm their anxiety. I couldn't help but be excited for them and hope that they love it here as much as I do (although I can't really expect them to 'go native' like I did...I just hope they have a good time).
In some ways, this experience has reinforced my suspicion that the study abroad experience is the same for Fulbright and non-Fulbright alike. That is, all of the benefits of the "Fulbright experience" are also shared by those who study abroad outside of Fulbright auspices. What I would add, perhaps, is that Fulbrighters have more support, more handholding--their UK bank accounts are set up for them, for example, while we in the International Student Welcome Team give a special 30-minute talk explaining how to set up a UK bank account, and then they have to go take care of it themselves. Apart from the support of binational commissions/US embassies, the student experience may be largely the same.
I'm starting to suspect that, by the end of my career, I'll have developed some grand theory about study abroad that will probably just sound like everything everybody else has said--it's 'a life-changing experience.' 

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Street Harassment and Study Abroad

Lately I've seen a few articles and campaigns about street harassment, the everyday ways that women are harassed in public (propositions, comments about appearance, being told to smile, etc.). 'Cards Against Harassment' is my favourite one, in which a woman politely confronts men who catcall her and gives them a card with a link to her website for more info, with the tagline "It's not a compliment, it's harassment." On Twitter, the hashtag #ThatsWhatHeSaid is a collection of real comments and interactions women have had. Many of them, interestingly enough, have to do with race--creepers are not p.c. when it comes to catcalling, with remarks like, "that's a fine ass, for a white girl." More interestingly for the purposes of this blog, some of the comments are international encounters.

Experiences like these can negatively colour a visitor's impression of the country and its people.

The question of catcalling/street harassment is highly relevant for exchange participants. Getting unwanted attention is never a pleasant experience, particularly when you're many miles from home and perhaps a bit vulnerable. My first experiences with street harassment were during my university years, and I remember several instances that took place during my first months in the UK. I didn't always understand what guys were saying, either, thanks to a combination of slang and accents (in Glasgow, I just smiled and carried on walking, no clue what he'd said...). If I had these kinds of difficulties, as a native speaker of the local language, I can only imagine how difficult it must be for people facing a language barrier.

An American friend studying architecture in Rome was lost and asked a man for directions, and he replied "I can tell you how to get to my place." When she found a police officer, she got the directions she needed but received no sympathy about the first creep--"Well, can you blame him? You're beautiful!" Although she generally enjoyed her term in Rome, she was disappointed to have the stereotype of lecherous Italian men proved true (Berlusconi does nothing to help that image, either...).

My most recent example of street harassment was a couple of days after my PhD viva. I was walking through Headingley in the morning and had to pass a group of (drunk already at 10 am?) rugby fans, and was told "You're gorgeous!" When I didn't respond and kept walking, he yelled "Bitch!" It was a bit of a wake-up call, actually--even after earning a PhD, to a drunk man in the street I was just another woman to harass.

Street harassment is a negative aspect of local culture in countries all over the world. Local women may become immune to it, after many years of ignoring it, but for an international student or tourist, unwanted attention can have long-term effects on their impressions of the host country.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Job versus Career

It's been two months today since my viva, so I thought I'd check back in. People have been asking whether I've found work yet. A woman at church asked if I was "going to work or stay in academia?" (I didn't realise the two were mutually I've been trying to work in academia!)

I get embarrassed when I have to explain that no, I haven't. I'm currently waiting to hear the outcomes of a few applications, and still checking jobs sites and e-mails for more opportunities. It's embarrassing and shameful for me to not be working, but at the end of the day, building a career in academia is a marathon, not a sprint. I'm taking a long-range view of things.

Technically speaking, I could find a job--I could be out there every day handing my CV out in shops and pubs, filling out online applications and talking to contacts in the area. I could find something--but I'm not looking for just a job. I'm taking this 2 month break to work on my career, taking advantage of this time to write and read again, and draft new project proposals.

