“Thinking Things Together”: An Alumni Interview with Philip Euteneuer

Philip Euteneuer graduated from Bard College Berlin in 2017. He completed a BA in Humanities, the Arts, and Social Thought with a concentration in Ethics and Politics. 

I met up with Philip on an early December afternoon, in a cafe near campus, which is populated mostly with mothers, cradling shrill babies. From the windows of the cafe, I could notice the great stacks of Christmas trees installed in a market near the bus stop. When Philip enters the cafe, he sees a friend, who he greets in German. Our interview paused only for Philip to order a slice of poppyseed cake. 

Philip and I discussed his path since graduating, a path that has been shaped by a desire both to continue learning and to teach others. Philip also reflected on his time at Bard College Berlin, and, as the only native Berliner in his graduating class, upon his changing relationship to the city.

Claire August: What did you do right after graduating? What are you up to now?

Philip Euteneuer: Right after graduating, I did a Freiwilliges Jahr in der Denkmalpflege, which is a German program in which you do a year of volunteer work. You can do this volunteering in different sectors, and I spent my year learning to take care of monuments. The whole undertaking started when I was talking to my brother-in-law about what to do in life. We began by imagining a zombie apocalypse, and what one could do for society if everything was hypothetically breaking down. This made me feel like I really wanted to learn how to do something more practical. Most of the places you could volunteer at during that year were related to restoration; working with my hands and getting out of my head sounded like a nice idea. I ended up not at a restorator, but at the Akademie der Künste, which is a museum and cultural institute. It was a really cool experience, but ultimately it was an office job. Most of my time was taken up by necessary, but not very fulfilling paperwork, writing contracts for artists, ordering supplies for our workshops, booking trains and hotels, and communicating with our team (the schools and artists we worked with). I was also involved in the planning of new projects and got to visit most of the workshops we organized, but the work was not as ‘hands on’ as I had hoped.

C: Not zombie apocalypse-useful. 

P: Exactly. Unless there is maybe an arts society hiding away. I learned a lot of things about what it means to work every day and to organize events/workshops. I did that for nearly a year, but it takes a long time of working there before you have much responsibility or many tasks. I didn’t really have the patience, and I felt like there was not enough impact, so I decided not to continue doing that for the full 12 months. The woman I worked with went into maternity leave and then my boss said I could apply for her job, so I applied and got the job. I also applied to study for a master’s degree, but I ultimately decided to work, because I would have more responsibility and it would be more demanding. 

While I was working there as a volunteer, I saw my coworker become quite stressed at times and handling several projects at once, which actually made more curious about the job—at that point and actually still now. I like the idea of becoming really consumed by my work. Spending long hours at the job, caring about it, and so I hoped it would be similar once I took over my coworker’s position. I did that for another year, but it was still not as demanding as I would have thought. Don’t get me wrong: it was a great opportunity and I am really thankful for all the projects I got to be involved in. However, I learned about myself that I couldn’t just decide to care about my job, it had to come from within. After this ended, I thought again about a graduate program but wasn’t certain. 

Then, very mysteriously, I had this Google Keep app, where I keep notes to myself and I scrolled through it and I had written “Teach First [Deutschland]”. I googled it and I decided I wanted to do it. During my time at the Akademie der Künste, I had already been working on art projects involving schools, but I felt like Teach First Deutschland would have a greater impact, because you really get to work in the schools for an extended period of time, rather than short-term. Now I am in two 9th grade classrooms, and I have what they call ‘Fokusschüler*innen’—students I work with more directly in main subjects (German, English, and Math). It’s great but it’s also demanding in a different way. The students have mostly migration backgrounds. It is sometimes difficult for them to speak German, and a lot of the parents are without work. Sometimes the children are the only ones to get up in the morning, so they kind of have to take care of themselves. 

And it’s all very different to my school experience. Though I attended the same school system in the city of Berlin, there were very different experiences of home life. 

C: Now that you are working in a school yourself, the issue of education is central to your professional life. I think BCB is an institution where students are invited to reflect on their own education. In what ways did your experience at BCB make you think more about education? How do you connect the work you do with your educational background? 

P: I think one of the ideas of this Teach First program is to “teach first” then do something else, so in other words really to give back. I do feel like I was very privileged in my upbringing. I went to a boarding school in England and then I came to BCB, which is a private college in Germany, a country where usually you don’t even need to pay for your education. So in that sense, I do feel like I am giving back something now and this is important for me. And then, reflecting, it’s difficult because I didn’t feel like there was something wrong with my education. I see that it’s the same educational system as the one I attended, but that the students I teach are really struggling because they don’t necessarily have a support system. That’s where I come in. I was raised and educated to think for myself, take responsibility for my actions, and participate in the society of which I am part. I think none of these ideas originated in college, but BCB did develop them further. And now I try to teach the students not just subjects but also values. To do that you need a relationship to the students at my school. We say, “Beziehung kommt vor Erziehung,” [“Relationships before education”] and that’s definitely a key element of the education experienced at BCB. I had great relationships with my teachers and my fellow students that made BCB a special place.

