GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

Author Archive

A Hall of Femmes for Women in Academia

In Anamaria's Posts on 2012/05/30 at 00:19

Anamaria Dutceac Segesten, writing from Lund, Sweden. 

Not long ago, the Swedish design duo Hjärta Smärta, composed of Samira Bouabana and Angela Tillman Sperandio, initiated a project aimed at recognizing the talent of women designers. They noticed that most of the books in their field showcased the work and the biographies of male creators, and wanted to fill the gap by including all those major female figures in the world of design. They admired their older counterparts’ artistic muse but were looking for also for some inspiration in the biographies of these highly successful but less known female personalities in the world of design.

The result is now known as the Hall of Femme, a nice pun on the Hall of Fame that does not include as many women as the team at Hjärta Smärta thought it should. Besides having a blog (in Swedish) which gathers their design-related posts from around the web, Bouabana and Tillman Sperandio authored also several books based on extensive interviews with the grand dames of design such as Lillian Bassman or Carin Goldberg.

After I had read about the Hall of Femmes I thought immediately that this is exactly what I would love to do: collect the life stories of the big names among female academics. It is true that we here at UVenus are representing the younger, Gen X, women, but, as the saying goes, we stand on the shoulders of giants. The life narratives of these first ladies of academia are documents about the history of the process of bringing in and recognizing women’s merits as researchers and professors at the university level. They are also potential models and terms of comparison for our own lives and struggles today. After a long and successful career, perhaps one looks with different eyes at one’s working life, and at one’s priorities. This could be an inspiration for us younger women in the academia, and perhaps also a comfort, to know that these women we admire have shared our own passions and our own occasional desolation.

I always wondered about such things as:

How did the women professors in any given country active in the 1960s or 70s cope with the patriarchal biases so much more present and visible at that time?

How did they solve the “life puzzle”, combining academia with families?

Did they feel recognized for their work and how (and when) did that recognition come?

As for my imaginary interlocutors, there are many, some dead, some still with us. I would have loved to talk to Marie Curie or Rachel Carson, for example, but that chance is gone… I would love to talk to Nobel Prize winners such as Elinor Ostrom (Economics), Carol W. Greider and Elizabeth Blackburn (Medicine). Or with some of the women authors in my field of study, social sciences, professors like Katherine Verdery,Wend yBracewell, or Helen Wallace. Of course, I would also like to go outside the English-speaking world and get the opinions of women, both young and old, such as Leyla Neyzi, Daniela Koleva, or Barbara Törnquist-Plewa.

We all need role models, and have such people as references in our everyday professional and private lives. Let us recognize their impact and acknowledge their contribution.

Who would you like to include in the Hall of Femmes of Women in the Academia and why? Which questions would you like to ask these prominent female figures in the world of higher education and research?

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed. 


The Death of the Lecture

In Anamaria's Posts on 2012/04/27 at 04:50
 Anamaria Dutceac Segesten, writing from Lund, Sweden. 
Recently, I had a conversation around the lunch table with several of my colleagues. The discussion turned to the requirement to take pedagogical courses, now part of the criteria for getting an academic job at my university. Were these courses useful or just necessary? Do they teach something relevant for improving one’s teaching? As good scientists, we stopped discussing the courses and focused thereon on the definition of “teaching” or, more specifically, on what “good teaching” should stand for. Of the many things we discussed during that lunch, the idea of the outdated lecture stayed with me, I decided to dedicate this post to a critique of this method of teaching.

Lectures are a very common (I could safely generalize and say even the most common) method of teaching at the university level. This does not mean that there are no labs, seminars, discussion sessions, group projects etc. It only means that if we look at the academic schedule of most disciplines, the majority of the booked times are under the heading “lecture”. During these lectures, the teacher imparts information on a specific topic to a group of students. What  happens is known as “information transfer”: the teacher shares her knowledge with the students, who take notes and can ask questions whenever something is not clear. At the end of the session, the teacher and the students are in possession of the same amount and quality of information about the specific topic – the transfer of information has been completed.

