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.
Happy New Year to you all, and best wishes for 2022!
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.
“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 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…
On Monday 1 November, I’m going to be giving a research seminar on Public Diplomacy and Educational Exchange. Colin Alexander, editor of “The Frontiers of Public Diplomacy,” has organised a 9-part series of seminars based on the edited volume, with each author discussing their contribution. It’s a free online event, 16:00-17:00 GMT, and all are welcome!
Register through Eventbrite to get the seminar link:
After I was rejected in 2018 for a dream tenure-track postdoc fellowship in my favourite city, this line from “Fix You” went through my head for longer than I’d care to admit…It perfectly captures the shame of not being good enough. I honestly felt like I had tried my best, which made the rejection very painful.
For the past year or so, I’ve been applying to lots of jobs, both inside and outside of academia. Every time, I’ve been rejected without ever being invited to an interview. It stings a little, especially when I thought I had a good shot, but I’ve gotten used to it. When we were on holiday in Somerset a few weeks ago, I got invited to interview for a lecturer position that I’d nearly forgotten about–it was a full-time, permanent, Grade 8 role. It was interdisciplinary and very exciting–an awesome job that I didn’t expect to be shortlisted for. I applied anyway because it’s like the lottery–you have to be in it to win it.
This time, I prepared harder than ever. I looked up all of the panel members and took notes on their research interests and roles. I looked at their research groups and saw where my work would fit in. I read the Vice Chancellor’s statement on Black Lives Matter and watched videos about their reciprocal mentoring initiative, which I loved. I looked through their student life and support pages, and was really impressed with their values–you can tell they appreciate the fact that students have a life outside of the university. I worked hard on my presentation, practiced it with a timer several times, recorded myself and watched it back, edited my notes.
On the day, I was extremely nervous and did all of my “power pose” and breathing tricks to calm down (thank you Amy Cuddy!). When it actually was time for the interview, I knew I’d prepared as well as I could. My presentation went well, but the actual interview questions were harder. I could tell that I hadn’t made enough of a research agenda, especially in terms of a funding plan, but to be honest, without an affiliation for the past 2 years, I don’t even know where to start with funding. I need a research funding officer to walk me through the process, and I need time and space (aka childcare) to come up with research ideas and write up proposals. Proposals also require some background research (preliminary lit review), and I don’t have the time or journal access I need to do that. It doesn’t help that I’ve been sleep deprived for two years, either. When I work through these issues, I feel like I’m making excuses, and I worry that the underlying truth is that I’m just not good enough and I just haven’t tried hard enough.
A couple of days later, I got the rejection call while I was on the school run, picking up George and chasing Paul around the playground. Getting feedback in public was not ideal, and it was especially annoying given the fact I’d been carrying my phone around with me constantly with the ringer on for the past 2 days. I kept it together, and I managed not to cry until we got home. Richard took the boys over for me and I followed the advice in Emily and Amelia Nagoski’s Burnout to “feel my feelings.” I just sat and cried. It wasn’t even about this specific job–although that was disappointing and I had gotten my hopes up for it. I cried because it was yet another rejection in a long string of rejections. I cried because, to argue with Paolo Coelho, it felt like the universe was conspiring against me. If this isn’t the right path, if I’m not doing what I’m meant to be doing, then what am I supposed to be doing? If I’m not meant to have an academic career, why did the universe allow me to go this far–passing my PhD viva without corrections, getting articles and chapters published, presenting at conferences–but not get a proper, full-time, permanent job now? If something better is meant for me, why is it taking so long?
Friends and family were quick to send comforting words, and I distracted myself with a busy weekend (food festival, visiting friends, church). I also read Brené Brown’s Rising Strong, which had been sitting in my to-be-read pile for just such a time as this…
Rising Strong is the follow-up to Daring Greatly, both in terms of Brown’s publishing timeline and also in actual practice. Daring Greatly inspires you to put yourself out there–take a chance, apply for that job, open yourself up to a new relationship, etc. Unfortunately, being that brave can/will result in a crash, and that’s where Rising Strong comes in. It’s about picking yourself up after failure.
Brené Brown outlines a 3-stage process based on emotions and storytelling: the Reckoning, the Rumble, and the Revolution. The first stage is about thinking through your emotions–not just feeling your feelings (although that’s crucial, too–instead of numbing them), but also questioning them. My reckoning with the job rejection news happened right away–even as I was reacting to it, I knew I wasn’t actually that upset about that particular rejection. It was about linking my self-worth to my accomplishments and feeling worthless. It was about being embarrassed that had been made redundant two years ago and still hadn’t found a job. It was the shame of not being good enough to get a job. Good enough to get a PhD (seven years ago…), but not good enough to do anything with it. Sylvia Plath talked about this feeling in The Bell Jar–being good at winning scholarships, but struggling with the real world outside of school.
