In the second of my series of summer posts, I have chosen to write about my experience back in March at the University of Kentucky, where I spent the week as a visiting scholar at the Department of Sociology.
One of the nicest parts of being an academic is being able to exchange ideas and knowledge with other people in your field of study. Most of the time you might only see these individuals a couple of times a year at conferences, or other events such as meetings for editorial boards of journals or study groups. In some cases, it could be years between meetings, and in other rarer cases, it could be an intellectual relationship where you never meet the other person face-to-face and all communication is conducted over email or social media. Until this March, Edward Morris was one of those people.
I had first come across Ed’s work on masculinities in 2012, as I was finishing my PhD. That year Ed published a book called, Learning the Hard Way, which seemed an almost identical study to my own, looking at young white working-class men dealing with post-industrialization, but set in the Appalachian region of Kentucky in the US. His book, which used some of the same masculinities theory as my own and my favourite sociologist Goffman.
I emailed him and our e-friendship [?] began. Over the years, although I changed various institutions, we stayed in touch, exchanging ideas and readings over email. Through our conversations, it appeared that Ed’s wife had family who originated from a town in West Wales where I spent time as a child, so we had more connections than I first thought. When my own book was published in 2015, Ed was kind enough to write an endorsement for it and when I edited a collection of papers on gender and research relationships in 2016, he contributed a chapter to that.
When some funding became available at my university to visit other scholars and to collaborate on future research projects, it occurred to me that this was an ideal opportunity to visit Ed and spend a week with him in the Department of Sociology, at the University of Kentucky, in Lexington.
After exchanging many emails, we arranged a week packed with activities. These included writing workshops, postgraduate or ‘grad’ student [as they term them in the states] classes on masculinities, a public research talk, a visit to the Appalachian research centre and lunches and dinners with different members of academic staff. It looked to be an exciting, but busy week. It was also going to take place in a state which I had never been to, but seemed to share many similarities with Wales.
Although Wales is much smaller in geographical size than the state of Kentucky, large parts of each region have the same industrial heritage in coal mining and remarkable socio-economic similarities. They share a similar population, with Kentucky having 4.25 million compared to Wales’ 3.3 million, and an equivalent background in terms of educational levels. The number of adults in Kentucky who leave high school without a diploma is around 20%, whilst in Wales 26% of the population of adults have no recognised qualifications. In terms of higher education, both countries record 24% of the population as having a undergraduate or ‘Batchelors’ degree. Both countries also share unemployment rates around 5%, but Wales does have a larger youth [16-24] unemployment rate [17.4% compared to 13.3%]. The average salary in Kentucky is around £35,000 [$46,000] whilst in Wales this comes to around £26,000 [$37,000].
Given how productive and different this trip was going to be, I was really excited and very much looking forward to it. However, as the date of my departure grew nearer, Britain seemed to be experiencing one of the worst winters in a long time. In the week leading up to my departure, things took a turn for the worse, and the ‘Beast from the East’ collided with ‘Storm Emma’. Hospitals, motorways and airports began to close, flights were cancelled, trains were stranded in snow drifts, and large parts of the country were brought to a standstill. On the day before I was due to leave [Friday 2nd March] the weather seemed to get worse by the hour, with the snow getting thicker as the day went on. The news reported that Red and Yellow weather warnings were issued across South Wales and the South of England. The population were warned to cancel non-essential travel plans and stay indoors. I was due to fly from Heathrow at lunchtime the next day, to Lexington, via Chicago. This storm was right across my path. That night, after packing my case, things did not look promising outside my window and a blizzard seemed to be in full swing. Before going to sleep, I set my alarm for a few hours earlier than I had originally intended in case I needed extra time to get to the airport.
At 5am I took a tentative look out of the window and whilst the falling snow that was illuminated by the amber street lights had eased considerably, the snow on the ground looked deep and it appeared to be very cold out. I checked the national rail up-to-date train information, large parts of the rail network were at a standstill, but some trains were running and the main Swansea to London Great Western route was open, but with severe delays. With one app on my phone, I could even watch the painfully slow progress of the most recent train from Swansea, which was due into Cardiff in an hour or so. However, the local trains from my town of Penarth, which is about four miles outside the capital city, were not running, and with the roads inaccessible to traffic, the only way to get to the main station would be to walk the four miles through the snow. Never one to give up on a challenge and helped by my partner Jen, we set off.
It took about an hour and a half to walk through deserted streets to Cardiff’s central train station. In parts the snow was knee deep, and tough going with the wind blowing snow in our faces, especially across the exposed Cardiff Bay Barrage. We passed a few other people battling through the snow, and even one cyclist, who slipped and tumbled over in front of us. As the dawn broke and it got lighter, the extent of the snow fall became apparent and we could find easier patches to walk through. The snow stopped falling and as we approach the city centre, everything was eerily quiet. At the train station there were a small number of other passengers who had also ignored the weather advice and were standing around staring at blank timetable screens. My app showed that the next train to London was en-route and about half way to Cardiff, and due around 8am, this provided me with more information than the staff at the station! Remarkably given the circumstances, the train arrived more or less on time, although nothing else was moving, so I felt really lucky! My fight was at 12:30, so I thought I was in with a good chance of making it. I said goodbye to Jen, who then headed back through the 4 miles of snow to Penarth (she made is safely!).