Some days are better than others. Today's been pretty bright and productive--I found another post-doc and applied for it, and I'm planning a library day tomorrow. Other days have been pretty low--meeting new people is embarrassing, as I wonder how long I can keep saying "I recently finished my PhD and I'm applying for post-docs". What's the expiration date on the term 'recently'? Would 3 months be too long, or 6 months, or a year?

I've seen brilliant colleagues finish their PhDs and find jobs, but not careers. They teach full-time on temporary contracts, but they jump from one job to the next and have no time to work on publications or to come up with new projects. I'm trying not to make that mistake, but it's hard to be unemployed. Even if I know it's better in the long run, I still feel bad about it. I have the luxury of not being the breadwinner, but having a roof over my head and food to eat adds another layer of shame and guilt to the whole post-doc unemployment thing.

When I was staying at my mom's between the MA and PhD, I didn't get a summer job. My mom was fine with that--she enjoyed having me home for the 4 months, and I cooked and organised the garage, and mowed the lawn, etc. I got a lot of reading done and spent a lot of quality time with my mom and local friends. It was a nice summer, but it'll always have a shadow over it for me. My sister, who lived across the country at the time, wasn't fine with it, and said, "Well, I hope you're not planning on living with mom after the PhD." It still hurts. Mainly, because it's true--here I am, after the PhD, and although I'm not dependent upon my mom, I'm dependent upon my husband. I wanted to prove her wrong. All of these years, I've been working hard and hoping to show her that she was wrong.

At the end of the day, I genuinely love working in academia and I know this is what I'm meant to do with my life. Patience is key. I'll keep using 'recently' for as long as it takes...

Friday, 1 August 2014

Class of 2004

My ten-year high school reunion is coming up in 2 weeks.

In the States, the high school reunion is a big cultural thing. My grandma always went to hers, including her 60th. Before Facebook, the reunion was the only time you'd ever catch up with old classmates (apart from any close friends). My year was the first to have Facebook upon graduating (the site started in 2004), so we're an interesting new phenomenon. What does a reunion look like when you've actually already been in touch with everyone you like, and already chosen to not maintain contact with those you don't like? Does it increase or decrease awkwardness when you meet again in real life? My guess would be increase--there's an unspoken reason you're not connected on social media. For those who are connected, it might be creepy to realise how much you actually know about each other. Facebook has allowed me to see so much of the last 10 years--the college partying days, gap year travelling, birthdays, relationship status changes, career moves, family deaths and births, ultrasound pics, pets, weddings, baby showers, etc.. There are people who I haven't seen since high school, but I've seen all of these life moments. It's way too much information, really.

My high school classmates have put together a Facebook group for the reunion information, so I've been able to click through the members' profiles. I've been reminded why I'm not in touch with most of these people...Lots of anti-Obama, pro-gun sentiment, and there seems to be a relationship between educational attainment level and proximity to our rural hometown...Some folks never left the farm.

Quick things I've learned about my class, ten years later

1) I'm not the first person to get a PhD.
Last spring, I was absolutely gutted to read in my hometown newspaper (online) that Carly Dorsey (now Carly Roberts) finished her PhD before me.  
Carly is on the front row, far left (and two people in this photo are now pregnant...)

She's got a job at Purdue University, too, which is one that I considered for undergrad and I quite like West Lafayette, Indiana. I'm happy for her, but it was surprising. She was always very intelligent and driven, but I had the impression that her ambition suited a career in business or law, not academia. In my case, there was never any doubt that I'd go for a PhD--I wore tweed, took every AP class I could (I even did an independent study AP Spanish Literature that wasn't technically offered), and aimed for the Ivy League. Yet somebody else beat me to it--that stings!

2) Everybody's pregnant.
 Ok, more like 10 or 12 in a class of 300. But seriously, it feels like everybody. It's that time of life. The average age to get married in the U.S. is 27 for women and 29 for men, and most couples have a kid within the first 3 years of marriage. Also, 58% of first births are to unwed mothers, and women without college degrees are more likely to have a kid before marriage, so there's that to factor in, too. At any rate, there were at least five or six "declines" on the event page from women who were due this summer/fall and couldn't fly after 7 months. In terms of the most kids in 10 years, there are two women from my class with 4 kids each (no multiples, either!).