And this kind of storytelling is where the Rumble comes in. The story you tell yourself about the event in question is the SFD (Brown borrows Anne Lamott’s term “shitty first draft”). My SFD was that I wasn’t cut out for academia, I had wasted my 20s and half of my 30s, and I would never find a proper job because, at the end of the day, I just wasn’t good enough. The SFD is full of confabulations–“lies, honestly told” (p. 81)–and conspiracies. Rumbling with it is about working through what the actual facts are, what your assumptions are, what’s going on with other people in the story, and what’s underneath your own response to the event.
So what actually happened?
I interviewed for a job and didn’t get it.
Nothing more, nothing less.
It’s not a reflection on my self-worth, or even on my ability to ever establish myself in academia.
It was one job, one interview, one department, one panel.
There are other jobs, both inside and outside of academia, and I need to have faith that I will eventually find the right fit somewhere.
My job search history sounds terrible in my mind (only 2 interviews in 3 years), but if you compare it to dating, it makes more sense. I can see that I just haven’t found the right one yet and I need to keep believing that something better is out there. It’s like going on an unsuccessful first date in 2018, having some rejections on dating apps, and then having another unsuccessful first date in 2021, and deciding you’re never going to meet anyone and you’re going to die alone. If somebody presented that timeline to me, I would tell them to put themselves out there more, or stop looking and just try do to more of what they love to do.
The final stage, the Revolution, is about re-writing the story and creating a new ending. Obviously, I want the ending of the story to be that I finally get a career (preferably in academia, but I’m open to other possibilities). It’s supposed to be based on the learnings from the Rumble, so I suppose mine is the realisation that I am actually good enough, I have actually already been a lecturer and I can be one again. I have a PhD and publications and experience that they can’t take away from me, no matter how long I’m a sleep deprived stay-at-home-mom who hardly ever gets to write anymore.
The Rising Strong process has also reinforced the importance of self-compassion, and the need for me to go back and re-read Kristin Neff’s Self-Compassion. If a friend was going through the job search process and struggling like I am, there’s no way I would ever say or think “You’re just not cut out for this.” I would comfort them, commiserate with them, make them a cup of tea, and remind them of all of their best qualities. I would tell them to keep trying and reassure them that the right job is out there, and it will come at the right time.
Now I just need to practice talking to myself like that!
This morning I watched the New York Times report on the January 6th riot. It’s very hard to watch, but everybody who was patriotically barbecuing and watching fireworks last Sunday for Independence Day should watch it and take a moment to reflect on the state of the union.
Rewatching the events of that day, brought together so seamlessly in this report, I felt that same sense of shock and horror. It was surreal. If I didn’t know that it had actually happened, I wouldn’t think it was possible for people to breach the Capitol building. I’ve never been inside it, but I’ve been through security at the National Archives–it was airport-level scrutiny, with armed guards, metal detectors, and x-ray machines. A normal, law-abiding, sensible person would not think to try to breach it or attack it or “take it back”.
I was struck by the way they chanted “treason” while they were, in my eyes, committing treason. It reminded me of the classic discourse analysis example, one man’s “terrorist” is another man’s “freedom fighter.” In their eyes, they were there to fight the “treason” of a “stolen” election–a great injustice had taken place, and they (somehow?) thought they would stop it by taking over the Capitol building. It’s so hard to be empathetic and see January 6th from their perspective, because their perspective is counterfactual. How can you have a dialogue with them?
Looking at the sea of angry white faces waving Confederate flags, I was also reminded of the Civil Rights era and the aggressive crowds protesting school integration. So little has changed since then.
This anger and hatred didn’t go away with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. It didn’t go away when we elected a Black President. We see it in the counter-protests that meet Black Lives Matter demonstrations. We see it in daily miscarriages of justice, in persistent inequalities, in casual racism and overt racism.
Investigating what happened on January 6th is about more than Trump. He’s a symptom of a larger problem. It’s about a whole system that made these people feel they were the ones who had been wronged, that they were fighting “treason” (rather than committing it), and that they had the right (and even the duty) to breach the Capitol and stop the Constitutionally-mandated process of certifying an election that their own party’s officials had declared was secure, free, and fair.
