Category Archives: Author Blog

A General Good Time

Written by guest blogger Matthew Smith.

Illustration

Judging children’s behaviour is largely a matter of perspective.  Whether we see certain childhood behaviours as positive or negative often boils down to our particular viewpoint and, crucially, how said behaviour impinges on us, the adult.  As I suggest in “Snips and Snails,” perceptions of positive and negative childhood behaviour have also changed historically, and for a wide variety of reasons that often have little to do with childhood itself.  What hasn’t changed, however, is that we adults have not tended to be particularly concerned with how children view their own behaviour.  But should we?

There is an illustration by True Williams (1839-1897) in the original edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer that nicely sums how a child’s perception of their own behaviour – and its repercussions – can differ markedly from that of an adult. In the illustration, entitled, “A General Good Time,” Tom has just fed Aunt Polly’s cat, Peter, a spoonful of “Pain-killer,” a quack medicine she has been giving Tom to pick up his spirits.  The cat goes berserk, knocking over flower pots and furniture, and eventually smashing through the window.  While everything in Tom’s posture and expression exudes how hilarious he thinks this is, his poor Aunt Polly looks mortified, hands clasped together in a desperate plea to the Almighty to set this boy right.

Although most of us – certainly those of us who are parents – might side with Aunt Polly’s interpretation of the situation if we were left to clean up the mess, what if we saw a scene of this nature in a comedy film?  We might well laugh along with Tom at the cat’s antics.  The scene reminds me of my eight-year-old son’s recent birthday party, which was a “tubing” party at a local ski hill.  While rocketing down the hill, the children’s screams and shrieks of delight were charming; not so when they continued during the birthday lunch, held in a cramped room in the lodge.  After a few minutes, the scene in the lunchroom resembled that in “A General Good Time,” except with a dozen maniacal children replacing the cat and all manner of birthday detritus replacing the plant pots.  While some of the kids chased each other around and under the table, others engaged in a belching competition that drowned out my attempts to attain some sanity to the proceedings.  My son sat back in delight, taking in the carnage.  And if I hadn’t had to clean it all up, I might have as well.

There is a final, telling moment towards the end of the scene depicted in “A General Good Time.”  Tom, having made Aunt Polly guilty for making him drink the Pain-killer asserts that – taste notwithstanding – the medicine did Peter the cat good.  In other words, a bit of mindless mayhem might not be all bad.  As parents – and adults – we should remember that sometimes.

Read Matthew Smith’s article “‘Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tails’: Boys and Behaviour in the USA” free for a limited time on UTP Journals Online.

Notes on Ethnographic Situations in Vietnamese American Communities

Written by guest blogger An Tuan Nguyen.

Four men standing for a photo outside. Southern California, May 2012: Standing in a parking lot of a motel where I stayed for several weeks during one of my field visits were three young informants and I. All three of them were my former students in Ho Chi Minh City between 2008 and 2009. They also introduced many other informants to my project.

My article “Global Economy, Citizenship Pluralism, Transmigrant Mobility, and the Sojourn-Immigrant Vietnamese Americans” in Diaspora is a part of a large and comprehensive ethnographic project that started in 2010 during my time in graduate school and is continuing until now. Unlike most scholars in the field of Vietnamese American studies, I came to the United States as an international graduate student and am still a [proud] Vietnamese national. My background profoundly shapes my perspective and decisively helps me probe Vietnamese America from different angles. Whereas this ethnography was mostly written in a small Midwestern college town, the research was conducted in multiple ethnographic sites from Vietnam to the East Coast, the Midwest, the South, and, of course, the beautiful state of California of the West Coast USA. I deliberately extended my project to include trans-community, trans-state, and transnational focus. The various ethnographic sites were intended to provide more comprehensive and inclusive analyses of the varied Vietnamese American/immigrant lived experience.

