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Regular version of the site

My First Day at University, or, How I Almost Decided to Quit Academia

In Russia, the school year traditionally starts on September 1, although because that date falls on a Sunday this year, classes  start on September 2. The day is usually a major holiday with thousands of children and young people going back to school or university classes. Jan Surman, Research Fellow at the Poletayev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities, shares his memories of September 1 back when he was a university student.

Jan Jakub Surman
Research Fellow at the Poletayev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities

On my first day at the university, I decided that I would quit the next day. Obviously, I didn’t, but who knows – there is still hope. Apparently, it’s hard to leave academia once you are in.

This October, it will actually be 18 years since I first started university studies. The beginning was hard, and the first day was something close to a catastrophe. I came to the opening event of the Department of Sociology at the University of Vienna full of hope and joy for the first day. The University of Vienna has no centralized official opening day; in my case, it was a short introductory lecture by the head of the department – and a lot of wondering about whether I had made the right life choice. Two things that I remember most clearly about this day seem to be a good description of what University of Vienna was at the time.

The first is the language that caused me such despair. Coming to the biggest German-language university, you expect people to speak high German, the official, literary version of German – the language that people learn at school. I had gone to school in Poland, and German was not my first language. October 2001 was my first month in Austria, so I was quite sure that I would not understand much. But I actually understood next to nothing. The professor giving the introductory lecture spoke Viennese, a dialect I thought one only encountered on the streets among unskilled workers. But no, Viennese and other Austrian dialects were present at the university; students spoke them and so did professors – and this made my first years of study much more difficult than I thought they would be. That professor eventually became my master’s thesis supervisor and helped me to get my first academic job, so we did end up understanding each other after all.

The second thing I remember very clearly is my fellow students: a guy with a colourful mohawk and a girl in goth clothing.

In a way, sociology is a discipline of outsiders who study to learn something rather than to get a good job

You can imagine who came to study sociology – at a department which was considered leftist with many professors who were academic outsiders. One of them – one of my favourite teachers and really an excellent researcher – did qualitative sociology and cultural anthropology of marginalized groups, such as homeless people, beggars, prostitutes etc.; he spent time living with them and invited them to the institute. Much has changed since then, with many professors mourning the decline of ‘activist university’. But in the 2000s, the disorganized, anarchistic university allowed me to survive the initial difficulties and find my path – which is quite far from the one I imagined 18 years ago.

*This is a shortened version of the text

Author: Jan Jakub Surman, September 02