Five Year Viva-versary

That’s the smile of a relieved PhD student!

Five years ago today, I passed my PhD viva without corrections and was officially done with grad school. June 18th is right up there with my wedding day and my son’s birthday in terms of memorable dates. In all 3 cases, the event had a long build-up with lots of preparation to do, when the day of it finally happening arrived it felt surreal, and the event itself went smoothly. Weddings, childbirth and PhD vivas are all high-stakes and emotive events, but it’s worth remembering that they’re all just one day in a much longer journey (marriage, parenting, career).

With the 5 year milestone approaching, I’ve been feeling very down on myself and disappointed with my lack of career progression lately. In the world of academia, both in terms of funding opportunities and jobs, the first 5 years after the PhD is awarded are considered your “early career” years. This early career status means you’re eligible for roles where it’s not expected for you to have a large track record of publications and research outputs. My “maternity leave” (I didn’t have formal mat leave, as I wasn’t working yet) gives me a little extra time, and according to some funding advice I’ve heard, my part-time employment status might give me more time before I lose my “early career” designation. But in my mind, I’ve officially lost that status today. It’s been 5 years. 5 years is long enough to get established–or at least I thought it would be, but here I am, still in my old department, still on a part-time & fixed-term contract, still lacking publications, and I’m 33 and I’ve never worked full-time. It’s cathartic to put that out there–and maybe other early career academics will read it and feel better about their situations.

This evening after work, I thought about all of the things I’ve done over the past 5 years that don’t make it onto the CV and publication list. Looking back on my accomplishments helped me be a bit kinder to myself.

  1. Had a baby–I underestimated how much it completely knocks you out and keeps you from doing anything that would conventionally be considered “productive”. Society needs to start recognizing that it IS productive. He’s now nearly 4–walks, talks, runs, eats well, he’s very healthy and bright, and he’s getting more and more independent every day. We did that!
3 weeks postpartum at my PhD graduation

2. I got my own office with my name on the door! Yes, I may only have a part-time, fixed-term contract, but I have one thing that many of my fellow precarious workers don’t have

3. I’ve presented my work at conferences around the world, and met wonderful mentors like R.S. Zaharna and Nancy Snow

So excited to meet one of my favorite public diplomacy scholars, Rhonda Zaharna at ICA in Prague last year (and how cool to get to go to Prague?!)

I’m not sure what the next five years will hold, but I’m hoping to get my PhD published as a book (in time for the Fulbright Program’s 75th anniversary in 2021), and do some new book-sized research (maybe expanding and developing the gun rhetoric study into something grant-worthy and publishable). I intend to keep having a personal life, too–it might be the cause of my slow progress, but it’s definitely worth it.

What I’m Watching: Eye in the Sky

Last night, we watched Eye in the Sky, a 2015 thriller that centers around a drone strike on a terrorist group. I didn’t expect to like it, but it was very moving and thought-provoking. It did an amazing job of bringing the complex world of counter-terrorism, international military cooperation, and the unique ethical considerations of drone warfare to life.

The film humanises “collateral damage” by giving a backstory to a little girl, Alia, who happens to sell bread near the strike target. She has no idea that US and UK military officials are watching the house behind her, or that some of the most wanted terrorists in the region are preparing bombs inside it. She’s just selling bread. Her parents are lovely, of course, and they go against the oppressive regime’s misogynistic attitudes by educating her and allowing (even encouraging) her to play. You’re rooting for her, and it’s incredibly sobering to think of all of the real life humans like her whose deaths have been described as “collateral damage”.

Phil Taylor used to talk about his work with US and UK soldiers and officials, and how modern technology had turned warfare into a video game–how physically removed they had become, how you no longer wait to see “the whites of their eyes” before firing a weapon. This film proposes that, despite the physical distances involved, drone warfare still involves significant emotional intimacies and ethical dilemmas.

It also happened to be Alan Rickman’s last film, and he was brilliant, as usual. He was very human, real, and his performance was heartfelt, while at the same time deadly serious (it’s his voice, and the subject matter).

Further reading:

Wired review

Phil Taylor, Munitions of the Mind, 2003, Manchester University Press

Campaigning in Spanish: se habla español, pero conoce el votante latino?

This morning I saw a great BBC video on the use of Spanish in US Presidential campaigning, and whether it’s genuine outreach to Latino voters, or just lip service. The use of Spanish language material in campaigns is nothing new–I remember George W. Bush’s slow, heavily accented attempts (though his English wasn’t always very fluent either), Tim Kaine‘s more confident delivery of Trump takedowns en español, and even Jackie Kennedy spoke Spanish in an advert for JFK’s campaign in 1960.

While it seems like a lovely gesture, is it an empty one? As the BBC video points out, candidates attempts at speaking Spanish do not necessarily mean anything in terms of policy or genuine outreach. It may also be a bit annoying to bilingual Latinos and Latinos who are only fluent in English (like the only Latino candidate, Julián Castro, who is not actually fluent in Spanish).

