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.

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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.

The role of language in exchanges

This morning I read an article from the BBC about an incident at Duke University, where a professor emailed students about her concerns over Chinese students speaking Chinese, rather than English, while on campus. Apparently, two colleagues had overheard students speaking Chinese (“loudly”) in a lounge/study area and asked this professor for their names. They wanted to know so that, allegedly,


 they could remember them if the students ever interviewed for an internship or asked to work with them for a masters project. They were disappointed that these students were not taking the opportunity to improve their English and were being so impolite as to have a conversation that not everyone on the floor could understand.

from:https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-47022374

The professor e-mailed her students and asked them to speak English “100% of the time” in the building or “any other professional setting”. The professor has been removed as director of the programme, as a result of the backlash against this e-mail.

First off, let me say that I’m not surprised by this incident, for several reasons. When I was in high school checking out universities, I visited Duke and decided not to apply–despite being considered a “prestigious” school, campus life felt very Greek-oriented and sports-oriented. Also, I’ve seen the way some people (lecturers, students, locals) react to international students speaking their native languages–I’ve heard the same things as these staff members in the e-mail have said.

It’s racist and ridiculous for a number of reasons, but my main issue is that the students in question were not in a “professional setting”. They were in a “student lounge/study area”. Why shouldn’t they speak their native language there? Why does “everyone on the floor” need to understand what they’re saying? What if a couple of native English speakers decided to whisper?

And even if they were in a “professional setting”, lighten up. My seminars are often 90-100% Chinese students, and I’m absolutely fine with them speaking Chinese with each other when they discuss the readings. I put the discussion questions up on the screen and they break up into small groups, discuss them in Chinese (and/or English, depending on the group’s preferences), then share their thoughts with me and the rest of the class in English after a few minutes. I would much rather ensure that they understand the content than use my seminars as an “opportunity to improve their English.” It will improve–but in the meantime, we need to talk about Adorno and Horkheimer’s critical theory (which has already been translated from the original German). If speaking English with me and Chinese with their peers helps us get through these difficult readings, then by all means, feel free to speak Chinese!

It’s taken me a few years to come to this position, though–back when I started working with international students, I thought they should engage in “immersion”. If they committed to speaking English all the time, they would become fluent quickly and everything would be easier for them. But now I realise that this is a very privileged, unrealistic position. Immersion works, yes, but it’s incredibly mentally exhausting. It’s such a relief to speak your native language when you’re abroad.

Last September, I experienced this sense on a smaller scale–I was in Paris with my family, responsible for doing most of the ordering and translating and navigating with my limited French. We stopped at a deli to get sandwiches for lunch, and I struggled to understand and make myself understood. The woman behind the counter was very sweet, asking us about our son and where we were from, and it turned out that she was from Ecuador. I was so relieved–I switched to Spanish and we both grinned. Suddenly it was so much easier to communicate! And that wasn’t even my native language, so I can imagine how relieved my students must feel to speak in Chinese after hours in the library struggling to get through Adorno and Horkheimer. It’s not just about language acquisition–we need to take a holistic approach to understanding the international student experience.

Michael Haugh picked up on some of these ideas in his article on international students in Australia. The so-called “English problem” amongst international students has been blamed for a perceived decline in standards in Australian higher education. His interviewees shared some very interesting anecdotes, and I think many of my students would find them relatable. Haugh’s conclusion suggests that

 …it would be useful to draw greater attention to policy-makers in higher education to the moral complexity of the ongoing discourse of complaint about the English language skills of international students. In this way, we can move beyond the view that the so-called English problem is simply a matter of an objective, measurable deficiency on the part of international students.

from: Haugh, M. 2016. Complaints and troubles talk about the English language skills of international students in Australian universities. Higher Education Research & Development,35(4), pp. 727-740.

Immersion vs. bilingual education will continue to be an area of debate in exchange diplomacy, particularly in terms of language acquisition and culture learning effectiveness. In terms of the way international students are treated on campus, however, there’s no question that we must respect students’ right to communicate amongst themselves in whatever way they choose.

