The soft power of children’s literature

I’ve just come back from a long weekend in the Lake District, visiting Beatrix Potter’s beloved home Hill Top Farm and the sights of Hawkshead and Bowness-on-Windermere. It was lovely, but very touristy–apparently we weren’t the only ones with the idea of visiting the Lake District in the springtime.

On her writing desk was a copy of the original Peter Rabbit story–she wrote it in a letter to her former governess’s son, then borrowed back the letter to make a copy. She wasn’t able to find a publisher, so she self-published 250 copies–when they sold out, Frederick Warne & Co. (who had rejected her) reconsidered and offered to publish it, if she would re-illustrate it in colour.
Her doll house, used as the setting for The Tale of Two Bad Mice.

One thing that surprised me was the number of Japanese tourists being dropped off from coaches on the narrow country lanes of Near Sawrey, outside the gates of Hill Top. I found this BBC article from a few years ago about the popularity of Peter Rabbit in Japan. Apparently the book is used by English learners, and loved not just for the characters but also for its depictions of the English countryside. There’s even a Beatrix Potter reference library housed in a replica Hill Top (1.5x size), complete with farm animals at a children’s zoo in Japan.

Dual language signage in Hill Top. The guide in the room said “Mind the step,
Suteppu o ki ni shite kudasai,” and laughed, “It’s the only Japanese I know!”
Early hedgehog sketches–her pet hedgehog was the model for Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle

My friend Amber Pouliot organised a conference on literary tourism a few years ago, Placing the Author. It focused on 19th century authors, including the Brontes (Haworth also has signs in Japanese, by the way), Mary Shelley, William Wordsworth (I didn’t visit Dove Cottage, but I did see his grammar school in Hawkshead), and Jane Austen. I thought of her and the conference when I was planning my Easter teaching break–unintentionally, it was full of literary tourism. In addition to Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top, I also visited the Roald Dahl Museum in Great Missenden recently and loved it.

The reconstructed writing hut where Roald Dahl worked
They had a brilliant way to experience it–a reconstruction of the original behind glass, and then a touchable replica version for kids (and grown-up kids) to play with

I also went on the Harry Potter Studio Tour over the break, which was amazing and packed with tourists from all over the world. It’s so incredible to think of the size of the HP fandom, and that it all revolves around reading (unusually long) books, and that Rowling was the first person to make $1 billion from writing books. Taking these three visits together, it got me thinking about British children’s literature and how it’s been such a massive source of soft power for the UK. In the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, children’s literature featured prominently. J.K. Rowling read an excerpt from Peter Pan,and the dream sequence included villains from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Harry Potter and 101 Dalmatians, ultimately defeated by Mary Poppins(es). Then there’s Alice in Wonderland, Winnie-the-Pooh, Wind in the Willows, Robin Hood, Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, Paddington–so much of the American/Disney cultural imperialism is rooted in British cultural imperialism. Just about the only British children’s stories that didn’t cross the pond are Watership Down (super weird story with violent rabbits), and Enid Blyton, which is just too twee for America (they did make it to Australia/NZ/Canada, though).

Why does children’s literature have such a significant soft power element? I think it’s the nostalgia we have for the stories we read as children–especially memories of being read to, by parents or teachers or other caregivers. The act of reading together is an act of love, of quality time. When you move onto independent reading, too, there’s the joy of discovery–of escapism, of encountering new ideas and vicarious experiences.

Children’s bookshop owner Kathleen Kelly in Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail


If children’s literature has this power to influence its readers, it can also shape the way they think about its country of origin.

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What I’m Reading: Outsmarting Apartheid

Before reading this, I already suspected that South Africa would be an interesting case study in the Fulbright Program–their history, politics and culture make their international relationships both challenging and vital, especially during the four decades covered by this book. I also already knew the story of Amy Biehl, an American Fulbrighter who was tragically killed in South Africa, and I included her in my book chapter on Fulbright women. I could see why South Africa merited its own volume of Fulbright stories, and now that I’ve read it, I suspect there are even more out there just as fascinating.

My favorite interview was with Klaas Skosana, a Cultural Assistant at the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria during the late 1990’s. He has a great perspective and picked up on so many themes that other interviewees (and other studies of exchange diplomacy) touch on, too. In addition to his work at the Embassy, he also went on a short-term exchange to the U.S., a month-long ‘study tour’. I’ve always been a little skeptical about these brief visits, and wondered how much participants can really get out of them. His reflections on that short visit, though, are not in isolation–they are a part of a larger body of experiences and knowledge about international relations and intercultural communication. That brief trip may not mean a great deal in and of itself, but it needs to be understood in that bigger context.

