Category Archives: Travel

Why English and Rhet/Comp Graduate Students Should Consider Career Choices Abroad

Kremlin
If you’d told me a year ago, that I’d be able to walk here from my apartment, I’d have…done…something.

November starts tomorrow, which means that job hunting season for new and expectant PhDs is about to really get going, and I am having bad acid flashbacks of weekends spend queuing up Interfolio dossiers and hoping I remembered to change the receiver’s address on each cover letter. I am hoping to stay put in my current job for a good while, and not only because I’m hoping to avoid crying in restaurants for a few years, but because I can honestly say that I am enjoying my job. Really, really enjoying it. And even though it wasn’t Plan A and even though I wound up here through a bizarre series of coincidences and chance encounters, I couldn’t be more grateful that I ended up here rather than at one of the other places that offered me interviews (but didn’t offer me jobs). Now, I certainly can’t say that my experience is typical, but it’s enough for me to recommend that English and Rhet/Comp students (and all fields, really)–facing increasingly dire prospects on the US market–look at an international career as a viable option. Some reasons:

Travel, duh.

Some of my current satisfaction has to do with location and the thrill of travel. I made a pact with my spouse when I began my job search that–and this is the exact wording–we would not die in Waco. I’m not going to go into all the reasons why, but you can guess some of them. Cut to three years later, and I am at interviewing for a position for a university in Waco. And I interviewed for two more jobs that were in places very much like Waco but with different weather. For many, no doubt, Waco is a brighter prospect than Moscow, where the sun currently comes up around 8:45 am, but a couple of weeks ago, we walked from our 600 square foot apartment to Red Square on a chilly day in the rain, and I was overwhelmed with disbelief that this is my actual life. Different isn’t always better, but when you’ve felt yourself grow stale in a place, going somewhere completely different feels like a rebirth. You aren’t better, but just by virtue of changing your life so radically, you lose a lot of bad habits and pick up a few new ones. You find yourself challenged and engaged in ways that are completely unexpected. And you learn a little bit about surrender.

Working Conditions

Speaking in more practical terms, the set of conditions under which I’m working are quite a bit better than what I could have expected in the US. Though this isn’t a tenure track position, it’s a renewable contract with an institution that was willing to make a pretty considerable investment in getting me over here. I am getting paid at near the top end of what Assistant Profs make in my field in the US. I have a research budget. I got to design and teach my own literature elective my first semester here. I teach a 1/1 load alongside my Writing Center admin responsibilities. My students are Ivy-League caliber and turn their assignments in on time and have forever ruined me for teaching in the US. I have health insurance. I could go on.

Building Something New

I teach at an institution that is only two decades old in an English department that is only a few years old. For some, I think this would in and of itself be anxiety producing. And there are drawbacks. The building I work in is decrepit, though that’s largely because the school invested in world-class faculty on the front end rather than facilities. The former Rector had to, you know, flee the country under the threat of political persecution, but we have a new Rector who seems extremely qualified and energized about where the institution will go next. In short, the people who work here seem to think that they are involved in doing something extremely important and urgent for their students, their research field, and their country, and despite the specialization of the school, the English department is part of that. And that, to me at least, is so much more exciting than slotting into a long-established literature or writing program at a centuries-old universities where the possibility of making a genuine difference means working against entrenched interests and traditions.

This Writing Center is only two years old and is the first of its kind in Russia. The US model Writing Center is rapidly becoming a very attractive import for many European, Asian, and Middle Eastern universities. Not only does this mean that there are jobs out there but that international, multi-lingual writing centers and writing programs are becoming a new frontier for research.

International Colleagues

Which brings me, of course, to the fact that the American academic universe is pretty much hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world. And particularly in the areas of rhetoric and composition studies, there is a LOT of interesting work that could be done if there were more exchange of ideas internationally. There’s always some noise about the need to do so, but very little of it actually happens in practice.

And then, of course, there is just the stimulation of having colleagues from all over the world just down the hall. I work with people from Belarus, Palestine, Turkey, and Italy as well as Americans who have made their entire careers abroad. And I’m interacting with these people in a place where “Americanness” isn’t neither the default nor the goal, where we are all foreigners.