Doing ethnography in traditional Vietnamese American communities has always been treated as contentious and risky work. Many ethnographers, often academics who literally live in, and virtually rely on sites of Vietnamese American ethnic enclaves to develop both their research and their teaching career, have admitted their fear of being outcasts once their research reveals some uncomfortable truths and upsets the locals. Such fear might be coupled with a sense of betrayal to those who help them to do the research. This is particularly true when research touches on the controversial and highly heated topic of Vietnamese anticommunism. One researcher confessed, “I too am familiar with the fears […]. [I was] once afraid that my writings would cause me to be labeled a communist and therefore make it difficult to simultaneously research and be a part of the Vietnamese American community.”[i] Another admitted, “My fear of being dubbed a “communist” made me take a safer route.”[ii] Another expressed her anxiety after traveling to Vietnam with “a bunch of lefty antiwar peacenicks” and “spoke with officials of the Communist Party”: “I worry what he [one of her radical anticommunist informants], and other Vietnamese Americans, would think about my travels.”[iii]

In a tiny college town, I did not live in an actual Vietnamese community. Therefore, such fear did not affect me. I, in fact, lived in an imagined community, to borrow Benedict Anderson’s term.[iv] My status, however, switched accordingly in each site. During my field research in areas of strong anticommunist fevers such as Dorchester, Boston, MA and Little Saigon, Orange County, CA, I was embraced by my entrepreneurial participants as a teacher (many of my informants were my former students, their parents, relatives, and friends) who attentively listened to their lamentations, confusion, and hopes in the foreign land. To the professional informants in many smaller cities, I was a fellow Vietnamese who was predictably following their trajectory: coming to America, striving for an education, and aspiring to be a researcher and a teacher at a US postsecondary institution. I was not a stranger ethnographer who arrived in a community, lived with the locals for years, learned their language and culture, and wrote a book. Neither was I an ethnographer who explored the local community and claimed my “insider” status to conduct a research. I was a site-hopper whose length of stays, ethnographic methods (including observations, participations, and interviews), and sometimes, means of survival, relied heavily on the goodwill of my people: the Vietnamese immigrants who trusted me with the job of telling their stories; the stories that otherwise would not be told and heard. Although their real names can never be revealed in any of my publications, by participating in the project, their bravery and willingness have rendered possible this article and will continue to shape other publications in the future. They in fact have taken all the risks while I took none; and for that I am forever grateful and indebted.

An Tuan Nguyen teaches in the Asian American Studies Center at the University of Houston. His research interests focus on how histories of Asian immigration forged the making of Asian American ethnic enclaves and identities and how globalization reconceptualized such communities and identities. His past and current research are community-based projects that explore the lived experience of contemporary Vietnamese immigrants living across the country in their socioeconomic struggle, political empowerment, cultural identity negotiation, and globalized transnationalism. His articles have appeared in DIASPORA and Journal of Vietnamese Studies. Amongst several other projects, Nguyen’s book manuscript entitled “Luggage to America: Professional, Entrepreneurial Immigrants and the Twenty First Century Vietnamese America” is under final revision.

Read his article “Global Economy, Citizenship Pluralism, Transmigrant Mobility, and the Sojourn-Immigrant Vietnamese Americans” in Diaspora Volume 20 Issue 2, free for a limited time here: https://doi.org/10.3138/diaspora.20.2.002.

Notes

[i] Kieu-linh Caroline Valverde, “Creating Identity, Defining Culture, and Making History from an Art Exhibit: ‘Unfinished Story: A Tribute to My Mothers,’ Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, vol. 19, no. 2 (2008): 60.

[ii] Thuy Vo Dang, “Anticommunism as Cultural Praxis: South Vietnam, War, and Refugee Memories in the Vietnamese American Community,” (PhD diss., University of California, San Diego, 2008): 220.

[iii] Karin Aguilar-San Juan, Little Saigons: Staying Vietnamese in America, (University of Minnesota Press, 2009: 158.)

[iv] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, (Verso, 2006).

The Politics of Policymaking in Canada

The Public Servant’s Guide to Government in Canada, written by Alex Marland and Jared J. Wesley, is a concise primer on the inner workings of government in Canada. As former public servants themselves, these authors know the difficulties in understanding how modern government operates, and how hard it can be to find your place within it. In this post, Jared J. Wesley discusses his own experience of working as a public servant, and how The Public Servant’s Guide to Government in Canada came to fruition.


