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.

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…

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.

What I’m Reading : Methodology

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been taking some time to read up on research methods. It’s one of those tasks that’s always been lingering on the back burner—something that I’ve been meaning to do and just never gotten around to doing. It’s not exciting, but it’s important to have a solid understanding of research methods as a foundation for an academic career. A bit tiresome but useful for the future, like a nightly skincare routine that you’re tempted to skip.

Part of my imposter syndrome is that I really never had a strong foundation in methodology, yet I have taught research methods and supervised research projects for years. I recommend books to my students that I haven’t even read myself! I felt like I had skipped something. So, this past month, I finally corrected that and read all of the methods books I had on my shelf (but never actually read before), and ordered a few more.

-Excellent guide to content analysis, very clear and well explained. I read it cover to cover, and now I feel much more comfortable with my recommendations for it over the years!

—Altheide was recommended for further reading in Neuendorf’s section on qualitative research, and it really clicked with me. I have been doing what he described without knowing what it was called…

—Berger is one of those authors that we use in the first year undergrad research methods module, so I was familiar with the chapters of his that I’ve taught. This is a good introduction-level textbook, with clear explanations and good recommendations for further reading.

—I’ve always recommended Fairclough without really knowing much about his work and taking the time to understand it. Now that I’ve actually read this all the way through and worked with it, I wish I had read it years ago. I would have been a better supervisor for all of my students who wanted to do discourse analysis or CDA.


—Good overview of different approaches, useful for comparing and contrasting techniques when you’re trying to decide what to do. Once you’re sure about your method (s), though, you need something more detailed and specific.

—Another one that was recommended by another text (this is the ‘snowball technique’ of literature searching, btw). I didn’t notice that it was an edited volume when I ordered it, so was slightly disappointed that it wasn’t just van Dijk—I think I may need to order one of his other books. Good overview, but not as prescriptive as Fairclough’s Language and Power.

—This one arrived in the post today and I’m looking forward to reading it again. It’s the only method book that I remember reading during my MA research, and as such I’ve recommended it to a lot of supervisees. I remember struggling with it a bit, so it’s going to be interesting to see how I get on with it now.

Overall, it’s been lovely to take this time to sort myself out and grow more confident with the methods literature. It’s taken away some of the shame I felt around not knowing enough about all of the various techniques my colleagues mentioned so casually. I also felt like a bit of a hypocrite, as I always tell my supervisees not to forget about methods lit. It feels good that I finally followed my own advice!

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.

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.

Out now! The Legacy of J. William Fulbright: Policy, Power and Ideology

The edited volume with my book chapter is now officially published! It’s listed on amazon.com, amazon.co.uk, Google Books, Jstor, and sometimes I’m even listed as a contributing author! I’m so excited to see it in print! I love the cover, too–it has a definite 1960s, retro feel to it, and the ’60’s were the Senator’s prime years.

This book came out of a fantastic conference I took part in at the University of Arkansas, 1-2 September 2015.

I’m hiding away behind Nancy Snow–it was such a great experience to finally meet her, talk about our mutual interests in exchange diplomacy, and share memories of Phil Taylor!

My chapter is much improved after being rewritten a couple of times since then, and it’s not the only thing that’s changed:

9 week old George in our conference hotel room…
Our walking, talking 4 year old George today!

I’m so proud of the editors and contributors for all of their hard work, and so grateful that I had the opportunity to take part in this project. It covers a great mix of biography, history, sociology and public diplomacy. All academic books try to emphasise their originality, but it really does add some new perspectives and insights on the Senator and on his namesake exchange program. My chapter and Alice Garner & Diane Kirkby’s chapter bring a discussion of gender to the collection that, until now, has been ignored in studies of the Fulbright Program. Well done everybody!

Summer Job: Writing Everything I Put Off While Teaching

My ambitious Summer Project List!

Summer is a strange time to be on campus–it’s so quiet and empty! After struggling through the exam weeks of crowded libraries and cafes, it feels like I’ve got the place to myself. The motion-activated lights in the hall outside my office keep coming on just for me when I come and go, as nobody else is around! I do love the empty libraries, but campus does seem a bit soul-less without the ~30,000 students around.

This week campus is livelier, thanks to the graduation ceremonies (I love seeing the proud parents and extended families–it’s so sweet!). Once they’ve wrapped up, the summer sessions for ESOL students will begin. Before you know it, things will start gearing up for the new academic year!

The speedy approach of September (less than 6 weeks to go!) is why I’ve been working hard on my publications this summer. On the first Monday in September, I’ll be getting around 30 Masters dissertations to mark, and my own projects will have to return to the back burner once again. I’m trying to wrap them up (or at least get them off to be reviewed) so they won’t be neglected for another term of teaching this autumn.

Turning my attention to writing really does feel like a completely different job–a summer job, like my students have. Academia really shouldn’t be this way–ideally, lecturers would be able to balance their time between teaching and research activities all year long, as the job descriptions say we do. But for myself and everybody I’ve spoken with, it’s how it is–teaching (if you’re really trying and you give a damn) is too demanding for us to get our own research done. My fellow early career colleagues all have long lists of publications we’re working on, in various stages of completion and with various deadlines. In the background there’s always the more ambitious goals of turning our old, neglected PhD thesis into a book or squeezing a journal article or two out of it. For me, for the past 4 years, that particular goal has been superseded by other, more “urgent” short-term deadlines, like conference papers. I recently decided not to submit an abstract for a conference, because I knew it would distract me from my “back burner” projects that need to be finished.