3) For the most part, people look the same...
Most people really do still look like themselves. Some have changed their hairstyle, gained or lost weight, swapped glasses for contacts, grown facial hair, etc. but generally, you'd still recognise them if you saw them walking down the street...

4) There are few surprises.
Apart from Carly Dorsey, nobody else has really surprised me. The cute couple who were voted "most adorable couple"--they're happily married with two kids. The Future Business Leaders of America president is a banker. The sweet, kind girl from church youth group is a Kindergarten teacher, married, with a baby on the way. The racist, sexist jock is still single and looks drunk in his profile picture.

5) Political views seem to emerge at some point between 18-28 years.
Amongst my classmates, I can remember very few people who actually said they were Democrats or Republicans. Most people threw around labels without really understanding them (like the "Anarchy! Anarchy! I don't know what it means, but I love it!" line from Talladega Nights). Ten years and three elections later, people are much more outspoken about their views. Now that they pay taxes, they care about tax policies. Now that they need a job, they care about unemployment. Now that they have kids, they care about education. What's been interesting for me, though, has been the high number of people with anti-Obama sentiments all over their FB walls. I knew that not everybody was pro-Obama like I am, but I was surprised to see the extent to which people post and re-post this stuff. When W. was president, I disliked him and his politics but I never let him take up that much of my time. I read lefty news sources and studied international relations, and turned my energy towards repairing the damage to America's image, rather than just complaining about it. I've seen a lot of racist crap, especially, which reminds me why I was never friends with these particular people in the first place.

If I could afford an extra transatlantic trip this month, I'd love to be there...Maybe I'll make it to the 20th in 2024 :)

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

It's been a long time coming...

This is what a newly minted PhD looks like:
So thrilled!
I passed my viva with no corrections, a brilliant result that puts me in the company of my friends Jace and Tracey, and about 6% of the University of Leeds' PhD candidates.
The viva exam itself was a crazy experience--even after practicing questions, attending a workshop and having a mock viva, there were still some surprises. Nick Cull found a few glaring gaps in my admin section, and brought them up first, before he'd said anything positive about my work. When I'd met him in the past (two conferences), he'd been smiley and given me a hug, so I naively thought he'd be equally smiley this time. That expectation completely ignored the fact that he's a brilliant scholar, though, and would want to do his job as external examiner properly--no hugs this time, and he kept a poker-face until the viva was over. I really didn't know what result to expect. The viva only lasted 1 hour, and when they sent me out for their deliberations, it was the longest few minutes of my life. I was pretty confident that I'd passed (Nick suggested it would be fairly easy to make it into a book, so it must be good enough for a PhD, right?), but I was still kicking myself over the gaps he'd highlighted in the admin section. I also wasn't sure how well I'd come across with some of Kate's more general, philosophical questions. I'd been in historical writing mode for so long, looking for evidence to prove various points that I really hadn't sat back and thought about my own opinions. Do I believe in internationalism? I don't's a nice idea, but we haven't been able to abolish war with internationalist thinking so far. I ended up answering her question with something vaguely coherent about my shift from being an internationalist to being more critical/cynical, but that I'm definitely not a hardcore realist. Honestly, I don't want to label myself with any -isms. They're all flawed. This is why I don't do theory! Also, how much of an informed worldview am I expected to have at the age of 28?

At any rate, they called me back in and congratulated me, and welcomed me into the club. My supervisors and friends, lecturers and fellow PhD students all came in and celebrated with champagne. It's such a surreal experience--one minute, you're on the edge of your seat, unsure of whether the past 3 1/2 years of work have achieved anything, and the next, you're drinking and hugging everybody in sight.

The viva (and following celebration) was held in Phil Taylor's old office. The last time I'd been in there, I'd been looking over his books and crying, a few months after his death when we were told we could take any books we wanted. The penultimate time, I was sitting on the couch with Phil talking about the psychological side of my study--in his words, "figuring out why some people get on" with each other and why others don't. It's a much larger question than any PhD could sort out, but it's the kind of big picture question that you should be discussing in your first weeks as a research student. Phil loved these questions, too--they're made for earnest conversations down the pub.