But is the transfer of information mediated by a teacher the same thing as learning? Learning is about the long-lasting acquisition of information, it is about remembering the information and being able to retrieve it and apply it at the appropriate time in the appropriate circumstances. Lectures can ensure the short-term memorization of information, as teachers who give quizzes at the end of their presentations have certainly proven. However, it is highly questionable if lectures can deliver this kind of long-lasting knowledge. Others have demonstrated the need to complement lectures with other didactic exercises. This is where terms such as peer instruction, or (inter)active learning come from: from the need to make students engage with the information received from the teacher, to make it their own, and to apply it.

In this kind of learning, the teacher spends much less time talking to a quiet classroom (sometimes the lecture is entirely virtual, like in audio or video broadcasts that are available before the physical meeting in the classroom). Instead, the teacher’s task is to provide personalized and qualified feedback for the learning activities of the students. The students, armed with the lecture and the associated readings, discuss and respond to various hands-on exercises. The teacher assists the discussions, monitors them, and gives responses to the quality of the debates and of the results of the exercises.

Nothing of what I write here is revolutionary. Almost all of this has been common knowledge for many decades. Lectures are not the most effective way of learning. Instead more participatory forms of pedagogy give better results both in national tests and in professional life after studies. So why do we still have the lecture as the number one teaching tool?

I single out here two reasons: inertia and money. Academia is an environment well-known for its slowness in embracing change. The lecture has been around practically since the Middle Ages. It is the way to teach, and both students and teachers expect it. In order to change the teaching format from lecture-based to more hands-on student-focused learning, one needs to change the infrastructure of the university (everything, from the way to count worked hours to the classroom design). This change is met with resistance because of inertia but also because of the high material costs. And it is not just the costs of change that deter the dethroning of the lecture. One should count here also the higher amount of contact hours, since the student discussions/labs/seminars can only be carried out by few students at a time. The teacher would have to work more hours to attend these meetings and to give specific, customized feedback to every group, instead of delivering a finished product to many students at the same time.

Further readings:

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Why go for a Ph.D.? Advice for those in doubt

In Anamaria's Posts on 2012/03/31 at 21:37

Anamaria Dutceac Segesten, writing from Lund, Sweden

It is very fashionable these days in the world of arts and entertainment to create prequels. As opposed to sequels, telling readers/viewers what happened next to their favorite characters or plots, prequels go back in time. I find myself following this trend and writing a prequel to my post on how to avoid Ph.Ddropout.

One of the comments to the above-mentioned post made me think that one of the best ways to minimize Ph.D. drop-out rates is to select the best candidates for the job. The next logical question is: Why follow a Ph.D.?

Why go for a Ph.D.? There are as many reasons as people, you may say, but perhaps these motivations can be systematized in some general categories. The disinterested reason most often given is that people go for a Ph.D. because of their thirst for knowledge. Simply put, Ph.D. students are those with high degree of internal motivation that stems from their inborn curiosity and love of intellectual pursuits. They are expected that after they obtain their degree they will metamorphose into scholars for whom also the temptation of researching new and exciting subjects is irresistible, or at least preferable to all other choices.

But is it so that one can satisfy this desire for deeper understanding only by enrolling in a Ph.D. program? Are there no other avenues for the interested mind than university-based research programs? Certainly we all know the answer: there are other opportunities to drive research projects outside the academia. Sometimes access to these opportunities is conditioned by having received a Ph.D. from a university, but I would not claim this to be the absolute rule. Think-tanks and research institutes do hire capable minds with or without the diploma.

There are other reasons for pursuing a Ph.D. though, let them be called more pragmatic. In this sense, the doctoral degree is not just a passport to a world of research and new knowledge. The degree is a valuable asset that increases one’s chances for obtaining higher paid, more satisfying jobs. It is seen as an investment, a certificate of one’s special abilities that gives advantages on the job market.

