A Merry Little Christmas

A quick “Merry Christmas “ post should be easy, but nothing’s easy this year. Our Christmas plan was not actually disrupted by the government’s last minute rule changes—it was always going to be just us, at home. We were still able to attend a few church services in Advent (socially distanced, masked up and no singing, but it was still great to see friends). But we’re lucky. We’ve managed to stay healthy and pay the bills this year, when millions of people can’t say the same. I get so hung up on myself and my lack of career, but we know others have been through some serious, devastating things this year. People who have lost a child, a husband, a mother. People who have been furloughed and made redundant. People who have been working the whole time and putting themselves at risk, in hospitals, care homes, supermarkets. And that’s just people we actually know. What’s Christmas been like for George Floyd’s or Breonna Taylor’s families this year?

I’ve been thinking of the words to Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, and how they hit different in a crappy year like this. It’s from a sad scene in “Meet Me in St Louis”. The family is spending a final Christmas in their beloved home, reluctantly packing to move to New York in a few days. Judy Garland sings it to her little sister, who’s up late worrying, and she’s trying to comfort her and get her back to bed. For people who are separated from loved ones, and for all of us who hope 2021 will be better, the lyrics are poignant:

Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow,

Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow,

So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks: Week 3: Abstracting Your Article

Photo by hannah grace on Unsplash

This chapter was a much needed confidence boost for me–after reading it, I realized that I already had a fairly good handle on abstracts. It included so much of what I’ve taught my students when helping them with their literature searches. Skim reading abstracts is a vital skill when you’re trying to get a good understanding of “what’s been done” on and around your topic. You need to make sense of the hundreds (or thousands) of search results, and you don’t have time to (or need to) read everything. My ESL students, in particular, sometimes felt overwhelmed by the prospect of having to read countless academic books and journal articles, only to find that very few would turn out to be relevant for their project in the end. Many of my students thought that if you cited something, it meant you had read the whole thing–that is a big misconception about academia. We skim and cite. We use indexes and keyword searches to zoom in on just the relevant sentences or paragraphs or pages. We rarely read anything from cover to cover. Those overflowing bookcases in professors’ offices don’t mean what you think they mean–most of their books probably have some margin notes or underlining here and there, and haven’t been read cover to cover. It’s not because academics are lazy–we love reading! It’s because you don’t have to read something cover to cover for it to be useful in your own work.

That’s where abstracts come in. They are a little summary that highlights the argument and key findings, so you know whether it’s worthwhile for you to read further. They can give you a good enough idea of the content to decide whether it’s useful. Sometimes it’s useful in a negative sense, because it helps you to say “previous studies have focused on x, but overlooked y…and this is significant because…”. You can rely on an abstract and a quick skim read to cite examples of the thing you’re not doing, if you’re using that as part of your rationale/justification for the study. It shows the reader that you’re aware of other approaches and suggests that you have a good understanding of where your topic/approach sits in the broader field.

I loved the “talking your way to clarity” task–it made me realize how much talking about my work with friends/family has helped me, and how much talking with my students about their work helped them! It’s a bit like talk therapy in psychology–communicating your thoughts to somebody else helps you understand them better yourself.

Writing the abstract helps clarify your article’s focus and argument. Belcher recommends you start with the abstract and, since this article stems from a conference paper abstract I wrote back in 2018, I actually did start with the abstract in this case. The project has grown and changed over the past 2 years, but I was able to build on some of the basic ideas from that original abstract to write this one.

I also loved the task of reading abstracts to get an idea of what they should contain, what to leave out, and to consider the strengths and weaknesses of real life, published abstracts. For someone who doesn’t regularly skim the current issues of various journals in the field, it was also just a nice way to get a quick impression of what’s going on in research at the moment!

My abstract before doing the task of reading recent abstracts in journals:

In the aftermath of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, Congressional Twitter became a site of partisan debate on gun policy. Survivors appeared on the news and challenged policy makers to take action, asserting that adults had failed in their duty to protect them, the children of America. Despite broad popular support for gun control measures such as universal background checks, Congressional inaction persisted after each mass shooting.  As survivors quickly became activists and organized the March for Our Lives, Parkland appeared to be a critical discourse moment for the gun debate in America. But how did Congress respond to this school shooting and the movement that followed?

