Terra Sprague, University of Bristol
I’m an American. There, I said it. Rather reluctantly, you see. This is not an admission I make comfortably, though I am kidding myself if I think that it’s not obvious to others. All I must do is open my mouth and out flows that Northern American accent riddled with ‘OK’s and ‘yeah’s. Sometimes I like to think I could pass as Canadian, having grown up in ‘upstate’ New York and attended a university where I could see the mist of Niagara Falls from my dorm room. Our neighbors to the north seem so much more internationally welcomed.
Why I dislike the label ‘American’ is a story of its own, which usually results in my telling about disillusion with the ‘American Dream’, the oppression of consumerism, and my resulting decision to leave behind a career, a house, and perceived ‘success’ for a three year life-altering volunteer experience with the US Peace Corps in the Republic of Armenia. That is another story altogether for another time. Alas, my American nationality (I refuse to tie it too closely to my ‘identity’, and it’s certainly not the foundation of any ‘ethnicity’ I claim – unless you want to talk to me about my Native American bloodline) is obvious to those with whom I speak. However, it is a fact that I can usually hide in writing. So why disclose it here? The present story is about finding a path in the field of academia by piecing together the rules of different games. It’s about applying an American approach to academic life, to my doctoral and fellowship experience in a British university. It’s about searching for the rules of a blended game in academia.
Baseball and apple pie
Have you ever noticed that Americans, in addition to playing baseball, tend to use baseball metaphors frequently in conversation? This happens equally as often at the dinner table and the board room table. We love peppering discussions with sayings like, ‘that was a home run,’ and ‘we hit that one out of the ballpark,’ to note a successful venture. We ‘throw in’ phrases such as:
‘that should cover all the bases,’ to describe being prepared for all contingencies;
‘way out in left field,’ to say that something was off topic;
‘he threw me a curveball,’ to denote surprise, and
‘she’s a heavy hitter’ to describe a demanding leader or very serious person.
Baseball is so pervasive in the culture that Americans don’t even realize that they use these idioms. There’s an entire Wikipedia ‘glossary’ devoted to them! This can cause real confusion for people dealing with Americans in international settings where baseball is a foreign game that isn’t nearly as understandable, or important, as say, soccer. Whoops, I meant football.
As you might guess, I am not ‘as American as baseball and apple pie’ as the saying goes. Instead, I might characterize my professional experience in the business and education sectors within the US, Armenia and the UK as a blending of different approaches. To use the sports metaphor, my approach is part baseball, part rugby and part chess. ‘Chess,’ you say? Armenians aren’t renowned sportspeople, but they are world class chess players! I have found ways of blending different modes of work to which I have been exposed into my present work setting. For me, this has proven to be a confusing challenge of carving out a path where colleagues are unsure of what ‘hats’ I wear and why I choose to wear so many simultaneously.
So many hats: Who’s on first?
The baseball cap: You know it;they stick out like a sore thumb. Look across a sea of tourists, and you will immediately find the American by looking for this easily identifiable hat. Designed to keep the sun out of players’ eyes, the baseball cap dates back to the mid 1800s when it was adopted by the New York Knickerbockers as part of the first official baseball uniform (National Baseball Hall of Fame n.d.). It was made of straw then. By contrast, the baseball helmet, worn as protective gear by offensive players including the batter and all other players ‘on base’, wasn’t developed until 1941 and became mandatory in 1956 (Baseball-Reference.com 2010).
I think I unintentionally confuse my colleagues at the Graduate School of Education (GSoE) at the University of Bristol. It’s the result of wearing more than one hat, or blending games, or maybe creating some new rules to the UK doctoral experience as I will discuss later.
I put my ‘training cap’ on at Bristol as an MEd student four years ago while studying educational leadership, policy and development. This was following three years of volunteer development work as an EFL teacher trainer in the Republic of Armenia.
Like a baseball player who wears more than one type of hat during a game, I do the same on a weekly basis at the GSoE. Following my MEd, I was invited to work on a research project with my supervisor about the educational priorities of Commonwealth small states, and was awarded honorary Research Fellow status at the University. I’ve since been afforded the opportunity to work on a variety of other projects throughout the department and with professional organizations in the spheres of comparative and international education and educational assessment. More recently, I began studying for my PhD. Thus, the two hats I currently wear in the Graduate School are doctoral student and Research Fellow, albeit they were bestowed upon me in a less than typical order.
This means that on certain days of the week, I’m in the department as a pseudo-staff member on the third floor while other days I’m studying in the shared student room on the first floor. Because this is an atypical blending of roles, I think it causes some confusion for my fellow students and colleagues. I ‘work’ in one room and ‘study’ in another. Fellow students who see me ‘working’ at a staff desk scratch their heads wondering how I managed to secure a computer in a staff room while they are left scrambling for open workspaces in the shared student rooms. Because I haven’t really left the GSoE for the past four years, it gives the illusion that I must be further along in my doctorate than I actually am. When I resumed my studies, I was met by some strange looks by staff members who were perhaps confused when I stepped into their classes as a student. Even though they may have been aware that I was a doctoral researcher, perhaps they assumed that I had completed my research training and was well on the way to ‘doing’ my research.