While it is true that Ph.D. holders do get higher salaries, the higher education market is not one of the most rewarding in terms of financial stability. There are few available jobs, there is a lot of tough competition and the salary of a professional is lower here than in the industry. So the Ph.D. diploma is valuable if its possessor is interested in the non-academic job market. However, how many of the Fortune 100 people hold a doctorate? Not many. On the contrary, there are numerous among these who are drop-outs (even before finishing a Bachelor). So if you want to be really financially prosperous, then Ph.D. degrees are not for you.

There are other pragmatic reasons that motivate students to continue their education to the Ph.D. level. Coming from the times when these diplomas were reserved for a minuscule segment of the population, the doctoral degree is a seen as a prestige marker, the recognition of one’s exceptional talents and the certificate of belonging to the intellectual elite. The non-material rewards that a Ph.D. is supposed to bring, at least theoretically, are connected to social standing; Ph.D.’s can be used as a vehicle for upwards social mobility, and for the fulfillment of personal and family ambitions.

The prestige power of the Ph.D. is however on the wane. With mass education, the number of doctorate holders increased exponentially, so that the elite membership and the high social status coupled with it weakened. Especially in connection with a decrease in salary size for university professionals, doctorate holders may be seen as exceptional but quirky: why choose to specializes narrowly, work so many hours, and for so little pay when one could get a more lucrative employment elsewhere?

Some people are driven to pursue a Ph.D. because of pragmatic reasons that are not of their own making. The Ph.D. is not the first-hand choice, but the one imposed by necessities. If the job market does not offer attractive alternatives, or if entry to the job market is prohibited because of immigration status, then pursuing the highest academic degree is the choice for students who under other circumstances would have opted for a position in the industry and not in the research field.

Why did you choose to pursue a Ph.D.? Or why did you decide against a Ph.D.?

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed. 

Ph.D. Dropout

In Anamaria's Posts on 2012/03/07 at 01:49

Anamaria Dutceac, writing from Lund, Sweden.

Ph.D. students: How to finish your dissertation and enjoy your time writing it

It is that time of the year. The time when Ph.D. applications are due, when the stress of putting together a good proposal, writing a convincing cover letter, and polishing that old CV are all at the top of the list for many of my master students. When answering questions about what being a Ph.D. student really implies, I come to think about all the people that begin their doctorates in earnest but never finish. I do not personally know so many, but statistics say that about 37% of students who begin a Ph.D. never actually obtain the diploma.

It is not surprising that so many decide that this kind of career does not suit them. Regardless of the discipline, it appears that one things Ph.D. across the world share is a deep dissatisfaction with the way they are treated. Besides disgruntlement, there are few other factors that come into play when quitting or finishing a Ph.D. is on the agenda, of which the most important two are money and mentors. I would like to add to the list one other element, namely support from other sources than the advisors/mentors.

Advisors are essential in the process of designing and producing the academic content of the Ph.D. as well as during the networking and publishing phases. However, they are not always the most appropriate source of emotional support and provider of “technical” advice (on how to write, how to organize information, how to sort it, etc.). This is where the professional support from outside the department comes into play.

Departments would benefit from hiring external consultants (external to the department or even external to the university) that would provide two types of services: 1) psychological support and 2) research and writing advice.

Psychological support

At some moment during the writing process doubt, insecurity and the desire to throw everything into the dustbin are all common occurrences. How to address these issues? How to find the strength to carry on? How to not cave in under the immense stress and pressure that departments, advisors and perhaps family or social environment exert upon the Ph.D. student? How to deal with writer’s block, or with experiments that fail? Competent psychological guiding can help extract one from the dark hole of despair and give extra impulses and motivation when they are most needed. Through dialogue and the learning of stress relief techniques, psychology comes to the rescue. Lifting morale, increasing confidence, controlling stress: these three steps can really affect Ph.D. student’s state of mind and guide her/him through difficult times.

Research and writing advice

On the second point, even more concrete techniques can be communicated and taught to improve the writing process. I do not believe that one method or technique fits all styles, but becoming more aware of one’s own way of approaching research and writing is an important first step. For example, monitoring how much time is dedicated to writing on the thesis during a regular week can unveil those “time sucking activities” responsible for low productivity. Once these bad habits are identified, one can replace them with tried and tested procedures. Among them:

●        Schedule writing as a regular activity in your calendar, alongside teaching and administration (and gym passes!)

