Canceling Student Debt

(Sharing the letter to President Biden I just sent via Student Debt Crisis Center)

Dear President Biden,

I have a ridiculously high amount of student debt because I was told all my life that education was the way to get a good paying job. I graduated undergrad in 2008 and went to grad school because, surely, that was the right thing to do during a recession when I couldn’t find a job. Student loans were “good debt,” right? And then after my Master’s, I struggled to find a job and decided that I loved academia and wanted to get a PhD. I got a partial scholarship, but had to take out loans for the rest.

Now here I am, nearly 8 years post-PhD, muddling through life with part-time, short-term contracts, struggling to find a job in academia. I work 3 part-time freelance roles in teaching, proofreading, and data analysis. None of them use my expertise. I feel like a failure. And that failure has cost me $260,587.78 (currently–with over $32,000 of that being capitalized interest).

I will never live to pay it off. On my income driven repayment plan, I’m currently not being asked to pay anything. Like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” I’m worth more dead than alive, because at least when I die, my loans will be forgiven (I know that’s not the message Capra intended, but that line hit close to home).

Please forgive as much as possible. My situation is not unique. The majority of the people who would benefit from loan forgiveness are women and people of color–the people who voted for you. The people who were told all their lives that education was the answer, that student loans were “good debt.” It’s not. We’re drowning. Please help.

Dr. Molly Bettie, PhD (might as well use the title when I can…)

Exchanges and Embargoes: What’s the deal with Cuba?

Cuba: Bigger and closer than most Americans realize…

Last week, the White House announced plans to ease US-Cuban relations, with more flights, looser restrictions for U.S. travelers, and a lifting of limits on the amount of money people can send from the U.S. to Cuba. This isn’t surprising–like many Biden policies, the move is a continuation of Obama-Biden era policies and a reversal of Trump-era policies. Obama lifted some of the decades-old embargo restrictions in 2014, then Trump reinstated them in 2017. Is Cuba just a pawn in this partisan game, or are there bigger issues going on?

Cuba is not a strictly partisan issue. Cuban-Americans on both sides of the aisle are critical of efforts to normalise relations with Cuba. Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, both Cuban-Americans, signed onto a joint statement with other Republicans condemning what they called Biden’s “appeasement” and “rewarding” the Cuban government. Cuban-American New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert Menendez serves as the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he reacted to the announcement this week, saying, “I am dismayed to learn the Biden administration will begin authorizing group travel to Cuba through visits akin to tourism…To be clear, those who still believe that increasing travel will breed democracy in Cuba are simply in a state of denial.”

This is a brilliant contemporary example of the debates that have been taking place for the past 60+ years over the ideas that underpin exchange diplomacy. Does it work? Does intercultural interpersonal contact win hearts and change minds? Did the “Cuban Thaw” have any measurable impact?

One interesting angle is the idea that opening up US-Cuban tourism might encourage democracy in Cuba. Looking at Cuba’s tourism statistics over the past couple of decades, there’s been a significant rise in international tourism, but no corresponding political shift.

Source: World Bank

Pre-pandemic, Cuba was receiving over 4 million international tourists each year from 2016-2019. The Obama-era easing of restrictions in 2014 boosted tourism from 3 to 3.5 million tourists between 2014 and 2015, but the 2017 reversal by the Trump administration doesn’t seem to have reduced numbers. So, why aren’t these policy shifts more evident in the data? Because the figures are not just American travelers–Cuba is a tourist destination for millions of people around the world. I never realized this until living in England, but it’s a thing–there are deals for flights to Havana in travel agency windows all over the UK, right alongside Jamaica or the Bahamas. Over a million Canadians visited Cuba each year from 2015-2019!

The fact that so many people from democratic, capitalist countries like the UK and Canada visit Cuba does somewhat undermine the suggestion that intergroup contact can bring political changes. There’s a tendency (a relic of the Cold War) for Americans to think of Cuba and the Cuban people as being isolated and to assert that the communist regime would surely lose its hold on power, if only the people could be exposed to the ideas of democracy and capitalism.

This Cold War mindset ignores 2 things–1) Cuba is already open to most of the rest of the world, and 2) the Internet. Thanks to the Internet, state control of information just isn’t as powerful as it used to be. We’re seeing some interesting stories about Russia’s state media and the war in Ukraine, for example, but many Russians do know the reality of what’s going on. They’re protesting in the streets, or even choosing to leave Russia altogether. In China, too, where state control over media is quite strong, people know how to get around the Great Firewall, and how to talk about taboo subjects on WeChat and Weibo using codes and memes.

