Back to School

September has always been my favorite time of year–a time of new beginnings, sweater weather, the return of the Starbucks pumpkin spice latte. It’s become a stereotypical ‘white girl’ thing to love autumn, but I’m not ashamed of it. Spring is often very wet, summer is too hot (especially this summer), winter is too dark–autumn is perfectly sunny and crisp. We got married on a sunny September day and we always schedule our outdoor family photos for September or October to catch the golden leafy backdrops. We live in a student-dominated neighborhood, which comes back to life every September after three months of feeling like a ghost-town. It’s a lovely time of year!3f05218v

Image From: Library of Congress: WPA Poster Collection

It’s always been back to school time for me, both as a student and as a lecturer. We happened to be in Paris over the “la rentrée” this year, and we spotted parents walking their children to the first day of school from our hotel balcony. (This post from last year did a lovely job of describing la rentrée) It was so fun to see the school supplies at Monoprix, with the matching pencil cases and binders and sac-a-dos. There’s something very humanizing about witnessing these types of shared events, like back-to-school, in another culture. Everywhere in the world, kids need to write and draw and colour and read, and they need to get kitted out for it.

As a little Back-to-School celebration, I donated to a couple of projects on DonorsChoose, a crowdfunding site for public school teachers in the U.S.–if you, like me, love buying school supplies but don’t have a list of them to buy for your own kid, consider donating school supplies, either in person or through an organisation like DonorsChoose.

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Evaluating Cultural Learning: the Life in the UK test

One of the key debates in public diplomacy literature is the problem of evaluation. How can you tell whether a foreign audience has been influenced by public diplomacy efforts? There’s no easy way to quantify attitude change, or to predict long-term effects in the future.

In cultural diplomacy, this is particularly tricky. How do you measure how much someone has learned about a country’s culture? What questions do you ask about a broad concept like cultural life–what is included and what gets left out? Do you ask about a bit of everything–high culture, pop culture, sports, entertainment, literature, history, fine art?

Today, I took (and passed!) the “Life in the UK” test as part of my settlement application (I will have been here for 10 years this month, so I can apply for indefinite leave to remain now). Citizenship tests like Life in the UK or the US Civics test are not measuring the effectiveness of public diplomacy efforts, of course, but they are an attempt to measure how much a foreigner knows about a country’s cultural life. They could offer a template or guide for public diplomacy evaluation, to show what kinds of general knowledge categories a foreign visitor could reasonably be expected to know.

So what do they think foreigners should know?

  1. History–it was heavy on history, from prehistory (key developments in the Bronze Age/Iron Age, etc.) to key 20th century events (i.e. which war began when Adolf Hitler invaded Poland? Who was the first female Prime Minister?).
  2. Politics/Civics–who’s eligible to vote, how does jury duty work, what are the chambers of Parliament called, etc.
  3. “General knowledge”–much like a pub quiz, some of the questions were things that aren’t easily categorised. Which patron saint’s flag has a white diagonal cross on a blue background? What is celebrated on 26 December?

I prepared for it by taking lots of these practice tests online, but I found the real one was much easier than some of the practice questions. The main thing I struggled with was the English Civil War. We definitely didn’t learn about it in school in the States, and pop culture seems to have overlooked this era entirely (there’s so much about Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Victoria, WWII–some historical periods seem to get much more attention than others).

Did the Life in the UK test feel like an accurate gauge of cultural knowledge?

Not really. It felt like a fairly good general knowledge pub quiz, hosted by somebody with an interest in history.

In terms of assessing the cultural knowledge impact of public diplomacy efforts, I would suggest that multiple choice tests like Life in the UK or US Civics can give us some inspiration on what to do and what not to do. They should include a bit less history and a bit more about everyday life. They should be inclusive and reflect all aspects of society, be balanced in terms of class, gender, race, religion, etc. They should, like all assessments, be relevant for the objectives of the public diplomacy efforts–if it’s about language acquisition, for example, or a specific cultural exhibition, then questions should focus on that topic.

After almost 10 years of living in the UK, what would I put on the test?