●        Divide writing time in manageable slots (some argue that even 15 minutes a day are enough)

●        During the writing sessions cut off any telephone and internet contact, using software (e.g. Freedom, Think, or Isolator)

●        Write something every working day, so that your brain is primed for the subject of your thesis.

●        Take time off during weekends or when friends’ and family’s schedule fit best so that your social life does not melt into thin air. Weekend breaks from writing may even improve your work!

●        Join a group of people in the same position as you. One example is the Shut Up and Write initiative, but I am sure there are others out there.

●        Take a class or workshop about software that can help you systematize or organize your data/references/article library. Technology is here to help, don’t ignore it!

I am convinced that if such help as I discuss above would be readily available for Ph.D. students across campuses, the drop-out rate of doctoral students would be drastically reduced. Moreover, doing the research and writing the thesis would be transformed from a burden to a much more enjoyable activity.

Do you have any other suggestions on how to deal with Ph.D. drop-out?
This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.

Get Smarter

In Anamaria's Posts on 2012/02/04 at 07:48

Anamaria Dutceac Segesten, writing from Lund, Sweden.

New Year’s resolution: get smarter.

I do not like this quasi-obsession with making promises for new beginnings whenever January 1 shows its face on the first page of a new calendar. I do not think they last, these attempts to become a new person in a new year. Most of the classical New Year resolutions die out about the time we do not have to think twice before dating correctly our correspondence.

At the same time, as humans we are blessed with the capacity to learn throughout our lives, to train our minds and bodies to achieve new feats. This is exciting, and a motivation into itself to do that which is the most typical for the first days of the New Year: to appraise the past and think about the future.

I want therefore to ask: how has 2011 been for you? For me, to quote Umair Haque’s blog entry at HBR, it’s been the best and worst of times. I got my first monograph published, started a new and very exciting research project and became assistant professor at the university I liked best in my region. At the same time, my health reminded me that without paying attention and care to my body it will decay much faster than it should. On top of this, my personal life has been going through some most unpleasant downs.

How could this be? Leaving luck to the side, how could I manage some things so well and some others so poorly? An answer came to me during the winter break when I got my hands on the best book I read last year, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. The Nobel Prize winning author writes in a language meant for the non-specialist reader about how our minds work when we make decisions in conditions of uncertainty. I will not spoil you the pleasure of reading the book for yourselves, but to summarize the main point, it appears that more often than not we reach systematically wrong decisions because we rely too much on our intuitive, unconscious, low-energy cost thinking and we do not activate our statistical, conscious and highly demanding mode of thinking.

Our brain tricks us in relying too much on autopilot driving, even when we do not have enough information about the road conditions and the destination point. It does that in order to save energy, according to a law of least effort. Most of the time this works out fine, but when too many things are unknown, we are bound to default on routines, and thus not evaluate a new situation appropriately.

Kahneman gives a personal example to which I, and many of us teachers, immediately could relate to. When grading student exams consisting of two essay questions, he normally would read through and give points to the first question in one student booklet and then move on to the second question. This had been his grading style for a long time. At some point though he realized that the grade he put on student’s first question almost always influenced the grade he was likely to give for the second question, regardless of the actual quality of the essay. The grader’s brain was “primed” to judge the second text in light of the first one. In order to improve exam grading, Kahneman forced himself to read the first question from all students, grade it, and only afterwards take up question number 2. As he writes in the book, this was done at great expense of energy on his part, as the brain constantly wanted to revert to the first, less costly, method.

The second way to grade exams is the smarter one, the more just one, but also the more laborious. This is where the word “resolution” comes into play. As I warned the reader at the very beginning, I do not want to make false promises to myself in this new year. But I do want to be more resolute in using my conscious, analytical thinking. There are some tricks to get us going along this path, some easier to adopt than others: eat turmeric and chocolate, sleep more, learn a new language. Get smarter, as they say. And not just about grading.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.