This study conducted a critical discourse analysis of Congressional Twitter posts to identify dominant themes and frames, to categorize performances of empathy and calls to action, and to assess the state of the gun control vs. gun rights debate in the wake of Parkland. It found that members of Congress used the phrase “thoughts and prayers” in starkly partisan ways. While some Republicans expressed sympathy with “thoughts and prayers” on the platform, others avoided using the exact phrase. Many called the shooting “heart-breaking,” “tragic,” or said they were “praying for Parkland” instead. Democrats used the phrase “thoughts and prayers” in their criticism of inaction, describing “thoughts and prayers” as an insufficient response and calling for “real action” to prevent future shootings. In this paper, I argue that there was a distinct backlash against public figures using the phrase “thoughts and prayers” as a performative act of caring after Parkland. The study demonstrates that there was a discursive turn towards calls for action from both parties in the turn away from “thoughts and prayers”. Activists’ demands for action elicited significant Congressional Twitter responses from members of both parties, with partisan differences in terms of the actions endorsed. Overall, the study identifies Parkland as a critical moment for Congressional discourse on gun policy. It brought about a new way of responding to shootings, shifting from “thoughts and prayers” to calls for action.

I read 10 abstracts from current issues in 3 quite different journals in my field, from 3 different publishers. I quickly saw that each journal has a preferred style, and some abstracts were definitely stronger than others (also realized that I’m a harsh critic–I read 7 before really liking one!). They were all quite brief, around 200 words, and just one paragraph long. My draft abstract was 342, so one clear outcome of the task was that I knew it needed some trimming down. It also showed some interesting trends about word choice–the strongest ones used “show”, “demonstrate”, “highlight” instead of “examine” or “explore”, and nearly all of them used “argue” or “argument”. My earlier drafts included “examine”/”explore”, and I removed them during the week 2 chapter because they felt too descriptive. I tried to follow the rest of the checklist im my revisions and cuts, too.

Abstract draft after reading 10 abstracts:

In the aftermath of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, Congressional Twitter became a site of partisan debate on gun policy. As survivors quickly became activists and challenged persistent Congressional inaction, Parkland appeared to be a critical discourse moment for the gun debate in America. But how did Congress respond to this school shooting and the movement that followed? This study used critical discourse analysis of Congressional Twitter posts to identify dominant themes and frames, to categorize performances of empathy and calls to action, and to assess the state of the gun debate in the wake of Parkland. The study identifies Parkland as a critical moment for Congressional discourse on gun policy, one which brought about a new way of reacting to mass shootings. In response to a distinct backlash against public figures using the phrase “thoughts and prayers” as a performative act, there was a discursive turn towards calls for action from both parties. While the actions endorsed were starkly partisan on Congressional Twitter, the findings suggest that Parkland’s March For Our Lives activists were successful in challenging Congress to move beyond “thoughts and prayers.”

This trimmed down version is 190 words, with far less detail about the findings. It’s clearer, neater and tidier. Although cutting it down was difficult, it made me focus on what was really going on. It’s like on makeover shows, when they give someone a drastic haircut and it makes their eyes pop!

Writing Your Journal Article In Twelve Weeks–Week 2: Argumentation Revisited

Since my last post about the workbook, I’ve gone away and worked on the study. Once I started looking at my data and playing around with it, and reading through the methods lit that I’d long neglected, I realized that all of this lovely data I’ve been collecting could be used for multiple studies with different approaches. In the past that might have made me feel overwhelmed and lost, but now I see it as a good thing. I drafted a book outline and saw where everything I want to do could fit together to make a coherent larger study. The book is the ultimate goal, but for now, I’m working on turning one part of it (discourse analysis) into a journal article-length paper that I can submit to ICA at the end of the month. It’s a great opportunity to get it peer-reviewed at an early stage, whether it gets accepted or not.