–Knowledge of British food–identifying the ingredients of black pudding, white pudding, haggis, knowing what you put mint sauce on, knowing the debates over applying cream and jam (or jam and cream) on a scone, etc.

–Holiday customs–one practice question asked “Mince pies are eaten on what day?” with the answer being Christmas. That’s completely untrue–mince pies start showing up on supermarket shelves in September. Also, alcohol consumption and gifting is a big part of every celebration–even Mothering Sunday gift sections include spirits.

–6 degrees of separation game with British actors and actresses. Everybody’s worked with Dame Maggie Smith and/or Dame Judi Dench and/or Jim Broadbent.

–Weather. In order to understand life in Britain, you need to be able to talk about the weather and to know why they talk about the weather so much. (It’s a way to make small talk and they use it to gauge whether you want to have a conversation–also, the weather is crazy here and often worth discussing)

–Class markers–It’s not about the car they drive or how they dress. What shop is their Bag for Life from? (I’ve seen people use Waitrose bags at Aldi, but never the reverse, which tells you something about where the two shops rank)

Sister Cities International: Exchange Diplomacy, Xi Jinping and Soybeans

U.S. News & World Report ran a story last week on Sister Cities International, introducing it with the fact that in 1985, President Xi Jinping visited Iowa on a Sister Cities International exchange.

“He stayed close with the family that hosted him as a young delegate from Hebei province, and this year, a soybean farm opened in Hebei, modeled after the one run by another family who hosted him on a return trip as vice president in 2012.”

The 2012 trip was profiled in this Daily Mail piece. This was one example of an exchange-diplomacy-alum-turned-world-leader that I didn’t expect. I love that Xi Jinping learned about agriculture in America’s heartland, and how his 2012 itinerary included Muscatine, Iowa alongside a visit to the White House (this New York Times article about the Washington part of the visit didn’t mention it). It’s particularly fascinating because the traditionally Republican farmers don’t support Trump’s trade war with China–those same soybean farmers that now-President Xi Jinping stayed with, who voted for Trump, are now taking a big hit (and getting a bailout), due to Trump’s trade war.

Sister Cities International was one of several exchange diplomacy efforts initiated by President Eisenhower in the 1950s. He believed in the ability of citizen diplomacy to enhance and even surpass traditional diplomacy:

“If we are going to take advantage of the assumption that all people want peace, then the problem is for people to get together and to leap governments — if necessary to evade governments — to work out not one method but thousands of methods by which people can gradually learn a little bit more of each other.”President Eisenhower’s remarks at the People-to-People Conference, September 11, 1956

Sister Cities has received less coverage in the academic literature than other exchange-of-persons programs of the time. Matt Loyaza’s 2013 article, “A Curative and Creative Force”: The Exchange of Persons Program and Eisenhower’s Inter-American Policies, 1953–1961, looks at the State Department’s Leader & Specialist exchanges with Argentina, Brazil and Chile, the so-called ‘A-B-C countries’ considered by US officials to be a crucial ideological battleground of the early Cold War. Victor Rosenberg looked at Eisenhower’s diplomacy & cultural exchanges with the Soviet Union. Jazz diplomacy and dance diplomacy were also key features of Eisenhower’s citizen-forward strategy.

What I’m reading…

For pleasure:

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I’ve had The Art of Stopping Time on my nightstand for a few weeks now and it’s been a great book to dip in and out of–each daily gong or task is only 2-3 pages, so you can skim through some and close read others, depending on what sounds interesting or useful for you. I love the variety on offer. Some have been high-level spiritual, conceptual mindfulness exercises, while others have been practical changes, like limiting your time spent on e-mail and social media. I’ve tried quite a few now, and my favorite so far has been the half-hourly breaks at work–it felt silly to stretch and get up and walk around so often, but I found it really did increase my energy and make me more productive, as Shojai promised!

