What I’m Reading

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Michelle Obama’s memoir was the book of 2018–even before Oprah picked it for her book club, it was a huge bestseller. I added it to my wishlist as a pre-order, and my sister and I both bought it for each others’ birthdays in Nov/Dec! I’m about halfway through, and I adore it. She’s a fantastic writer and storyteller, and her tone is everything you’d expect from her. She’s brilliant yet relatable, down to earth yet Ivy League educated. Her stories of the South Side of Chicago and her youth outreach work make you realise how much untapped talent there is out there, how many brilliant people don’t get the opportunities that would enable them to shine–and how many people like her are doing inspiring, empowering work that never gets heard about because they don’t happen to be married to Presidents.

Oprah once said that whatever you do, to be excellent and “make excellence your brand”. Michelle’s behind-the-scenes account shows that the Obama family did just that–they knew that as the first African-American First Family, they had to be excellent, that one slip could undermine them and that they would be even more vulnerable to criticism than other First Families. The Obamas succeeded. No scandals, no corruption, no slip-ups. Michelle is relieved to be out of the White House, but the millions of people around the world now reading her book can’t help but feel nostalgic for the Obama White House’s excellence.

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New Year’s Resolutions

For the past few years, I’ve come up with a list of 10 resolutions each December to give some structure to my plans for the year ahead–they cover all areas, personal and professional, big and small projects.

Every year, I accomplish most of them–all but my publication goals. I fail to meet them every year, which leads me to feeling like a failure, and then that drains my confidence and I continue being unproductive…I feel so much guilt for not having achieved more, like I’ve let everyone around me down–every supportive teacher/mentor/friend is let down by my failures (which I know isn’t true, of course, but this is the mental spiral I’m trying to describe here, in case someone else feels this way too and finds it comforting to know they aren’t alone…).

I know I need to write more and publish more. There are so many stacks of articles and books for half-written projects lying around on my office shelves–they never seem to get done. They always get moved to the back burner, usually due to teaching prep and marking that needs to be prioritised. Everything else always seems more urgent in the moment, but it’s been 4 1/2 years since I finished the PhD–now my lack of publications seems urgent and I’m panicking.

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This term, I’m going to devote my Tuesdays to writing and research. I’m going to set some concrete writing goals for each month and keep a publications to-do list on my office wall that I can check off as I complete sections/tasks. I’m also going to re-commit to blogging again, because accountability is a great motivator.

The universal language of cringe comedy

One of my favorite seminars in my postgrad media theory class is on Erving Goffman’s work on embarrassment. I put them in an embarrassing situation of having to give each other compliments, and then we reflect on what it feels like to give and receive compliments, discussing which is more embarrassing, and why. I also always take them through Goffman’s list of how people experience embarrassment–blushing, dry mouth, fumbling hands, etc.–and we talk about our own embarrassing experiences (they’re usually related to public speaking–it’s universal). 

I love how universal and human this seminar is–each year, I have a different mix of international and British students, but no matter where they’re from, everybody can relate to embarrassment. Talking about it in a theoretical sense always leads to confessions, vulnerability, and laughing with each other in this small (10-15 person) group. 

This year, I also showed them a clip from “The Office” to illustrate one of Goffman’s points about vicarious embarrassment–when we feel shame or embarrassment on behalf of another person:

“When an individual finds himself in a situation which ought to make him blush, others present usually will blush with and for him, though he may not have sufficient sense of shame or appreciation of the circumstances to blush on his own account.” (Goffman, 1956, p. 265)

I always think of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s “cringe comedy” when I read that part. David Brent has no idea how embarrassing he is, and the audience is cringing with embarrassment on his behalf. So many of their other characters do this to us, too–Stuart Pritchard in Hello Ladies;  Maggie Jacobs, Shaun Williamson and Darren Lamb in Extras; Danny in I Give It A Year;  most of what they do with Karl Pilkington…

I was curious to see how my Chinese students would react to the original UK version of The Office–would they get it? Would they realise how cringey David Brent is supposed to be? I used this clip of his terribly inappropriate job interview, and I was thrilled to see that they did indeed get it. There was lots of laughing, groaning and eye-rolling in the room. Everybody was able to reel off the various social rules he broke, his awkward body language, his inappropriate questions, and her embarrassment cues.

I wasn’t able to find any academic studies of international adaptations of The Office, but that’s one I’d love to see…It’s been adapted in 11 countries and 9 languages, and the similarities are brilliant. Wikipedia has this great chart with details about the different versions–I think my favorite part is that the Swedish version is an office hygiene product company instead of a paper company, and that’s just like David Brent’s job in Life on the Road. 

The Cultural Diplomacy of Holiday Traditions

It’s two weeks until Christmas–the lights are on all over town, Christmas music is playing in all of the (very crowded) shopping centres and Leeds’ Christkindlmarkt is packed. My international students are loving it! Whenever I run into them in the city centre, they’ve got their phones out–they take loads of pictures of Christmas lights and decorations, market stalls and food. I love the way Christmas is celebrated in Britain, and it’s made me think about how holiday traditions can communicate culture. 