The longest day of my public servant career featured a layover in the Regina airport.  At a national meeting of government executives, I had spent the better part of the afternoon advising a provincial government minister against appearing before a House of Commons parliamentary committee to support a piece of federal legislation.  “Think of the profile it would give us,” he told his political chief of staff.  “And think of the road trip,” replied the staffer.  “With respect,” I interrupted, “it’s not customary for provincial ministers to testify in parliamentary hearings.  In fact,” I frantically consulted my notes, “Alberta has only sent one minister before a federal committee in the past twenty years.  And you’d need approval from the Premier’s Office.” “We’re anything but customary,” I could read on the minister’s face. “It actually lowers your status,” I went on.  “You should engage your federal counterparts on a government to government basis.  It preserves your authority – your government’s authority – as opposed to being treated like just another federal stakeholder.”

The last line felt almost rehearsed; I had written a briefing note on it just a day before.  I was told to stand down, as the minister placed a call to the Premier’s Office.  I placed a call of my own, to my executive director.  Within a few hours, the Ottawa trip had been shelved.  I found that out while sitting in the Regina airport, listening to the minister tell insensitive jokes to his staff within earshot of a dozen other travellers.  I tried my best to ignore it, and pretended to be on my phone to avoid eye contact. The situation worsened when we arrived back in Calgary to find that our connecting flight to Edmonton had been canceled due to a blizzard.  While I was on my blackberry booking a hotel for the night, the minister grabbed my phone.  He told me that taxpayers wouldn’t stand for it, and ushered me into a waiting minivan he’d rented.  Over the course of the five-hour, stormy, midnight drive, he regaled us with even more offensive commentary, mostly directed at his political opponents.  I arrived home in time to change clothes for work.  I didn’t tell anyone the story until the minister left office years later, and even then, concealed his name and framed it as a cautionary tale.

At the time, I had spent my entire adult life studying politics. I’d written a few books and a few more journal articles about party politics and policymaking. But none of it had prepared me for the day-to-day interactions like those just described. While they may not have the privilege of working directly with elected officials, new public servants confront similar knowledge gaps in their first weeks on the job. If they are like me, they quickly realize that government is more complex, yet somehow more informal, than their textbooks and professors described. While useful, theories of democracy, frameworks of public administration, and historical knowledge fit uneasily with the fast-paced, evolving nature of public service in Canada. Core concepts like accountability take on entirely new meanings. Beyond the public sector bargain that dictates you must provide “fearless advice and loyal implementation,” bureaucrats realize they have multiple responsibilities, are accountable to a whole host of people, and are subject to a wide range of forces seldom covered in assigned readings and seminar discussions. Relationships with elected officials, supervisors, deputy ministers, colleagues in other organizations, friends and family, and the general public are all at play in a public servant’s work. Fortunately, ethical dilemmas like the ones I encountered are few and far between. Yet navigating these various modes of accountability can be challenging nonetheless.

As former public servants, Alex Marland and I know this first-hand.  Learning new subject matter can be difficult enough when you join a new department or unit.  On-the-job training seldom covers the “small-p politics” involved in public service work, leaving you to read between the lines on various organization charts to figure out where you fit into the broader government structure.  This can be vexing for interns and new public servants, and even some long-time bureaucrats lack a firm understanding of how government actually works.  That is why we wrote The Public Servant’s Guide to Government in Canada.

At around 100 pages, it is a short, practical primer about how modern government operates. The book offers an insider’s perspective on how public service sits at the nexus of theory and practice, politics and professionalism. It is written in an accessible style suitable for anyone seeking to learn more about the Canadian system of government. The book contains a summary of core concepts about government and working in the public service. In it, we explain the linkages between politics, public administration, and public policy, dispelling many myths about how public servants should remain a-political in their day-to-day work. For new or would-be public servants, the Guide offers advice about life in public administration – what to expect and what to do to reach your full potential. We have included tips from bureaucratic colleagues for improving your performance and carving your career path.

The Guide wouldn’t have provided letter-for-letter advice on how to deal with the minister in the Regina airport, or on that snowy ride home to Edmonton.  But it would have given me a better sense of my own role in the situation.  If you are looking for a concise overview about government in Canada, and your place within it, The Public Servant’s Guide to Government in Canada is written for you.


