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Stuck in the Middle
August 7, 2011 - 8:46pm

As a US student in the UK, I simultaneously loathed and feared the ‘mid-Atlantic’ accent. I loathed the pretense of middle-class Americans putting on aristocratic airs. (You never hear a mid-Atlantic accent with acquired inflections from the streets of Sheffield or Swansea - only home counties and high tables.) I simultaneously fought the urge to swallow my crass Chicago ‘A’s when I spoke to my would-be-in-laws at Sunday lunch in Surrey. I was well aware of the ease with which I could become one of the cultural poseurs I despised.

Last month I re-entered the stormy seas of the culturally ‘in between.’ Well timed to coincide with the biannual meeting of the National Association of Fellowship Advisors (NAFA), Cambridge in America gathered alumni in Chicago for a breakfast chat about innovation. The don who addressed us stressed the necessity of people who could cross boundaries and nurture relationships wherever needed: between public & private, East & West, academic & corporate, ‘new’ world & ‘old.’

Historian Peter Burke dubbed these folks “cultural mediators” in the dark ages when I walked along the Cam. These arbiters of power from ambassadors to teachers run perpetual risks. Spend too much time learning your new language and face accusation of ‘going native’ whether the natives are Nobel laureates or Navajo shepherds. Meanwhile, no-matter how hard one tries to adapt, you can never jettison the suspicion that should push come to shove, you will pick past affiliations over present ones. Those of us who live among a myriad of affiliations will remain ‘stuck in the middle.’

NAFA exists by, for, and of the people charged to cross boundaries with the young and ambitious on our backs. We seek money from private foundations to fund study at public universities and from governments to fund study at private universities. We send students from the US abroad and seek funds for foreign students to study in the US. We simultaneously pre-select students for outside review and polish our pupils to make better impressions before panels. We stand accused of doing too much and too little in turn.

Like Lincoln, we cannot make all the people happy all of the time, but we can play a critical pedagogical role. We lay down over the selection processes’ troubled waters and allow students to cross safely. They may not land at their initially desired destination, but we will set them ashore. We cannot control the outcome of our efforts, which may vary wildly from our intent. When no one is happy, the mediator morphs into the enemy.

I fear the plight of Conrad Weiser, an eighteenth-century German immigrant who became an honorary Mohawk and an envoy for the British colonies from Pennsylvania to Virginia. In a decade, he went from being universally loved to universally loathed. Why? Because he could not control the connections between the many parties he pledged to represent. He could not guard all the goals of natives, colonies, and empire all the time. Those on the opposite side of the Atlantic could not even agree upon a name for the war that Weiser failed to prevent. British school children compose essays about “The Seven Years’ War,” while my sons will see only “The French and Indian War” appear on their exams. Only a few Pennsylvanians will likely ever know Weiser’s name. Children on both sides of the pond remember the name of the inexperienced officer who unintentionally undid Weiser’s efforts with the Jumonville affair. George Washington picked sides and stuck to them at all costs, including lives.

Like Weiser and everyone else stuck in the middle of complex institutions and goals, NAFA members' names will never gain fame. My grandchildren will likely know the names of Bill Clinton, William Fulbright, Bill Gates, George Mitchell, Cecil Rhodes and the awards created in their names with their money. They may learn the names of the young men and women whom my colleagues and I support as they secure these awards, but they will not know my colleagues' names. That’s just fine. However, I do NOT want to end my career castigated by those whose ideals I struggle to uphold. Take me at my word that if you think me a hopeless Anglophile, someone else thinks me an obnoxious Anglophobe. If you think I edit too much, someone else thinks I edit too little. If you think I am too nice, someone else thinks I am too mean. I don’t mind being stuck in the middle, but I intend to stand tall.

Evanston, Illinois in the USA

Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe is a regular contributor to the University of Venus and an associate director of the Office of Fellowships at her undergraduate alma mater, Northwestern University. She earned M.Litt. and M.Phil. degrees in European History as a Marshall Scholar at Cambridge University before completing her doctorate in American History at Princeton University. For more, follow @ejlp on Twitter or go to


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