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)

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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.

Montenegro and the role of values & culture in diplomacy

One of the stranger international affairs headlines (apart from Steven Seagal’s envoy appointment) in recent weeks was Trump’s criticism of Montenegro in an interview with Fox News’ Tucker Carlson. It was part of his criticism of NATO and Article 5 (which has only ever been invoked by the US), but it seemed particularly out-of-left-field, even for Trump.

“Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people. They are very aggressive people, they may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in World War III.” (Politico’s coverage)

There are a lot of issues with this, obviously, but rather than spending time picking apart Trump’s bizarre statement, I’d like to highlight the way the UK ambassador talks about and with Montenegro as a point of contrast.

HMA Alison Kemp recently spoke at a panel marking the 140th anniversary of UK-Montenegro relations. In her remarks, she emphasised the role of culture in international relations:  “In many ways Culture, even more so than a diplomat, is the Ambassador for a country, it shapes a people’s response to a foreign country, and influences, enchants or repels decision-makers. ” The anniversary celebration events include cultural diplomacy activities, including a Montenegrin art exhibition and concerts in London and a Play UK festival in Podgorica.

Kemp’s speech gave some interesting insights into the Government’s current mindset and approach to world affairs, which have often been obscured by the uncertainty of Brexit negotiations, the gaffes that often seem to happen when Brits are around Chinese delegations, and the sideshow of last month’s Trump visit. I also particularly liked her thoughts on the role of culture & values in diplomacy more generally–very much in line with the “humanising IR” approach:

“As diplomats, we spend our days thinking about values: explaining and projecting the values that form the basis of our society and national interests. And in seeking to understand and influence the values of the countries to which we are posted.

And our values, our culture, drive our international diplomacy. Whether we are standing with Montenegro and 80 other countries in support of a safer world by seeking to improve the ability of relevant international organisations to investigate chemical weapons attacks, or working with Montenegro and 37 countries who have signed the Global Call to Action to end forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking.

These examples prove another important point, that culture and values in diplomacy are powerful ways of building consensus around issues.

A government can’t construct culture, it can only provide an environment in which culture develops. In the UK this means focusing on creativity in education, in valuing the arts, and in ensuring we champion our values through our policies.”–Ambassador Alison Kemp, 27 June 2018

Impostor Syndrome

This afternoon, one of my best students came in to discuss her fieldwork. After we talked about her progress, she opened up about her feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, admitting that she had impostor syndrome.

“I’m on track to get a distinction, but I’m never happy with my writing. I get an essay back with a high mark and think ‘I don’t deserve that’. I feel like a fake.”

This is why she’s one of my best students: she really is excellent and doesn’t realise it. She compares herself to others, not acknowledging that her abilities are actually better than theirs. She works hard–she was narrowing down her dissertation topic and asking for reading recommendations months before her peers had even started thinking about it. Most brilliant people I’ve known don’t actually try that hard–they’re just brilliant. They often get distinctions and joke about how they wrote that essay in a few hours. It’s annoying. She doesn’t do that. Yet they don’t have impostor syndrome…

While it’s wonderful to see someone work hard and do well, it was hard for me to hear that even she doubts herself. It made me realise how universal imposter syndrome is–even somebody who clearly works hard to be successful doesn’t think they deserve their success.

And while I won’t use her name or identifying details, I will use ‘she’/’her’ pronouns, because gender is key to understanding and discussing this issue. The term “imposter phenomenon” (sic) was introduced by Clance and Imes in their 1978 study to describe the difficulties that high-achieving women have in internalising their success.

In recent years, impostor syndrome has become a widely acknowledged phenomenon, with scholars, activists and writers offering ways to fight it:

 

Social psychologist Amy Cuddy did a TED talk on body language that included another confidence-building trick: the power pose. Holding a confident pose was shown to actually boost testosterone and lower cortisol.

 

Before my next job interview, I’ll be hiding in the ladies’ room, posing like Wonder Woman for a few minutes…

Early Career Academics and the Game

A recent study looked at managerialism in academia, and staff resistance & compliance to “the game”–the competitive regime that pits academics against each other in a race to gain publications, funding and positive performance reviews. The authors used an Australian university as a case study, where the structure had recently changed and the rules of the game had become a bit more intense–many staff left after its introduction, to be replaced with Early Career Academics (ECAs) on fixed-term contracts. The authors found little resistance to the managerialism; most staff quietly complied or left the University. ECAs, they found, were committed to playing the game and focused on accruing capital (publications, grants, etc.) to help themselves perform well in the game.

I read the article and blog post about it on LSE’s Impact Blog, and come away from it wondering what the alternative is. We ECAs are being accused of being complicit in this system, but what choice do we have? I’ve been struggling to play the game, because at the moment I lack the capital (publications) to compete with my colleagues, but I don’t know what else I can do. An academic CV doesn’t look right for jobs outside of the academy, with my extra years spent in higher education leaving me essentially inexperienced and fresh out of university when I was 28.

Why do ECAs play the game?

1) Because we feel that we have to–there’s no alternative available to us at the moment.

2) Because even though academia is changing, it’s still a really desirable lifestyle. It’s worth it.

3) Because we love what we do, and society’s always telling us to do what we love. Again, on balance, it’s judged to be worth it.

Reason #1 for not writing: News

I should be writing, but there’s too much crazy political news happening and I feel compelled to follow it all…

Here in the UK, the cabinet is being reshuffled after the resignations of David Davis and Boris Johnson and I’m curious to know why they left (not just why they said they did, but why they really did…) and to see what’s going to happen next. Is Theresa May going to face a vote of no confidence? (Apparently she warned her fellow Tories that not supporting her could mean Jeremy Corbyn could become Prime Minister, as if that’s a scary enough threat to keep the shaky status quo). Is the economy going to tank? (Even more than it already did after the Brexit vote?)

And in the US, Trump’s announced his Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh. He’s as conservative as we’d expect, pro-gun, anti-choice, etc. but with the added little twist that he believes presidents are above the law (“Mr Kavanaugh argued in 2009 article that presidents should be shielded from criminal investigations and civil lawsuits while in office.”) –the perfect nominee for a president currently under investigation.

And America’s putting the interests of formula companies above public health (but backing down when Russia supports it…), and thousands of children are still separated from their parents and being detained in cages/”summer camps” (estimates vary from 1,425 to “under 3,000” which isn’t very reassuring)

And Trump’s visiting the UK on Thursday, so I can’t even get away from him over here…

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How am I supposed to focus and get any work done under these conditions? How is anybody getting anything done? I need to become a hermit until I get a few publications finished…