What I’m Reading

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Michelle Obama’s memoir was the book of 2018–even before Oprah picked it for her book club, it was a huge bestseller. I added it to my wishlist as a pre-order, and my sister and I both bought it for each others’ birthdays in Nov/Dec! I’m about halfway through, and I adore it. She’s a fantastic writer and storyteller, and her tone is everything you’d expect from her. She’s brilliant yet relatable, down to earth yet Ivy League educated. Her stories of the South Side of Chicago and her youth outreach work make you realise how much untapped talent there is out there, how many brilliant people don’t get the opportunities that would enable them to shine–and how many people like her are doing inspiring, empowering work that never gets heard about because they don’t happen to be married to Presidents.

Oprah once said that whatever you do, to be excellent and “make excellence your brand”. Michelle’s behind-the-scenes account shows that the Obama family did just that–they knew that as the first African-American First Family, they had to be excellent, that one slip could undermine them and that they would be even more vulnerable to criticism than other First Families. The Obamas succeeded. No scandals, no corruption, no slip-ups. Michelle is relieved to be out of the White House, but the millions of people around the world now reading her book can’t help but feel nostalgic for the Obama White House’s excellence.

New Year’s Resolutions

For the past few years, I’ve come up with a list of 10 resolutions each December to give some structure to my plans for the year ahead–they cover all areas, personal and professional, big and small projects.

Every year, I accomplish most of them–all but my publication goals. I fail to meet them every year, which leads me to feeling like a failure, and then that drains my confidence and I continue being unproductive…I feel so much guilt for not having achieved more, like I’ve let everyone around me down–every supportive teacher/mentor/friend is let down by my failures (which I know isn’t true, of course, but this is the mental spiral I’m trying to describe here, in case someone else feels this way too and finds it comforting to know they aren’t alone…).

I know I need to write more and publish more. There are so many stacks of articles and books for half-written projects lying around on my office shelves–they never seem to get done. They always get moved to the back burner, usually due to teaching prep and marking that needs to be prioritised. Everything else always seems more urgent in the moment, but it’s been 4 1/2 years since I finished the PhD–now my lack of publications seems urgent and I’m panicking.

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This term, I’m going to devote my Tuesdays to writing and research. I’m going to set some concrete writing goals for each month and keep a publications to-do list on my office wall that I can check off as I complete sections/tasks. I’m also going to re-commit to blogging again, because accountability is a great motivator.

The universal language of cringe comedy

One of my favorite seminars in my postgrad media theory class is on Erving Goffman’s work on embarrassment. I put them in an embarrassing situation of having to give each other compliments, and then we reflect on what it feels like to give and receive compliments, discussing which is more embarrassing, and why. I also always take them through Goffman’s list of how people experience embarrassment–blushing, dry mouth, fumbling hands, etc.–and we talk about our own embarrassing experiences (they’re usually related to public speaking–it’s universal). 

I love how universal and human this seminar is–each year, I have a different mix of international and British students, but no matter where they’re from, everybody can relate to embarrassment. Talking about it in a theoretical sense always leads to confessions, vulnerability, and laughing with each other in this small (10-15 person) group. 

This year, I also showed them a clip from “The Office” to illustrate one of Goffman’s points about vicarious embarrassment–when we feel shame or embarrassment on behalf of another person:

“When an individual finds himself in a situation which ought to make him blush, others present usually will blush with and for him, though he may not have sufficient sense of shame or appreciation of the circumstances to blush on his own account.” (Goffman, 1956, p. 265)

I always think of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s “cringe comedy” when I read that part. David Brent has no idea how embarrassing he is, and the audience is cringing with embarrassment on his behalf. So many of their other characters do this to us, too–Stuart Pritchard in Hello Ladies;  Maggie Jacobs, Shaun Williamson and Darren Lamb in Extras; Danny in I Give It A Year;  most of what they do with Karl Pilkington…

I was curious to see how my Chinese students would react to the original UK version of The Office–would they get it? Would they realise how cringey David Brent is supposed to be? I used this clip of his terribly inappropriate job interview, and I was thrilled to see that they did indeed get it. There was lots of laughing, groaning and eye-rolling in the room. Everybody was able to reel off the various social rules he broke, his awkward body language, his inappropriate questions, and her embarrassment cues.

