An American in Austria: What A New Yorker Found in an Alpine Village

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Will Fenton

A week before the conclusion of the summer program, the school hired a new teacher. One particularly vocal student had resolved to learn French—and to learn it quickly—so the Director of Academic Programs responded, shipping in a teacher for what ought to have been three private lessons. Upon the arrival of that teacher, a charming but inexperienced twenty-two-year-old, the student cancelled her lessons, resolving that her time would be better spent mastering golf. My new colleague spent her week lounging beside the hotel pool.

I have come to expect such incidents. For the past two summers I have traveled from New York City to a village in the Austrian Alps to teach English at what is marketed as an elite, international summer institute. In some respects the institute (as I will call it hereafter) satisfies its claim. Students network with other global elite, refine language skills, enroll in private lessons for golf, tennis, and horseback riding, and explore some of the most redolent cultural destinations in Western Europe. That those students are salaciously wealthy—the progeny of Italian mafia, Russian oil magnates, and Swiss bankers—is little surprise. While I naively associated camp with bunk beds, cabins, and wilderness, these students rough it in four-star accommodations, king-sized beds, and stracciatella gelato. (Granted, some report sub-optimal balcony views).

The faculty, particularly those who are not hired on a whim, are especially qualified. By enticing educators with staggeringly beautiful landscapes and luxurious accommodations, management can afford to hire selectively, even if they apparently cannot afford generous wages. Like me, most of my colleagues are young academics-in-training, pursing advanced degrees in the humanities and social sciences. Some are experienced pedagogues, with year of cumulative classroom experience. While we represent a veritable United Nations—with staff from France, Germany, Switzerland, Netherlands, Russia, and the United States—we knit together in this mountain village for much the same reason: Wanderlust and circumstance.


Precarious Circumstances

As a doctoral candidate in early American literature, I cannot help but carry a historical frame to my circumstances. Compared to the genteel days of American higher education, it’s remarkable that I, a neither wealthy nor well-connected Jew, have a place at a research institution, and that I am permitted, in a system that celebrates utility, to study something as esoteric as representations of fighting Quakers in the antebellum novel (my dissertation topic). That I am paid, however meagerly, to occupy this niche is, to me, a delightful historical anomaly.

Now for the splash of cold water. What I am paid is precariously close to New York’s poverty line. I am only paid while I work, and contrary to story I just told, that work is not my dissertation. This means that for four months per year, I am unemployed. In exchange for tuition remission, a health insurance subsidy (we have to pay for such things in the States), and a modest stipend, my university expects me to instruct introductory English classes and to direct our Writing Center. A full-time faculty member once instructed the class I teach. A full-time staff member once administered the Writing Center I direct. By framing those roles as honors (compensated in title only), my university replaces two well-paid positions with one poorly paid one. In short, I am contributing to my field’s adjunctification, and there’s little I can do about it.

My circumstances do appear more promising than those of my European counterparts. One colleague from France has no funding whatsoever; she cobbles jobs together—bartending, waitressing, teaching at the institute—to clear rent. However, whereas my European counterparts openly discuss the problem of precarity, my colleagues back home internalize it. For example, one friend, who failed to secure a fellowship, bemoaned the fact that she hadn’t spent enough time revising materials. While this may have been the case, I doubt it: She labored on a two-page letter for north of a month. I suspect that her failure had less to do with her project and more to do with the eight hundred academics that applied for three fellowships. Even gloomier was a friend who ventured onto the job market and failed to secure a tenure-track position. If she fails to land her dream job within a year or so, she knows she will be deemed a toxic asset on the academic job market. (Who said financial institutions had a monopoly on labor exploitation?)

As anyone who reads The Chronicle of Higher Education grasps, young academics face a difficult choice: to abandon a profession they cannot envision abandoning, or to compete for a dwindling number of jobs with lower pay, heavier teaching loads, in less desirable locations. This quandary is larger than us—larger than U.S. higher education—but in the States, a peculiar blend of bootstrap individualism and belligerent optimism preclude the discussion of the problem in specific, systematic terms. Instead, young academics retain a vague sense of vulnerability incompatible with emotional or intellectual well-being. (Incidentally, the theme of the 2014 Modern Language Association Convention, which remains the primary site for job interviews, was “Vulnerable Times”.)

Rather, American academics, particularly those of the old guard (e.g. full professors with tenure), prefer to emphasize the “opportunities” of the new marketplace. With about one in four positions tenure-track, most academics can agree the marketplace is undesirable; however, pedants of all stripes tend to stress that if you distinguish yourself, you can make it. (Bootstraps.) Others gesture to what are now called alt-ac (as in alternative-academic) jobs in libraries, archives, and institutions related to higher education. Many of those jobs, funded by research grants, will likely prove as insecure as adjunct teaching. Then there are the Digital Humanities. I am genuinely excited about the tools and methodologies of this emergent field, particularly the work scholars are doing with big data and text mining; the question, however, is whether the Digital Humanities will materialize into new jobs (per American Studies), or whether such literacies will simply be expected of analogue humanists (per Critical Theory).

As it stands, the young academics I know practice a gospel of entrepreneurialism. The thinking goes that the more lines on your CV, the more exit ramps when you finish your Ph.D. The problem is that this rhetoric of management is incompatible with higher ed, even an utilitarian strand. If I’m tutoring, teaching, running a Writing Center, editing a journal, and writing for two different publications (all things I do), there’s little time for substantive scholarship. It also doesn’t place me in a position all that different from my bartending-waitressing-teaching French colleague. What I mean to suggest is that what my European counterparts call precarity, we in the States call entrepreneurialism.