Now that I know what my evidence is saying, I’m able to revisit the argument stage in Week 2. A lot of interesting things came out of my data (hence the desire to turn it all into a book–it doesn’t fit in 1 or 2 journal articles), so I narrowed my focus down to a very specific claim about just one feature of the gun debate discourse: the phrase “thoughts and prayers”.

In the initial check of my 4,824 relevant tweets, the exact phrase “thoughts and prayers” appeared 85 times. 341 were coded as “thoughts and prayers” for their topic, so it was a common theme even without the exact wording. Members of Congress often avoided using the cliche phrase (this Slate article noted that several Republicans didn’t use it), instead saying they were “heartbroken” or calling it a “tragedy,” and often still saying that they were “praying for those affected” without using the now-maligned “thoughts and prayers.” Most of my 85 exact phrase matches were actually Democrats using it in a negative sense–“thoughts and prayers aren’t enough” or “we need more than thoughts and prayers, we need real action from Congress on gun violence,” etc. There was a clear partisan difference in the ways people used “thoughts and prayers”, and a clear backlash against the phrase–you could see it in memes, cartoons, in tweets from both Democrats and Republicans.

I used to draw these maps with students when I was helping them sort out their ideas–it helps to just get it down on paper and you can then see what’s strongest, what can be cut, what can be developed further, etc.

As it stands at the moment, my argument is that there was a backlash against T&P and a discursive turn towards calls to action from both parties (Republicans called for action in terms of increasing school security and arming teachers, Democrats called for gun control–but at the end of the day, they’re both “action” instead of just passive “T&P.”)

It definitely still needs some refining, and we’ll see how it develops as I use it to structure the paper! I loved Belcher’s discussion of argument-organized vs. evidence-organized writing, and I’m trying to bear that in mind as I deal with my evidence.

DNC & RNC 2020: Watching the conventions abroad

This is my fourth US Presidential election spent abroad, and only the 5th one I’ve been old enough to vote in. My first, 2004, was similar to our current situation–unpopular incumbent (GWB), challenged by a candidate whose party wasn’t really enthusiastic about (Kerry). I was in a red state at the time and feeling miserable over the results, and that experience shaped how I think about electoral politics…It’s not fair, it’s not pretty, and no matter who wins on election night, roughly half the country is always going to be upset about the results.

As an American abroad, the conventions are a major part of campaign coverage that I actually watch. I don’t get to see the ads from either side, for local or national offices. I get clips and highlights from late night hosts’ coverage, but in terms of hearing directly from the 2 campaigns, the conventions are my main first-hand experience.

I always love watching the Democratic National Conventions. I love the fanfare, and seeing how the party wants to position itself, what we’re choosing to highlight this time. I even like the procedure—the nomination that acknowledged Bernie Sanders’ movement, the roll call that gives each state and territory its moment in the spotlight (especially when they use it for weird calamari flexes…).

My favourite part is the speeches. In 2004, I cried over Obama’s speech and when I told my best friend we laughed—it was proof that I cry too easily. It was a beautiful speech, and one that launched a young Barack Obama onto the national stage.

This time, the tears were warranted. Like so many Americans, I’ve struggled to make sense of the Trump years. It’s been hard to watch headlines get crazier and crazier—another unhinged rant on Twitter, another civil rights violation, another scandal, another actual crime he gets away with…It’s exhausting. And that’s just watching it from afar! We’re making our own mess with Brexit and mishandling Covid-19 over here, to be fair, but it still seems excessive in the States.

And so to the RNC…it was certainly historic, in the sense that we’ve never had a party run without a new platform before, and we’ve never seen so much of the candidate—every night of the convention! The sheer volume of Trump family members in the lineup demonstrated just how Trump-centric the party has become. Instead of a rainbow coalition approach, with room for everyone under the circus tent, this was a one-man show.

I watched clips of the crazy highlights—Don Jr’s glassy-eyed fear-mongering and his girlfriend’s shouty rant (I think it was Colbert who called it her “Trump family audition tape”!), but I only watched two speeches in full. Melania is such a mystery to me, and her speech revealed nothing new. I get the impression that she really doesn’t want to be there. Many commentators picked up on her line about the American people deserving honesty from their president—the audacity of her speechwriters! Even nearly 4 years on, when crazy things like that happen, I expect Ashton Kutcher to come out on stage and reveal that we fell for it. It genuinely feels like we’re being punked.