The morning after the viva, I read congratulatory messages on Facebook, wrote e-mails to Gary and Robin to thank them for their help and to share the viva story, and started making a list of all of my post-PhD to-dos, both leisure things I've been putting off (like tackling a reading list of Hemingway's recommendations) and all of the things I can do now to finally start my career (job search, publications). The past couple of days, I've been at the MeCCSA conference at ICS (not presenting, just having a good time watching presentations and networking). For the first time in my life, literally, I asked questions during the Q&A. The PhD has boosted my confidence, apparently. It's just a bit sad that it took getting a PhD to get me to ask a question at a postgrad conference...

I've also learned in the week since the viva that there are 2 kinds of people in this world: those who say "Congratulations!" and those who say "What's next?". Now, for high school, the "what's next" makes a lot of sense--18 year old kids do need to have a plan, and generally, they do have one in place by June. But for a PhD, that question is a reminder that the academic job market is fiercely competitive and a newly-minted PhD doesn't have the publications or experience that it takes to get an interview, much less land an actual job. So far, it's only been a handful of people who've asked that question, and I think they were just making small talk (apart from one person, who is actually just really mean...). The rest all know better, and have just said "Congrats, Dr. Molly!"

So, on that note, what's next? First things first, I'm well-aware that getting publications out there is not only key to getting an academic job, but it's also going to take awhile. There's a lot of down-time when you're waiting to get comments from editors/reviewers, so my plan is to get cracking on them straight away. I can use the down-time to carry out my job search and/or work part-time. I've got a list of journal articles that I want to do, using leftover archive material that didn't make it into the thesis and taking some new approaches. I have 6 months of library access, so I'm going to take full advantage of it and work on some articles, a book chapter for an edited volume with Gary Rawnsley, and my book. Nick Cull has been amazingly helpful on the book front, and I'm hoping to get the thesis published in time for the Fulbright Program's 70th anniverary in 2016. In the meantime, I've scheduled in time for the job search, trawling and other websites. I'm going to work on a new, stronger post-doc proposal, too, so I can apply for the same type of 3-year post-docs that I went for (unsuccessfully, obviously) last autumn. Plenty to do, but on the bright side, now I'm finally free to do it!

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Forms of Diplomacy Conference

I've just returned from the Forms of Diplomacy conference at University of Toulouse II--Le Mirail. It had such an interesting assortment of perspectives, from 17th century Anglo-French peacemaking in Scandinavia to America's jazz cultural diplomacy in 1960's Kabul. Several people came up and introduced themselves to me after having read my abstract--I don't think that had happened to me at previous conferences, and it felt great! Talking to people at the conference gave me a chance to summarise my research for non-specialist academic audiences, too. Perfect prep for the viva!

As a post-conference/pre-viva exam treat, I stayed over the weekend in Toulouse. The food is incredible, the architecture is beautiful (la ville rose!) and the museums are excellent (and mostly free!). It was too hot for me, though--32C/90F, which is far beyond my preferred summertime temps of 20C/70F (i.e. Leeds and Seattle).

Tomorrow is my viva exam! Thanks to my lovely weekend away, I'm feeling refreshed and confident. Someone at the conference told me that she'd gone for a spa visit & massage before her viva--well, for me, a trip to France is just as effective! My mock viva went well. None of the questions were necessarily surprising, so that's a good sign. I'm confident and genuinely excited about it. How often in your career do you get to talk about your favourite research area with senior academics who've read your work? 

I've been reflecting on the whole crazy journey again, and how much my project's changed (and how much I've changed) in the past 3 1/2 years. I think facing my supervision challenges (Phil's death, Robin leaving ICS, non-specialist supervision) and juggling various commitments with my research (working part-time, organising and presenting at conferences, getting married and renovating our flat) have actually, in the end, made my project stronger. At times I've been sick of my subject, but I noticed during my mock viva that I still really do love my research. I'm still happy to talk about it. I still have further questions--whether it is effective, and why, and how, and under which circumstances...

