Advice, Learning

Getting To Grips With Your Social Media Self

Of late, I have been on a Twitter ‘sabbatical’.

This sabbatical was not the product of a conscious, thought-out decision in which I actively decided to remove myself for complex reasons of social network activism or in an attempt to reconnect with the ‘good old un-connected days’. Rather, it happened slowly and without me realising, until one day, I logged on to Twitter and realised that I hadn’t engaged with the network for over six months – my account was just sitting there, quietly waiting for me to come back, asking me what I wanted to Tweet about next?

It would seem that my Twitter sabbatical coincided with a period of time in my life in which my goals and career focus were in a state of flux.

A year ago, my Twitter ‘space’ had a clear identity.

I was actively engaging with a relatively defined community of people (those working in or interested in the cross-section between Africa, information, technology, media, development, human rights) and most of my followers were (or still are) from that community. The rest all probably have something to do with coffee, the other passion which made it regularly into my Twitter feed. My network, by and large, was relatively ‘bounded’.

In my days working in the newspaper industry and studying at SOAS and the University of Oxford, I used Twitter as a professional and career development resource. I have blogged before, on this very page, about how I used Twitter as my ‘rolling online CV’. I Tweeted my own ideas, I engaged, I re-tweeted, I live-Tweeted at events and conferences, I hashtagged, I plugged blogs I had written, I got jobs through Twitter, and I came across endless accounts of people and organisations whose work I still follow and admire. Essentially, I became an expert in how to curate a useful, successful online community network – and I gave you guys nine tips so that you could do the same!

It seems strange to re-read that ‘nine tips’ blog now, in the context of now writing this one. At that time, I wrote: “Watch what you Tweet – If you imagine your Twitter page as a rolling online CV, you automatically become more aware of what you allow on to your feed” (this statement remains true, by the way).

Because the thing is, that in order for Twitter to serve this purpose for you – for it to be used as a way of tapping into a specific community (whether that be #globaldev or otherwise) – you have to have a very clear idea of who and what that community is, and what your role is and could be within that community. By knowing those things, you can ‘curate’ your Twitter feed to cater to that particular audience.

Every Tweet becomes a clearly-made choice and every interaction is treated as a key step in building new professional relationships. You become a hyper-aware manager of your online presence. You constantly criticise, and critically analyse, whether your online Twitter ‘self’ is an accurate reflection of your offline non-Twitter self, and if it could be improved. For those of us on ‘the bottom rungs of the ladder’, those choices carry that little bit more weight.

But what happens when that network needs some re-shaping? If you move to a slightly different ladder? What happens to your carefully-defined Twitter then?

The totally brilliant Danah Boyd writes extensively about the ways in which we manage identity in different contexts (online and offline) and coming across her work while studying for my Masters at the Oxford Internet Institute was one of the many revelations of my postgraduate degree. My main takeaway from her extensive work is that the Internet has confused and disorientated the ways in which we have historically, or traditionally, always managed our identities. We haven’t ever had just ‘one’ identity; we are a complex set of identities, which we have always been able to manage and curate between different contexts relatively easily.

Back in the day, would we have let our friends, grandparents, employers and ex-boyfriends all see the same set of holiday pictures? Would we have included on our CV a short section titled ‘Political Views and My Attitudes Towards Gender, Race and Religion’? Probably not. We would have navigated our way between these different contexts and presented the aspects of our identities, of our lives, that were appropriate to each of those contexts.

Life on the Internet completely throws those contexts into disarray. Boyd describes these contexts as becoming ‘collapsed’ – i.e. that those contexts are no longer as easily defined or ‘bounded’ and are therefore harder to navigate.

Do I accept this work colleague on Facebook? If I tweet about this salted caramel brownie, will this very impressive and important consultant unfollow me on Twitter? If I share this article on the EU Referendum, will I have a bunch of random people I worked with five summers ago and haven’t spoken to since all start to judge me for my political views?

Maybe not everybody asks themselves these questions, but I do.