These conventions this year…What can I even say to sum them up? This election is like 2004 on steroids. There are multiple genuine threats to the American people and the world, and the DNC highlighted them and set out plans to address them, while the RNC ignored them and in some cases, flat out lied about them and claimed they weren’t happening. The GOP sees these threats as hoaxes, all part of a conspiracy, whether it’s QAnon or China or “the globalists” or whatever next thing (apparently “lizard people” are a theory that some people actually believe). When non-voters say they don’t bother because “there’s no difference between the parties”–well, this year, there’s a massive difference. I don’t know how ANY voters could possibly be undecided, or not feel inclined to vote. Nobody can sit this one out.

I’ll close with my favorite quote about undecided voters (from 2008, but more relevant than ever) from the brilliant David Sedaris:

To put them in perspective, I think of being on an airplane. The flight attendant comes down the aisle with her food cart and, eventually, parks it beside my seat. “Can I interest you in the chicken?” she asks. “Or would you prefer the platter of shit with bits of broken glass in it?”

To be undecided in this election is to pause for a moment and then ask how the chicken is cooked.

I mean, really, what’s to be confused about?

David Sedaris, Undecided, The New Yorker, 20 October 2008

Joe Biden is an old-fashioned roast chicken with peas, carrots and mashed potatoes. Not very exciting, and maybe you don’t like peas, or maybe you’re even a vegetarian who’s unhappy with both options, but at the end of the day, you know what you’re going to get with Joe, and it’s demonstrably better than the alternative.

Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks–Week 1 task: Time Audit

One of the week 1 tasks is to schedule your writing time and create a plan. The recommended 15 min-2hr/day, 5 days a week sounds reasonable, and the workbook has lovely helpful charts you can use to assess actual vs. planned writing time–but what about situations like mine, with zero dedicated writing time? I decided to start with a time audit.

Before doing the time audit:

The thought of doing a time audit now, during the Coronavirus when I’m essentially a stay-at-home mom, is hilarious and daunting. We all supposedly have the same 24 hours each day to work with, but it definitely doesn’t feel like I have as much time as I used to, “in the before times.” Off the top of my head, I would estimate that I spend 50% of my waking hours dealing with food (meal planning, shopping, cooking, feeding baby, washing up), and 45% general childcare tasks (teaching George, trying to put the baby to sleep, changing clothes & nappies, playing, singing, etc.), with 5% “me time” that I spend scrolling social media, and working out/showering 3x/week. At the moment, there’s been close to zero writing time, and little reading time (one day I started reading an academic book while we were watching a movie, and George kept telling me to look at the screen!). It’ll be interesting to see what I actually do spend my time on. There may be significantly more social media time than that 5% figure…

How I’m doing my time audit:

-I set up the “screen time” feature on my phone (scariest step of all, because I know I’ve always wasted a lot of time on it, and in quarantine, it’s been my “only window to the outside world”, like the magic mirror in Beauty and the Beast)

-I’m writing down key times/activities with actual paper and pen throughout the day for a week (I don’t always have my phone on me, and besides, tracking it on my phone will only make my screen time sound worse!)

-Once I’ve tracked, I’ll make categories and a chart, and figure out what changes I can/should make.

  • 42% of my time on childcare/housework
  • 19% on meal prep/clean-up/grocery shopping
  • 13% talking with my husband
  • 11% on writing/research
  • 6% on TV/Movies
  • 5% “me time”–workouts, shower, getting dressed
  • 4% “Nursing & scrolling” (“me time” and childcare combined)

My screen time isn’t that bad—just under 13 hr/week. My messenger time includes video calls with my family in the States, which I thought would be about 4 hr/week. Instagram and Facebook serve the same purposes for me—keeping up with news, friends, family, memes, etc. Obviously, though, 13 hours could be reduced, and some of that time could be spent writing or reading.