Overall, I do hope that Cuba can have a friendlier relationship with the US, if only for the benefit of the families that are divided between the two countries and the Cuban-Americans who would love to be able to visit. It seems crazy that a million Canadians a year go to Cuba, and yet the Cuban-Americans living in the Little Havana neighbourhood of Miami can’t travel the short distance to real Havana!

Tractors, Tanks, and Propaganda

With a tractor-obsessed two-year-old, tractors have become a big part of our lives. We’re surrounded by tractor toys of all scales and we watch a lot of tractor videos on YouTube (sugar beet harvester videos are a personal favourite). Every time farm traffic goes past our house, we stop what we’re doing and look to see what kind of tractor it is and what they’re hauling. With all of this tractor talk, our family enjoyed the recent viral video of a Ukrainian farmer towing a Russian tank with a tractor. There have been a few similar videos, racking up millions of views across all of the major social media platforms.

The video got me thinking about propaganda and psy ops, and my former mentor Phil Taylor’s book Munitions of the Mind–it’s also the title of a blog belonging to his colleagues at University of Kent’s Centre for The History of War, Media and Society. On the blog, I came across this piece. Mark Connelly does a great job of concisely explaining the symbolic value of tanks. They are a symbol of war and power, of military might and threat. He cites the examples of the iconic protestor vs. tank moment in Tiananmen Square, or the tanks on the Champs Élysées as the image of Paris under Nazi occupation.

These Ukranian tractor vs. Russian tank videos represent a new twist on the tank’s symbolism: a David and Goliath message of underdog resistance and victory. That narrative explains why they’ve gone viral. In a conflict that defies so many of our established ideas of what’s right or fair, there’s something amusing and even encouraging about seeing the people get their own back.

The videos also evoke messages of peace, “swords into ploughshares”, with the visual juxtaposition of weapons and farming equipment. Tractors represent a significant feature of peace-time Ukrainian life, as agriculture is Ukraine’s largest export industry and 70% of the country’s land is agricultural. Likewise, it could be argued that the tank represents the current state of Russia under Putin’s leadership. Showy display of military might on the outside, but complicated and fragile on the inside.

The whole war can be summed up in the image of tank vs. tractor, as things currently stand. Putin surely did not expect the Ukrainian resistance that they’ve encountered, nor the surrender of Russian troops and abandonment of tanks resulting from insufficient supplies and low morale. The phenomenon of the videos going viral is also a good summary of the world’s reaction to the war–people are closely watching the conflict, cheering on the underdog, and they can’t help laughing when the aggressor’s tank breaks down. It’s a brilliant form of pro-Ukrainian propaganda, made and distributed by the people.

Let’s hope the war ends soon and the tractors can get back to their spring planting.

These refugees, not those refugees

(Disclaimer: This is not my post to write. I’m white and privileged, I’m not an authority on race or refugees. But that never stops other people from sharing their views, so I should speak up…I’m an authority on media, and this is a media bias issue)

I haven’t said anything about Ukraine on the blog because there’s so much to say that it’s hard to know where to start. I’m also reluctant to say anything because the sheer amount of attention that it’s been getting is also upsetting, in and of itself.

The other day I heard on the radio that the UK Government was paying people who would take in Ukrainian refugees, and that there’s been an unprecedented amount of support for them, with people offering to open up their homes. On the one hand, this is absolutely lovely and right and good, and I don’t want to detract from what is a wonderful humanitarian effort. On the other hand, why is this unprecedented? Why haven’t other groups of refugees received this much attention and support? Why didn’t the UK Government pay people to take in Afghans or Syrians?

Why do these refugees get an unprecedented outpouring of love and those refugees don’t?

One of my favourite writers/thinkers/people, Ijeoma Oluo talked about this at the start of the Ukraine invasion. Of course it’s right that people are upset about Ukraine and want to help the Ukrainians–but where is this empathy and love and support for refugees outside of Europe?

Trevor Noah also confronted some of these ideas on The Daily Show.

In this piece in the Independent, Nadine White does a brilliant job of discussing the racial bias in media coverage of the Ukraine crisis. She cites many examples of journalists commenting on how shocking it is to see this happen in Europe, how they “look like us”.

Peter Dobbie on Al Jazeera English was quoted as saying “What’s compelling is looking at them, the way they are dressed. These are prosperous, middle-class people. These are not obviously refugees trying to get away from the Middle East […] or North Africa. They look like any European family that you’d live next door to.”