There are two points to this blog, really. One was selfish – to force myself to write some of this experience down; to put academic ideas of ‘collapsed contexts’ and ‘online identities’ into actual practice and everyday experience; and to explain to anybody who wants to read this why I disappeared off the map for a while.

The second is to add a final, tenth ‘tip’ to that blog I wrote three years ago:

10. Don’t let your Twitter, or any social network, define you. Twitter and social media are great resources for putting ‘who you are’ onto the professional map, but if that ‘who you are’ changes – don’t panic. Human beings are dynamic, not static, and so too should be our social networks.

For the record, I do now intend to be back, re-defining and re-curating my Twitter space. Maybe some people will drop off that network, hopefully new people will join. I think that’s kind of the whole point.

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Learning

An Unexpected Return To History

It is perhaps a little paradoxical to say that, in studying the Internet, I have discovered a new love of history.

Maybe ‘love’ is a little strong; let us go with ‘appreciation’. After years of hating history at school, and not understanding why studying history was important, I have unexpectedly found it to have woven itself back into my academic interests. Bear with me: I promise there are some reflections here that I hope we can all learn from!

Let me start with why I never liked history in the first place. For me, history was always associated with learning the names and dates of Anglo-Saxon battles. I remember learning about the Romans. I know that Henry VIII had six wives, three of which were called Catherine. I have sparse memories of dressing up in a pinafore and a bonnet, and going on a school trip to a place where we made bread. We studied World War I and the Battle of the Somme. These examples do not mean to trivialise the importance of these moments in history; nor to attack the design of the UK’s History curriculum. For whatever reason, History was just not a subject that I saw the point to. And so, when we had to make our subject choices in Year 9, I chose Geography and my days with History were over.

The revival of history in my educational interests first emerged in my undergraduate years. It was while at SOAS that, for the first time, I came across histories I was interested in. I wrote essays on the impact of colonial legacies on democratisation processes in Africa. The contribution of Botswana’s historical pre-colonial institutions in its management of ‘diamond-led’ growth. The importance of the 1951 Geneva Convention in shaping current policy approaches to refugees and forced migration processes. And the representation of South Africa in films such as De Voortrekkers (1916), Jim Goes to Joburg (1949) and Come Back, Africa (1959).

All of a sudden I found myself fascinated, disappointed, enraged and intrigued by these historical narratives.

Again, during my current postgraduate studies, I find myself drawn to history. This wouldn’t be much of a revelation was it not for the fact that I study the Internet – that whizz-bang, techie, supercharged technology that has come to revolutionise, re-define and re-network the world. What has amazed me is that there is space even here, for a consideration of historical narrative. Mark Graham, for example, compares the discourse around the arrival of the British East African railway (which connected Mombasa, Kenya to Victoria, Uganda in 1903) to the discourse around the arrival of undersea fibre-optic cables in East Africa in 2009. The hopes pinned on each period of connectivity transformation for sparking Africa’s growth and development are strikingly similar.

For anyone interested in the media and journalism, Elizabeth Eisenstein’s book The Printing Press as an Agent of Change is a powerful read. In this current age of digital journalism, citizen journalism, free press debates, issues of censored journalism, and a multiplicity of other issues currently swirling around in the complex media ecosystem, a look back at the days of the first printing presses in Western Europe is fascinating. The parallels between the tensions of new media then, and the tensions of media change now, are striking. And then there’s Tom Standage’s book The Victorian Internet (1998), which tells the story of the telegraph and how it transformed the Victorian world in a fashion not dissimilar to the transformative spread of the Internet.

This blog article is not meant to debate the parallels and differences between previous technological revolutions and the revolution of the Internet. Despite the historical parallels the Internet is arguably unprecedented in its potential and impact. Rather, I highlight these examples to frame two key reflections that I think are worth sharing:

History has to be relatable. My hate-love-appreciate relationship with the study of History is testament to how important it is that the subject tells histories you can connect to. For whatever reason, my 11-year-old self never connected with the Anglo-Saxons, or the Romans, or even to World War One. At SOAS, I found a closer connection to historical narratives in my studies – perhaps because my parents, and extended family, are all from South Africa. And while studying my postgraduate degree here in Oxford, I found a connection to the historical work of authors such as Eisenstein and Standage – likely because my work experience is in online and digital journalism.