Internationalization in Practice: A Visit to Hong Kong

In Anamaria's Posts on 2011/12/20 at 01:11

Anamaria Dutceac Segesten, writing from Lund, Sweden.

Less than a month ago, I returned from a working visit to Hong Kong. I benefited from a scholarship awarded for teacher mobility at my home institution and could travel to a partner university in Hong Kong where I held a series of lectures at various levels with Europe and the European Union in focus. Now that I am back, I am sharing with you my thoughts about the lessons I took home from this experience.

The first impression is also the most obvious one: to teach in a different classroom than the one I was used to was a challenge but a very welcome one. I benefited tremendously from having to think in a new way about familiar topics, as I had to question some of the basic assumptions that I held about a European classroom. Targeting a new audience allowed my own treatment of the subject to take a fresher note and pushed me to make comparisons that otherwise I wouldn’t have included in my way of approaching the subject. Moving away from the home classroom provides a great stimulus to new thinking both in terms of the pedagogical and the scientific content of my lectures.

Secondly, I was impressed with the extent of internationalization I was met with in Hong Kong. While very much steeped in the Asian context, the student body was very diverse as was the reading list for the courses that I participated in. English was the language of instruction, and that facilitated the presence of students from as diverse places as Germany, Norway, the US, China and Hong Kong. I found out later on that this phenomenon was not restricted to my particular class, but that most classes on campus were gathering students from Asia, Americas and Europe.

Moreover, the way in which the subject matter was presented to the students also bore the mark of internationalization. The majority of the course literature was in English, and the papers and exams were delivered in English as well. The Hong Kong students were familiar with the same body of work that any other diligent student in the (Western?) university education in social sciences would also be working from. This stands proof also of the contact that the university teacher had with the state of the art in her subject. Both the teacher and the students were thus categorically international in their approach, while at the same time anchored in the reality of the Southeast Asian region.

My third lesson is that in order to take advantage of internationalization, one has to have a broad network of like-minded scholars with whom to collaborate and exchange ideas. In my case, my multinational cohort at an American university gave me the opportunity to create links with my then colleagues that now serve the interests of a mobile academic segment. These links were and are not just intellectual, even though these are the most obvious ones. By sharing four years or more of Ph.D. education, we were able to know each other socially as well and to later build on our shared experiences to continue what we already then found a pleasant and rewarding meeting of minds. The opportunity to have a large and solid international network starts in graduate school.

To put it short: internationalization is the name of the game across continents; it is not an idea but a concrete reality. In order to fully benefit from it though, one should be integrated in academic networks that more often than not have their origin in graduate school or during the early career years.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed. 

How to Motivate University Students

In Anamaria's Posts on 2011/11/01 at 02:29

Anamaria Dutceac Segesten, writing from Lund, Sweden.

What is motivation? On one hand we mean motive, or the reason for doing something; on the other we mean the energy and enthusiasm a person invests in the thing that she or he is doing. When teachers are talking about motivating students, it seems to me that the two meanings are conflated. This confusion may come from the part of the students, who occasionally would like their teachers to provide them with reasons and motives pertaining to their life as a whole

For the most part, motivation is synonymous with drive, and the question on how to motivate students is about how to mobilize their interest and their energies so that they complete the tasks the teacher has set out for them during a course or exercise. On this subject, there is wise counsel to be found on the Internet, which for the most part advises teachers on how to improve their pedagogical skills. A great conversation on Twitter illustrates this well.

Some of these methods are all too familiar, but let us count them anyway:

  1. provide incentives for the type of activity you as a teacher want to see more of (class participation, or original presentation, or relevant data searches)
  2. provide clear instructions and a logical structure/ course organization so that there is no room for misunderstanding
  3. use effective communication during lectures and design exercises and exams that are creative and interesting

There could be several other pieces of advice in this “how-to” category, and I invite our readers to contribute some of their own tips and tricks.