If you want to find out more about The Public Servant’s Guide to Government in Canada, click here to view the table of contents and read an exclusive excerpt from the book.


Jared J. Wesley is a pracademic—a practicing political scientist and former public servant—whose career path to the University of Alberta’s Department of Political Science has included senior management positions in provincial public services. While in the bureaucracy, he gained valuable experience in the development of public policy and intergovernmental strategy. He also served as Director of Learning and Development, establishing policies and curriculum to train provincial public servants. As an Associate Professor of Political Science, he studies and teaches the politics of bureaucracy and the bureaucracy of politics.

Alex Marland is a professor of political science at Memorial University in St. John’s and a former public servant in the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. Alex’s interest in the practical side of governance is grounded in his discreet research interviews with politicians, political staff, and public servants. His book Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control (UBC Press 2016) won the Donner Prize for Best Public Policy Book by a Canadian.

The Sentence: The Transformative Power of Storytelling in Diagnosis

In the diagnostic moment on story is told and another one is triggered.

Hon. John Collier. No. 177. Royal Academy and Paris salon. Credit: Wellcome Collection.

Imagine the following scene. You’ve had some symptoms that worried you. You’ve gone to the doctor who agreed that a diagnostic work-up was in order. You’ve had an X-ray, maybe a scan, and some blood work run. The results are back, and you are in the doctor’s office, awaiting the verdict. On the one hand, you’re thinking “It’s probably nothing. I’ve just been overworked recently.” On the other, you are asking yourself, “Suppose it’s something serious?”

We have probably all rehearsed this kind of scene in our heads. What would we do/say/think/feel if the doctor were to say “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but you have [name of dire diagnosis].” We might have a list of activities to tick off, people with whom to reconcile, places or things to do or see.  Just getting a diagnosis ends up dividing as Suzanne Fleischman wrote: “a life into ‘before’ and ‘after,’ …[a division]… henceforth superimposed onto every rewrite of the individual’s life story.” She wrote this after her own diagnosis of what was to be a fatal leukemia.

Imagining this story is not hard, if we haven’t experienced or witnessed it before, because the diagnosis is so common a device in stories of all kinds. Diagnosis is, in itself, a story. It links together a set of phenomena in a usually linear manner, it generates an explanation, a plot line, and a denouement, in which a knotted bundle of threads gets untangled.  It is a trope, or a motif. The stories of diagnosis are told in a particular tone, with an expectation of a particular kind of outcome. This is why we can imagine the diagnostic scene. We’ve seen in before in many other guises: a sombre newspaper report about a celebrity learning about an unexpected cancer, a book in which the protagonist must wrestle with the knowledge of his newly-announced disease, a film in which the main character watches her life wind down after learning she has an early-onset dementia. The picture accompanying this post barely needs a caption. We can recognize this scene.

Thinking about diagnosis as a story gives us opportunities. Any story can be retold, or reframed. There are many narrative templates, and not all are linked to devastating change.  Importantly, thinking of diagnosis as a story, we have an opportunity to release ourselves from the dominating grip of diagnosis-as-verdict, diagnosis-as-moment-of-truth.

How about we move away from the contemporary tendency of narrative constructions, be they about diagnosis or something else, to focus on personal change. It is a tendency that my friend and novelist Damien Wilkins laments, as it “leaves out other ways of being in the world.” It’s not that transformation stories don’t have their place, but there are other ways of telling stories.  Save the powerful about-turns for when they matter, he argues: “the notion of personal change – change which is improving – is both disreputable and unmoveable, tarnished and resolute, art’s cheapest trick and its most generous gift.” [i]

Narratives don’t always have to promise change.  If we hearken back to the Greeks, the dominant narrative form focused on observing what happened to people as they endured trials. The trials were administered by fate, and rather than transforming the characters, they revealed them. They ride on, and through, the chaos of life, with only fate as immovable.  In contrast to the change narrative (like the moment the doctor is going to tell us the name of some dreaded malady), it is not a moment where a power structure is revealed. The narrative affirms, rather than changes the character.

Diagnosis: Truths and Tales focuses on revealing the prevalence of the change narrative to which diagnosis clings, highlighting its transformative power, and suggesting a re-narration that will make the experience of illness something easier to bear.