Predictably my luck ran out and the train arrived late into London, with unsurprisingly many delays on the way. I missed my flight, but managed to switch onto another one later that afternoon. Yet, just like the train, the flight was also delayed, and further heavy snowfall after boarding, meant we did not take off for a further three hours. I arrived in Chicago with my connecting flight to Lexington long gone and arranged with the airline to fly on the next day. After further delays finding an available room in an airport hotel [there had also been bad weather on the East coast of the United States and there were lots of stranded passengers about], and short cab ride, I got into bed around midnight. Given the time difference, this was about 24 hours after I left home.
After a very good night sleep I was raring to go again. After a short wait at the airport, where I was placed on standby, I was allocated a seat on the small plane to Lexington. On the hour flight I got chatting with a Lawyer I was sitting next to. He was very interested in why I was going to Kentucky and what I was going to do in Lexington. The conversation came around to masculinity and we got onto discussing politics, Donald Trump and Kentucky. He recommended a book called Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance, which outlines poverty and drug addiction in rural Eastern Kentucky. After reading it, it does provide some interesting arguments for why Trump might have won the election, but in places it is also full of the type of right wing arguments one finds in the Daily Mail and blames the poor for problems not of their making. The Lawyer wasn’t all bad though, as we collected our bags from the small airports luggage carousel, he told me his wife was picking him up and offered me a lift to my hotel, which I gladly accepted. After what seemed an epic journey, I checked into my hotel and was pleased to see I had been allocated a room overlooking the downtown area. I had agreed to meet up with Ed for lunch the following afternoon, so after dinner and a few drinks at a nearby bar, I had an early night.
Ed and his wife picked me up from my hotel and we drove about an hour into the rural county to a bourbon distillery. On the way there and back we chatted about our work, masculinities, sociology and academia in general. Although we had only exchanged emails prior to this, we got on like old friends, which was a relief as many academics can be a bit socially awkward! After a great day out, talking shop and seeing the area, I got back to my hotel and prepared for a busy week ahead.
The campus was about a 20-minute walk from my hotel, which made a nice change from the hour commute to Swansea. Throughout the week the students and staff I would meet, would comment on how odd it was that I would walk this distance and not get a cab! On my first morning after having a wander around the large sprawling campus, I made my way to the sociology department, which was situated on the 15th floor of a large tower like building. Ed outlined his planned programme of activities across the week and showed me to where I would be situated. I was pleasantly surprised to see I had been given my own office [I have to share one at my own institution] with plenty of space for visitors, which came thick and fast during the week as everyone seemed to want to speak to the ‘British’ guy.
The day consisted of research planning and writing workshops with Ed, broken up by lunch with several people from the department at a nice restaurant on campus. After a busy day, with my head spinning after talking to so many new people and trying to be ‘on my game’, Ed dropped me back at my hotel and I took a swim in the pool, before heading out to dinner. This became the routine of the week and a great way to unwind each day.
Tuesday was another intense day and I delivered my research talk to the department at their lunchtime public lecture series. I was shocked to see around 40 people show up for the talk, which included the dean of the department, staff, students and even some publishers who were in town. The talk covered my ten years of researching men and masculinities and how uneasy conducting research sometimes leaves me, I call this the ‘Researcher as Vampire’ feeling, where I gain information, instead of blood, out of participants.
I also outlined how similar Wales and Kentucky were and how my work on marginalized men was almost identical to the work being done with young men in post-coalmining communities in the Appalachian region. The audience’s questions were thoughtful, and I was encouraged that the message from my talk had translated well. Although we speak the same language, sometimes the subtleties can be lost! One thing that did become a point of confusion at the start of the week was that the University of Kentucky was referred to simply as UK. Therefore, when asked where I was from, I quickly learn to say that I was from England, or Britain rather than the UK to avoid confusion. Sadly, mentioning Wales in the US tends to cause even more problems, as most American’s have never heard of it. After the talk I went for coffee with some members of the Education department who had been in attendance and we had a long conversation about white working-class boys and higher education. Again, very similar issues to what we have in Wales and the UK more generally. Although Ed dropped me off at my hotel and I was able to grab a swim and unwind a little, the day was not over yet! In the evening I was taken out to dinner by Ed and the dean of the department Claire Renzetti. It was a lovely evening, where we chatted more sociology and work, but by the end I was starting to flag, and I was glad that it was not too late a night.