After the time audit:

This wasn’t an ‘average’ week, because I genuinely tried to fit in as much writing/research time as possible. I was pleasantly surprised with how much I’ve accomplished. I finally downloaded a RMS for my citations (Zotero) and started using it (can’t imagine how much time I’ve wasted without one–I love it so far). I read more academic literature than I have in months–a whole book and a half! I drafted an outline for my article and finally started my formal coding process, moving my data from a mess of excel workbooks into SPSS.

That said, most of my time is spent with the kids–even some of my research time.

When I was categorizing my time notes, I realized just how much my childcare and housework tasks overlap. Laundry and dishes are very conducive to being paused for a nappy change or story time, and restarted later when I get a chance. I combined them in my analysis, because I soon saw how impossible it was to break it down minute-by-minute. There’s some food prep time mixed in with childcare time, too.

I also had to come up with a separate category for my combined childcare and “me time”activity, “Nursing & Scrolling”. At the end of a long day, baby Paul and I relax on the couch, and I nurse him while I scroll on my phone. He often falls asleep, and while on rare occasions I’m able to transfer him to his bouncer and keep him asleep, it’s easier to just let him sleep on me. I love the cuddles, and I know it won’t last forever–and it’s a guilt-free excuse to look at my phone!

Changes to make?

  • Keep working little and often, fitting it in when possible. I got so much more done than usual!
  • Multitasking is great for childcare/housework time, but not for research time. If I can’t focus properly, I might as well just come back to it later.
  • Cut back on Instagram/Facebook scrolling time. Change some of my “Nursing & scrolling” to “nursing & reading” time—even if it’s reading non-academic books.
  • Unsubscribe from e-mail mailing lists to cut down on the amount of time I spend checking & deleting junk mail.

Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks: Week 1

This brilliant workbook was recommended to me by one of my best friends, and I’m finally getting around to using it. After reading the introduction and the Week 0 chapter on preparing a draft, I moved onto Week 1 and had so many “Aha!” moments…

The first exercise was to think about your feelings towards writing. My initial thought was that I am “all or nothing”—either it’s flowing and wonderful, or I’m stuck and giving up. I thought about the images I have of being a writer—Ernest Hemingway’s description of his little room in St Germain where he writes in A Moveable Feast, and how the writing would flow some days and he’d write a short story in an afternoon. (Every time we go to Paris, I look up at the top floor windows of buildings in the Latin Quarter and dream of renting a little room to write in like he did…) As a more academic example, I remembered my mentor Phil Taylor pointing at his computer and saying the keyboard was “covered in blood, sweat and tears” after writing his latest book.

So, after writing all of this out, on the next page, I saw that my image of a writer’s life is actually a common myth… Her description is almost exactly what I wrote 🤣

That last line is a key part of it for me. I have always resisted editing. All through school, I was told that I was “a natural writer” and I just didn’t think I needed to revise anything. If it wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t getting typed in the first place. All of the years of praise for my writing reinforced my ideas about writing being a matter of natural talent, a gift—which also made me dismiss editing. If I’m a gifted writer, my work doesn’t need editing. I thought I was too good for editing and revisions. I even passed my PhD viva without corrections, which just further reinforced my unhealthy attitude towards editing! There are deeper issues here around perfectionism (see Brenè Brown) and being labelled “Gifted” (see this article from a few years ago in The Atlantic), but in terms of writing specifically, this workbook has really helped!

It may take me more like 12 months rather than 12 weeks to get through this workbook, as at the moment, I’m struggling to find time to write–even just for the 15 minutes a day it recommends. I’m hoping I’ll be able to make time in the evenings again soon. But even just reading what I should be doing is a step in the right direction, and it’s more than I was doing before!