“On Friday, Sky News broadcast a clip of people making Molotov cocktails – effectively bombs – explaining in intricate detail how to make these devices as effective as possible. Can you imagine if these were Syrians or Palestinians? They’d quickly be branded as terrorists.”

Nadine White, 28 February 2022, The Independent

What are we supposed to do with this information?

-Hold people accountable when they make comments about these refugees being “like us” (because all refugees are like us, actually)

-Urge your political leaders to support all refugees and to aim for peaceful, diplomatic methods of conflict resolution

-Donate money to organisations that help on a global scale (IRC, Unicef, Doctors Without Borders, etc.)

In the news: Fulbrighter Spotlight

Just a quick post to share this NPR story about Joy Buolamwini’s work on algorithmic bias. Her research is fascinating and so important! I included her in my chapter about women in the Fulbright Program in the edited volume, The Legacy of J. William Fulbright: Policy, Power, and Ideology. She was a Fulbright U.S. Student grantee to Zambia in 2012, where she launched Zamrise, a technology programme for youth. She was later a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. Dr. Buolamwini recently earned her PhD from MIT.

What I’m Reading: The Rise by Sarah Lewis

Another brilliant read from another Brené Brown podcast guest! These podcasts really have been responsible for most of my to-be-read pile over the past couple of years. Just like other books I’ve heard featured on the podcasts and read, like The Body is Not an Apology or Burnout, The Rise was thought-provoking and inspiring.

It’s also not a book I would have picked out otherwise–Dr. Lewis is a professor of art history and there’s an emphasis on aesthetics and creativity that isn’t something I would ordinarily seek out. I don’t think of myself as creative. In school, I always loved writing but I needed a prompt–I could rock a book report or an AP history document based question, but I struggled to come up with ideas for fiction or poetry assignments. I took a couple of art history classes in undergrad, but I thought it was just for fun. I didn’t see much value in the discipline–I saw majoring in art history as something for rich white kids who don’t need to study vocational subjects because they don’t need to worry about getting a job after graduating (case in point: the Duchess of Cambridge was an art history major).

Sarah Lewis changed my mind about that. In one of her examples of the power of images, she talked about how the diagram of the Brookes slave ship contributed to the abolitionist movement because it vividly showed the inhumanity of the slave trade. That was the kind of real-life, tangible impact that convinced me something more was going on than just memorising names and dates, artists and titles of paintings, etc.

My favourite chapter was on the Deliberate Amateur, which talked about the value of having an outsider’s perspective, and the importance of play in creativity. It’s something that Brené Brown talks about in The Gifts of Imperfection, and it’s even part of Ted Lasso. Part of the show’s whole premise is that he doesn’t know anything about soccer, but he knows how to coach and inspire people to believe. He brings an outsider’s perspective and creativity, like when he used trick plays to create chaos and throw off Man City.

The section on Samuel B. Morse was also fascinating. I had no idea he was a failed painter! His legacy has been completely associated with telegraphy and Morse code, it’s incredible to think that he had a completely different ambition, and struggled with his lack of success in his painting career. Such an unexpected story! It reminded me of Maya Angelou’s advice to Oprah about her legacy–that you have no idea what your legacy will be. Your legacy is every life that you’ve touched. For Morse, it was the changes wrought by his innovations in telegraphy–this short National Geographic article did a lovely job of summarising it–rather than the legacy he wanted and expected, that of being a great painter.

In my low moments, when I’m despairing of my failed academic career, I look at 2 things to remind myself of the partial legacy I’ve already created. Firstly, I look at comments my students have made about me in their dissertations’ acknowledgement sections, where they thanked me for my support, my kindness, my patience, etc. Things I thought were just normal were actually unusual amongst the staff, and they appreciated it. Secondly, I google my name and see the works that I’ve been cited in. My research has been referenced in other people’s research. It’s not many, but it’s some, and it’s proof enough that people have read my work and used it for its intended purpose. It’s been useful. Maybe it’s all the episodes of Thomas the Tank Engine I’ve been watching over the past few years, but I appreciate being useful.


I sent that one (& only) paper I wrote last year into a conference, and I just heard back from them–another rejection. I wasn’t that surprised, as that paper had been rejected by two journals, but it still hurt. My plan all along was to submit it just so that I could get some feedback. Being out of academia has also meant not having colleagues around to give me feedback. I was never great about letting anyone else read my work, but after a couple of rejections, I figured it would be helpful to have some outside perspectives on it.