Being overseas makes you reflect on your own practices, including the way you celebrate holidays. When I came to the UK, I realised that my family’s traditions were not necessarily “American”–there is no single “American” way of celebrating anything, because we’re a melting pot (or salad bowl) of different cultures and we don’t even all celebrate the same things. 

My idea of Christmas is heavily influenced by Swedish traditions, through my Swedish grandma–opening presents on Christmas Eve after a smörgåsbord (julbord) buffet dinner that includes pickled herring, cold cuts, cheese & crackers. The “American” elements of my Christmas are probably the eggnog, the Starbucks Christmas menu, and seeing Santa Claus in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (marking the official start to the holiday season!).

For me, the most surprising thing about the holiday season in Britain is that it is 100% Christmas. There’s no Fox News-dubbed “War on Christmas” here. It’s all advent calendars, Christmas trees and baubles, Christmas jumpers and Christmas pudding. Christmas markets are brought over on trucks from Frankfurt–which is another interesting point about British Christmas: it’s very German. King George III’s wife Queen Charlotte (and later Prince Albert) brought the concept of a Christmas tree to the UK from Germany, among other traditions.

When I was a kid, we did an annual “Holiday Concert” in December. We sang a mix of Hannukah, Christmas (mostly Santa, not Jesus) and secular songs (Frosty the Snowman, Winter Wonderland, etc.). Not so for British kids–even state schools (public schools) put on a nativity and hold Christmas fairs. My son’s school is not affiliated with any church, but they’re doing a nativity next week. Since September he’s been coming home from preschool singing “Away in a Manger” and “Little Donkey”, so it’s definitely about Jesus rather than Santa or snowmen. It’s because Christianity is the official state religion here–Church of England, which the monarch is technically the head of–but it’s so crazy to me. A higher proportion of the US population identifies as Christian than the UK population (71% vs 59%, according to a quick, unscientific Wikipedia check), yet we called it “Winter Break” and I still know the words to “Chanukah, Oh Chanukah” twenty-plus years later…

Holiday celebrations are an excellent opportunity for learning about a foreign culture–they reveal values and beliefs, and ultimately, they show how much we all have in common. They’re about family and friends and food–pretty much every celebration around the world shares those elements. Anything that demonstrates this should be considered a valuable tool in exchange diplomacy practice.

To exchange participants, I would suggest they embrace local traditions, join in and ask questions–take an interest in the celebrations, try the food, compare your own traditions with those of the host country.

To exchange diplomacy program administrators, I would suggest they incorporate holiday events into their schedules. The Fulbright Program in the UK, for instance, has a Thanksgiving celebration for American grantees in the UK each year, which is lovely. The holidays can be a lonely, difficult time to be a foreigner, especially if nobody else is celebrating the same things you do. Maybe encourage participants to host their own celebrations and invite host country nationals, or other international students. I’ve hosted Thanksgiving and 4th of July parties for friends from all over the world in the UK, and I’ve been a guest at Lunar New Year celebrations–it’s a great excuse for a party, and you learn something about other cultures, too!

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…

11 November 1940

“11 November 1940–in front of the Tomb of the Unknown soldier, the students of France demonstrated en masse, the first to resist the occupier.”

On my last trip to Paris, I noticed this plaque near the Charles De Gaulle Etoile metro entrance on the Champs Elysees. It commemorates the first demonstration against Nazi occupation, a small student protest held on Armistice Day at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe. The Chemins de Memoire website has a very good official account of the event, as well as this photo:

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“Demonstration of 11 November 1940. Students from the Institut agronomique prepare to march long the Champs Élysées to lay flowers on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Source: Museum of National Resistance – Champigny-sur-Marne”

When I saw it, I loved the fact that students were the first to speak out against the occupation, the first to organise and demonstrate. It’s always been students–in Berkeley, in Prague, in Tiananmen Square–and now it’s students in Washington, D.C. at the March For Our Lives.

Last week I presented my research on post-Parkland gun debate rhetoric at the Political Studies Association’s Media and Politics Group annual conference, and another mass shooting happened. My slides, which I’d recently updated to include the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooting, were now already out of date.

You can’t keep up with the mass shootings in America. When I first considered doing research on the gun debate, it was after Las Vegas. That was only a year ago, and there have been so many mass shootings since.

But–and this is where my French resistance example comes in–I do have some hope after reading about the Parkland survivors, their #NeverAgain campaign and the March For Our Lives. They haven’t stopped speaking out. They’ve sustained an active social media presence on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, with 300k-400k followers on each platform. They campaigned for gun control candidates (i.e. recipients of F grades from the NRA) during the midterm election.

Students were the first to stand up to the Nazis on this day in 1940, and they’re standing up to the NRA today. Stand with them on the right side of history.

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.