“Personally, I benefited from the study tour, and it was only thirty-one days. But it is like I spent years in the U.S., because I was exposed to various parts of the U.S. I knew that when I was walking down the street of Washington, DC, the chances of meeting somebody who had a PhD were great…I saw a list of people that I sent to the United States and what positions they are occupying today, and I think they all have positive things to say about what they have seen in the U.S. You take what you can from a country. You cannot focus on everything about a country, but fix your brain on a few aspects, and you will remember them forever…I think that the U.S. intervention was commendable, and it did, in many ways, ‘outsmart’ aparthaied because it exposed people to various perspectives.”

Whitman D (ed) (2014) Outsmarting Apartheid, Albany: SUNY Press, p. 296

This book was a long-neglected read–according to my Amazon account history, I bought it in February 2015! It’s been sitting in my bookshelf’s section for “This will be useful for revising and publishing my dissertation” books, and I hadn’t read it because I’ve made little progress on that project over the past four years. But it’s never too late–as my finally reading this book shows, as long as you’re still breathing, there’s always hope for neglected projects.

ERASMUS on the eve of Brexit

Today in the Guardian, there was a story about the uncertainty that UK students are facing as they prepare to participate in ERASMUS exchange programmes in the EU. It gives a great, concise summary of the situation that universities on both sides of the English Channel are facing.

Last Wednesday the European parliament voted to guarantee funding for UK students already studying abroad on the Erasmus+ student exchange programme, in the event of a no-deal Brexit on 29 March. It also promised to continue supporting European students already in the UK on the scheme.

But uncertainty hangs over the 17,000 British students who had planned to study in Europe under Erasmus+ from this September. A technical note, published by the government at the end of January, failed to guarantee any funding for the scheme if Britain leaves the EU with no deal.

In recent weeks both Spain and Norway have advised their students planning to study in the UK to go elsewhere.

from: The Guardian

We’re 10 days away from the 29 March 2019 leaving date, and it’s all feeling quite chaotic. Every day there seems to be more non-story news coming out of Westminster, with the House of Commons soundly rejecting both Theresa May’s deal and the prospect of a no-deal Brexit. Meanwhile, as the Guardian piece points out, UK and EU students and universities are left with no idea of what’s going to happen next. The EU’s ERASMUS+ website has a page on potential post-Brexit changes that may or may not happen…

For many students, particularly foreign language and area studies majors, the ERASMUS exchange programme is an affordable and practical way of fulfilling study abroad requirements, as well as gaining valuable professional and personal skills.

Since its establishment in 1987, the ERASMUS programme has had over 9 million participants. Its original aim was to create a sense of European identity and cooperation amongst the youth of European Union member states. Given the massive age gap in remain-leave Brexit voting patterns, it seems that young people in the UK really have adopted this supranational European identity.

If the UK really does leave the European Union, whenever and under what circumstances that may be, I hope it can continue to participate in ERASMUS+ in some form…

Further reading:

Christopher J. Grinbergs & Hilary Jones (2013) Erasmus Mundus SEN: the inclusive scholarship programme?, International Journal of Inclusive Education, 17:4, 349-363, DOI: 10.1080/13603116.2011.651824

Mitchell, K. 2012. Student mobility and European Identity: Erasmus Study as a civic experience? Journal of Contemporary European Research, 8(4), pp. 490-518.

Papatsiba, V. 2005. Political and Individual Rationales of Student Mobility: a case-study of ERASMUS and a French regional scheme for studies abroad. European Journal of Education, 40(2), pp. 173-188.

BRACHT O., ENGEL C., JANSON K., OVER A., SCHOMBURG H. and TEICHLER U. (2006), The professional value of Erasmus mobility. Final report presented to the European Commission – DG Education and Culture, retrieved from https://www.eumonitor.nl/9353210/d/belang%20erasmus%20onder%20professionals.pdf

Unpaid work, part 4: Academia

I’m not sure whether people outside of academia are aware of how much unpaid work goes into academic research, teaching and publishing…

Academic publishing is built on a system of unpaid work. You write a journal article for free and submit it to a journal. They send it off to reviewers, who are asked to comment on your work and determine whether it’s publishable–and they aren’t paid, either. The article is then published in a journal that higher education institutions pay expensive subscription fees for–or if it’s an open access journal, then the author has paid a large publication fee (while also not getting paid to write it).