I made the mistake of looking over the feedback in the morning, quickly on my phone while I tried to drink a cup of coffee amongst the chaos of getting two kids ready for school/playgroup. I should have waited to look at it until I had time to focus and really think about the comments. Instead, I just got the sting of criticism without allowing time for any constructive feedback to sink in.

Four reviewers read my work, and all of the comments were pretty painful. Some were contradictory–the literature review was “very limited” for one, “adequate” for another, and another suggested that it “could be revised to be less of a ‘review’ and more of an argument for why looking at congressional tweets help us understand moments in US political discourse.” That sounds like a justification for the study, rather than a lit review…

More than one reviewer commented that the scope was too narrow and “wondered if it would be interesting to an international audience”. The thing is, I know my paper is US-centric, but school shootings are US-centric.

I’m just so fed up and depressed about it all–it’s not just the conference, although that would have been a nice, much-needed networking opportunity. It’s the cumulative effect of one failure after another. It’s the job applications that go unanswered and the failed interviews that got my hopes up. It’s the hours and days and weeks I spent researching and writing this paper, all wasted. Is this all just a complete waste of time–the PhD, the mountain of student loan debt, the effort wasted on publications that will never see the light of day?

2021 Reflections

This has been making the rounds on Instagram—I haven’t found the original creator to credit, DM if you know who it was!

With my birthday and New Years, December always makes me introspective. Last year was a tough one to reflect on, because 2020 was so different than anyone had expected it to be. I went into 2020 with a new house and new baby, and plans for playgroups and library rhyme-time sessions in our new town. I was newly laid-off and I planned to make the most of my “extended maternity leave” by volunteering and gardening and being a stay-at-home mom. That quickly turned into a juggling act as I tried to homeschool George and care for a newborn and keep the noise down while Richard worked from home in the next room. It was hard, but it was all still new. There was a novelty to the first lockdown that made it, if not easier, then a little more interesting at least. We stayed healthy and safe, and all of our friends and family managed to avoid covid. At the end of the year, I could be grateful for that, and grateful for Paul and our new home (lovely place to be stuck in!).

Looking back on 2021, it’s all a bit of a blur. The novelty is gone as we enter year 3 of the pandemic. We’re used to masking up and the smell of hand sanitiser, plexiglass screens and social distancing. I’ve even gotten used to taking swabs for PCR and lateral flow tests now. I also finally got the dreaded virus, brought home from my son’s class at school. It was unavoidable—8 out of the 20 students had covid in the week before Christmas break. I’m currently on day 9 of my 10 day self-isolation, which is not how I imagined my New Years. Thankfully, my symptoms are gone, and George has been fine, so I suppose I should be grateful for our health—but it would have been nice to have avoided covid altogether.

After another weird pandemic year, it’s harder to find things to be grateful for, and much harder to come up with reasons for hope. Even after all of my self-help reading and Brené Brown and Oprah podcasts over the past two years, I still feel untethered. I find it hard to make plans and set goals—everything still feels unpredictable.

Good things that happened in 2021:

  • George learned to read and got his own library card—one of my parenting goals can be checked off the list!
  • We got to go to the States and see family—and they got to meet Paul!
  • I got certified in Teaching English as a Foreign Language.
  • I wrote an academic paper. It hasn’t been published yet, but I wrote it!
  • My book chapter was published and I gave a virtual research seminar about it.
  • I did 100 squats a day in November for Cancer Research UK.
  • I got to visit with my mom twice this year, which 2020 taught me not to take for granted.

I still struggle with my (perceived/real) career failures and trying to figure out what to do next. For now, I have a couple of remote freelance gigs that help me feel slightly better while I continue to apply for academic jobs. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to keep applying, as every rejection is soul-destroying, but all of my self-help reading and podcast listening helps me keep a little bit of faith and hope alive.

Self-isolation gave me the time/space/boredom to make a vision board 🤣
Not pictured: loads more British Library Crime Classics, some more Persephone classics, and some Georgette Heyer novels

Happy New Year to you all, and best wishes for 2022!

The Peace-making Origins of Exchange Diplomacy

On Remembrance Sunday this year, I was thinking about the interwar peace movement that was going on about 100 years ago. The Great War was supposed to be “the war to end all wars.” A third of Europe’s young men were killed. That’s hard to wrap your head around. Think of a dozen guys you went to high school with–that’s four of them who never lived to see the 10-year reunion. Britain had a significant peace movement after the war, particularly amongst women and religious groups. Testament of Youth author Vera Brittain typifies the shift from grief to pacifist activism. She became active in the peace movement after losing her brother, fiance, and several friends in the war, as well as being impacted by her front-line experiences as a nurse.