[i] Damien Wilkins, “No Hugging, Some Learning: Writing and Personal Change,” in The Fuse Box: Essays on Writing from Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters, ed.  Emily Perkins and Chris Price (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2017).


Annemarie Goldstein Jutel is Professor of Health at Victoria University of Wellington.

Negotiating Better by Negotiating like a Barterer

Written by guest blogger, Brian Gunia.

On a recent wintry weekend, for the lack of a better option, my daughters and I visited “Ridley’s Accept it or Else.” Our excitement over this museum of the odd must’ve been obvious, as the receptionist immediately offered a three-attraction combo ticket.

“And what does that include?” I inquired.

“All our weird and wacky attractions,” she said, “along with the marvelous house of mirrors and the exhilarating 4-D motion theater.”

“Are all those appropriate for a six- and three-year-old?” I probed.

“Oh yes, there’s nothing scary here.”

I should’ve known better. But on this, our first visit to Ridley’s, I wanted to show my ragamuffins a good time. So I bought it.

And I’ll admit it: We lapped up their weird and wacky attractions. From locks of Lincoln’s hair, to a shrunken head, to a T-Rex made of pop tart wrappers, we relished some of the world’s oddest oddities.

But then came the marvelous house of mirrors. A pitch-black maze of mirrors from which several world-renowned explorers have never escaped, it wasn’t so marvelous for my three-year-old. It propelled her into a state of abject fear.

And so, when we somehow escaped and approached the exhilarating 4-D motion theater, she wouldn’t even consider it. Nor could I blame her given the signs about sudden movements and sharp drops.

Appropriate for a six- and three-year-old? The former maybe, the latter absolutely not.

In sum, none of us really enjoyed the mirrors, and none of us even tried the theater. So I was irritated and wanted money back. And my daughters’ impending hunger and extreme fatigue made me want it now.

Operating under the visceral influences of irritation, hunger, and fatigue, I must admit I adopted a negotiation style that my book explicitly criticizes: the monetary mindset. Specifically, I marched up to the receptionist, told her what I thought of her sales tactics, and demanded some money back. In so doing, I was treating this negotiation like a monetary transaction, making the unproductive assumptions that:

  • I wanted just one thing (a big rebate)
  • I was negotiating with just one person (the receptionist)
  • She wanted just the opposite (no rebate)
  • For me to win, she’d have to lose
  • Or else we’d have to compromise

 

“Let me call my supervisor,” said the receptionist, followed shortly after the call by, “We can’t give you any money back.”

Most people’s story stops right there. They adopt the monetary mindset, fight over a fixed pie, and march out of Ridley’s with little or nothing but frustration to show for it.

To the receptionist’s extreme credit, though, she attached another statement to the last: “But we can offer you our latest book on Ridley’s oddest oddities.”

Now, I doubt the receptionist was thinking quite so strategically, but this statement epitomizes the approach my own book actually recommends: the bartering mindset. In offering the Ridley’s book, she was treating this negotiation like bartering trade, making the much more productive assumptions that:

  • She wanted and could offer several things (e.g., my future business and the book, respectively)
  • She was negotiating with several people (my souvenir-hungry daughters in addition to myself)
  • I wanted and could offer several things too (e.g., to satisfy my daughters and visit Ridley’s again, respectively)
  • For her to succeed, I’d have to feel like a winner too
  • Which we could achieve by exchanging the book for no hard feelings about the initial scam

 

In sum, the receptionist compensated for her earlier sketchiness by adopting a highly productive negotiation strategy that treated the situation like bartering trade, i.e., by assuming the bartering mindset. Awakened from the visceral influences of irritation, hunger, and fatigue by her sophisticated response, I shed my own unproductive monetary mindset, accepted the book gratefully, and publicly promised my daughters to return to Ridley’s soon. And don’t think they’ll forget it.

Just a funny story to introduce my new book, The Bartering Mindset, which will help you grapple with many of life’s challenges—including the substantially more serious. I hope you’ll join me in learning to negotiate like a barterer.


Brian C. Gunia is Associate Professor at the Carey Business School, Johns Hopkins University and the author of The Bartering Mindset: A Mostly Forgotten Framework for Mastering Your Next Negotiation.