At the moment, my most pressing deadline is a rewrite of an article I’ve been trying to get published for about a year now. I’m struggling to face it again, but I’m determined to give it one more go. I hate getting negative reviews and I hate rewriting, but those are both things I need to get over…

Trying to see the light at the end of the tunnel…someday, it will be published somewhere, and it will be that much better for all the reviewing and rewriting…

Five Year Viva-versary

That’s the smile of a relieved PhD student!

Five years ago today, I passed my PhD viva without corrections and was officially done with grad school. June 18th is right up there with my wedding day and my son’s birthday in terms of memorable dates. In all 3 cases, the event had a long build-up with lots of preparation to do, when the day of it finally happening arrived it felt surreal, and the event itself went smoothly. Weddings, childbirth and PhD vivas are all high-stakes and emotive events, but it’s worth remembering that they’re all just one day in a much longer journey (marriage, parenting, career).

With the 5 year milestone approaching, I’ve been feeling very down on myself and disappointed with my lack of career progression lately. In the world of academia, both in terms of funding opportunities and jobs, the first 5 years after the PhD is awarded are considered your “early career” years. This early career status means you’re eligible for roles where it’s not expected for you to have a large track record of publications and research outputs. My “maternity leave” (I didn’t have formal mat leave, as I wasn’t working yet) gives me a little extra time, and according to some funding advice I’ve heard, my part-time employment status might give me more time before I lose my “early career” designation. But in my mind, I’ve officially lost that status today. It’s been 5 years. 5 years is long enough to get established–or at least I thought it would be, but here I am, still in my old department, still on a part-time & fixed-term contract, still lacking publications, and I’m 33 and I’ve never worked full-time. It’s cathartic to put that out there–and maybe other early career academics will read it and feel better about their situations.

This evening after work, I thought about all of the things I’ve done over the past 5 years that don’t make it onto the CV and publication list. Looking back on my accomplishments helped me be a bit kinder to myself.

  1. Had a baby–I underestimated how much it completely knocks you out and keeps you from doing anything that would conventionally be considered “productive”. Society needs to start recognizing that it IS productive. He’s now nearly 4–walks, talks, runs, eats well, he’s very healthy and bright, and he’s getting more and more independent every day. We did that!
3 weeks postpartum at my PhD graduation

2. I got my own office with my name on the door! Yes, I may only have a part-time, fixed-term contract, but I have one thing that many of my fellow precarious workers don’t have

3. I’ve presented my work at conferences around the world, and met wonderful mentors like R.S. Zaharna and Nancy Snow

So excited to meet one of my favorite public diplomacy scholars, Rhonda Zaharna at ICA in Prague last year (and how cool to get to go to Prague?!)

I’m not sure what the next five years will hold, but I’m hoping to get my PhD published as a book (in time for the Fulbright Program’s 75th anniversary in 2021), and do some new book-sized research (maybe expanding and developing the gun rhetoric study into something grant-worthy and publishable). I intend to keep having a personal life, too–it might be the cause of my slow progress, but it’s definitely worth it.

Unpaid work, part 4: Academia

I’m not sure whether people outside of academia are aware of how much unpaid work goes into academic research, teaching and publishing…

Academic publishing is built on a system of unpaid work. You write a journal article for free and submit it to a journal. They send it off to reviewers, who are asked to comment on your work and determine whether it’s publishable–and they aren’t paid, either. The article is then published in a journal that higher education institutions pay expensive subscription fees for–or if it’s an open access journal, then the author has paid a large publication fee (while also not getting paid to write it).

Source: https://guides.lib.fsu.edu/academicpublishing/economics

Then there’s the unpaid work involved in teaching–the breakdown of contracted hours is often opaque and greatly underestimates the time spent on marking, prep, e-mails, and pastoral care. Hourly contracted staff are given 30 minutes per essay when it comes to marking, for example–that’s 30 min to read it, evaluate how it measures up to the marking criteria, and write up useful feedback with specific examples and advice. Even after 8 years of teaching experience and developing templates, I would still struggle to give decent feedback in under 30 minutes.

Other unpaid things you must do to establish an academic career:

  • Look for your next contract while you’re on a temporary contract
  • Apply for grants and fellowships
  • Write book proposals
  • Look for Calls For Papers (for publications or conferences)
  • Apply for conferences, which often require original work that hasn’t previously been published elsewhere (and they charge conference registration fees that University employers usually cover, so it doesn’t seem like a big deal unless you’re out of work or on a low paid part-time contract)
  • Networking–it’s work that doesn’t seem like work, but can actually be essential for finding the next contract or project…and women are often excluded from it.

On the last point, here’s a little illustration from my own experience:

When my son was 9 weeks old, I presented my work at a conference that was a *dream* topic for me. It was so closely linked to my recently completed PhD topic, and I had cited many of the other speakers’ work in my thesis. I was thrilled to be there and so grateful for the opportunity! They even funded my travel expenses, which was essential, as I was unemployed at the time (not on maternity leave, but actually unemployed). The conference was a wonderful experience and I got a lot out of it, including the chance to contribute to an edited volume that’s coming out in August 2019.

It was, however, the first time I really experienced the realities of being a working and breastfeeding mom. While I was downstairs listening to presentations, my husband was upstairs in our hotel room looking after our 9-week-old. Every time there was a coffee break or lunch break, I would dash upstairs and simultaneously pump and breastfeed until the start of the next session. My supply was low, so it was a struggle. This meant that I missed out on most of the conference’s networking opportunities. I was worried in equal measure about establishing my milk supply and establishing my career–and it’s easy to feel like a failure on both fronts when I look back at it now.

On a more positive note, blogging (also unpaid) about it and sharing our experiences with each other is a step towards raising awareness about these inequalities and the unpaid workload of participating in academia.