What can candidates do to reach out to Latino voters, besides putting their English-language website into Google Translate (as the video suggests two of the current candidates did)? Here are 5 suggestions:

  1. Address the Latina pay gap: In the US, Latina women earn 53 cents for every dollar a white man earns.
  2. Make higher education more accessible and affordable: the college enrollment rate for Hispanic students has risen in recent years, but they are still less likely than other demographics to enroll in four-year and selective institutions.
  3. Healthcare: Like most Americans, Latinos want a better healthcare system. “In 2014, 26.5% of Hispanics were uninsured as compared to 10.4% of non-Hispanics under age 65. The gap was higher for persons aged 65 and over: 4.4% among Hispanics, compared with 0.5% among [non-Hispanic Whites].” (Velasco-Mondragon et al., 2016)
  4. Combat pollution and climate change: A recent study found inequality in air pollution generation/consumption in the U.S. “[A]ir pollution is disproportionately caused by white Americans’ consumption of goods and services, but disproportionately inhaled by black and Hispanic Americans.” (NPR story, original study here: Tessum et al., 2019)
  5. Gun control: In the current era of frequent mass shootings in the U.S., Latino voters generally support gun control legislation. “Hispanic registered voters nationally say they prefer gun control over the rights of owners by a margin of 62%-to-36%, as do black registered voters by a margin of 71%-to-26%, according to the survey. By contrast, white registered voters choose gun owners’ rights over gun control by a margin of 59%-to-39%.” (Pew survey)

The important thing for candidates to remember is to actually listen (don’t just assume you know what issues matter to them) and to not take voting blocs for granted (remember to go to Wisconsin and Michigan this time).  ¡Sí se puede!

US Soft Power Reassessed

Joseph Nye’s recent piece, American Soft Power in the Age of Trump, picks up on the key themes of his previous foundational work on soft power and acknowledges some of the problems America’s image abroad is facing in the Trump era. Even just a few months into the Trump presidency, Pew global attitudes surveys were showing steep declines in U.S. favorability ratings around the world. When asked to rate their “confidence in the U.S. president to do the right thing regarding world affairs”, 31 of the 37 countries surveyed had double-digit declines between Obama and Trump:

From: Richard Wike, Bruce Stokes, Jacob Poushter and Janell Fetterolf, U.S. Image Suffers as Publics Around World Question Trump’s Leadership, Pew Research Center, 26 June 2017, p. 4

It’s interesting, too, to note that Russia reported a huge improvement: Only 11% had confidence in Obama, while 53% have confidence in Trump–a 42 point increase. Fifteen countries had that kind of dramatic reversal in opinion (more than 41 point decreases), but Russia was the only country that had it in that direction.

Without using the phrase itself, Nye picks up on the dangers of Trump’s “America First” policies. Blatantly telling the world that we’re putting our interests above anyone else’s needs, or even above the common good, is clearly detrimental to our image abroad and certainly undermines American soft power.

“Domestic or foreign policies that appear hypocritical, arrogant, indifferent to others’ views, or based on a narrow conception of national interest can undermine soft power. For example, there was a steep decline in the attractiveness of the US in opinion polls conducted after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 . In the 1970s, many people around the world objected to the US war in Vietnam, and America’s global standing reflected the unpopularity of that policy.”

From: Joseph S. Nye, Jr., American Soft Power in the Age of Trump, Project Syndicate, 6 May 2019

Nye ends his piece on a somewhat optimistic note–America’s image abroad has recovered before and it will recover again–but personally, I think it’s still very much endangered. If Trump gets re-elected in 2020, the world will think the American people support him (not an unreasonable conclusion), and that America is accurately described by those qualities in Nye’s list–hypocritical, arrogant, indifferent to others’ views, and promoting policies that are based on a narrow conception of national interest.

I’ve been following a few of the 2020 candidates on the Democratic side on social media, and the comment sections are very worrying. So much abuse and animosity from Trump supporters, and any Democratic supporter who comments with anything positive faces abuse, as well. Whether they are real people or trolls (or real trolls?), it is concerning. These social media platforms are not a space for discussion of the issues, which is a shame–they should be able to function as a sounding board for candidates to elicit voters’ views on policies and to figure out what issues matter most to voters. Instead, these spaces become littered with insults, abuse, swearing, American flag emojis, and hashtags like #Trump2020.

I’m not sure what the solution is, but the 2020 election is an important factor in our consideration of U.S. soft power, and its future resurrection or continued decline.

What I’m Reading: Rewire

A colleague who studies social media passed this book onto me–I thought it sounded interesting, but I didn’t realise how surprisingly relevant to exchange diplomacy it would be, too. Zuckerman points to the example of his friend Johan Ugander, who co-authored a paper on international ties on Facebook. As a Swedish-American, he has more international ties than a typical social media user. This has knock-on effects, in terms of exposing those in their social networks to news and other shared content from different places. In exchange diplomacy, this is really part of the ‘multiplier effect’, where exchange participants pass on their knowledge gains post-sojourn to those in their social circles.

“People like Ugander who’ve lived their lives in different corners of the world are likely the key if we want social media to give us a broad view of the world and help us care about people we don’t otherwise know. With a Swedish citizen in my network of friends, I’m likely to be exposed to news and perspective I otherwise would have missed. Whether that exposure turns into interest and attention is a function of my receptivity and Johan’s ability to provide context around the news he’s sharing.”

Ethan Zuckerman, Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013), p. 116

Exchange diplomacy is all about connection and cosmopolitanism. The underlying logic of exchange diplomacy is that connections between people of different nations/groups/ways of thinking will lead to a sense of shared humanity and a cosmopolitan mindset.

Has the ease with which we can connect digitally with others around the world made the face-to-face connections of exchange diplomacy obsolete?

I would argue that it hasn’t at all, because there is a gap between the potential to connect digitally and the actual ways we use these digital tools. We may be able to access platforms that enable discussion with foreign publics, but we don’t necessarily use them. Our online social networks mirror our offline friendship circles, and we develop filter bubbles just as we spend time with like-minded people in real life.

Furthermore, exchange diplomacy processes might be enhanced with the development of social media, not rendered irrelevant by them. As Zuckerman suggests, world travellers might play an important role in broadening online networks and making them more cosmopolitan–if we have a personal connection, a friend-of-a-friend, then news about a distant country we’ve never visited can feel more relevant and meaningful.

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.

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.