C: Do you think it’s mostly about the socioeconomic condition and less the ‘education’ itself?

P: I do think there are problems with the educational system itself, but it’s so complex to consider the issues because the educational system operates on so many levels. You could think about it on the level of ‘maybe it’s how the teachers speak to the students’, and ‘maybe it’s a problem that the students are in classes of such a big size’, and ‘maybe the problem is what the students are supposed to learn, it’s too much or not enough.’ And then there are the problems of paying teachers more and giving them more hours to prepare, instead of just doing the lessons. So, it’s complicated and overwhelming. There are a lot of areas that are like this and it’s really important, but also difficult, to overcome the feeling of powerlessness that comes from such complexity. It’s important to be aware of your circle of influence in order to take action. 

As of right now, which layers of this cake can I bake myself? This is where you want to spend your energy. And at first this might be a very small part of the issue, but as you keep working in your area, you will be able to extend your circle of influence to more and more areas. If we go back to the school, building relationships with the students and teachers is also part of extending my circle of influence—these actions can be small things. Another concept I find very helpful is to go step by step: “sehen, verstehen, handeln,” as we say. This means that it is important to observe first in order to understand the issue, to get to know the stakeholder(s), and to realize potential consequences of the actions that you want to take. This will lead to understanding the issue in its complexity and, once you understand what the core issue is, what effect your actions can have.

C: I guess it’s easier when you’re at a small and young institution like BCB, compared to an established and very bureaucratic nebulous public school system. 

P: At BCB, I think there were somehow fewer actors, there were just professors, students, and administration, and all were able to shape the community and change things they disliked to a certain degree. At least, we were all heard by each other. But at this school [in Wedding] the students can’t really speak for themselves. I think it is often the case that the students don’t always know what they want exactly or how to explain it very well. There’s also the whole bureaucratic underpinning of the public school system, which makes things very complicated very quickly and restricts how far the actors in the school can change anything about the issues that frustrate them.

C: What kind of specific things do you do to help at this school?

P: My role is to help in these main subjects and then sometimes I have smaller groups of students that need more attention. I do lessons in the afternoons to help them with the subjects, because a lot of times they’ve missed the basics. It is hard because secondary education builds on primary education, but when you didn’t really have a good primary education or you weren’t really listening then you need someone to teach it to you again. Then it’s also about coaching and telling them that they’re worth something and that they can succeed, and just helping them believe in themselves. That’s a more difficult task, but also somehow more important. You really have to work on building relationships, because if the students feel like you don’t care about them or they don’t care about you, they’re not going to listen. They’re not going to come to the afternoon lessons and it doesn’t matter what you tell them. 

Commencement 2017 (Credit: Irina Stelea)

C: Along these lines, how did BCB prepare for anything you’ve done after? 

P: I already talked about the importance of relationship building in education. I also learned how to speak and write well and appropriately to the situation. Talking, writing and verbalizing my thoughts becomes so important, especially working in a place like the AdK. For example, when you’re with your friends you don’t speak to them in the same way as when you meet some eccentric artist or a business contact. It’s not like we had a class on that at BCB, but you learn that, for example, writing an essay is different than writing an email. 

At Teach First we focus on distinguishing between adaptive and technical challenges. Technical challenges are mostly easier; their solutions are often clear. Adaptive challenges require deeper changes of structures or values, they are complex and there are no ready made action plans. There is plenty to read about this online and it’s good to know the difference. I feel like at BCB I already learned to think about adaptive challenges. We didn’t speak in these exact terms (adaptive vs. technical), but we thought about systems and connections, instead of separate fields of study. The core courses are already a great example of ‘thinking things together’ and using different academic lenses to consider the same thing.

C: Maybe we could talk about your interests outside of work. I know you are interested in graphic recording, which I don’t know anything about.  

P:  A graphic recorder is someone who sits at the back of a conference, for instance, and while people are talking or giving a presentation, he or she puts the conversation into sketches. These sketches can look really beautiful. There’s sometimes a camera that documents the sketches on a screen, so people can see live what the graphic recorder is doing. The images can help you understand the talk and function as a common ground for discussions. I find it very important, this idea of coming back into your body and not just thinking with your head, but also through drawing. This movement of the pen. I already mentioned the value of doing something with your hands, and using a pen to write down what you learned, through sketches and so on, is a good middle ground [between thinking and doing things with your hands]. 

Also, I find the whole idea of information management really interesting. Structuring how you put your information on your PC for example, or how you organize a meeting with people, drawing a nice flipchart with to-do’s… I think it’s really important to give people structure. Sometimes I find myself in situations with groups of people where it becomes really hard to make decisions. I think good structures can help address this problem, if you do visualization and there are all these possibilities of how to talk about things and how to find actionable results. Because in those contexts, I hate talking about things and just having talked without a result at the end. 