Wish me luck for tomorrow, and I hope to have good news to announce soon!

Friday, 9 May 2014

The Anti-Climax of Submission for Examination

(image from CakeWrecks)
I'm currently in the awkward stage of "PhD submitted, awaiting viva." Obviously I'm thrilled to finally be done writing up, but it's also too early to actually celebrate--I still have to pass the viva, make any further corrections and submit the final, hardbound copies. It's frustrating to be this close to being finished, but not quite there, like being at mile 25 of the marathon. It's a huge accomplishment, of course, but you're not done yet!

As Tom Petty says, the waiting is the hardest part. I'm keeping myself busy over the next few weeks. Next Friday I've got the symposium in Canterbury, I'm doing exam invigilation 19 May-6 June, then I have the conference in Toulouse 12-13 June, and the viva is 18 June.

I went to a "Preparing for your Viva" workshop this week and it definitely boosted my confidence. We did mock vivas in groups and I actually just enjoyed talking about my work. Even though I have my off days when I don't feel good enough, for the most part I'm enthusiastic about my research and confident about fielding questions. It also felt good to be in the company of other people who are finishing up, and a few who are in the "submitted, awaiting" no-man's-land with me. We talked about the job search, how filling out applications can feel like a full-time job and how disheartening the whole process is. The job search might be why I'm feeling this sense of anti-climax--it's frustrating to see friends who completed a year or more ago still struggling to find work.

On a somewhat unrelated note--I had another reminder today why I can't wait to get out of here. A friend complimented me on my dress and said that I looked like I had lost weight. I thanked her for the compliment, and said that I'm working on it. She kindly said I didn't need to lose any weight, and I explained that technically, BMI-wise, I do--I'm on the border between overweight and obese. She was surprised to hear this, but a colleague sitting nearby chose this moment to chime in and agree, to talk about the health risks associated with a high BMI and tell me about every extreme diet that her nutritionist friends in her home country supposedly recommend. I hate this place. I'm seething inside, but I'm always outwardly polite and just smile and nod. I always give people the benefit of the doubt. Maybe in her culture it's acceptable to call each other fat. Maybe she means well. At any rate, I didn't ask for this conversation to take place, I know I'm overweight, I always have been overweight, and I'm trying to quietly do something about it. I don't need to hear from the ill-informed peanut gallery. More importantly, who cares about my weight--I just submitted my PhD! Let's celebrate that, instead of critiquing my appearance. <End rant>

Friday, 11 April 2014

It's Not So Bad...Really!

When I first talked about doing a PhD, I was warned that it was "a lonely process". Throughout the PhD, I've seen news articles like this one about how we suffer, and this one about how doing a PhD is probably a waste of time.

Articles like these make me wonder whether I've been doing this wrong or something, because I really haven't suffered in the ways they describe, and I (naively?) don't think it's been a waste of time.

Yes, it's been challenging--as it should be. If it were easy, they wouldn't give you a title when you finish.

But it hasn't caused feelings of loneliness, isolation, depression, etc. I've had a few times when I was a bit down, a bit anti-social, but on the whole, it's been fine. It's been easier than high school, when I was desperate to get into the Ivy League and wore myself out with five AP classes, choir, extra foreign language classes, Future Business Leaders of America, National Honor Society, Science Team, and all of the other personal stresses that a seventeen year old faces (helping my mother care for her parents, crushes and heartaches, etc.). Maybe suffering back then has given me a different perspective on it now.

And I certainly don't think it's been a waste of time. I don't think education is ever a waste of time, but putting that aside, I just don't buy into this doom & gloom about the future of academia. The field will change, just like every other field does, but that doesn't mean it's not worth pursuing a career in academia. I hate being told that my dreams aren't worth pursuing because the field is too competitive, they're overproducing PhDs, etc. Professional athletes, musicians and artists don't give up on their dreams just because they're in competitive fields.