Wednesday brought with it a lunchtime seminar with post-graduates on the university system in the UK and Europe. I outlined the way things differed to the US and how competitive the current climate was for recently completed doctoral students. The students seemed confused and surprised at how things differed in terms of tenure, job interviews, professorships and 12-month salaries. After checking on this last point with Ed after the seminar, it turned out that many academics in the US do not get paid over the summer months when they are not ‘working’ e.g. not teaching undergraduates. They often get a 9-month salary divided into 12 payments! In the UK this is where we do all the writing and research we cannot do in term time, in addition to continuing to supervise masters and PhD students and also crazily, take some annual leave. When I had finished the seminar, I realised I had been quite negative and the students had gone away looking quite despondent, which had not really been my intention. I had an hour to myself before my next class, this time a team-taught session with Ed on masculinities as part of the men and masculinities module on a gender studies MA. The seminar centred on C.J Pascoe’s book ‘Dude You’re a Fag’. I thoroughly enjoyed it and felt like I was really geeking out on my subject. The students [about a dozen in the room] seemed well read and me and Ed worked well together. It would be wonderful to do this back at Swansea. I must have done something right with the post-grads this time, as there seemed to be a trail of graduate students outside my temporary office for the rest of the week! I went through the same post-work ritual, but entertained myself for the evening and went to the restaurant opposite my hotel which was called Pies and Pints. Language issues struck again and it quickly became apparent after sitting down that by pies, the sign meant pizza pies, so I could not get the traditional steak and ale pie that I had expected!
Thursday was my last full day on campus and a day packed with meetings and a visit to the universities Appalachian research centre. Here I met Shauna Scott who gave me a copy of her book on the coal mining community of Harlan County. We chatted for ages about the similarities between Eastern Kentucky [which makes up part of the Appalachian region] and the South Wales valleys and the history of communication between these two communities. Shauna told me that when looking to the future, the people of Appalachia often looked to see how Wales has planned its own post-industrial change! We made plans for future collaborative work and she invited me to sit on the editorial board of the Journal of Appalachian Studies. I also took in a first-year undergraduate sociology lecture [200+ students], looking at social class and life chances. The lecturer used the sinking of the titanic as an example and after giving a list of job roles from the original passenger list, asked the student which passengers were worthy of a place on a lifeboat. As I walked around the large lecture theatre talking with students, without fail all groups picked a soldier and a nurse to go into the lifeboat. All groups also assumed that the soldier was a man and that the nurse was a woman.
For my final night, I was taken out to dinner by Tom Janoski, a senior professor in sociology with a rich and interesting back story. When I was starting out teaching sociology at a further education college in South Wales, a colleague of mine commented that until people had lived a bit and had some life experience, they should not study sociology. Tom seemed to prove that point and, in his time, had been a soldier in Vietnam, travelled and a worked in a car factory in Detroit. One of his many interesting stories, included being a member of the last class taught by the famous sociologist Herbert Blumer at the University of California, Berkeley. A sociological superstar!
After a very interesting evening, I decided to have one final drink at the hotel bar before going to bed. The hotel was noticeably busier than it had been all week as it was playing host to a comic-convention that weekend. A ‘comic-con’ is a large multi-genre entertainment and comic convention, which usually takes place over a weekend. There are many stalls selling different types of merchandise, guest speakers from the entertainment industry and some fans who attend, dress up in a variety of costumes linked to their favourite TV or comic book characters. When I was sitting at the bar, using my phone I had a look at the comic-con website and noticed that there were two guests due to appear that I recognised. Rik Flare, an old WWF wrestler and Billy Dee Williams who played Lando Calrissisan in the Star Wars films. I took my drink to a table and sat down, continuing to scroll through the comic-con website on my phone. After a while I looked up, and to my surprise I realised I was sitting a few tables away from the former wrestler Rik Flare, who I assumed was staying at the hotel. Feeling slightly impressed that I was this close to a character from my childhood, I sent a few messages to people back home. It was only whilst I was doing this that I then realised that on the table to my right, sitting with what I assumed to be his children and grandchildren, was Billy Dee Williams. I must have watched the Star Wars films dozens of times as these were another staple of my childhood. I noticed that different people were coming up to his table to shake his hand and engage in conversation. After about half a dozen people had done this, I began to feel rather sorry for him. Now aged 81, Billy looked really tired and did not appear entirely well. Although he was polite to every person who came up to him, he seemed like he just wanted to finish his dinner without any interruptions. After a second flurry of messages to friends back home about Lando, I finished my drink and headed to my room, thinking how great this trip had been.
I spent the final morning at the university with Ed, outlining future work and planning writing projects. After lunch, Ed dropped me back at my hotel so I could catch the shuttle bus to the airport and begin my long trip home. We said our good byes and thanked each other for a productive and enjoyable time.
The week had been a great success and well worth the battle to get there. The people I met seemed genuinely interested in my research and had done their homework on me before I had arrived. I was surprised at how much interest the post-graduates also showed in me, but I think some of this was probably down to my British accent and being an unusual visitor. The campus although big, also seemed a nice place to study and I felt very much at home in their sociology department, I was sorry to leave, but hope to return one day!
My final post in this summer series will be an account of my second visiting scholar post of the year, at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik.