Digital Media and Exchanges

This week in my media theory class, we looked at theoretical approaches to “new media” (now that it’s not so “new,” many references use the term “digital media”), so I’ve been thinking about how it all applies to exchange diplomacy.

My students this year are so young that they don’t really remember a world without the internet, which blows my mind and instantly makes me feel about 20 years older. There seems to be a real gap in our understanding of the impact of digital technology that spans across the generations–older people don’t fully understand it and younger people take it for granted, so ultimately, nobody’s really giving it due attention!

How has the advent of social media changed the exchange experience? There are so many affordances of social media that can contribute to the exchange experience–the reduction of time/space barriers to communication, ways in which it might help people manage culture shock symptoms, the idea of durable networked connections as a multiplier effect, etc. These all need to be explored, theorised, conceptualised, measured. Digital diplomacy research tends to focus on the ways in which governments/agencies use digital media tools, ignoring the impacts of digital media on cultural and educational exchanges.

In the early days of my PhD research, I considered looking at the exchange participant blogosphere, thinking it would provide some interesting insights into the exchange experience. After looking at a few blogs, I quickly let that idea go–most were neglected and short-lived, with enthusiastic “on arrival” and “settling in” posts followed by silence. Few were sustained, and even fewer included post-sojourn reflections on the experience.  Exchange participants aren’t blogging–they’re too busy actually participating in the exchange to reflect on it like that. This impression seems to be backed up by the literature–a 2016 study by Tonkin and du Coudray found that the culture learning aims of exchange programme administrators weren’t met by asking students to blog their experiences, but were attained more naturally in social situations, like drinking with friends.

So if they’re not blogging, how else are they using these digital tools? How do Chinese students use social networking sites that they encounter when they study abroad, beyond the confines of the Great Firewall? Do exchange participants develop lasting networks of global contacts, and how do they use them? Do they actually prolong the culture mediation aspect of the exchange experience? I have a feeling that they could, but social media is such an individualised thing, it would be difficult to actually measure that! Something for a project proposal some day…

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Depressing (but necessary) research

After I did my Master’s dissertation on the London 7/7 bombings, I thought I’d pursue a more cheerful subject with exchange diplomacy. Doing content analysis of the press coverage of the bombings was very depressing–I spent the summer coding 826 articles about the attack, and although I found the literature on the media and terrorism fascinating, it’s not very fun.

So I spent the next few years looking at exchanges and reading uplifting anecdotes about scholars who had a brilliant time overseas on their Fulbright grants. I interviewed enthusiastic participants and program administrators who praised it to the hilt and were happy to talk about it to anybody who would listen. I looked through archive boxes full of thank you letters to Senator Fulbright and read about the range of transformational and positive experiences they’d had. Even the most cynical and critical scholar would be persuaded that there must be something to exchange diplomacy after all of that.

But terrorism still exists. Violence is still a pressing issue, and I’m still drawn to researching things that matter to me–right now, it’s gun violence in America.

A few months ago, I started a new project to look at (what I assumed would be) the shifting rhetoric around guns in America in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting. I’m presenting my work-in-progress at a conference on Thursday, and I have to admit that it’s way more depressing than my master’s research was. This morning I was reading up on Sandy Hook for some background and context, and reading the accounts of 6-year old survivors is absolutely heartbreaking. I sat in my office and cried while reading–this is just beyond imagination. And America/Congress/NRA/politicians, etc. are letting it happen over and over, without changing a damn thing.

In the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, I thought something had changed. The March For Our Lives movement, led by Marjory Stoneman Douglas students who survived the shooting, looked like something new, something we hadn’t seen before–a real stand against gun violence, with media coverage and support from (some) public officials.

