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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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The US Model Writing Center in Russia

The New Economic School in Moscow is a rather unique place. Created in 1991 by a group that included a Russian technocrat, an Israeli economist, and George Soros, its ideals are fundamentally internationalist, designed to train the best and brightest from Russia and other CIS nations in economic theory, send some of them to the US or Western Europe for advanced degrees, and bring them back to become the business and academic elite here in their home country. For that reason, by the time they graduate, students are expected to be fluent in English and fully acculturated to academic norms in the West.

For that reason, NES has deliberately sought out foreign faculty and foreign educational models. Even the Russian faculty tend to carry PhDs from places like Cambridge and MIT. And when the school decided to start offering a liberal arts-model BA in addition to its two Master’s programs, the idea of importing the US Writing Center/WAC model followed almost immediately. Because most of the Economics faculty are not equipped for writing instruction in English, this program has been staffed with faculty with Humanities degrees from overseas. Right now, the English department is roughly half Russian/half American. Three of the last four Writing Center administrators have been American (including myself, obviously), and all four have had experience working in American writing centers.

So in a number of important ways, our Writing Center resembles the one I was trained in: we train consultants to use the non-directive, process-oriented pedagogy advocated by foundational scholars like Stephen North. In addition to providing consultations, we provide resources to faculty to support the integration of writing into their curriculum. We encounter similar issues of misunderstanding and resistance from students and faculty when it comes to our Socratic, non-directive pedagogical model, though these are perhaps a bit more pronounced given the authoritarian model of Russian secondary education.

But in some very huge and perhaps rather obvious ways, our Writing Center will probably never look exactly like a US one. NES isn’t the first non-US institution to adopt this model (though it is the first in Russia), which is becoming more popular worldwide (indeed, recent Humanities PhDs with a sense of adventure ought to seriously consider exploring the international market, which often offers more attractive opportunities than the US market). And for that reason, the specific challenges we have here are worth discussing. Naturally, this is a subject that I will continue to reflect on as my time in Russia progresses, but here are a few broad points that have come to the forefront as I’ve begun working here:

For starters, ours is a bi-lingual Writing Center, offering consultations in both Russian and English. And when it comes to English, we have to assist students with widely varying levels of proficiency. Which means that we are involved not only in teaching writing in English but in teaching the language of English itself. Students can come in not only to get help with their writing assignments but to practice their pronunciation or conversation skills. We offer workshops in oral presentation skills in addition to writing skills. For that reason, we call ourselves the Writing and Communications Center (literal translation from Russian: “The Center for Written and Oral Communication”). And while the difference appears subtle, consulting on oral vs. written communication for EFL students requires a different set of competencies for consultants. Simply being a native English speaker helps but isn’t quite enough on its own. Some linguistics training and a basic understanding of English vs. Russian morphology makes a gigantic difference.

The differences between English and Russian extend beyond the mere mechanics of language, however. In the past few weeks at NES, we have come to think of essay writing in English as a completely different genre than  essay writing in Russian, where the argument often appears at the end and the writing tends more toward circularity than toward the pyramidal model we teach in Freshman Comp in the US. It’s not that the Russian way of writing is incorrect, it’s just that audiences in each language have different expectations when it comes to the structure of an argument, and students must be taught to tailor their papers and presentations to fit each. Therefore, this is a Writing Center that has to address the idea of “good writing” not as a set of universal rules but as a set of culturally and linguistically mediated practices.

And finally, as Tzu-Shan Chang reports in this article about Taiwanese writing centers, it is nearly impossible to find qualified peer tutors for consultations in English. We have three American interns (who all hold either a BA or an MA) and one PhD student from Moscow State University, but otherwise, all of our consultants are faculty. Particularly at such a small institution, this requires us to adopt dramatically different roles in our encounters with students as instructors rather than consultants. We do not take consultations for work in our own classes, but it is possible that we will see our students for work assigned by other professors. And I tend to hold that certain superficial (and maybe kind of dumb) distinctions–such as asking students to use my first name when I am working as a consultant–are important to distinguishing my role.