The war also partly inspired the Institute of International Education (IIE), founded in New York in 1919. IIE co-founder, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Elihu Root, argued that education could inform public opinion on foreign policy and thereby prevent democracies from going to war.

Elihu Root–The outbreak of WWI prevented him from delivering his acceptance speech in Norway for his Nobel Peace Prize in the autumn of 1914. The irony! (Source: Hamilton College)

“When foreign affairs were ruled by autocracies or oligarchies the danger of war was in sinister purpose. When foreign affairs are ruled by democracies the danger of war will be in mistaken beliefs. The world will be the gainer by the change, for, while there is no human way to prevent a king from having a bad heart, there is a human way to prevent a people from having an erroneous opinion. That way is to furnish the whole people, as a part of their ordinary education, with correct information about their relations to other peoples, about the limitations upon their own rights, about their duties to respect the rights of others, about what has happened and is happening in international affairs, and about the effects upon national life of the things that are done or refused as between nations; so that the people themselves will have the means to test misinformation and appeals to prejudice and passion based upon error.”

(Root, 1922, p. 5)

Going back even further, the Rhodes Scholarship shared this peace-keeping aim when it was envisioned in the late 19th century. In his first version of his will, Cecil Rhodes originally intended to create a “secret society” of elites drawn from around the British Empire (and the US, as he hoped it would return to the Empire someday). The aim of the society was “to form so great a power as to render wars impossible and promote the best interests of humanity.” (Aydelotte, 1946: 7). Rhodes’ idea for a secret society evolved over time into a scholarship programme, but the core elements remained–international elites, brought together in Oxford, to develop mutual understanding and international cooperation. Those elements remain in the Rhodes scholarships today, and have been replicated in other competitive scholarship programmes, like Fulbright, Chevening, Rotary, among others.

On the one hand, it’s lovely to see that peace has been such an integral part of exchange diplomacy and international education since its inception. Bringing people together, as the subtitle of the blog suggests, is a key way to enhance our understanding of each other and prevent conflict. On the other hand, there are important questions to be asked about how we define “peace”. Whose peace? Which voices are allowed to participate and which are excluded? Who gets a seat at the table of international relations? When adversaries are defeated, how do we balance accountability with opportunities for redemption? The terms of peace after the first world war contributed to actions that led to the second world war.

Mutual understanding and international cooperation undoubtedly contribute to peace-building, but this also needs to be expanded beyond the elites. Exchange diplomacy in the 21st century needs to shake off the 19th century elitism and make a broader impact.

Aydelotte, F. 1946. The Vision of Cecil Rhodes: A Review of the First Forty Years of the American Scholarships. London: Oxford University Press.

Root, E. 1922. A Requisite for the Success of Popular Diplomacy. Foreign Affairs. 1(1), pp. 3-10. (available free here)

Academic motherhood rant

Academic Twitter is terrible. It’s full of bragging and horror stories, and nothing in between. Either somebody is posting about achieving tenure, publishing a new book/article, or starting a new role, or they’re lamenting how toxic/racist/sexist academia is today. But if social media is good for anything (and that’s a different discussion), it’s good for airing secret grievances. Things that we used to confess to close friends and colleagues can now be shared with the world in Twitter threads. I came across one that asked academic moms how long after having their kids it took for them to feel ‘back in the game’ and perform at work like they did before having kids. The replies were overwhelmingly (oddly comfortingly?) negative, with descriptions of the toll motherhood has taken on their careers.

I’ve been struggling to establish myself in academia since finishing my PhD in 2014. I’ve applied to so many postdocs, lecturer jobs, fellowships, with no luck. Year after year of rejection has been soul-destroying–and then I read a Twitter thread like this, and it seems even more hopeless. I’m not sure how “in the game” I ever was (I was only working part-time, despite wanting and trying to get a full-time role), but now I’m definitely out of the game and I’ve been out of it for two years now. Other people might think I’ve intentionally stepped back to be a full-time mom, but staying home hasn’t been intentional at all–I never stopped applying for jobs, I’m just not getting hired. It’s so shameful.

But then again, I read academic Twitter and question whether I want to keep trying at all. I’m working hard, paying a ridiculous amount of money for part-time daycare, to write academic journal articles I won’t get paid for and which nobody’s going to read (assuming they even get published–I’ve had 2 desk rejections in the past 6 months). All in the hopes of eventually, some day, getting a job that will probably turn out to be toxic, if the complaints on Twitter are anything to go by. What’s the point? There must be a better way…