Entrepreneurial Wanderings

Entrepreneurialism brought me to the Austrian countryside. As my university does not regard my research as work (nor did it provide “approved” work during the summer), I decided to look abroad. A friend who works at the Swiss embassy encouraged me to contact the institute and ask about their summer program. After months of correspondence—CVs, letters of reference, identification materials, work permits, and so forth—I was hired as summer faculty. I was excited, even if I didn’t know exactly what I would be doing. According to the paperwork, I would be responsible for several hours of English language instruction per day, followed by an afternoon program. I was told that my students would be late-teens with advanced language skills. I was also told that I would be teaching in Swiss Alps. Circumstances changed.

Two days before I left for Zurich, I received an email notifying me that I would be needed at another campus. I didn’t know that the institute had an Austrian campus. I couldn’t even find this new campus on a map. When I arrived in Zurich, I was shuttled to a train bound for another train bound for Innsbruck. When I arrived in Innsbruck, I was accidentally retrieved by another party—apparently American academics are in season in July—and almost didn’t connect with my shuttle to campus. By the time I arrived at “campus,” a four-star hotel in a one-street Austrian village, it was midnight. I met the Director. He bought me a drink and told me that I would teach the next day. From these frenzied beginnings to the impetuous hiring of the French tutor, uncertainty functioned as the connective tissue of my time at the institute.

Over the course of my first summer, I was alternatively flummoxed, frustrated, and bemused. The institute had no formal curriculum; teachers conjured lessons as they went along. The textbooks, if you would call them such, were outdated (Beepers are cited as a new technology) and inadequately stocked. Consider the juxtaposition of asking students to share books while passing out sign-up sheets for equestrian lessons. A short diagnostic test revealed that my students were not uniform in language ability. Although some, particularly those from central Europe, possessed advanced language skills, others, particularly those from Russia, struggled to write a sentence despite years of tutoring. I found that I had to divide my class into three sections to manage levels. My classification system was constantly strained as students joined and left the class. Some students stayed for a week, others two, and still others remained the duration of the program. The Director tended not to share scheduling details save to request report cards that I can only describe as ceremonial (positive comments and inflated grades) tailored to assuage parents and to encourage the registration of children at the boarding school. After two weeks, I realized that the institute was less an academic program than an audition for a more lucrative boarding school.

I had conceived of the institute as a summer language program with cultural expeditions when, in fact, I had it backward. Everything about the institute sought to foreground and materialize the excesses of programs: Students were given pre-posted postcards with which to share travels with family; a professional photographer was hired to capture students lounging in the hotel hot tub; and the Director handed out vast sums of “petty cash,” typically totaling in the hundreds of Euros, for each excursion. My counterparts, many of whom returned to the institute year after year, had mastered bemusement as a coping strategy. Pedagogically, they achieved what they could, given the circumstances, whereas on programs, they imbibed the excesses. My French colleague evinced few qualms about lounging poolside. If I could divest my Protestant work ethic, perhaps I would, too. After all, when else would I wander Swarovski’s hedge mazes?

I struggled, also, with the students. Many were charming, well mannered, and clever. But even those students were rendered altogether alien by their upbringings. In one lesson, I asked each student to describe his or her bedroom while the rest of the class illustrated it based upon the description. My hope was that this exercise would hone locational vocabulary. It failed because their rooms were too elaborate. There was no way to depict bedrooms with multiple rooms, and, in some cases, levels. In another lesson, I asked students to describe their dream school. They submitted descriptions of shopping malls, replete with Gucci, Prada, and Apple stores. Unbranded sites failed to captivate their interest. During an excursion to Brixen, students eschewed the city’s serpentine alleyways to stream Vine videos on their smartphones. Granted a choice between visiting a nearby castle or an outlet mall, all but one voted to shop. I received repeated requests to revisit the outlet, which several called their favorite program.

With the Russian boys, in particular, I found myself moderating sexist, homophobic, and racist dinner conversation. (Given that they defaulted to Russian for nearly all communication, I can only imagine what they said about me.) A smaller cohort snuck out of their rooms to rent accommodations at neighboring resorts. When I asked one of the boys why they kept leaving, he said it was because we, the teachers, wouldn’t let them “order prostitutes.” In a values system shaped around acquisition, people were products fit to be used and disposed.

The experience rankled my humanist values. I was grateful for the experience, the travel, and the salary; however, I didn’t want to contribute to an ugly system. I resolved to find more decorous work next summer. When the spring came, I secured a research grant in Philadelphia and secured enough freelance to support myself through the summer. Then I decided to return to the institute.

I did not return for entrepreneurial reasons. I already have the CV line. I do not intend to work at the institute. And I had sufficient summer funding. Rather, I went there for something I lack here. I spend most of the academic year trying to surmount, circumvent, or at least, stifle my own sense of precarity. It’s an isolating thing, precarity. Though I suspect I am not alone, the very qualities that render my nation a superpower (if only for now), a Protestant work ethic, can-do individualism, and defiant optimism, prevent us from recognizing the systematic failures of our vaunted marketplace. Instead, young academics bear the weight of a collective anxiety, a corpse for whose burial each of us personally responsible.

Working at the institute has helped me to grasp that the anxiety I feel is neither individual nor regional; it is generational. My European counterparts are academics, educators, and aspirant professionals, but above all things, they are young. I choose not name the institution because its particularity distracts from its metonymic function. In Central Europe, the institution assumes the form of elite, international preparatory schools. In the States, the institution incarnates a university system governed by aging administrators and tenured faculty who promote tooth and claw competition as an alternative to systematic reform that might threaten their institutional privilege. Those who govern the institute chase the wealth of a global one percent with the labor of a professional, transnational underclass. In this manner, I have returned to New York, but I have not left the institute.


This essay was originally published in Razpotja issue 17 (fall 2014).

Slovenian translation

The author published a different version of the essay on Inside Higher Ed.

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