I am preoccupied here, however, mostly by the thought that it is the duty of the teacher to make the class function, to make students work. How much of this weight should be carried by the teacher and how much by the students themselves? Our duty is to show convincingly how attractive or relevant our subject is, at least in our eyes; students must take it from there. Or, as @EWAEmily said on Twitter, “You can lead a horse to Steinbeck, but you can’t make it drink.”

In my opinion, in order to respond to students’ demands, the teacher must know what are the students’ own motivations to taking the courses, motivation understood in the first meaning, as “motive”. Here I expect to have a large variation of possibilities, according to the disciplines: law and medical students, engineering students and communication students are likely to be more career-oriented, with job and income as high motivation factors. In the humanities and social sciences I would say that the students are pushed forward by an active interest in the actual subject and not as much for the pay-off of the diploma.  What are the students looking for when they seek a university education?

As my support, I bring here some data from Denmark. When asked about the choices of subject for their study, students answer, in a report covering the years 1995-2000, that it is personal interest that informs their choice (95% percent), followed by the practical opportunities offered by the education (38%). This study includes students from all academic study areas, and points out that the intrinsic motivation is the prime reason for students’ initial selection.

Another study, performed on students in the humanities at the University of Copenhagen in 2003, identifies on the basis of a mixed methods approach, outlining five types of motivations regarding the choice of university studies:

  1. Pleasure or interest
  2. Personal development
  3. Career opportunities
  4. Social life during studies
  5. Engagement

If we could generalize on the basis of these five patterns, some students in humanities and social sciences (or maybe even outside these areas), are drawn to study their subject because of their pre-existing personal interest, some others because of the job opportunities after the completion of studies and some others because of the allure of student life, regardless of the actual topic studied.

Teachers can affect and work well with students who follow patterns 1 or 2, interest in the subject matter and personal development, and can improve their pedagogical skills to meet these students’ expectations. What to do with the other students? And finally, is this a “Scandinavian thing”? Do American students prioritize differently?

This post was also published at Inside Higher Ed

Shared problems, shared solutions: Six recommendations for gender equality in higher education

In Anamaria's Posts on 2011/10/15 at 00:03

Anamaria Dutceac Segesten, writing from Lund, Sweden.

I have been travelling quite a bit in recent months; I attended several conferences and met many new and interesting people. While many of the discussions in the presentation halls have been on the official topics of the conferences; the “unconferences,” the meetings during the coffee breaks and official receptions, have brought up other topics, and more often than not the question of being a women and an academic came up in the discussion.

From Austria to Sweden, from Poland to the UK, from Australia to the US; it emerged from my conversations that women working in higher education face many of the same kind of problems. Examples are plenty: at one institute there are a majority of women researchers but their boss is a man and, in face of the threat of funding cuts, he is the only one who has the security of further employment. At another university, the female professors are “known” to have a special social competence, so whenever a difficult case with a student comes up, their male colleagues delegate the difficult conversations to the women, because “they are so much better at it.” In yet another case women administrators working at the university complaints bureau have received comments from the male students that they are not trusted to be competent enough to deal with the students’ problems – since the administrators are women “they won’ t be able to understand.”

I don’t know how many of you, dear readers, both male and female, can identify similar cases at your own workplace, but from my sample of stories it appears that these instances are not unique. On the contrary, they are encountered, with local variations, across several continents and institution types. These are all shared problems, common occurrences. So, shouldn’t there be some shared solutions, good examples that we can borrow from each other? Are there some that we can highlight as best practices and pressure our institutions to adopt?

In Europe, such an attempt at finding joint solutions to similar problems has been drafted by the research group “Gender in Science,” among others. Their focus is to combine gender equality with research excellence, and to that purpose, they organize several conferences and meetings (There are two coming up now: one in Belfast on Women in Leadership , the other, the European Gender Summit, in Brussels). Moreover, they have published a report about the situation of women in research in Europe that included thirteen recommendations, some of which are reproduced in brief below. My point is that these concrete recommendations can be examples of such common measures that can be adapted to fit many institutions and that address the same gender imbalance that we observe everywhere.