Source: https://guides.lib.fsu.edu/academicpublishing/economics

Then there’s the unpaid work involved in teaching–the breakdown of contracted hours is often opaque and greatly underestimates the time spent on marking, prep, e-mails, and pastoral care. Hourly contracted staff are given 30 minutes per essay when it comes to marking, for example–that’s 30 min to read it, evaluate how it measures up to the marking criteria, and write up useful feedback with specific examples and advice. Even after 8 years of teaching experience and developing templates, I would still struggle to give decent feedback in under 30 minutes.

Other unpaid things you must do to establish an academic career:

  • Look for your next contract while you’re on a temporary contract
  • Apply for grants and fellowships
  • Write book proposals
  • Look for Calls For Papers (for publications or conferences)
  • Apply for conferences, which often require original work that hasn’t previously been published elsewhere (and they charge conference registration fees that University employers usually cover, so it doesn’t seem like a big deal unless you’re out of work or on a low paid part-time contract)
  • Networking–it’s work that doesn’t seem like work, but can actually be essential for finding the next contract or project…and women are often excluded from it.

On the last point, here’s a little illustration from my own experience:

When my son was 9 weeks old, I presented my work at a conference that was a *dream* topic for me. It was so closely linked to my recently completed PhD topic, and I had cited many of the other speakers’ work in my thesis. I was thrilled to be there and so grateful for the opportunity! They even funded my travel expenses, which was essential, as I was unemployed at the time (not on maternity leave, but actually unemployed). The conference was a wonderful experience and I got a lot out of it, including the chance to contribute to an edited volume that’s coming out in August 2019.

It was, however, the first time I really experienced the realities of being a working and breastfeeding mom. While I was downstairs listening to presentations, my husband was upstairs in our hotel room looking after our 9-week-old. Every time there was a coffee break or lunch break, I would dash upstairs and simultaneously pump and breastfeed until the start of the next session. My supply was low, so it was a struggle. This meant that I missed out on most of the conference’s networking opportunities. I was worried in equal measure about establishing my milk supply and establishing my career–and it’s easy to feel like a failure on both fronts when I look back at it now.

On a more positive note, blogging (also unpaid) about it and sharing our experiences with each other is a step towards raising awareness about these inequalities and the unpaid workload of participating in academia.

Unpaid work, part 3: Internships

image from: Flickr Adam Fagan

Internships have long been considered an essential part of pursuing a career in the creative industries. They’re a necessary evil–of course it’s wrong to make people work without pay, but that’s just “the way things are”. If you want a job in television/journalism/other creative industries, you’ve got to “pay your dues”.

There are countless examples of intern exploitation and harassment, often overlooked and dismissed as “the way things are”. Critics are told ‘if you don’t like it, then don’t go into television,’ for instance, or ‘You’re just not cut out for journalism,’ etc. Media industries scholarship has called out such practices, including the concept of “self-exploitation”, where workers voluntarily work overtime (unpaid) because they think it will further their career trajectory/pad their resume, etc.

I’ve contributed to the phenomenon in the past, before I knew about this critical perspective and realized how exploitative internships are. As my department’s placement assistant, I helped arrange work placements for our students in broadcast journalism, film and photography, and television production. For most of my students, it was a 3-week, unpaid placement, usually as a researcher or a runner. Most had positive experiences and some were offered paid employment at the end. The complaints they shared often had to do with not being given interesting tasks, and I recall one student being upset about being asked to work on Saturdays. Despite the fact they were generally good experiences, I still feel a bit guilty for my role in reinforcing the unpaid internship culture.

Unpaid internships are of course, wrong for the simple fact that they are making people work without pay–that alone is bad enough. But there’s another, more subtle thing they do: they keep people from entering the creative industries who can’t afford to work without pay. If you’re going to do an unpaid internship, you need a place to stay for free, close to where the jobs are (London/NYC/LA). As a result, you’re probably either going to live with your parents or they’ll pay your (very high) rent for a place in the city. This excludes a huge segment of the population–in the UK, it excludes basically all but London.