Academics are extremely privileged. They are paid to think and to express their ideas--it's incredible. If you were to talk to laborers in the developing world about "PhD Stress: Don't Suffer in Silence", they would shake their heads in disbelief (and possibly punch you in the face). It is an extremely cushy job (if you can even call it a job) and I'm tired of hearing how terrible it is.

Unless I've been doing it wrong all along, and it really should have been much more difficult...I guess we'll find out at my viva!

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Networking and Job Hunting

This article from Cancer Research UK triggered a lot of thoughts about Phil for me. It's the first time I've ever ready anyone acknowledge that just because someone makes unhealthy lifestyle choices, it doesn't mean they deserve to die from cancer. It makes sense, of course, but I'd never heard anyone reject the stigma of unhealthy lifestyle choices before. It was kind of comforting, in a strange way.

I'm still a bit touchy & defensive about Phil, particularly with the way the department has changed (the new name is a go, by the way--the School of Media and Communication, or SMaC, which is appropriate, as the change felt like a smack in the face). Next month, there's a Propaganda symposium down in Kent that I'll try to attend, organised by Mark Connelly and Jo Fox in honour of David Welch--all names I recognise from the Phil conference. I may go whether or not I get funding, as it's a great opportunity to see them again. They're great for networking, of course, but also, I just like them. I instantly felt comfortable with them and enjoyed their company. Phil had good taste in friends and colleagues.

I'm so looking forward to my next job and meeting new friends and colleagues. The job hunt is daunting, but I'm irrationally optimistic. I've been hearing horror stories about 140 applicants for 1 post, and other frightening statistics, but for whatever reason I have faith that the right job will come up at the right time. I've been rejected for 3 post-docs and a research assistantship, I'm waiting to hear back about a lectureship, and I'm working on another research assistantship application now. I went to a career centre workshop on applying for academic jobs, and it boosted my confidence a bit. There weren't any surprises and I felt more prepared and switched on than a lot of the people in the room. And after all, you don't have to be perfect you just have to be better than the other 139 applicants.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

ICS Research Seminar: 'On Being First,' Devon Powers, Drexel University

Yesterday's research seminar was very interesting but completely different from what I'd expected from the abstract. It was titled "On Being First" (also titled in the abstract 'On Firstness'), and the abstract talked about competitiveness, historicity, and the author's efforts to "develop a cultural theory of firstness". For the first time in a few months, I was looking forward to the seminar (I hadn't been attending them lately) and felt it was something that might relate to my work (merit-based competitive scholarships, historical perspectives, etc.). It wasn't really about those things, or any of the other things I thought it might be about, so I'll just reflect on my own thoughts of "firstness" here.

First, though, the seminar was actually about phenomenons like "FIRST!" comments on internet articles, being the first music review blog site to post an unknown artist, the contestation of 'first's (an example she used was that Tyra Banks was the first black woman on the swimsuit edition cover of Sports Illustrated, and Beyonce was the first black non-model woman to make the cover a few years later--her point was that there are too many 'firsts' being measured). 

On that last point, she didn't bring up sports statistics or political ones, but they offer so many examples! Seattle was so excited about the Seahawks winning their first Superbowl game this year, but in 2006, Seattle was equally thrilled to be competing in their first Superbowl game. When they made it to the Superbowl this time, they didn't say, "it's our second Superbowl game!" They focused on the current line-up, on their chances against the Broncos, etc. The term "second" wasn't used, because only "first" makes a good headline. 

In terms of political examples of celebrating 'firstness', there are tons of examples, best illustrated in this cartoon: 

My favourite part about this comic is that they don't even mention the fact that Obama was the first African-American President--no, he's the first Democrat to win without Missouri, and the first Democratic incumbent to beat a taller challenger. (Also, Reagan was really the first lefty?!)

