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.

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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.

 

What I’m Reading

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Mama, Ph.D: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life (Rutgers University Press 2008), edited by Elrena Evans and Caroline Grant.

I bought this book almost 3 years ago and I’m finally getting around to reading it, which tells you something about the reality of motherhood and academic life. I read a few chapters with George napping on me today and I love it.

When I bought it, I hoped for some tips and lessons learned, but it’s more theoretical and reflective than that–after all, it was written by academics. I’ve also been surprised by the extent to which I identify with some of their confessions. In the first chapter, Jamie Warner (one of the few contributors who is not yet a mother) voiced some of the very same questions that I’ve considered over the years:

“And it gets even more complicated. What does it mean to be childless and then not be thin (no pregnancy weight to lose), not have a twenty-five-page CV (what am I doing with all of my time?), or not be a gourmet cook (with no little people who won’t eat anything that isn’t beige, covered in cheese, or deep fried)? What if my career doesn’t take off? I can’t blame it on soccer practice. Do I have an obligation to work every evening, serve on more committees, be a better teacher, and become a publishing machine because I don’t have familial obligations? Is being ‘average’ considered a failure in academia if one doesn’t have a family?” (p. 10)

 

When I was in her shoes, contemplating the big questions of career and family and work-life balance, I wondered whether having a baby so soon after finishing my PhD was partly a delaying tactic, whether I was using it as an excuse for my lack of publications and inability to find a proper (i.e. full-time, permanent, tenure-track) academic job. I half-jokingly reasoned that if it takes a few years to establish your career in academia, you might as well have a kid while you wait for publications to come through and jobs in your field to come up. Now, a few years on, when I voice concerns about my career trajectory, they’re often met with “Oh, but you had a baby”–as if that absolves me from any blame or guilt for not having published more, for not securing a post-doc or a research grant, etc. They’re trying to be comforting, but I don’t see it that way–I hold myself to a higher standard than they do (we’re always our own worst critics).

This book hasn’t really answered any questions for me yet, but it’s comforting to hear other peoples’ experiences and think “It’s not just me!” (On that note, I’ll also recommend Brene Brown’s work)

 

 

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.

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)

Leftover Women and International Higher Education

Over the past three years, I’ve been teaching and supervising Masters students who are (~80%) Chinese women in their early to mid-twenties. In Leeds, they’re independent young grad students, exploring Britain and Europe, working hard in the library, socialising with their peers, and video chatting with friends and family back home. In China, they’re considered ‘leftover women’–剩女shèngnǚ. 

‘Leftover women’ is a derogatory term for unmarried women over 25 (the Government’s Women’s Federation definition says 27), often highly educated, urban professionals. My students fit this description, and some have opened up to me about their anxiety over the pressure to get married. One mentioned it while asking my advice about doing a PhD. She wasn’t sure whether to apply, because her family didn’t want her to–they thought a Masters would hurt her chances of getting married, and a PhD would destroy those chances completely.

I find it so heartbreaking that a parent wouldn’t support a child who wanted to pursue a Masters/PhD/any degree, because they thought 1) marriage was more important than education/career, and 2) men would reject educated women. On the first point, the two realms of career and marriage don’t have to be mutually exclusive for women, because they certainly aren’t for men. Nobody ever talks about men “having it all” (apart from this awesome satire on Facebook) if they want a career and a family. On the second point, if a man rejects a woman for having a degree or a career, the flaw is with him, not her.

Sometimes my students will look at the pictures of my family on my desk and congratulate me–they’re impressed by the fact I have a PhD, but even more impressed that I’ve managed to avoid being a ‘leftover woman’. I want to tell them no, anybody can get married and have a kid–the PhD is a bigger deal. But the truth is that it’s something I thought about at that age, too. When my sister was 29, she told me she was so relieved that she was married and had a baby by 30, as if it were some kind of deadline. At the time, I was 22 and very single, so the words “married and baby by 30” stuck in my head and the deadline began to loom. I was 23 when I met my husband, and until then I’d suspected that I was destined to be single. I’d been single all through my undergrad years, which I thought were the prime dating years. I watched friends couple up and felt like I’d failed, like I wasn’t attractive enough and that I might as well just carry on with grad school, so I could provide a nice life for all of my future cats.

It’s sheer luck that I happened to meet the right person at the right time, when we were both in the right mindset and place in life, we both wanted kids, etc. I like to think, however, that I would have been happy on different trajectories, too–ones that didn’t include “married and baby by 30”, but would be equally valid, socially accepted, fulfilling choices. I suppose that’s the difference between the “married and baby by 30” and the “leftover woman” concept–my deadline was self-imposed and nobody would have been disappointed by my single status after a certain age, whereas the “leftover woman” label comes from the Government, from parents, from society, etc. It’s a matter of internal vs. external pressure, perhaps.

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(Maybe some external pressure, too, in the form of rom-coms…)

Resistance to the ‘leftover woman’ idea has increased in recent years. My students are enthusiastic about feminist theory–it’s a very popular optional module and they often want to use feminist approaches in their dissertation research. There seems to be an effort to change minds in China, too. In the video below, parents and daughters express their anxieties over singlehood and marriage–it’s sad, sweet and moving (even if it is produced by SK-II, a skincare brand, much like those Dove  adverts):

 

For further reading:

Leftover Women: the Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China(2014)

China’s Leftover Women: Late Marriage among Professional Women and its Consequences (2015)

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.