But has anything changed? I decided to look at legislators’ Twitter feeds over the month following the shooting–all US Senators and Representatives’ verified accounts from 14 February to 15 March, the day after the national school walkout. I’m still coding tweets, but so far, I’m seeing:

  • Cliche “thoughts and prayers” from Congress members of both parties
  • Republicans saying we should heighten school security, arm the teachers and address mental health
  • Democrats criticising Congressional inaction (despite the fact they’re also members of Congress), arguing against arming teachers, and praising student activists
  • Most of the tweets (from both parties) are NOT about guns at all. They’re about tax reform, immigration, Billy Graham’s death and Dodd-Frank banking regulations.

This project is also why I’m particularly interested in the election today. It’s the big test–will voters re-elect politicians who said nothing, who did nothing in the aftermath of the shooting? Will they punish them by voting for change? I’m curious to see what’s going to happen, and I’m very happy for the Parkland survivors who are now 18 and able to vote for the first time.

What I’m Reading

born a crime

I recently finished reading Trevor Noah’s memoir, and it is crazy. He was interviewed about it on Oprah’s Supersoul podcast, so I knew a bit about his story–starting with the meaning behind the title. He was a mixed race baby in apartheid South Africa, which criminalised interracial relationships, so he was “evidence” of his parents’ crime. It feels very outdated, reading about these anti-miscegenation laws today, but it wasn’t that long ago–he was born in 1984! I knew he was young, but I didn’t realize he was quite that young–and I think I also didn’t realize how recent (and crazy) apartheid was. Watching Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, it all felt very long ago–but he only died in 2013.

Trevor Noah’s voice comes through clearly–he’s brilliant, insightful, funny, down-to-earth, and just comes across on the page like he does on The Daily Show. This clip captures a lot of the flavor of the book:

It’s full of stories from his childhood and what they meant in terms of shaping his life and worldview. His mother comes across as the heroine of the story–you find yourself rooting for her, laughing at her sense of humor, feeling amazed at her determination and drive. She’s an amazing woman.

The book’s also made me want to learn more about South Africa. I have a book on the South African Fulbright program, Outsmarting Apartheid, on my shelf that I haven’t gotten around to finishing, but it’s a particularly interesting case study. When the US government was distancing itself from apartheid-era South Africa in other ways (i.e. imposing sanctions), they still maintained educational and cultural exchanges. It’s a great example of exchange diplomacy being used to work around the official government channels and reach the people directly.

In my research on Fulbright women, I came across the story of Amy Biehl, a law scholar and activist who worked with the African National Congress during the transition to democracy. She was tragically killed in political violence, and now having read Trevor Noah’s description of the townships, I can better understand what happened and why. It doesn’t make it any less painful or tragic, but it’s important to recognise that this kind of violence wasn’t exclusive to Amy. She wasn’t necessarily targeted for being white or American or an ‘outsider’, as I’d assumed. Noah describes widespread violence in the townships, with fighting taking place amongst different groups of locals, too. In-fighting was one of the ways the architects of apartheid controlled the majority population. If you fight amongst each other, you won’t fight those who are keeping you down–a good lesson with continued relevance for class warfare, activist movements, etc.

 

Explaining the Inexplicable

This week I’ve been going back to my survey of American study abroad participants, in which I asked about their experiences of talking about US politics overseas during and after the 2016 election. By far the most frequently asked question they faced was simply “What happened?” They wanted to know why the election had the outcome it did, why Trump won, why Clinton lost, and whether Americans were actually in agreement with Trump’s platform.

It’s been almost two years since the election, and we still don’t really have all of the answers. Hillary Clinton even used that question as a title for her book, which she’s now promoting again for its paperback release.

There are a lot of contributing factors–the electoral college, for starters. Americans might be asked to explain the electoral college to people they meet overseas, often without fully understanding it themselves. There have only been a few elections in which the winner of the popular vote lost the electoral college, but two of them have now happened in our lifetime, and both were to the detriment of the Democratic party (2000 & 2016). That’s going to raise some eyebrows when we try to explain it overseas.