Another interesting political first that I'd thought about was Margaret Thatcher. Growing up in the States, I only ever knew her as the first female Prime Minister of the UK. I never heard anything about the mining industry, the IRA, the privatisation agenda--I didn't even know which party she was in (the blue dresses weren't a clue, either, as US Democrats use blue). Of course, it didn't take long for me to learn about the Thatcher legacy once I lived in the North of England--the 'Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher' story is my favourite example of her evil deeds. I remember getting free milk in Head Start--it's a step too far, even for the uber-capitalistic US! At any rate, when Thatcher died, all my family remembered was that she was the first female Prime Minister of the UK. They didn't understand the criticism and downright hatred being expressed in the media, and I found it hard to explain the whole context (they did agree that the milk snatching was terrible, though). It's an example of how "firstness" can be a trivia game summary version of a much more complex, multifaceted story.

Devon Powers also brought up the concept of firstness as a form of promotion, i.e. best of lists and 'top ten' lists. That one made me think of further examples, like the way that Google search results appear in order of (paid advertising and then) popularity.

As she mentioned in the Q&A, this project really could go in many different directions. Even though it didn't go in the directions I thought it would, it was definitely interesting and it was nice to be back at the research seminars again. Next week's involves the world of 'homemade' handicrafts on sites like Etsy. As a fan of "Regretsy", a now-defunct blog by the brilliant April Winchell that mocked the 'fails' (why can't they just use 'failures'?) of Etsy, I'm looking forward to that one, too!

Saturday, 15 March 2014

The Language of (Public) Diplomacy

The U.S. ambassador to Nigeria is trying to pick up Pidgin English, and although the NPR article doesn't mention the term "public diplomacy", that's exactly what he's doing--reaching out to the public of Nigeria with accessible language.

"...though it may not be the language of diplomacy, it reaches people at the grassroots level."

 One thing that struck me about the article was that they call it "broken English", but it's clearly not "broken"--it just follows rules of its own. Broken, to me, implies that they're struggling with it. Their speech is stilted, full of pauses and "how do you say...???"Any English-speaker can speak "broken English" by making a few mistakes with subject-verb agreement, pluralisation and gender (think Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat-speak). This article was the first time I'd seen Nigerian Pidgin English in print, and it's definitely not like Borat. It's much more deliberate, nuanced--the idea that "to like" something would be "sweet their belle"--that's not the kind of mistake that speakers of broken English would make. (As an aside, when I lived in the dorms, I had a Nigerian housemate who spoke British English with me and Pidgin English with her friends--both languages fluently, not 'broken').

I think the stigma of learning and speaking 'broken English' is the only explanation for why ambassadors haven't been doing this before now. It makes sense. As the article points out, Pidgin English is a common second language for millions of West Africans. Ambassadors (and public diplomacy officials) don't have the resources to learn and use the hundreds of local languages--learning Pidgin English would be an efficient move!

I haven't been using this blog to talk about PD, really, but now that I'm finishing up and looking ahead, I'll try to start commenting on PD in the news.

Friday, 28 February 2014

My Study Buddy

Biscuit's keeping me on task--I don't want to disturb a sleepy kitten, so I just keep typing away!

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Learning from my students

In this round of marking, one of the essay topics was Americanisation. When we had the lecture & seminars on this, I have to admit that as an American who was pretty well versed in 20th century history, I didn't really get much out of it. America had done some bad things in the world, yes, but we're generally decent people, right? I admired presidents like Lincoln and Wilson--the eloquent, inspirational ones who believed in equality, self-determination, human rights, etc. I never really saw faults in capitalism, either. Growing up in the Seattle area, I was always quite proud of our big, global brands--Microsoft, Starbucks, Costco, Boeing, Amazon, etc. Seattle attracted a lot of clever, innovative, well-educated people from around the world with those companies, so I never thought there could be a downside. I even felt a bit defensive--I don't eat at McDonald's in Leeds. It's not my fault that it's popular here, therefore it's not America's fault that English people like to eat this crap, either. America will sell whatever sells. It's as simple as supply and demand, end of.