  • In all assessments – paper selection for journals, appointments and promotions of individuals, grant reviews, etc. – the use and knowledge of methods for sex and gender analysis in research must be an explicit topic for consideration. Granting agencies, journal editors, policy makers at all levels, leaders of scientific institutions, and agencies responsible for curricula accreditation, should be among those responsible for incorporating these methods into their assessment procedure.
  • Research teams should be gender diverse. Institutions should promote gender diversity of research teams through a variety of incentives (e.g. quality recognition and allocation of resources) and through transparency in hiring. Key decision-making committees should also be gender diverse.
  • Institutions should seek to improve the quality of their leadership by creating awareness, understanding, and appreciation of different management styles. This can be achieved through training, self-reflection, and various feedback mechanisms. Diversity training, specifically, is essential in this process.
  • Assessment procedures must be redefined to focus on the quality, rather than quantity, of an individual’s publications and research output. This must be consistently applied in individual, departmental, and other levels of assessment.
  • Persons with disproportionate committee and administrative duties should be provided with additional support staff or reduced teaching assignments to ensure that their research does not suffer.
  • Explicit targets to improve gender balance and action plans to reach them must be included in the overarching gender strategy of scientific institutions. Gender issues must be an integral part of internal and external evaluation of institutions.

Do you know of positive cases where recommendations in the same spirit as the ones above have actually been implemented? Are there success stories you want to share? Do you think that these recommendations could work if implemented? Having a dialogue about our common problems gives us the hope of finding common solutions.

This post was also published at Inside Higher Ed and The Guardian (UK).

English as the Academic Lingua Franca

In Anamaria's Posts on 2011/09/16 at 01:29

Anamaria Ducteac, writing from Iceland.

I am writing this short text from a computer whose keyboard settings are not English but Icelandic, a language with slightly more characters than English. As my fingers have learnt to seek blindly for the O’s and the U’s and the W’s, I keep spelling words wrongly, until of course I switch the keyboard to English. Then the issue becomes NOT to look, and let the fingers do their job on their own, since what the eyes see is not what the fingers meet when they try to type.

This small detail about writing on a foreign (to me) keyboard is significant for the larger topic of English as the lingua franca of academics world over. I am currently attending the annual conference of the European Consortium for Political Research, one of the largest (if not the largest) political science gatherings in Europe. Of the hundreds of presentations that will take place here in Reykjavik, the program does not list a single one in a language other than English. The presentations will certainly bear the mark of their creator; Swenglish, and Spanglish, and Finglish, and Frenglish will make appearances in the various conference rooms throughout the week. But give it what prefix you may, it is still English that dominates our meetings, our publications, our grant applications.

This being the situation, is it a good or a bad thing? Many non-English speakers deplore the devaluation of their native language as a research communication tool. In Sweden, it has become increasingly common that not only regular publications (articles, books) but also doctoral dissertations are written in English. This worries some that soon those scholars who work at Swedish universities will not be able to communicate the results of their research to the national public that indirectly supports their work (since universities in Sweden are all public, money comes indirectly from the taxpayers). This would lead to a disconnect between the academic elite and the rest of the population.

Moreover, the critics of the anglification argue that the use of English as preferred language of research worldwide works against all those who do not have English as their mother tongue, while at the same time giving an unfair advantage to the native speakers of the language of Shakespeare. Especially in language-heavy subjects, but valid even for natural sciences, very good fluency in both writing and speaking are a must for all, becoming thus an extra burden for the non Anglo-Saxon scholars.

On the other hand, English is seen a providing many advantages, one of the most important being precisely its almost universal circulation. This increases the possibility of making one’s findings available to the entire scientific community. With this comes an increase in the verification of the data (more people can critically assess the research results), as well as an increase in the number and type of potential beneficiaries of the information revealed in these findings.

Moreover, no one prohibits the publication of articles in languages other than English, or the writing of popular science books and reports for the domestic public. If one can master several languages, then it is a merit to put them all to use. A scholar active in a non Anglo-Saxon environment can work both in English and in the local language, and can engage in the public debates in the place of residence. The use of English is not exclusionary to the use of other languages.