Perhaps even more confusing is when I attend functions meant for staff, including workshops or meetings. By now, I think most staff at the GSoE realise that I am blending roles, but I often wonder how this makes them feel about my participation in staff functions. I’m acutely aware, and probably over-sensitive, about this multiple-hat-wearing situation. I try not to overstep my boundaries, attempting to ensure that certain events are appropriate for me to attend before I participate. That being said, I always do feel welcome when I participate in staff events, and feel I do have a voice in the processes in which I engage. I very happily feel part of multiple communities within the department.
In her introduction, Sheila writes about the notion of ‘positioning’ and how all of us in this current volume reflect upon it in some way. In my case, however, I see the positioning as having more to do with the student/staff blending I undertake, rather than any positioning as an ‘international’ individual. I very rarely feel ‘international’ or labeled as such at the GSoE. Often times, other students from outside the UK do not pick up on the fact that I am also an international student. This is perhaps due to the function of language – that while I may speak with an American accent this sometimes goes undetected by other students, as I am a native English speaker. While I don’t feel positioned as international at the GSoE, I’m certainly not oblivious to ‘being international’ in the UK setting. This comes sharply into relief, in particular, when I participate in conferences or travel across the UK. I feel far less ‘international’ in academic settings, however, than in social settings. Traveling on the weekends or on holiday with my husband and children, for example, I feel very sharply that I am indeed ‘international’ and still, after four years, a guest here.
Such confusion about roles or positioning can be characterized by the common baseball idiom, ‘Who’s on First?’ a saying used when we’ve lost track of what’s going on and who is who. The 1930’s American comedy duo, Abbott and Costello used this phrase in a famous sketch about baseball players’ names, a hilarious version of which can be found on YouTube today (Abbot and Costello n.d.).
Of course, we all ‘switch hats’ during our daily lives. We’re parents, teachers, researchers, directors, and community members with multiple roles and responsibilities that must be juggled throughout the course of the day. That’s not atypical, it’s just part of the game of life. What can cause confusion in my own situation is the fact that the type of hat switching I do doesn’t happen so often in UK higher education.
One of the ways I know that this arrangement is atypical is that the organizational systems in our department are not set up to accommodate an individual in both capacities: the computer login system can’t recognize me as a student because my account was first set up as a staff member;I’m on a strange array of email lists that often result in repeated communication, and;there are two locations where I receive hard copy mail. It seems that I not only confuse the individuals with whom I work and study, I also confuse delivery systems.
This particular type of hat switching at the doctoral level is a trait more commonly found in the US;a ‘rule’ of an American game that I’ve stuck to here in the UK in my effort to find a blended game in academia.
Playing by the rules
Baseball itself is a blending of games. The ‘origins’ of baseball are debated by fans and baseball historians. Some argue that it’s rooted in the game of rounders. Whatever your conviction, the game is certainly an amalgamation of other bat and ball games. The first set of National League rules was established in 1877 and have remained largely unchanged, dictating the current version of baseball we enjoy today (Baseball Almanac 2008).
When it comes to academia in the UK, I don’t ‘play by the rules.’ I don’t break them either, mind you, I just find ways of working that are perhaps non-traditional, at least in the education discipline. Recent research shows that the face of the doctoral experience in the UK is indeed shifting (Park 2005) to include a focus upon employability (Metcalf &Gray 2005). This past year I’ve had the opportunity to participate in a small scale research project looking at this changing nature of the UK doctoral experience. A small group of us were interested to know if the notion of ’embedding employability’ is a factor in doctoral student engagement with certain activities such as teaching, publishing and researching (that is, in addition to their own doctoral research). Our initial findings suggest that some students do participate, or seek to participate, in such activities as a way to ‘jump start’ their academic careers, however, this employability notion was important to only a few of the students that participated in the study (Sprague et al. 2011). Certainly, some of us are, to quote a student participant, ‘increasingly worried about what happens after the PhD’, and keeping ‘more than half an eye on what comes next.’
These kinds of activities (teaching, publishing and researching) tend to be significant elements in the US doctoral experience. Teaching, in particular, is a staple of the US doctoral student’s life. Whereas many UK doctoral students wait until their post-doc year to begin such activities, US doctoral students are in the middle of such activity in tandem with their studies. Whether or not a UK doctoral student can participate in such activities is, however, also dependent upon the presence of an undergraduate education programme at their institution. In a graduate school setting, there is often no opportunity to teach at the masters level as a doctoral researcher. The ability to participate in activities of teaching, publishing and additional research is also closely tied to doctoral study funding, which is frequently limited to three years, allowing little time to participate in academic activities other than their doctoral research.
I’m fortunate to have been involved in research projects, professional development opportunities, guest lecturer and seminar presentations, and have been given the opportunity to publish such work in various places at an early stage in my doctoral studies. These, I feel, are significant contributions to my academic career, and are rare opportunities within the educational discipline across the UK. These opportunities have not, however, simply fallen upon me. I’ve taken a vigorous approach to seeking out connections, work opportunities and experiences. I’ve actively attempted to blend my conceptions of the UK and US doctoral experience into something that suits my abilities and research interests. The opportunities are there for those who wish to seek them out, but as it’s not an expected part of the ‘rules of the game’ here in the UK, few doctoral students feel they are entitled to, or are ready for, such work.