Some of these essays on Americanization have been a bit of a wake-up call, though. It's very humbling to read about your country through the eyes of others. These kids were born in the mid-1990's. They barely remember Clinton, and have mostly known George W. Bush's America. The America that brought their country into the Iraq War. The American TV shows like Friends and Frasier, The Wire and Breaking Bad. American tech companies like Facebook and Google, all based in Silicon Valley. The American brands that have spread substantially, even in the 7 years since I first came to Britain. I used to have a hard time finding certain American foods, and now the supermarkets are carrying them. There are several Starbucks locations in the city centre (although my favourite one in Headingley did close a couple of years ago, to be fair).It's fairly easy for me to feel at home here, and until I read these essays, I never realised that could offend others...that the growing reach of U.S.-based companies could damage local economies, that it could stifle the very qualities of creativity and innovation that I loved about Seattle. I never saw that the rules of international trade and global economics were so much more complicated than supply and demand.

As much as I like to laugh at some of the hilarious things students write in their essays, I have to admit that, on this point, I'm the humble student who's learning from them. And, in terms of the Fulbright Program, I just want to point out that it's taken me 7 years of living outside the US to learn this lesson--am I just a slow learner, or can 9-12 months abroad as a Fulbrighter really achieve the same impacts?

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Exam Invigilation Round 7

It's that time of year again--exam invigilation! Time to brush up on my pacing skills and get my spare pens, erasers and tissues out. We're under-staffed this time, so I'm working all day, every day for both weeks (I get an afternoon off on the last day).

I really do enjoy it, as boring as it sounds--it's interesting to see a different side of the University, and to see what else is going on around here. I like to help the students and try to make them feel relaxed. So many of the invigilators are too harsh & cold, but I always smile at them and say please & thank you. Also, it's easy money and only comes round twice a year. I'm grateful for the opportunity to get a bit of extra work.

I can't believe it's my 4th year of doing this. The exams office has had a hiring freeze for the past couple of years, so those of us who are working this time are all quite seasoned pros. Everything seems to be running much more smoothly this time, as we all know what we're doing. Experience makes a huge difference.

The only downside to the whole invigilation thing is the fact that this month is just ridiculously busy (submitting my dissertation, getting our kitten, working on a visa application) and I'm working full time for 2 weeks of it. I thrive under pressure, though, so I'm going to be brilliant this month! But it might just take all of February to recover...

Another comeback that occurred to me days after the fact...

In my last supervision meeting, I gushed about my brilliant Excel sheet of all Board of Foreign Scholarships appointees since 1946--it had taken a week to compile out of all of my archive notes and a bit of extra newspaper archive searching. I was pretty excited about it and I was told, jokingly, "You're not a real historian--they get excited about dust."

I laughed, but now, the next day, I realise that I should have replied "No, I'm a modern-day historian--we get excited about digitising the dust."

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Writing Up Month

Well, it's finally here--my deadline is looming at the end of January! I've got mixed emotions about the whole thing. Just like high school & undergrad graduations, there's a sense of being both excited and scared about the next step. I've applied to a few postdocs and I've been accepted for a conference in June, but I'm taking this month off from the whole job search. It's a busy month--on top of writing up, I've got exam invigiliation, placement work and marking to do. Richard's going to be cooking a lot of meals and watching films by himself while I write in the evenings!

I haven't been updating the blog mainly because I've been hesitant to publicly talk about my department online. I don't want to get in trouble for criticising it, and I also believe that in terms of a work-related blog, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all". It's not all bad--there are still some great people around and some interesting work being done in other research areas. It's just a personal thing--my research area is gone and it's affected me more than I thought it would. I just don't feel welcome there and it doesn't feel like home anymore.

They're even considering changing the name of the department. Apparently the powers that be think that "Institute" emphasises research over teaching (I didn't know that was a bad thing, but maybe it is in today's HE market), and that the word 'media' needs to be included in there somewhere. An email went round asking for thoughts on the name change & suggestions for new names, and I couldn't even bear to reply. It was just another reminder that I don't belong here. They might as well change the name, because it bears no resemblance to the ICS that I joined in 2008 (or even just in 2010).

In some ways, I feel validated by the name change--it's not just me who thinks the department has changed dramatically!