This leads to a situation in which the proportion of people from privileged backgrounds is much higher in the creative industries than it is in the general population. Public school (US private school, tuition-fees charged) graduates are disproportionately represented in the media. “43% of people working in publishing, 28% in music, and 26% in design come from privileged backgrounds, compared with 14% of the population coming from this same social origin.” (Oakley et al., 2017).

What does this mean in practice? It means that the people who make the media mostly have the same privileged perspective. When they choose which stories get told, they’re going to choose things that matter to them and are relevant and interesting to them–so we miss out on the stories of underrepresented groups, of working-class concerns, perspectives from people of colour, etc.

Internships aren’t just a problem in the media. Yesterday US Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez highlighted the problem of low-paid internships in Congress, and drew attention to the larger ramifications of that phenomenon.

“Low pay is also a big reason for lack of socioeconomic diversity in DC, aka why many spaces in government can feel like a silver spoon club: only people who work 80+hr weeks w/ multiple jobs without an outside life, or whose parents can supplement their pay can have the opportunity to work in the nation’s capital. That has real consequences for government being out of touch w/ the people we serve on all levels. There’s a TON of work that needs to be done when it comes to the workplace (parental leave, hiring practices, living wage, healthcare as a right and not a perk, etc), but it starts with paying people enough to live as a minimum requirement, and not a luxury (and I guess that gets you called a communist these days 😂).”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@ocasio2018) on Instagram, 25 February 2019

To address that problem, her office staff are paid a living wage, which in the DC area equates to full-time workers earning no less than $52,000 a year.


It’s a very unusual move on the Hill and likely one of the highest entry-level salaries in Congress. I do it because I was outraged at how many staffers I saw on the Hill work FULL-TIME leave their day job for a second shift as a barista or elsewhere afterwards **just to afford the basics** – not even to get ahead or save up for something big. It’s totally wrong.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@ocasio2018) on Instagram, 25 February 2019

There are a lot of problems with the system, but moves like this give me hope. It looks like unpaid and low-paid internships are increasingly being recognised as contributing to systemic inequalities.

Further reading:

Ergin Bulut, Glamor Above, Precarity Below: Immaterial Labor in the Video Game Industry (2015)

David Lee, Internships, Workfare, and the Cultural Industries: A British Perspective (2015)

Kate Oakley, Daniel Laurison, Dave O’Brien, and Sam Friedman, Cultural Capital: Arts Graduates, Spatial Inequality, and London’s Impact on Cultural Labor Markets (2017)

Unpaid Work, Part 2: Breastfeeding

Breastmilk is not free.

When I saw this on Instagram, I had an Oprah “Ah-ha!” moment, because I’d never thought about it this way. Nobody does! We see how crazy expensive formula is and think we’re saving money by breastfeeding (as well as all of the other benefits), but ultimately, we’re paying indirectly in the form of unpaid work. And we do, all too often, think of women’s time, bodies and carework as worthless.

We pay in lack of sleep. We pay in hours of unpaid “on-the-job training,” learning how to breastfeed while we’re also recovering from childbirth. We pay in delaying a return to work or pumping at work. We pay in having to buy supplies for this unpaid work: breast-feeding friendly tops and nursing bras and nursing pillows and pumps and nipple cream and Fenugreek supplements and lactation cookies and Motherkind tea. We pay in the emotional labour of fielding unsolicited advice from strangers and friends and family about how we choose to feed our babies, how long we keep it up and whether/ how we do it in public.

Not only is it not always easy–it’s also not free.

Unpaid Work, part 1: intro

I’ve been noticing more and more unpaid work going on these days–the Deliveroo cyclists sitting outside the Arndale centre, watching their phones for the next job; the undergrads eager to get unpaid work placements at media companies; the reviewing we do without pay in academic publishing. It’s also in the extra help and pastoral care we give to students–the out-of-hours emails, the discussions after class, the office hours that overrun. Research has shown that women faculty perform significantly more service than men. Women are more likely to mentor colleagues and support their fellow academics in unpaid ways. Early career academics, in particular, do unpaid research and extra teaching prep that often goes unnoticed and unrewarded as they try to secure better contracts and improve their CVs. It’s a particularly subtle form of self-exploitation–nobody forces us to do it but ourselves and “the system”.

I’m not sure what the answers are to any of this, but being aware of the problem is a good first step. To that end, I’m going to write a little series of posts on unpaid work.