Marketability

For the reasons discussed earlier, Americans with English and Rhet/Comp degrees are extremely marketable on the international market, especially if they can bring some ESL/EFL experience together with expertise in a content field. the TESOL jobs site and the International Writing Centers Association website are good places to look for openings. Be aware, however, that in addition to talking about your research and teaching, you will need to be able to articulate–both in your cover letter and in your interview–why you want to work abroad and why you want to work in that country specifically. The turnover rate among expat employees is high because people get homesick or have a change in family circumstances or whatever, and schools who pay for moving costs invest a considerable amount in their faculty up front. So you need to be able to argue for why you are a good investment.

I was warned before taking this job that working abroad could hurt my marketability if I want to return to the US. I have heard anecdotal reports that this is true, but the person I replaced had two job offers in the US, so take that for what it’s worth.

Caveats

Working abroad is not for you if:

  • You are seeking the traditional middle-class American experience with children, extended family in easy reach, and steady, reliable employment. Granted, for many of us, this simply isn’t an option we can count on. But the truth is that going abroad means being uprooted, many times, potentially. And it means going long periods without seeing your parents or siblings or old friends. If you go abroad, you need to wrap your head around the fact that this isn’t study abroad. This is going to be your life, and if you have doubts, it’s best to grapple with them early on.
  • You shun hassles. I mean, I don’t know anyone who likes being inconvenienced, but moving internationally is a giant effing hassle in every possible way. I have had to deal with more paperwork than it took to sell our house (and most of it in a language I don’t read well). Shipping a few boxes of personal items and research materials has been an undertaking so grueling and expensive that I question whether it was worth it (probably not). And airports, man. Airports.

The takeaway here is that it’s not going to be a glorious experience for everyone or 100% of the time, but it’s a career path that is very seriously worth considering as an alternative to stringing together adjunct work, taking a 9-5 office job, teaching a 4/4 lectureship with no opportunities for research or career advancement, or even *gasp* a tenure track job in quite a few cases.

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Moscow – Days 2 and 3

Jet lag is not a joke, ya’ll. I’m sleeping at night, which is a plus, but it’s in four hour chunks from roughly 6 pm to 7 am. I can tell my body needs food, but absolutely nothing sounds good. And I have a headache all the time. Lucky for me, my employer has kept my social calendar very full, so I haven’t had a lot of time to feel sorry for myself.

On Saturday, the International Office hired an undergrad to teach me how to be an adult in Moscow. He showed me grocery and drug stores, gave me recommendations for not-too-expensive restaurants, and we discussed such essential diplomatic issues such as which English words sound sort of like Russian profanities and vice versa. We also went to get a SIM card for my phone, where I learned that in spite of all its egregious problems with civil liberties, Russia is a veritable land of the free when it comes to telecommunications services. There’s none of this signing over your life for two years in exchange for a discounted smartphone. You’re expected to pay full price for the phone itself (and a lot more for American models), but in exchange you get extremely cheap, fast, and flexible phone and data plans. You can change rates and/or carriers any time you want, and it costs like 20 bucks a month, as opposed to the 150 we’re paying in the United States. Of course, first, I had to get my three-year old iPhone released from AT&T’s proprietary stranglehold, which took three tries, even though our contract has been complete for over a year.

IMG_0649 IMG_0651 IMG_0659 IMG_0665 My twenty-year old guide said you can tell a Muscovite by whether or not they have been to the Tretyakov Gallery, a gallery entirely comprised of Russian art through the centuries. Moscow natives, as a rule, have never been. Like most major landmarks in big cities, it’s a tourist attraction. So, naturally, he took me there (said guide is from the sticks himself and had just taken an art history class and really wanted to go). It was, indeed, swarming with tourists, but there was also quite a lot of gorgeous art.

I like the religious art quite a bit, though looking at icon after icon from the medieval period can get rather monotonous. I think my favorites from the Tretyakov were the genre paintings from the nineteenth century, which are moody and dynamic and violent.

IMG_0725On Sunday, my guides were another faculty member and his wife, who are from Siberia and Belarus respectively but who both went to university in North Carolina. Moscow contains a surprising amount of green space. Virtually every neighborhood has some kind of park. Stas and Tanya took us to one of their favorites, Kolomenskoye, which contains several old churches and used to be the site of the summer palace of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich, father of Peter the Great, before it burned to the ground. It probably didn’t help that the palace was built entirely of wood, as most buildings in Moscow were back in the day. Happily, at some point, they built a replica of of it (complete with a bathhouse), so you can see exactly how the tsars lived in the sixteenth century. Just outside, we had kvas (a mildly alcoholic fermented grain beveraged) and blini (Russian crepes).