History is about learning lessons. Finally, I ‘get’ the point of studying History. This might sound a little cliché, but, fundamentally, the study of History allows us to better understand our present, and to better plan for the future.

If we can learn lessons from historical experience then we can make better choices.

For development, the connection here is pretty simple. Relating in some way to historical narratives of development will a) avoid repeating past failures and b) encourage better decision-making and policy choices. For example, how are m-agriculture development approaches learning from the mistakes and challenges faced by more ‘traditional’ development agricultural interventions? How well do development practitioners and policy-makers understand, and take into account, historical context?

Ultimately, I have found that it is important to study historical narratives because it forces us to look backwards. In this age of the Internet – where time and distance are compressed, where the pace of life has sped up, and where the world never ‘switches off’ – it is important to not get swept up by the speed afforded by technology and the excitement of the ‘future’.  Rather, in this fast-paced digital age, there is perhaps an ever-greater need to make an unexpected return to history.

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Advice, Experiences

Course Review: Development Studies and African Studies at SOAS

Written by Tomas Zak

When choosing what course I wanted to do at undergraduate level, I wanted to strike a balance between the practical part of my degree, which I thought would get me a job (Development Studies) and my own personal interests (African Studies), but I eventually realised this was a false distinction.

It was not a job-orientated degree. Both sides were intensely theoretical. In African Studies, the focus was predominately on learning a language and different aspects of African cultures such as film, music, literature, religion, etc…

Similarly, in what should really be called Critical Development Studies, there is a concerted effort to dismantle the problematic notion that “we” develop “them”. Instead, the course examines what it is in Western societies that inhibits development elsewhere. It looks into broader attempts at systemic reform, rather than piecemeal palliative measures perpetuated by the development orthodoxy.

Taken as a whole, the degree sought to marry this critical analysis of the development business with an understanding of a particular context – primarily by learning a language.

Pros

Language
As funding is getting cut across the board, fewer and fewer places have the language specialisation on offer at SOAS. The one thing I would have done differently when it comes to languages is to have gone on the year abroad, even if it meant taking a year longer to complete my degree, paying more fees and dealing with the pitfalls of SOAS organisation in a foreign country.

Through immersion you learn the most, but you have to be driven and above all, interested. SOAS has some great connections abroad, but it’s all about how you use them. I’d think carefully before picking a language as it is probably one of the decisions which will take the longest to bear fruit, but for me it was definitely worthwhile.

Interdisciplinary
In the core courses in development, there is no one lecturer. Lecturers will vary and come to teach their area of specialisation. So you will meet a lot of lecturers from different faculties and get to hear about how their current research ties into the topic at hand. It also gives you the opportunity to scope out potential dissertation supervisors.

Diversity
Not only in terms of nationality – but also in terms of a diversity of experiences, influences and norms. This applies to teaching staff and students alike and leads to interesting, albeit heated, debates both in tutorials, but also in the bar. It can begin to sound like a bad joke. A Tibetan monk, an anarchist and an Old Etonian sit down for a tutorial…

Cons

Ideological straitjacket
It is no secret that SOAS is one of the foremost centres for the study of Marxism and this seeps through into almost all aspects of teaching. There is very much a SOAS-line and after sitting in yet another tutorial full of nodding heads bashing the IMF, it can begin to sound like a broken record so try and break out.

London is perfect for this. There are talks, conferences, debates and book launches at places like the Royal African Society, the Africa Centre, the Overseas Development Institute, the London International Development Centre, Birbeck, LSE, Kings, UCL, etc… Chances are you’ll hear more than enough and come running back to the bubble that is SOAS, but it’s still worth hearing the other side.

Admin and organisation
Navigating the corridors of the Byzantine system that is SOAS bureaucracy will probably take up a substantial amount of your time. Menial tasks like changing courses or submitting a hard copy of an essay will have you running around chasing signatures and knocking on doors.