For work:

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Thomas Birtchnell and Javier Caletrío, eds. Elite Mobilities (London: Routledge, 2014)

I’ve been reading this in my attempt to theorise exchange diplomacy in a piece that I’m writing for an edited volume. Elite Mobilities looks at the international flow of the 1 percent, examining their movement for work and pleasure, its meaning and consequences. It uses a critical sociology perspective to examine the elites and their travel, and brings together a range of issues in its analysis, including transport, tourism, class, consumption, and climate change.

There has been little work on the elite aspect of exchange diplomacy, probably because there is a stigma attached to the term ‘elite’–as if revealing the elite nature of participants would somehow make the exchange program seem less noble, less altruistic, elitist. (As an aside, several universities including Cornell and Leicester have used the slogan “elite, not elitist” to describe themselves–this gives some indication of the terms’ connotations)

At a conference once, I remember a Fulbright alumnus getting quite defensive about the term ‘elite’, claiming that he and other Fulbrighters were not elite, they were ordinary people, not particularly wealthy, influential or privileged. But, as another Fulbrighter reminded him at the time, it is still by its very nature an elite programme. It provides funding for graduate school, so applicants must already have a Bachelors degree, and that prerequisite already places them in the most highly educated group in society. Leader-oriented exchanges like the US State Department’s IVLP and British Council’s Leadership Exchange Programme, also draw upon elite pools for their participants, quite naturally.

I’m hoping to bring this emphasis on the “elite” into my conceptualisation of exchange diplomacy, to demonstrate that it’s not something to be feared or avoided. If the aim of exchange diplomacy is to influence future leaders, it only makes sense to recruit elite participants for exchanges. There’s nothing wrong with that in theory–it is only in practice that administrators will have to be careful in how they define merit and how they identify future leadership qualities. There should also be an wider effort to bring cultural and educational exchange to broader audiences, whether that’s through youth exchanges (high school or undergraduate), free public exhibitions and lectures, cultural centres with free outreach activities, and internationalising the curriculum of public schools. These things require funding that is often directed elsewhere, but they could ultimately influence more people than elite programmes of exchange diplomacy.

Confucius Institutes

Inside Higher Ed recently mentioned a provision in the current U.S. defense spending bill that restricts funding for Chinese language instruction provided by a Confucius Institute. The headline made it sound like U.S. universities with Confucius Institutes were being punished, but it’s really just a measure to limit the CI, because universities can waive the limitation and still receive funding if they certify that CI instructors won’t be involved in the university’s Chinese language program.

I quite liked the author’s succinct summary of why CIs are controversial:

“Critics say the institutes spread Chinese Communist Party propaganda and allow an entity of the Chinese government undue control over instruction and curriculum in U.S. universities, while supporters say the institutes are vehicles for cultural and educational exchange and provide much-needed funds for Chinese language instruction.” 

There has been quite a lot of public diplomacy scholarship on Confucius Institutes and China’s soft power strategy in general in recent years–Falk Hartig’s Chinese Public Diplomacy: the Rise of the Confucius Institute (2015), articles in Journal of Contemporary China (2016), Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education (2016), and Journalism Practice (2016), to name a few.

There’s no real consensus on whether CIs are “propaganda” or cultural exchange–but therein lies the difficulty in defining exchange diplomacy. It depends on perspective, us vs. them. When “they” do it, it’s propaganda but when “we” do it, it’s just information.

So what do CIs do? There are 500 around the world, so of course there’s going to be some variance. As an example, here’s an infographic on Scotland’s CIs and an advert for a CI event at the University of Aberdeen:

confucius institute scotlandconfucius institute

These sound like the kinds of things “we” do–the U.S. and Britain promote English language courses, the Alliance Française offers French classes and film screenings, the Instituto Cervantes has Spanish classes and guitar lessons–but when a CI hosts Chinese New Year celebrations, it’s propaganda…

Again, I’m not an expert on CIs, but when the Inside Higher Ed article mentioned that Marco Rubio was one of the critics, it made me think CIs must not be all that bad!

 

 

For those who are interested in further detail: Section 1091 contains the prohibition, limitation, and the terms under which the limitation can be waived.Confucius InstitutesFull text of the bill available here.