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. 

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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)

 

 

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.

Women in the Academy

The Chronicle of Higher Education has put together a brilliant piece on women in academia, The AwakeningIn the current atmosphere of #metoo and #timesup, of last year’s women’s marches and resistance to Trump, it’s important to bring that scrutiny to what’s been going on in the academy, too.

There’s a common misconception that higher education is somehow more “enlightened” and egalitarian than other fields, that it’s a meritocracy where women and people of colour are welcomed with open arms. Over the past three decades, the proportion of female students enrolled at US universities has grown substantially:

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Data from National Center for Education Statistics

Women are earning the majority of undergraduate degrees, and by quite a big margin, but we can’t celebrate that achievement while women are still very much underrepresented in leadership positions across all fields–politics, business, law, and yes, in academia, too.

It’s not just in the US, either. Catalyst has this great summary page of statistics on Women in Academia around the world:

–In Australia, women hold 53% of Lecturer and more junior roles, 44% of Senior Lecturer roles, and only 31% of more senior roles.

–In the EU, women hold 40% of academic positions, but only 20% of senior roles

–In Japan, 52% of junior college staff are women, but just 23% of full-time university teachers are women.

–In India, 25% of professors are women (better than Japan and the EU average, but still low!)

For women in academia who intend to have children, research suggests that there is no perfect time for academic women to start a family. The decisions of whether and when to have children have markedly different impacts for men and women, including when it comes to tenure.

“Women who have children soon after receiving their Ph.D. are much less likely to achieve tenure than men who have children at the same point in their career.” (Williams, 2005, p. 91).

Delaying having children seems like the obvious answer, and it’s becoming increasingly popular with recent advancements in assisted reproductive technologies, such as IUI and IVF. Unfortunately this is problematic, too, because there are simply new work pressures later on in academic careers. Jacobs and Winslow (2004) found that the ages during which women might pursue delayed motherhood, their late thirties to early forties, are the same years in which academics are working towards tenure. So rather than clashing with the establishment of an academic career in the ECA stage, motherhood clashes with the acquisition of tenure.

In their study of the Nordic countries’ famously egalitarian family leave and childcare policies and their impact on gender balance in academia, Mayer and Tikka found no appreciable difference between the US and Nordic countries in the representation of women among academic staff.

“Improved family policies are a necessary but not sufficient condition for continued improvement in the representation of women in academia, and must occur in concert with efforts to advance a broader societal shift towards gender equality.” (Mayer and Tikka, 2008, pp. 371-372).

The discrepancy between the number of female PhDs and the number of women in tenured positions is about more than just family leave policies.

The demand for mobility can also be problematic for female academics. Research has shown that mothers are less likely to relocate than men or women without children (Bielby and Bielby, 1992; Williams, 2005). When it comes to questions of relocating for better job opportunities, women are more likely than men to think about potential family impacts in their decision-making process. One study found that “…women in dual-earner couples were substantially more likely than men to cite family considerations as a reason for their reservations about relocating for a better job. Over half of the women (56%) reported a reluctance to relocated because of family considerations, compared with just 16% of the men.” (Bielby and Bielby, 1992, p. 1253). Even in cases where couples professed ‘nontraditional’ egalitarian gender role beliefs, the authors still found that “nontraditional males were not nearly as sensitive to their spouses’ job circumstances as were nontraditional females.” (ibid., p. 1262).

Moreover, women often follow their husband’s career to the detriment of their own professional development. “One had worked in 18 countries across all five continents, moving with her husband’s job. The careers of all seven of these women had been affected as they had lost substantial professional ground after each move.” (Powney, 1997, p. 58).

Some critics might argue that female academics are privileged and their #firstworldproblems of struggling to achieve tenure and “have it all” can be easily dismissed. But I think the fate of women in academia reveals a great deal about their position in society more generally. If academia is supposed to be a progressive bastion, it should be a place where we see best practice in terms of equality and diversity. It should be market-leading in family leave, flexibility, affordable on-site childcare, etc.

The internet went crazy with praise for a professor who picked up a student’s crying baby during a lecture–but what if the professor were a woman, and the baby were her own? She’d probably be considered ‘unprofessional’ for bringing her kid to class, not praised in a viral social media post.

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…