Another factor is the problem of “fake news”–not Trump’s definition of “fake news”, i.e. every form of journalism but Fox News–but actual misinformation disguised as news and circulated on social media by readers who may or may not be aware of its true nature. Trump’s overuse of the term has turned it into a joke, but the spread of fake news stories that smeared Hillary Clinton may have had real consequences, particularly in swing states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Ilkley Brewery’s real ale with the slogan “Making Beer Great Again!” and Topshop jeans

There’s also the matter of Russian influence that we still don’t really know the full details of–but a few things are certain: 1) Russia did definitely meddle in the election, 2) they wanted Trump to win, and 3) Trump really doesn’t believe they did.

There are a range of other contributing factors, too: the Democratic party’s in-fighting and prolonged primary with Bernie Sanders, the “baggage” of Bill Clinton’s scandals, James Comey’s investigation announcement that came far too close to the election (and although it turned up nothing, the damage was done), Hillary Clinton’s so-called “likability” problem which is probably just sexism against the first female Presidential candidate, etc.

I’m still going through the survey data, but so far I’m just struck with the enormity of what we Americans abroad are asked to do, when we’re asked to explain the 2016 election. There’s really no explaining it, not then and not even two years on from it.

The added value of diplomats’ spouses

This morning I came across an article about a group of ambassadors’ wives working together on economic inequality–arguably one of the greatest challenges facing the world today, alongside (and linked with) climate change. The Spirit Level is a fascinating book that makes a strong case for inequality being the root cause behind a wide range of problems, from crime to obesity, teen pregnancy to the opioid epidemic.

These ambassadors’ wives, whose husbands are based at embassies in Berlin, are led by Julia Przyłębska, the wife of the Polish ambassador to Germany. Amongst their proposed projects, they want to organise international youth exchanges with a technical, environmental and agricultural focus. Przyłębska noted that diplomats’ wives have access to a highly international network of contacts, and they want to use this network to tackle collective problems:

She added that being wives of diplomats the group is in an ideal position to support those struggling against economic inequalities. 

She said: “Within the embassy, it is easy to bring together an international group of people from different countries in order to exchange and work together on solutions for today‘s global problems: unequal salaries and wages, the rights of the disabled and seniors, the access of the poorest to education. Also we ladies often have the advantage of having enough time, because we are rarely active professionally.” (source)

That last sentence sounds like something out of the 1950s, but it’s a good point: the accompanying spouse (male or female) of an Ambassador does have limitations on his/her career, due to the temporary and mobile nature of a diplomatic career. The realities of moving between countries for undetermined periods of time precludes having much of a professional life, and it’s something that the couple must negotiate between themselves.

This story reminded me of the Fulbright wives I discussed in my chapter for the upcoming book, The Legacy of J. William Fulbright, edited by David J. Snyder, Alessandro Brogi, Giles Scott-Smith, University of Kentucky Press (forthcoming 2018).

My chapter, Fulbright Women in the Global Intellectual Elite, includes a section on the contributions of accompanying spouses to the goals of public diplomacy. In my archival research, I noticed the prominence of Fulbrighters’ wives in the field–they volunteered at local schools, joined community organisations, hosted parties for their husbands’ colleagues and students, etc. In some cases, they were arguably more closely integrated into the local host community than their husbands were. By engaging in these kinds of activities, they were directly contributing to the culture learning processes that are an expected outcome of exchange diplomacy.

This has observation important implications for our understanding of how public diplomacy works–who the key actors are, how people engage with hosts, what kinds of activities enable culture learning to take place. The wives were not the recipients of grants, they didn’t attend orientation programmes or briefings, they had no formal role in exchange diplomacy–yet they formed lasting ties with members of the host community and played a significant role in culture learning processes.