I’m sure in the Civil Rights era it felt like American was hopelessly divided and there was no way forward, just as it does now. Things have improved in the past 60 years, even if we still have a long way to go.
In an effort to tackle my TBR pile (which is quickly becoming a TBR bookcase), I finally read The Alchemist. Having heard Paulo Coelho on Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations and seeing the book referenced in a lot of self-help/psych content, I picked the book up at a charity shop ages ago but I never got around to reading it. I picked it up just after finishing Daring Greatly–Brené Brown mentioned The Alchemist and I can definitely see the link between her work and his. The above quote captures it well. They’re talking about vulnerability, and the great lesson is that being vulnerable (opening yourself up to the possibility of pain/suffering) is less painful than the avoidance of vulnerability (keeping yourself closed off and armoured up).
The most popular quotation from The Alchemist, though, is the concept of the Law of Attraction.
I’m not sure how much I believe it or buy into it. I think I used to–when things were going well, it was easy to believe that the universe was helping me succeed. After the past year and a half, though, it’s a much tougher idea to accept. Yesterday morning, for instance, I faced a school closure and a journal rejection, and it felt like the universe was conspiring against me ever establishing a career. Brené Brown talks about the inner voice “gremlins” of shame and self-doubt, and they were very loud yesterday. I was disappointed and frustrated to miss out on my (very limited) writing time, and the gremlins just shrugged and said “It doesn’t matter anyway–even when you do have time to write, it’s not good enough to get published.” Why bother? Why keep putting myself out there and getting hurt by rejections? What’s the point? If I’m not good enough, I’m just wasting my time and everybody else’s time. The gremlins make a very strong case.
The response to the self-doubt/shame gremlins is this quote above–the idea that failures and set-backs are temporary moments on the path to your goal. It’s a common message throughout the self-help/psych world and, although people talk about it, they rarely operationalise just how you go about getting back up that 6th, 7th or 8th time. People talk about the importance of perseverance–Oprah was fired at 23 and told she wasn’t a good fit for TV, Harry Potter was rejected by 12 publishers, Stephen King’s Carrie was rejected 30 times and his wife got it out of the trash and convinced him to keep trying. These are lovely stories rolled out to inspire, but what if they’re the exceptions that prove the rule? At what point do you cut your losses and walk away? (And my losses in pursuit of an academic career are massive–mortgage-sized student loan debt, years of not working a proper job and contributing to retirement savings, etc.). Paulo Coelho would have you believe in yourself, but what if you actually aren’t good enough? It’s like the people on American Idol/Pop Idol who dream of being the next Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey, and they’ve been told their whole lives how great they are (by loving friends/family), but then they sing in the audition and they can’t carry a tune in a bucket. They are heartbroken and/or in denial when the judges reject them. I don’t want to be one of them, getting up over and over with no hope of success.
How do you know whether you’re a fired Oprah or an American Idol reject? And if you really are a fired Oprah, how do you find the inner strength to get up the 6th, 7th or 8th time?
Claims for significance feel pompous and uncomfortable. It’s audacity. It reminds me of the “carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man” tweet I’ve posted before. Academic journal articles are usually about such a narrow, niche topic, and read by so few people, that it feels ridiculous to make claims that our findings are world-changing and impactful.
Awkward as they may feel, claims for significance are an essential part of your journal article–it’s the marketing side, really, explaining why your article should interest the reader. Wendy Laura Belcher noted that they have grown bolder, with “aggressive wording in claims for significance” increasing in recent decades (Belcher, 2019, p. 192). She also acknowledges how difficult they are to write, and her “make writing social” motto is absolutely essential for this task. Talking about your work and going through the “So what?” exercise with an actual human being gives you an opportunity to thrash out just what your article contributes.
Last week, I finally had a chance to talk about my work with someone who had read my draft, my friend Carly who originally introduced me to Writing your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks. Our discussion was so helpful and boosted my confidence about my paper. We each played our roles in the feedback process well–she was enthusiastic and offered constructive suggestions, and I listened and took notes without getting defensive. The biggest change she suggested was a macrostructural swap around of my findings–in my excitement, I had introduced the “change” group before the “status quo” group, and Carly suggested switching these around, as a “starting with the familiar” approach. I’ve made the revision now and it does read better.