Fulbright and Race

A few years ago, I noticed gaps in the literature on educational exchanges/PD around race and gender. It seemed odd, because academics always seem to include those two approaches to a subject, and rightly so. It’s a step towards addressing the dominant white Western male voice and perspectives that are so often the default. Including perspectives on race is often done as an afterthought— Anamik Saha pointed out how textbooks usually include “the bit about race” somewhere around chapter ten. I would love to see a study on the Fulbright Program and race. I’m not qualified to undertake it myself, as I don’t want to be a white researcher trying to add a race lens to their work. I would hate to see women’s experiences in the Fulbright Program ‘mansplained,’ so I won’t do that with race in my work. Here are a couple of potential areas to explore…

1) Senator Fulbright had a bad record on race.

As much as we can admire his ant-war stance during Vietnam, and appreciate his promotion of educational and cultural exchanges, we have to acknowledge his record on race.

Fulbright voted against integrating schools. He claimed it was a matter of representing the views of his constituents—if he wanted to stay in Congress, he had to vote the way his constituents wanted him to. He said they didn’t care about his views on foreign policy—he could vote his conscience on those issues, because his constituents didn’t know or care about them. But when it came to integration, they cared because it effected their day to day lives, and they were outspoken in their opposition.

As an interesting aside, when Johnson and Fulbright fell out over Vietnam, Johnson claimed that Fulbright’s opposition to the war was because he was racist—Fulbright ‘didn’t care about brown people’, whereas Johnson believed in helping them. Fulbright rejected that, of course, and questioned how bombing was helping them.

I always wondered whether it really was a matter of political survival or if Fulbright was racist. When I interviewed his biographer, Randall Bennett Woods, he was an elitist rather than a racist, and his views on segregation and race transformed as his political views shifted towards the left throughout the 1960s and into the 70s.

“You know, Fulbright was a segregationist to begin with…But his views changed dramatically. Like so many white middle-class Southerners like my parents, he was radicalized by the civil rights movement. His racism had more to do with class than it did with color. If he was dealing with the elite of Ghana or Kenya or India, skin color didn’t matter. If you were educated and part of the elite, you were acceptable to him, so it wasn’t race prejudice as much as class prejudice. But he even moved away from that.”

28 January 2013 Interview with Randall Bennett Woods

2) Information gaps lead to literature gaps.

The lack of research on race and exchanges might be down to practical challenges for researchers: missing demographic information. Data on race (and gender) hasn’t been collected throughout the program’s history, so it’s difficult to paint a full picture of BIPOC participation in the Fulbright Program.

An organization’s decision to collect data on race is complicated, as there are risks involved in both options–acknowledging or ignoring the role of race. National census data collection illustrates this challenge on a large scale. Some countries ask about race/ethnicity, while others do not (this is a very interesting 2017 report about EU countries’ varied practices). France is a well-known example of not asking about race. Race, ethnicity, and religion are all deemed irrelevant to French identity, at least in terms of official statistics. It’s about liberté, égalité, fraternité instead.

But excluding race from data has significant consequences. It can exacerbate inequality, because problems must be seen in order to be addressed. Discrimination can be swept under the rug more easily. In terms of the current fight against COVID-19, for example, France has noted a high number of cases in “poor and multiracial communities,” but because they don’t include race in their COVID-19 data, they haven’t made that connection.

“While the United States and Britain have come to recognize that their racial minorities are dying disproportionately of covid-19, France inhibits itself from making that sort of assessment. Critics say that may limit the country’s ability to identify and protect vulnerable populations, especially in the event of a second wave of the pandemic.”

James McAuley, “How France’s aversion to collecting data on race affects its coronavirus response,” Washington Post, 26 June 2020

The U.S. is currently undertaking a census, and as this piece from the Daily Show points out, when people of color don’t participate in a census, their household might be assumed to be white. I was shocked that this was a thing…I assumed that if a household’s demographics are unknown, they would just be counted as “unknown”, not added to the local majority count. That’s crazy.

What do we not know about BIPOC participation in the Fulbright Program, due to this missing demographic data? We don’t know of people of color are underrepresented in the program. We don’t know whether they apply at the same rates as their white peers. We don’t know the top destinations of US Fulbright students of color, the top academic fields of Fulbright scholars of color, etc. There’s also the more qualitative side of this information–we don’t know their stories, good or bad: their experiences with discrimination, their achievements and cultural knowledge gains. As I mentioned in the recent post about Nancy Snow’s webinar, when exchange students experience discrimination, it’s going to have a major impact on their views of the host country.