These women (and male spouses of grantees) represent “added value” for exchange diplomacy practices. Their contribution has often been overlooked, or even discouraged. Senator Fulbright himself believed the grants should go to unmarried scholars, who would be able to focus on their work and engage with their colleagues without the ‘distractions’ of a family life. I would argue that this view is very much based on Senator Fulbright’s experience as a Rhodes Scholar. Bachelorhood was one of the original requirements of the program–the Rhodes Scholarships were even opened to women long before they were opened to married candidates (1977 vs. 1995, p. 345). This view fails to see the potential for spouses and children to enrich the culture learning experiences of an exchange programme. A spouse, particularly one who cannot work due to visa regulations and therefore has a lot of free time, can connect with locals in the community on a much broader and deeper level than the grantee can. Children can integrate their parents into local schools, parent-teacher associations, community activities and playgroups. They can represent added value for the grantee, not a mere ‘distraction’.

Cultural Diplomacy and Brexit

In the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster, the urgent considerations are the basics: food, water, shelter, healthcare. After those needs are taken care of, after some time has passed, victims start to realise the full scope of what’s been lost: their favourite pair of shoes, their photo albums and scrapbooks, the irreplaceable heirlooms, etc. Some things will be more important than others, and the absence of some missing items won’t ever be noticed.

Brexit is shaping up to be such an event–a disaster with far-reaching impacts in areas that we hadn’t fully considered or predicted–and some people won’t even notice them. I suspect that cultural diplomacy and cultural relations between the UK and EU might be one of them.

I’m starting to work on a chapter about the European Union Youth Orchestra (EUYO), a cultural diplomacy initiative by the EU that has recently moved its headquarters from London to Ferrara, Italy due to Brexit. As the name suggests, it’s an orchestra made up of young musicians from each of the 28 member states. They were formed in 1976 and have been touring the world as a European delegation to foreign audiences since 1978. They’re collaborating with Chinese musicians from the Shanghai Orchestra Academy as part of the EU’s Experience Europe campaign in China.

In a 2016 speech, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said the orchestra was “the best possible ambassador for the European Union. Wherever it plays, the European tune becomes a political programme, and vice versa. And I am therefore pleased that we have a European Youth Orchestra. I would much rather see young people playing music together than politicians plotting against each other.”

The future of British performers’ eligibility will be determined by the current negotiations taking place, but it is likely that they will no longer be able to participate. Their website states that they only accept applications from EU member state musicians–so no Norwegians, Swiss, or Icelandic musicians. Under an FAQ about British eligibility, they write: “UK players ARE STILL eligible to apply in the autumn of 2018 for the EUYO 2019 Orchestra. The arrangement for future years will depend on the details of the agreement negotiated between the EU and the UK.”  (emphasis as original)

Most of the people who voted to leave the EU won’t notice or care about the orchestra’s move to Italy or the fact that British youth won’t be able to apply for it anymore. They’ll point to The Proms and insist that we don’t need foreign musicians to have a great orchestra.

But one of the reasons why I love this story and decided to research it further is that I know it does matter. An orchestra is a great metaphor for international cooperation, for the European Union’s motto “United in Diversity”. Each instrument makes a different sound, gets played in a different way, but they all work together to create an orchestra. You can’t play orchestral music alone. There might be soloists who shine a bit brighter in the spotlight than the rest of the group, but at the end of the day the success of an orchestra depends upon the contributions of all of its members.

We don’t know what’s going to happen in 6 months’ time when Britain leaves the EU. Negotiations are still going on, plagued by in-fighting in the UK Government (though seemingly unchallenged and untempered by the opposition party–apart from Sadiq Khan). There’s a great deal of uncertainty in this, but I do know that leaving the EU means leaving EU cultural diplomacy and exchange diplomacy activities, and thereby represents a loss to the ultimate goal of international mutual understanding and goodwill.

It’s the young people who will be hurt by this change–the talented young British musicians who want to join a competitive, prestigious orchestra that has been touring around the world for 40 years. They weren’t old enough to vote in 2016, so they were shut out of this opportunity with no say in the matter.

When the British people went to the polls and ticked a box next to a simplistic “Yes” or “No” question, they had no idea of the full scope of the implications that would arise from their vote–and I’m certain that there will be more cases like the EUYO that we’ll learn about in the years to come.

 

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)