I wasn’t able to find any academic studies of international adaptations of The Office, but that’s one I’d love to see…It’s been adapted in 11 countries and 9 languages, and the similarities are brilliant. Wikipedia has this great chart with details about the different versions–I think my favorite part is that the Swedish version is an office hygiene product company instead of a paper company, and that’s just like David Brent’s job in Life on the Road. 

The Cultural Diplomacy of Holiday Traditions

It’s two weeks until Christmas–the lights are on all over town, Christmas music is playing in all of the (very crowded) shopping centres and Leeds’ Christkindlmarkt is packed. My international students are loving it! Whenever I run into them in the city centre, they’ve got their phones out–they take loads of pictures of Christmas lights and decorations, market stalls and food. I love the way Christmas is celebrated in Britain, and it’s made me think about how holiday traditions can communicate culture. 

Being overseas makes you reflect on your own practices, including the way you celebrate holidays. When I came to the UK, I realised that my family’s traditions were not necessarily “American”–there is no single “American” way of celebrating anything, because we’re a melting pot (or salad bowl) of different cultures and we don’t even all celebrate the same things. 

My idea of Christmas is heavily influenced by Swedish traditions, through my Swedish grandma–opening presents on Christmas Eve after a smörgåsbord (julbord) buffet dinner that includes pickled herring, cold cuts, cheese & crackers. The “American” elements of my Christmas are probably the eggnog, the Starbucks Christmas menu, and seeing Santa Claus in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (marking the official start to the holiday season!).

For me, the most surprising thing about the holiday season in Britain is that it is 100% Christmas. There’s no Fox News-dubbed “War on Christmas” here. It’s all advent calendars, Christmas trees and baubles, Christmas jumpers and Christmas pudding. Christmas markets are brought over on trucks from Frankfurt–which is another interesting point about British Christmas: it’s very German. King George III’s wife Queen Charlotte (and later Prince Albert) brought the concept of a Christmas tree to the UK from Germany, among other traditions.

When I was a kid, we did an annual “Holiday Concert” in December. We sang a mix of Hannukah, Christmas (mostly Santa, not Jesus) and secular songs (Frosty the Snowman, Winter Wonderland, etc.). Not so for British kids–even state schools (public schools) put on a nativity and hold Christmas fairs. My son’s school is not affiliated with any church, but they’re doing a nativity next week. Since September he’s been coming home from preschool singing “Away in a Manger” and “Little Donkey”, so it’s definitely about Jesus rather than Santa or snowmen. It’s because Christianity is the official state religion here–Church of England, which the monarch is technically the head of–but it’s so crazy to me. A higher proportion of the US population identifies as Christian than the UK population (71% vs 59%, according to a quick, unscientific Wikipedia check), yet we called it “Winter Break” and I still know the words to “Chanukah, Oh Chanukah” twenty-plus years later…

Holiday celebrations are an excellent opportunity for learning about a foreign culture–they reveal values and beliefs, and ultimately, they show how much we all have in common. They’re about family and friends and food–pretty much every celebration around the world shares those elements. Anything that demonstrates this should be considered a valuable tool in exchange diplomacy practice.

To exchange participants, I would suggest they embrace local traditions, join in and ask questions–take an interest in the celebrations, try the food, compare your own traditions with those of the host country.

To exchange diplomacy program administrators, I would suggest they incorporate holiday events into their schedules. The Fulbright Program in the UK, for instance, has a Thanksgiving celebration for American grantees in the UK each year, which is lovely. The holidays can be a lonely, difficult time to be a foreigner, especially if nobody else is celebrating the same things you do. Maybe encourage participants to host their own celebrations and invite host country nationals, or other international students. I’ve hosted Thanksgiving and 4th of July parties for friends from all over the world in the UK, and I’ve been a guest at Lunar New Year celebrations–it’s a great excuse for a party, and you learn something about other cultures, too!