3) Some profiles of BIPOC Fulbrighters:

–Ruth Simmons, first African American woman to head a major college or university (Smith College), and the first African American President of an Ivy League institution (Brown University). Fulbright to France, 1967.

–BIPOC Fulbrighters who have been Heads of State, including two Presidents of Ghana: John Atta Mills (Fulbright 1970) and Kofi Abrefa Busia (Fulbright 1954). (Why haven’t I seen a study on Ghana’s Fulbright Program?!)

–John Hope Franklin–Pre-eminent American historian who also played a significant role in the Fulbright Program’s history. He was a civil rights activist, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery in 1965–while he was a member of the Board of Foreign Scholarships (appointed 1962). Fulbright to Australia, 1960.

–Joy Buolamwini, computer scientist and founder of the Algorithmic Justice League that tackles algorithmic bias–the failure of facial recognition software to detect the features of people of color. Fulbright to Zambia, 2012.

I’ll close here and publish, as this draft has been dragging on for a month and I never have time to do it justice. I would love reading suggestions re: exchanges and race, or public diplomacy generally and race–I’m familiar with some of the work on jazz diplomacy, but would love to see more. If you have any recommendations, please do get in touch!

Lockdown hits different for Moms…

The lockdown has been strange and difficult for everybody, but one demographic that has been particularly impacted is mothers.

I happen to be on maternity leave, luckily. I weren’t, I don’t know how I could possibly teach online, mark assessments, answer e-mails, etc. on top of caring for my baby, teaching my primary schooler, cooking, cleaning, laundry, dishes, etc. I’m exhausted just from doing the 50’s housewife thing, plus teaching one kid. Doing any research on top of all of that is unimaginable.

It looks like I’m not the only academic mom who’s completely absorbed with childcare/domestic concerns during the lockdown. This article in the Guardian shows how common it is—while journal article submissions from men have actually increased during the lockdown, women’s research outputs have dropped significantly.

Our work is the first thing to fall by the wayside in a crisis. One thing that struck me in the article, though, was that even an immunologist, somebody whose work has actual relevance for the crisis– who’s actually giving lectures on COVID-19–is facing the same challenges of balancing work and home responsibilities.

She is quick to point out that her husband has taken on a lot at home too, but because she earns less, and can be more flexible about when she works, the bulk of the childcare falls to her.

Anna Fazackerley, The Guardian

When I read that paragraph, it felt like my parenthood/career journey summed up, capturing the conflict between what makes sense and what feels right. I don’t want to complain–like this woman “is quick to point out,” my husband helps, too. I should be grateful–but then I think of the satirical “Man Who Has It All” posts like this:

Man Who Has It All

It makes sense to put my career on hold, to embrace maternity leave and quarantine homeschooling, to do the bulk of the housework, shopping and meal planning, etc. I’m happy to do it, most of the time.

But… I feel like an idiot and a failure for not having an established career—I’ve got a PhD, a few publications, but not a permanent contract or even a full-time post yet. And shouldn’t I be working on that? Shouldn’t the half-finished books and articles and proposals get some attention?

The Mom guilt voice says no, your kids are not going to be babies forever—embrace this time together! Your work can wait! (How unfair that men don’t seem to have an equivalent voice in their heads…)

The lockdown offers a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to embrace motherhood (or parenthood) and domesticity–whether you actually want to or not.

Pregnancy for Academics

3 weeks postpartum at PhD graduation–at the party, someone asked how I did it, how I combined research and pregnancy/childbirth. I did it by delaying my graduation ceremony, and finishing my PhD before even getting pregnant!

Between not teaching this term, doing up the new house and being pregnant, I’ve neglected this blog over the past couple of months. I’ve been meaning to post thoughts on pregnancy/parenting as an early-career academic, but it’s a big topic to tackle, and difficult to be reflective and inclusive when I really only have my own experiences to share. My maternity leave officially starts today, so I thought I’d have a go anyway and share some of my favourite pregnancy resources.