The quality of the research is increased by internationalization. Mobile, open and transparent academic communities foster a good research atmosphere, where hypotheses are tested, propositions analyzed, new angles suggested from a variety of points of view. A common language does not necessarily imply uniform thinking, and this is clearly illustrated at my conference. We disagree vigorously, in our common language: English.

This post also appeared in Inside Higher Ed.

On Fear

In Anamaria's Posts on 2011/07/25 at 07:04

Anamaria Dutceac Segesten, writing from Lund, Sweden

Lately, I have given the concept of fear a lot of thought. Take the mutilation of the Bangladeshi student by her husband, so well discussed and problematized here at University of Venus. When I read that story, I was filled with lots of strong emotions: anger, revolt, pity, even helplessness. And a little part of me, the one that involuntarily identified with the attacked woman, also felt fear. Fear that this may happen again, to more people, even to people like me. Fear of brutality, of violence, of absurdity, of social conventions that are embraced entirely uncritically.

Fear is a very powerful sentiment, a very uncomfortable one, admittedly, but one that gets hold of us as individuals and, maybe, also as communities. Perhaps because it is so painful to touch, there is not a lot of public discussion about fear. We always prefer to think positively and start new things in the name of hope. The semester begins by listing our positive expectations, our wishes for the time ahead. We do not talk about our fears at the beginning of the next school year, or next project; we do not mention our insecurities and those areas that are at risk of endangering our dearly-held plans. This is not just superstition (“do not talk about the bad things, because they will be more likely to happen then”) or cheap psychology (“always think positively and then everything will be alright”). I think we are afraid of fear itself, or afraid of the image of ourselves that appears in the mirror held by fear. These apprehensions do not show us in the best light; we may be afraid to look silly, to look stupid, insecure, lying, unloved, unloving, dominating or superficial.

But facing our fears may not be as dangerous as it sounds. Most certainly, it takes a lot of self-insight and a lot of courage to do so, but naming those fears to oneself and perhaps sharing them with others may prove to be liberating. If the worries about what can go wrong are spelled out, they tend to prove less intimidating, their proportions normalize and they appear not as insurmountable obstacles but as practical problems that are likely to have pragmatic solutions. Sharing one’s fears with others, either friends or colleagues, may also have a positive effect. By allowing a glimpse of the less secure part of ourselves, we offer a more true-to-self picture of who we are and become more human to others, as they, in reciprocity, will become to us. In this way, we can strengthen the ties of friendship or build stronger work teams. Moreover, shared problems have a higher likelihood to have shared solutions. Brainstorming with others about possible ways of avoiding our worst fears will open possibilities that we alone could not foresee.

At the societal level, fear is also a strong motivator. I remember watching Michael Moore’s documentary on the Columbine shootings, and thinking about his argument that the US was a civilization of fear. The claim, as ungrounded as it remained in the documentary, that there are societies governed by fear is not so easy to throw aside. As International Relations scholars have written so convincingly about, threat, or the perception thereof, is a major part of shaping the foreign policies of many states. And threats do not function if we have nothing to fear.

Another example of how fear affects us as social animals is xenophobia, homophobia or what I would like to call the fear of the different. Be it skin color, or skin decorations, or language, or clothing, we meet the Other first with suspicion. If we allow our fears to take over, we build societies where subcultures or minorities are ostracized, unheard, oppressed. Fear gives birth to more fear, and these marginalized groups will also learn to treat the majorities that dominated them with apprehension. These societies cannot be sustainable in the long run, as they lack equality, social trust and ultimately social justice.

So is there anything to be done to break free from the prison of fear? One of the ways out may be through courage and confidence that any alternative to fear is better than the current state. To identify the fear is the necessary first step. Once these appear more clearly, their immediate and root causes can be identified, thus transferring fears into regular, solvable problems. Even when this is not possible, and certainly there will be situations when fears will remain fears, or will stay unarticulated, I think taking the courage to contemplate them will be beneficial. Fears can be transformed into forces for positive transformation, if only we dare to face them!