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.

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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.

ERASMUS on the eve of Brexit

Today in the Guardian, there was a story about the uncertainty that UK students are facing as they prepare to participate in ERASMUS exchange programmes in the EU. It gives a great, concise summary of the situation that universities on both sides of the English Channel are facing.

Last Wednesday the European parliament voted to guarantee funding for UK students already studying abroad on the Erasmus+ student exchange programme, in the event of a no-deal Brexit on 29 March. It also promised to continue supporting European students already in the UK on the scheme.

But uncertainty hangs over the 17,000 British students who had planned to study in Europe under Erasmus+ from this September. A technical note, published by the government at the end of January, failed to guarantee any funding for the scheme if Britain leaves the EU with no deal.

In recent weeks both Spain and Norway have advised their students planning to study in the UK to go elsewhere.

from: The Guardian

We’re 10 days away from the 29 March 2019 leaving date, and it’s all feeling quite chaotic. Every day there seems to be more non-story news coming out of Westminster, with the House of Commons soundly rejecting both Theresa May’s deal and the prospect of a no-deal Brexit. Meanwhile, as the Guardian piece points out, UK and EU students and universities are left with no idea of what’s going to happen next. The EU’s ERASMUS+ website has a page on potential post-Brexit changes that may or may not happen…

For many students, particularly foreign language and area studies majors, the ERASMUS exchange programme is an affordable and practical way of fulfilling study abroad requirements, as well as gaining valuable professional and personal skills.

Since its establishment in 1987, the ERASMUS programme has had over 9 million participants. Its original aim was to create a sense of European identity and cooperation amongst the youth of European Union member states. Given the massive age gap in remain-leave Brexit voting patterns, it seems that young people in the UK really have adopted this supranational European identity.

If the UK really does leave the European Union, whenever and under what circumstances that may be, I hope it can continue to participate in ERASMUS+ in some form…

Further reading:

Christopher J. Grinbergs & Hilary Jones (2013) Erasmus Mundus SEN: the inclusive scholarship programme?, International Journal of Inclusive Education, 17:4, 349-363, DOI: 10.1080/13603116.2011.651824

Mitchell, K. 2012. Student mobility and European Identity: Erasmus Study as a civic experience? Journal of Contemporary European Research, 8(4), pp. 490-518.

Papatsiba, V. 2005. Political and Individual Rationales of Student Mobility: a case-study of ERASMUS and a French regional scheme for studies abroad. European Journal of Education, 40(2), pp. 173-188.

BRACHT O., ENGEL C., JANSON K., OVER A., SCHOMBURG H. and TEICHLER U. (2006), The professional value of Erasmus mobility. Final report presented to the European Commission – DG Education and Culture, retrieved from https://www.eumonitor.nl/9353210/d/belang%20erasmus%20onder%20professionals.pdf

Unpaid work, part 4: Academia

I’m not sure whether people outside of academia are aware of how much unpaid work goes into academic research, teaching and publishing…

Academic publishing is built on a system of unpaid work. You write a journal article for free and submit it to a journal. They send it off to reviewers, who are asked to comment on your work and determine whether it’s publishable–and they aren’t paid, either. The article is then published in a journal that higher education institutions pay expensive subscription fees for–or if it’s an open access journal, then the author has paid a large publication fee (while also not getting paid to write it).

Source: https://guides.lib.fsu.edu/academicpublishing/economics

Then there’s the unpaid work involved in teaching–the breakdown of contracted hours is often opaque and greatly underestimates the time spent on marking, prep, e-mails, and pastoral care. Hourly contracted staff are given 30 minutes per essay when it comes to marking, for example–that’s 30 min to read it, evaluate how it measures up to the marking criteria, and write up useful feedback with specific examples and advice. Even after 8 years of teaching experience and developing templates, I would still struggle to give decent feedback in under 30 minutes.

Other unpaid things you must do to establish an academic career:

  • Look for your next contract while you’re on a temporary contract
  • Apply for grants and fellowships
  • Write book proposals
  • Look for Calls For Papers (for publications or conferences)
  • Apply for conferences, which often require original work that hasn’t previously been published elsewhere (and they charge conference registration fees that University employers usually cover, so it doesn’t seem like a big deal unless you’re out of work or on a low paid part-time contract)
  • Networking–it’s work that doesn’t seem like work, but can actually be essential for finding the next contract or project…and women are often excluded from it.

On the last point, here’s a little illustration from my own experience:

When my son was 9 weeks old, I presented my work at a conference that was a *dream* topic for me. It was so closely linked to my recently completed PhD topic, and I had cited many of the other speakers’ work in my thesis. I was thrilled to be there and so grateful for the opportunity! They even funded my travel expenses, which was essential, as I was unemployed at the time (not on maternity leave, but actually unemployed). The conference was a wonderful experience and I got a lot out of it, including the chance to contribute to an edited volume that’s coming out in August 2019.

