Tag Archives: research

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

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.


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.


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.

Archive Diving

The Mary Baker Eddy Library and Christian Science Publishing Society building with the Mother Church in the foreground.

This is the last week of my research fellowship at the Mary Baker Eddy Library in Boston, which will mean that I have spent eight weeks total here in three years and still won’t have seen everything I want to see. 

When I started my dissertation project, I wasn’t particularly interested in doing primary research. My strengths, I thought, were interpretive. Furthermore, since I was doing work on a famously reclusive religious movement with which I had no “in,” I figured it wouldn’t be an option anyway. So, I structured my project so that I wouldn’t need to rely on primary documents in order to make it work.

Then, I found out that said religious organization had put their church archives in a pretty new library, and THEN I found out that they were handing out money to researchers who wanted to come to Boston for a few weeks in the summer, and I figured it beat a few weeks roasting away in Austin. I didn’t make my first trip until I had most of my dissertation already written, but the staggering collection I had no idea was awaiting me wound up transforming my project in ways that I couldn’t possibly have predicted. Using files that no outside researcher had seen in thirty years, I debunked a century-old rumor about Willa Cather that has served as the basis for a segment of scholarship on her work (the article will finally be coming out this fall). And it presented new avenues of inquiry that made it clear that what I thought was only going to be a single dissertation chapter could become a career’s worth of work if I want to keep pursuing it. So I came back and even though the weather is uncomfortably Houston-like right now, I’m certainly not regretting it.

This is my way of saying to grad students out there that even if you don’t do textual studies or historicism or anything else that typically requires an archive, you should consider making a trip. Other perks:

1. They will totes pay you.

The big libraries (Huntington, Oxford, etc.) will, of course, pay you a lot and let you stay for a long time, but I think everyone owes it to themselves to see what small archives might have holdings relevant to their interests. Archives are meant to be used, and archivists are interested in attracting researchers who will make good use of and publicize their holdings. 

2. Travel

One of the pleasures of making these research trips has been the opportunity to spend extended time in a new place (and one of my favorite cities). It’s like getting paid to take vacation. 

3. Uninterrupted time to work

My first stint in Boston allowed me to finish my dissertation in a 30 day fugue state in which I worked six hours in the archives and then went back to my garret to write some more. This time around hasn’t been quite so manic, but productivity increases fairly sharply when you no longer have the distractions of home. Plus, you have a quiet space where you are required to go for a set amount of time to work on your stuff, not grading, not revising your syllabus. In seven years of graduate school, I found pretty much no other way to achieve this kind of focus, and it helped me develop good habits that have served me fairly well when it comes to turning out articles. 

My advice to graduate students writing proposals:

1. Make your proposal specific. If they have their finding aids online, go through them and figure out which items you think you want to look at. You can change your mind when you get there. Barring that, get in touch with an archivist and ask them if they have anything relevant to a particular aspect of your project. Specificity lets them know that you at least have a plan and won’t just flounder around and waste time when you get there.

2. Show them you understand your field. Most graduate students writing fellowship proposals are used to pitching their projects very broad, and that is perfectly appropriate if you are applying to a big general library like the Huntington. But if their holdings are fairly specific (as they were in this case), it’s helpful to be able to drop the most important names in that sub-field. For me, it meant showing that I had at least read the central texts and major academic historical treatments of this movement.

3. Tell them how you will publicize their work. Most archives are looking to get the word out or at least show that to their donors what their collections are generating. Whether it’s a chapter or a conference paper, suggest how you might present the research you do there to an audience of your peers. 


eBook Readers for Scholars: Thoughts on the Nook

Barnes and Noble NookI received a Barnes & Noble Nook for my birthday this year (thanks Mom!) and have been playing around with it for a while with an eye toward reviewing it for this blog.  I don’t plan to make a habit of reviewing products here, but I am something of a gadget nerd and am interested in the ways that technology can enhance both teaching and research.

While tablet computers are probably going to represent the future of portable computing (thanks to the success of the iPad and the promise of Android and Microsoft-based tablets in the coming year), with the introduction of the B&N Nook for $149 (Wi-Fi only) and $199 (Wi-Fi + 3G) and the Kindle 3 (starting at $139), eBook readers now represent a much more affordable alternative for those who want a decent niche device.  And while the potential hasn’t been fully exploited, there’s value here for academics interested in paperless (and highly portable) research.