Tips on getting the most out of the degree:

Follow good lecturers not interesting sounding courses (H/T Chris Blattman).
At SOAS, the course I was most excited about on paper turned out to be taught by one of the worst lecturers. Some academics might have a wealth of knowledge, extensive work experience, huge research grants or have written ground-breaking books, but are very bad at public speaking and transmitting that information.

By contrast, a lecturer that has been running the same module year-on-year, benefits from a number of students shaping, improving and even challenging their thinking. If they are a good lecturer, they will have incorporated new ideas, have tried and tested different ways of teaching and altered the content of the course in response to current events and contemporary research. If you do end up taking the risk with a new course, don’t be afraid to change even if you are a couple of lectures in – I wish I had.

Don’t get fixated on the job at the end of your degree
Like I said, it’s not a job-orientated degree. For that reason, I got more out of courses I was genuinely interested in, irrespective of whether a module in “African Philosophy” has any practical application beyond university. In all probability, you won’t have as good a chance to explore your academic interests again after university so you might as well go for it.

SOAS isn’t for everyone, but to my mind one of the biggest drawbacks is probably its main selling point. Coming from a fairly right-wing environment, SOAS was an oasis where radical thinking was not dismissed outright, but considered as a plausible alternative. There are very few places in the UK where this is the case.

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Commentary

Why I Want To Pursue A Career In Development Research

I have just finished my undergraduate degree in Politics and Philosophy and am now attempting to pursue a career at the intersection between international development and academia, in a policy or research-based role.

The main issue with this plan, which became apparent in the last few months of my degree, was that I have very little experience or knowledge of this area of work called ‘research’.

I have always been interested in development (particularly in Africa); an interest sparked no doubt by being lucky enough to visit Malawi on a voluntourism project at the age of 16. As I grew older, I realised that working in development was a legitimate career option, which was great as my main career aspiration was – and remains – to help make the world a better place.

I have no direct skills in education or sanitation. Although my degree has furnished me with theoretical knowledge and numerous opinions relating to development, I have far less to offer directly to a poor community in need of ‘development’ than my engineer boyfriend who, despite suggesting “Ljubljana” when pressed to name 20 African countries, has a set of extremely specific and applicable skills.

Initially, the idea I had of working in development was a romanticised aim of working for a charity, providing immediate aid to poor communities in order to directly improve health, sanitation or education. The more I have learnt about and engaged with development, the more I have realised this was not the best way to achieve my goal.

I have studied development through a political lens. For me, tied to the idea of development in the sense of poverty alleviation is the development of the state to become a capable and meaningful provider for citizens. Whilst a number of charities – including many which I have worked for – do very impressive work providing short-term or immediate help to needy communities, the effect of this on the long-term viability of the state can often be disastrous, as the state is effectively absolved of its responsibility to its citizens.

This is especially true in a region like sub-Saharan Africa where the democratic state is weakly consolidated (leaving aside for now the issue of whether Western-style democracy is necessarily the best option for these states). This realisation has led me to modify what I envisage myself doing, when I say “I want to work in international development”.

Beyond this, and given the recent rise and correlative criticism of ‘voluntourism’, I have to ask myself what I, as a relatively unqualified social scientist, can offer to those who need it most.

All this paints a very bleak picture for the aspiring development intern. Which is what drew me to research. Having completed my degree at a research-intensive university, and (despite the procrastination) actually quite enjoying academia, this is an area of development which I could actually apply my skills to, whether that is by pursuing further study (I currently hold an offer for the African Politics MSc at SOAS) with potential to proceed to PhD, or aspiring to work at a think tank or as a policy advisor to an NGO or a foreign government.

Of course, a number of issues remain.

  1. Research is useful, but it is removed from the cause. Much of your time will be spent in isolation from the people you are trying to help, trying to solve problems not related to development (relating to data analysis and publishing conventions instead, for example).
  2. Even if your research is influential, it may take a while to gain traction, or may not gain traction at all.
  3. It may not reflect the results which you expected or wanted.