IMG_0713Kolomenskoye is also in the middle of a honey festival, where you can walk into a tent and go to stand after stand and sample local honey and things made from local honey. Because I am a philistine, the only honey I’ve ever had is the stuff that comes out of the bear and that you buy at HEB, so this was something of a revelation. Artisanal honey is apparently like fine wine or beer. Even samples of the same type and preparation taste different depending on the farm.

In Moscow parks, they do not mind if you walk on the grass, and they also do not mind if you climb right up into the trees and pick the apples that are starting to turn ripe right about now. So we did that, though the easiest trees with the ripest apples had already been picked pretty clean. I think it’s been about 20 years since I last climbed a tree.

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Moscow – Day 1

So, like, what day is it right now? This crossing 10 time zones thing is kind of a beast. I’m experiencing Memento-levels of disorientation here where whenever I wake up, I have to kind of do an inventory to figure out what the hell is going on.

But jet lag aside, Day One of my journey was wonderful. And by Day One, I’m referring to the roughly 36 hour period of non-stop wakefulness that concluded at 8:00 pm Moscow time when I finally passed out.

Except for the sheer amount of time it took, the trip here from the US was uneventful. I need to get in a glowing review of Singapore Airlines, which has completely ruined domestic US air travel for me. I mean, you walk onto the plane, and the air is perfumed. There is a pillow and blanket waiting for you at your seat. Prior to takeoff, they pass out hot towels to everyone. The booze is free, even in coach (Paul, the new NES intern and fellow Longhorn who was on the same flight, tried to drink his way through the menu and was not in great shape when we arrived). The food is edible. At one point, they give you a pair of fuzzy socks in a little Givenchy bag. Despite all of this pampering, I didn’t sleep a wink. I blame the in-flight entertainment system. Each seat has a little screen loaded with dozens of current movies and television shows, including complete seasons of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. I was honestly a little disappointed when we landed.

Russian passport control and customs were surprisingly efficient, and my bags were already out and helpfully grouped together on the floor when we got to baggage claim. Good on you, Moscow Domodedovo. Paul the Intern and I were greeted by a driver and representative from the New Economic School, and we immediately got a taste of Moscow traffic, which is like New York traffic but with fewer rules.

My employer is putting me up in a temporary apartment in the Zamoskvorechye District while I look for a permanent place to live. Quick geography lesson: Moscow is laid out in a series of concentric circles that radiate out from the Kremlin. I am currently staying inside what’s called the Garden Ring, the oldest part of the city.

Moscow mapBy the time I was left to my own devices, it was about 3:00 pm. I decided to combat jet lag by staying up until an hour that more closely resembled nighttime (I made it to 8:00). Also, I was super hungry, so did what I like to do in most strange cities: I picked a direction and just started walking (it was totally safe, I promise).

On my walk, I figured out how to turn my dollars into rubles (easy with an ATM card) and how to spend them (even easier, as a latte costs the equivalent of about 7 bucks). I went into a few stores and cafes to see what was available and to practice my terrible Russian, only to discover that a lot of people know at least some English. I spent my time in line at a coffee shop mentally practicing my order, and when I cheerfully fumbled through it, the barista just smiled at me like “what an adorable moron” and asked, “For here or to go?”

This area of Moscow is pretty much everything you could possible want from a European city. The streets are charming and lined with charming, tiny eurocars. The young people are impossibly hip, and I saw at two fashion photo shoots in progress on a roughly 3 mile walk. There is an open-air market right outside my apartment building, where I bought fresh fruit, pastries, and tea for tomorrow’s breakfast. There was an entire kiosk just for caviar (икра).

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There is a dizzying mix of the ultra-modern and stuff that’s older than anything in the US. And around every corner, you stumble over things like this:

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I walked in the general direction of the Moskva River and suddenly realized that on the horizon, I could see the domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral and the outline of the Kremlin. It’s impossible to convey through crappy iPhone pictures just how breathtaking this was.

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I promised Ed I wouldn’t go see the big stuff without him, so at this point, I started heading back. On the way, I turned down a pedestrian-only street near the Tretyakov Gallery and found this little impromptu concert and just stopped to relax and listen for awhile. Over where I was sitting, a group of dudes who looked very high were dancing and playing bongo drums. I was just high on sleep deprivation, but this somehow felt like the perfect way to cap off the day. It somehow felt like Moscow and Austin all at the same time.

http://youtu.be/x3B-wuDPybY