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.


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.

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).


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 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


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:


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:


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:

chart gender

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.