Let’s start with the obvious:  this thing weighs less than your average trade paperback and fits easily in a laptop bag or a purse.  I usually carry a small library with me when I travel, because being trapped on a plane or in a car without reading material is, for me, a fate worse than dental surgery.  However, I also tend to carry a lot of books with me when I go into campus.  I take whatever I need for class, plus the top 2-3 books that I will need for writing purposes on that particular day.  I frequently get bruises on my shoulders from the straps of my very, very heavy bag.  The thrill of carrying the collected works of Theodore Dreiser, writer of enormous 600 page novels, in a device weighing approximately 10 ounces, was something of a thrill this past week.

Also handy is the ability to browse and download books on demand with the (free) 3G connection.  While waiting for my bus, I was downloading (free) public domain copies of some of Twain’s more obscure works.  The matte e-ink display is crisp and easy to read, very similar to paper, in fact.  I can read outdoors in full sunlight without getting distracted by my own reflection and how bad my hair looks in the crazy heat and humidity we’re experiencing.

More substantively, the major advantage that Nook has over Kindle (and iBook) is its support of the .epub and .pdf format, which is becoming the industry standard for eBooks.  Basically, it means that you aren’t limited to the books that you can purchase through Barnes & Noble the way you are limited to Amazon through the Kindle.   The Nook can display any text that you download off of Google Books (and the search feature automatically searches Google Books and downloads them free of charge.)  Google Books has been a resource of indescribable value to me during my dissertation research, given that it houses an astounding collection of nineteenth century periodicals and early editions.  Thanks to the .pdf support, I was able to put all of the books I had previously downloaded onto my Nook.  I was also able to transfer JSTOR and Project Muse articles, though the conversion software for those documents leaves something to be desired and tends to introduce errors.  Let’s hope they get a software update for that right quick.

Also awesome is the fact that unlike iTunes, all of your eBook purchases are backed up online in case the device gets lost or breaks.  Even cooler is the fact that there are free Nook apps available for your PC, smart phone, or iPad.  So, instead of using Apple’s annoyingly proprietary iBooks app, you can access your Nook library on any device.  It even remembers what book you’re currently reading and where you are in it.

The .epub file format is also supported by many lending libraries.  Local libraries throughout the country are offering downloadable (time-limited) eBooks in .epub and .pdf format.  So, as I recently discovered, does the eBook distributor that my university library subscribes to, though said library does not have the “download for offline reading” option switched on (annoying).  What this means, however, is that there is enormous potential for research libraries to support .epub and .pdf compatible eBook readers.  One of my few complaints about Nook is the limited selection of scholarly titles, whereas subscriber services like EBL seem to have quite excellent selections.  Making lendable eBooks available on readers rather than just on personal computers would be pretty huge boon to both scholars and students and would solve the issue of whatever book I need at a given moment always being checked out to someone else, who probably has it on their bottom shelf and just keeps renewing it because they might need it again even though they’re not using it now, and then I have to recall the book, which takes two weeks, and….(natters on incoherently).

Other drawbacks:

  • The highlight and notes feature is a little clunky (and the touchscreen keyboard rather teeny), though with practice, I think I could get used to it.  I usually take notes and transcribe passages into a Word doc though, because it makes drafting easier for me.
  • The web browser is slow and difficult to navigate, but the fact that it has one at all is sort of a bonus.
  • As I said before, they need a better image to text conversion software for PDFs.

Other neat stuff:

  • eBooks turn out to be cheaper than real books (new titles $9.99-$14.99), though the up-front investment in the device is still substantial.
  • You can mark several pages within a book and then browse the pages you marked later on.  This is exactly like my sort of non-method of dog-earing the bottom corner of pages I want to return to later.
  • There is also a feature that allows you to search for a word or phrase in any book (helpful for finding quotes when I forget to write the page number down or need to convert citations from one edition to another).
  • Wi-Fi connectivity is instant and download speeds are shockingly fast.
  • The ability to read books for free in the store and download free samples elsewhere is also nice.
  • All in all, the developers seem to have thought deeply about how people actually interact with books in the real world.  It’s nice to be understood.

Photo via gdgt.com