It was, however, the first time I really experienced the realities of being a working and breastfeeding mom. While I was downstairs listening to presentations, my husband was upstairs in our hotel room looking after our 9-week-old. Every time there was a coffee break or lunch break, I would dash upstairs and simultaneously pump and breastfeed until the start of the next session. My supply was low, so it was a struggle. This meant that I missed out on most of the conference’s networking opportunities. I was worried in equal measure about establishing my milk supply and establishing my career–and it’s easy to feel like a failure on both fronts when I look back at it now.

On a more positive note, blogging (also unpaid) about it and sharing our experiences with each other is a step towards raising awareness about these inequalities and the unpaid workload of participating in academia.

The role of language in exchanges

This morning I read an article from the BBC about an incident at Duke University, where a professor emailed students about her concerns over Chinese students speaking Chinese, rather than English, while on campus. Apparently, two colleagues had overheard students speaking Chinese (“loudly”) in a lounge/study area and asked this professor for their names. They wanted to know so that, allegedly,


 they could remember them if the students ever interviewed for an internship or asked to work with them for a masters project. They were disappointed that these students were not taking the opportunity to improve their English and were being so impolite as to have a conversation that not everyone on the floor could understand.

from:https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-47022374

The professor e-mailed her students and asked them to speak English “100% of the time” in the building or “any other professional setting”. The professor has been removed as director of the programme, as a result of the backlash against this e-mail.

First off, let me say that I’m not surprised by this incident, for several reasons. When I was in high school checking out universities, I visited Duke and decided not to apply–despite being considered a “prestigious” school, campus life felt very Greek-oriented and sports-oriented. Also, I’ve seen the way some people (lecturers, students, locals) react to international students speaking their native languages–I’ve heard the same things as these staff members in the e-mail have said.

It’s racist and ridiculous for a number of reasons, but my main issue is that the students in question were not in a “professional setting”. They were in a “student lounge/study area”. Why shouldn’t they speak their native language there? Why does “everyone on the floor” need to understand what they’re saying? What if a couple of native English speakers decided to whisper?

And even if they were in a “professional setting”, lighten up. My seminars are often 90-100% Chinese students, and I’m absolutely fine with them speaking Chinese with each other when they discuss the readings. I put the discussion questions up on the screen and they break up into small groups, discuss them in Chinese (and/or English, depending on the group’s preferences), then share their thoughts with me and the rest of the class in English after a few minutes. I would much rather ensure that they understand the content than use my seminars as an “opportunity to improve their English.” It will improve–but in the meantime, we need to talk about Adorno and Horkheimer’s critical theory (which has already been translated from the original German). If speaking English with me and Chinese with their peers helps us get through these difficult readings, then by all means, feel free to speak Chinese!

It’s taken me a few years to come to this position, though–back when I started working with international students, I thought they should engage in “immersion”. If they committed to speaking English all the time, they would become fluent quickly and everything would be easier for them. But now I realise that this is a very privileged, unrealistic position. Immersion works, yes, but it’s incredibly mentally exhausting. It’s such a relief to speak your native language when you’re abroad.

Last September, I experienced this sense on a smaller scale–I was in Paris with my family, responsible for doing most of the ordering and translating and navigating with my limited French. We stopped at a deli to get sandwiches for lunch, and I struggled to understand and make myself understood. The woman behind the counter was very sweet, asking us about our son and where we were from, and it turned out that she was from Ecuador. I was so relieved–I switched to Spanish and we both grinned. Suddenly it was so much easier to communicate! And that wasn’t even my native language, so I can imagine how relieved my students must feel to speak in Chinese after hours in the library struggling to get through Adorno and Horkheimer. It’s not just about language acquisition–we need to take a holistic approach to understanding the international student experience.

Michael Haugh picked up on some of these ideas in his article on international students in Australia. The so-called “English problem” amongst international students has been blamed for a perceived decline in standards in Australian higher education. His interviewees shared some very interesting anecdotes, and I think many of my students would find them relatable. Haugh’s conclusion suggests that

 …it would be useful to draw greater attention to policy-makers in higher education to the moral complexity of the ongoing discourse of complaint about the English language skills of international students. In this way, we can move beyond the view that the so-called English problem is simply a matter of an objective, measurable deficiency on the part of international students.

from: Haugh, M. 2016. Complaints and troubles talk about the English language skills of international students in Australian universities. Higher Education Research & Development,35(4), pp. 727-740.

Immersion vs. bilingual education will continue to be an area of debate in exchange diplomacy, particularly in terms of language acquisition and culture learning effectiveness. In terms of the way international students are treated on campus, however, there’s no question that we must respect students’ right to communicate amongst themselves in whatever way they choose.

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. 

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)