It’s game time
Perhaps the reluctance on the part of UK doctoral students to take on additional work in conjunction with their studies is, in part, due to available time. Most UK PhD programmes take three years full-time, while in the US, that number varies between four and eight years, with most US universities putting a 10 year cap on the time a candidate has to complete the degree. This varies by discipline, of course, however from conversations with fellow students in the field of education here in the UK, it seems that few are interested in taking on additional responsibilities in the fear that it will cut significantly into their study and research time, especially when they are on 3 year scholarships
My personal concept of ‘work time’ is probably deeply rooted in an American approach to labor. Americans typically receive one week to ten days of paid holiday time per year. From my personal observation, American employees often hesitate to take even this amount of vacation in the fear that they will be perceived poorly. While there is no national law on paid maternity leave, new mothers typically take a maximum of twelve weeks, which is largely unpaid, with paternity leave just starting to come onto the scene in the US. This is in sharp contrast to the approach to holiday and maternity leave here in the UK. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t see these American work ‘rules’ as healthy practice, but they are deeply engrained in my notion of employment.
Growing up in this environment has had a distinct impact upon the number of hats I’m willing to wear and the rules I’m comfortable playing by. It’s not only the addition of publishing, teaching and researching that I’ve added as rules to my game of academia here in the UK. One of the many hats I wear in life is that of Mother. During my four years in Bristol, I have had two children, and I imagine that I’ve been described numerous times in the halls of the GSoE as, ‘the pregnant American,’ and ‘the one who brings her children to seminars and tutorials’. Following the birth of both children, I was back to work within a few weeks. Being a pseudo-member of staff with an honorary appointment, I don’t receive any benefits or holiday time. I was not tied to any formal maternity leave, so was left to decide for myself when to return to work. There was work to be done;on the first occasion I was researching and writing for my MEd, on the second occasion we were near the end of a research project and at the publication stage. On both occasions, there were tight deadlines to be adhered to, and with my American approach to maternity leave, I did not find it abnormal to apply these rules to my work here in the UK, so simply and willingly picked back up and got the work done. This approach caused some alarm among UK-based colleagues and friends, but given my upbringing in the US work system, I was comfortable with this quick turnaround.
Let’s play ball
This article is not meant to be a statement on the trajectory of doctoral study in the UK. It’s simply an account of the ways in which my experiences of simultaneously working and studying in the UK have been influenced by my experiences in other work and academic settings. Approaches to work are arguably very culturally-bound norms. There are benefits and drawbacks to trying to blend these games, to trying to wear multiple hats and to attempting to bend norms of time. This publication seeks to explore ways in which academics from other countries have experienced work and study in the UK. I have interpreted this as an interest in the different ways that international academics blend the ‘games’ of academia.
I remain unsure as to what my search for a blended game in academia will result in. I hope the outcome will be a continued career in academia within the education discipline. The rules of my academic game may continue to change, but the key is in being prepared for the opportunities. Consider the following words of wisdom:
Life will always throw you curves, just keep fouling them off…the right pitch will come, but when it does, be prepared to run the bases. ~Rick Maksian
With this spirit of enthusiasm, I confidently stand at the centre of the field and shout, “Let’s play ball!”
Terra Sprague is a Research Fellow and doctoral researcher in the Research Centre for International and Comparative Studies at the University of Bristol Graduate School of Education, UK. She has professional experience in teacher training, special education and teaching English as a foreign language in the Republic of Armenia, and is working on the impact of standardised examination systems upon the cultural traditions of small states. Terra serves as the webmaster for the British Association of International and Comparative Education (BAICE) and is Convenor for the 2013 conference of the UK Forum for International Education and Training (UKFIET). Terra.Sprague@Bristol.ac.uk
Abbot and Costello, Abbott and Costello – Who’s On First? – YouTube. You Tube. Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qy15F-8z8Ng&feature=related [Accessed August 4, 2011].
Baseball Almanac, 2008. Baseball Rule Change Timeline. Available at: http://www.baseball-almanac.com/rulechng.shtml [Accessed August 6, 2011].
Baseball-Reference.com, 2010. Batting helmet. Baseball-Reference.com. Available at: http://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Batting_helmet [Accessed August 4, 2011].
Metcalf, J. &Gray, A., 2005. Employability and doctoral research graduates, York: The Higher Education Academy.
National Baseball Hall of Fame, National Baseball Hall of Fame – Dressed to the Nines – Parts of the Uniform. Parts of the Uniform: Caps. Available at: http://exhibits.baseballhalloffame.org/dressed_to_the_nines/caps.htm [Accessed August 4, 2011].
Park, C., 2005. New Variant PhD: The changing nature of the doctorate in the UK. Journal of Higher Education Policy &Management, 27(2), pp.189-207.
Sprague, T., Milligan, L. &Le Fanu, G., 2011. Building the CV? Embedding employability and the changing nature of doctoral research. Available at: http://escalate.ac.uk/8285.