1) Pregnant Chicken

As a first-time mom who took an instant dislike to the tone of sites like “What to Expect” and “The Bump”, I was thrilled to find “Pregnant Chicken”. Brilliant, funny Canadian writer Amy Morrison is everything you’d want in a mom-friend–she clearly knows her stuff but keeps the tone upbeat and never preachy or judgmental. She strikes the perfect balance between information and entertainment.

Her week-by-week pregnancy calendar e-mails are the only ones I signed up for this time. My favourite posts are this very accurate sleep guide and this essential reading for new parents who are upset/confused/irritated by unsolicited comments & advice.

2) Evidence Based Birth

On a recent Birth Hour podcast, Evidence Based Birth‘s founder Rebecca Dekker, PhD, explained how the site and its resources grew out of her research into her own first birth experience. It was traumatic, for both her and the baby, and included a number of practices that are not supported by evidence. They were simply presented to her as necessary and “the way things are done,” and as a first time mother, she didn’t think to question them. The site presents evidence from actual medical research in a neutral, fact-based way that does not seek to promote any particular philosophy or approach to birth.

As an American in the UK, it’s been very interesting to me to look into the evidence as I try to work out why the NHS does what it does, and why their outcomes are so much better than those in the US healthcare system. This article on the evidence & ethics on circumcision is a great example–if I’d stayed in America, my sons would have been circumcised without a second thought. It’s “the way things are done” there, yet rare in many other countries. The NHS doesn’t perform them routinely.

3) Ina May Gaskin

I never thought I would go for a “natural” approach to childbirth–I always liked the joke that an epidural is “natural” because it’s natural to want pain relief. Two things changed my mind: 1) watching The Business of Being Born, and 2) reading Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth. I first heard about counterculture icon Ina May Gaskin in the documentary, and when I became pregnant I turned to her book to learn more. I donated the book after I had George, to pass on her wisdom to others, and then bought another copy when I became pregnant again. I love reading the positive birth stories–especially because we usually hear horror stories from others and in the media! One of my favourite concepts from Gaskin is the idea that women shouldn’t be afraid of giving birth–our bodies are made to do it, and animals don’t approach birth with fear. While there are plenty of scary things that can go wrong, it’s good to be reminded that most of the time, birth doesn’t require extensive medical interventions to get a healthy mom & baby at the end of the process. I’m not 100% on board with all of the ideas presented, but as they said at La Leche League meetings, “take what works for you and leave the rest.”

From whispers to bricks…

In 2008, when I came to Leeds for my Masters, I loved my department. I loved public diplomacy and political communication and the specific ways my department interpreted them, and I admired and respected the vast majority of the staff members. I found friends and mentors, met and fell in love with my now-husband, and I put together a PhD proposal with an amazing supervisor. Everything seemed to be happening for a reason and it all felt right.

After my supervisor’s death, and my other supervisors’ departure from academia, and other staff leaving the department, things changed. I started to sense some whispers, some clues that I no longer belonged in the department. Our international communication experts were replaced with people who interpreted it very differently, and the department abruptly shifted away from public diplomacy. I kept smiling through it all and felt confident that I would be fine. I wasn’t the only one–there were a few of us who were left behind, studying public diplomacy and propaganda in a department that no longer had expertise in those areas. We joked that we were “propaganda pandas”–an endangered species.

I ignored the whispers. I applied to jobs and didn’t get any after the PhD, and I took up short-term, part-time contracts in my department. I told myself it was worth it, to “keep my foot in the door” of academia, to be able to access the library, to have networking opportunities, etc. Apart from a couple of conferences, I have little to show for these 3 years and 10 months of short-term contracts.

Today I got a brick. Nobody in my department has told me directly that I’m definitely not getting my contact renewed–two weeks ago, I was told that they were still allocating teaching and would be in touch. Today, I saw my name in a departmental staff newsletter under the “goodbyes”, listed as one of the people who is leaving.

I’m pretty sure that’s a brick, from the department that’s changed so much over the past decade. I’m going to listen this time, and say goodbye back.