Like many areas of development, the path is not clear. At this stage in my career, I have decided to throw myself into research and try to find out as much as possible about whether it is right for me. At the moment I am a Research Assistant to a PhD project which is looking at natural resource management in Tanzania.

In September, I begin an internship in Ghana for the Alliance for African Women Initiative, working on their Operation 100 research project which aims to discover the levels of AIDS and sex education of junior high school students in Greater Accra. For this project I will be working at the data collection level.

Over the coming months I hope to contribute further to this blog, discussing in greater detail some of the issues I’ve raised here, and offering an insight into my experience as a development intern in the research side of development.

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Experiences

Reflections & Ramblings Of A Development Undergrad

I have to admit that I have somewhat of a love-hate relationship with being an undergraduate development student. First of all, you ask a lot of questions and get very few answers. Second, you are trained to be so critical of the development ‘industry’ that you end up not really knowing why you’re there in the first place (Karen Attiah wrote a great blog on ‘International Development Disillusionment’ here). And third, you probably have to defend your choice of doing a Development Studies degree more than with any other subject, which quite frankly, can start to grate a bit after a year or two.

A lot of people probably see undergraduate development students as young people whose lives were changed on a gap year trip to meet kids in ‘Africa’. Certainly, the automatic assumption that my degree is about “charities and Africa and stuff, right?” is not an uncommon one. 

Don’t get me wrong, there are perhaps a few of those students around, but most of us are actually just young people who want to understand the world better. A development studies degree doesn’t teach you how to “do” development, it teaches you to think about why there is such a thing as development (or the lack of it), and because of that, I believe quite strongly that Development Studies is a valuable undergraduate degree regardless of whether or not you actually then go into ‘development’.

It took me two “gap years” after school (working at a national newspaper, not on a beach in Thailand) before I actually decided what I wanted to study at undergraduate level.

A social scientist at heart, I considered various options of studying Economics, Geography and Law before deciding wholeheartedly on a Development Economics degree at the School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS) in London. Even then, by second year I re-titled my degree to Development Studies and Economics (which might sound like a negligible difference, but it meant I was exempt from quantitative methods and econometrics, happy days). With the new title, my degree structure became more flexible and allowed me to take modules from other disciplines such as Politics and Film Studies. To any student out there in the midst of a development degree, or thinking about doing one, I can’t recommend this highly enough: the more diverse and multi-disciplinary you can make your development degree, the better.

One of the things I love most about the BA Development Studies degree structure at SOAS is that you can’t do ‘straight’ development studies – you can only combine it with a second subject such as politics, anthropology, Swahili, religious studies, law, or, as in my case, economics. It’s a structure that I would recommend keeping an eye out for at other universities, and if not, at least look closely at the extent to which you will be able to tailor your degree and/or take elective modules from other disciplines. At the same time, you will need to also demonstrate in some way how your interests are focused: whether that be by concentrating your electives in a particular field (in my case it was film and media), becoming an active member of particular societies or groups at university (for example, I interned at the university radio station), or narrowing your academic interests at postgraduate level.

A friend of mine who is also graduating this year, said to me the other day “I have no skills! I’m a jack-of-all-trades but master of none!”

Although I can easily relate to her sentiment, I think that the multidisciplinary nature of a development studies degree can easily be turned into an advantage if you design it to your strengths and interests.

Development as a concept is enormously challenged and contested, but in my view that is by no means a reason to avoid studying it at either undergraduate or postgraduate level (I’ll be talking about postgrads in my next blog). If anything, I would argue that development studies is more relevant than ever given its ever-expanding mandate in the current global environment.

Just the other day I was at a talk with a UNHCR representative on the Syrian refugee crisis response, who said that the international community needed to start to “think more developmentally” in how it deals with forced migration and refugees. If you start to think of Development Studies less as a way to learn how to ‘do’ development, and more as a way of learning to ‘think’ differently about development, then I hope you’ll find it as valuable and rewarding a degree as I have.

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