In terms of claims for significance, this article reveals a discursive turn towards action against gun violence. We’ve seen how “thoughts and prayers” are no longer accepted responses–in satire, in political cartoons, in social media comments sections. This study unpacks the backlash against “thoughts and prayers” and shows how politicians’ responses to gun violence are changing. Even though the recommended actions are very different between Democrats (gun control) and Republicans (school security), they both represent a turn away from “thoughts and prayers” and towards action. The “so what?” about that is that it suggests the US will take action on gun violence, that the gridlock and polarisation on gun policy might finally be overcome with some legislative action. Time will tell, but the next year and a half are an opportunity for change, with the Democrats controlling Congress and the White House, and given the Biden-Harris administration’s pro-gun-control rhetoric.
Does my paper end gun violence? No. Does it help us understand this divisive, paradoxical issue? Hopefully yes! I just need to be audacious enough to drop the “hopefully”…
The Frontiers of Public Diplomacy is officially published! It’s been a pleasure to contribute to this volume, edited by Dr. Colin Alexander, who I’ve known since our MA days at Leeds, and contributed to by a couple of other former Leeds folks, Gary Rawnsley and Jacob Udo-Udo Jacob (none of the 4 of us are at Leeds now, but you can see from this book that there used to be a thriving PD group!).
My chapter tries to be a bit innovative and plays around with theory more than we generally see in exchange diplomacy research. It was definitely an effort to leave my comfort zone and challenge myself (and readers) to think differently about exchanges and where they fit within the larger contexts of public diplomacy, international education, and statecraft more generally.
Looking forward to getting my hard copy and reading the other contributions, especially from the non-Leeds folks whose work I’m less familiar with. This autumn, we’re going to be holding a series of virtual talks on the book, with contributing authors sharing their chapters and answering questions. I’ll be posting more details about those closer to the time.
I’m currently reading Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly, and even though I know what it’s all about from following her TED talks and podcasts and Super Soul Conversations with Oprah, reading it is still mind-blowing.
I’m starting to realize why the job search is so hard and uncomfortable: it’s all about vulnerability.
Applying for a job is literally putting yourself up for judgment.
On a recent Unlocking Us podcast episode (linked below), Dr. Yaba Blay said she had found academia “the least affirming space” for her, and I felt that in my soul. Looking for a job in academia is incredibly painful and soul-destroying–every job posting is for a niche topic and requires relocating and demands an extensive track record of excellent, world-changing research, etc. I can scroll through pages and pages of academic job postings without finding a single thing that I can apply for–and I come away thinking it’s because I’m not good enough. I haven’t had enough publications or research experience or funding awards. As Brene Brown terms it, I operate from a place of scarcity.
The job search is all about scarcity (lacking qualifications/experience/money) and perfectionism (fear of judgment and rejection, trying to please and impress at the interview), and it requires you to be vulnerable. Nightmare.
This is especially true if, like me, you associate your self-worth with your accomplishments. Your CV/resume is a list of your accomplishments, so if you put it out there and it gets rejected, you feel worthless. Even worse, if you get shortlisted and get your hopes up and go to an interview, you can get rejected by people who actually met you and talked with you. How do you go through that without feeling worthless?
Brené Brown’s answer is that you don’t attach your self-worth to your accomplishments, to a job, to a relationship, etc. You just stand in the knowledge that you are enough. Right now, as is. If you can separate those things and know that whatever happens, you are enough, then you can withstand disappointments.
I’ve had the hardest time wrapping my head around that concept. If you don’t prove yourself with achievements, then how do you? It made no sense to me. Growing up, I only understood my worth in terms of achievement, specifically academic achievement. I was motivated by it, and now Brené Brown’s telling me I didn’t actually have to get a PhD to be worthy? That the overweight, crooked-toothed, frizzy-haired 13-year-old in a baggy t-shirt in my 8th grade school picture was good enough just as she was? Believing that requires a wholesale rejection of everything society has taught me all my life.
And that’s just it. You don’t prove yourself–you can’t and you don’t have to. You are just inherently worthy of love and belonging because you are human. It’s completely at odds with the world around us, with advertising and tv and movies, etc. But there’s also something very obvious about it. Of course everyone has value.
I struggle to accept this lesson for myself and my own self-worth, but one day I realised that I already do accept that people have inherent worth–when it comes to other people. When I was doom-scrolling job sites, it occurred to me that I don’t know what careers our old friends at church had before they retired, but I still think they’re wonderful people. They’re friendly, kind, funny, generous, community-minded. I see them as “contributing members of society,” a designation I won’t give myself until I have a “proper” job.
I’m still trying to wrap my head around vulnerability and trying to muster up the courage to put myself out there (blogging is part of it), but I think it’s all part of the need for self-compassion. Acknowledging that this is hard, recognising that nobody gets it right all the time, and standing firm in the knowledge that you are already enough, just as you are.