I am also a Boy Scout, my greatest passion outside of work, which is very close to what I do at work, because we also work with children and try to build relationships with them. We help children learn to take responsibility. There’s also a lot of meetings and organization [with the fellow Boy Scout leaders], so I’m really interested in that. 

C: What kind of activities do you do with the Boy Scouts?

P: Our main thing is to organize a journey to another country each summer. And we sleep in a tent, we cook our food over a fire, and it’s a lot about living in a group and learning to get along with people even if we have differences. It’s also a lot about civic responsibility. It’s not actually that much about going into the forest, knowing the plants… It’s really about taking responsibility in groups. Then, once you turn 15 or 16 as a scout, you start having your own group, and you learn how to take care of the children and to transmit skills. It helps you develop the ability to see a problem and find creative solutions for yourself, without being told. I like this project and thinking about how to transfer knowledge or skills, which I think is also connected to my other interests. 

C: What are some classes that influenced you at BCB?

P: One of my favorite classes was called “From Lyrical Essay to Buzzfeed Listicle” with Florian Duijsens. He is a great instructor and is really on top of what is happening in pop culture. In the class, we read a lot of interesting internet pieces and other writings. It was something I really struggled with, because I am very interested in culture, books, and art, but I’m also very interested in making the world a better place. And I often found myself thinking: but how does art matter? Engaging with pop culture was a way to get at the answers to this question. 

Another class I liked was a seminar taught by Michael Weinman, in conjunction with the “Early Modern Science” core. I really enjoyed that and ended up writing my thesis about early modern science. Because I find that, in examining the early modern period, you can learn a lot about why the world exists as it does today. I do feel like there is some value in looking back at the roots to understand what’s happening now. 

C: As a native Berliner, can you recommend some places in Berlin that current students should not miss? I was also curious: do you feel like your relationship to the city changed during your time at BCB or after leaving? 

P: I feel like people who grow up in Berlin do less than people who are just here for a short time. Because people who are here for a short time, they think, “Oh, I have to do all of these things,” but when you live here you think, “Maybe, I will do this at some point, but I have so much time.” What I do think is nice is to you just walk around, just to pick a neighborhood and start walking. It’s more satisfying to not be so concerned with the important places to see. I also recommend this newsletter, Cee Cee. It comes every Thursday and lists some nice places to eat and things to do. Because Berlin has such a wide variety of things, it’s nice to have some curation. 

And then, regarding how my relationship to the city has changed… I went to Bard Annandale in the second semester of my third year. After two weeks or so of being there, I asked if I could come back to BCB, but I was recommended not to. Then, at the end of the semester, I asked if I could stay another semester in Annandale. So I liked Bard Annandale, in the end, and particularly that it was so small. No matter where you went, there would already be people you knew, because there were only 2,000 students, and you got to know people really easily living on campus. 

In Berlin, I find it so frustrating that everything is so far away. I have many friends in Berlin, and I would need an hour to meet them, which is so upsetting. This makes me sometimes sad or angry about Berlin, wondering why it is so big. But it’s also exciting. I have lived here now for over 20 years and there are still places I’ve never been to, which is beautiful. 

C: Do you have any plans for the future? This is a bit of a scary question. I’m graduating this spring so I don’t like this question personally, but I’m going to go ahead and ask it anyways.

P: I’m thinking about it a lot, it’s changed quite a bit. When I applied for grad school after the AdK, I applied for this master’s program called “Kulturpoetik der Literatur und Medien.” In this degree, you look at pop culture, for example, TV shows, movies or books or something and then you extrapolate something from that and then you think: ”Why are these things important?” It’s about teaching people using pop culture as a source, rather than just analyzing the great works of classic literature. And then mediating these ideas—so once again, I am attracted to this transferral of ideas. 

Now, working at Teach First, I have been thinking more about what kind of impact I want to have on the world; I do want to get more into a business-politics element and less in the cultural element. Sometimes I feel like culture is the icing on the cake, but the cake isn’t really baked yet. Now I am looking at this program which is called “Risk Assessment and Sustainability Management.” This program is about helping companies to become more sustainable, such as looking at what risks and problems could arise and how to deal with them. I was thinking a lot about becoming a consultant, but then people always think consultants are really evil people and they’re part of “the problem”. However, I feel like you can do good things, because the business world has all these structures and mechanisms that work well for companies and I feel like the NGO world could profit from somebody that has this knowledge. 

C: As a final question, do you have any advice to graduating or current students at BCB? 

P: I think what’s really important is about thinking about things together and cohesively. I read this article about the d.school, which is part of Stanford University. They teach ‘design thinking’. In this school, you look at a specific experience, like filling out forms to defend yourself against eviction, and then you look at the human side of it. The end goal is to understand how a person in this scenario is feeling and how we can improve this process. You can consider factors like the architecture of the judicial building, the way the form is structured, and other similar problems.

I think BCB does a really good job of putting this together: thinking about different disciplines and looking at problems. As I didn’t do the Economics program and I didn’t do much public policy, I felt I was always a bit removed from the ‘real’ issues and how complicated they can be on a political scale. For the current students, it’s good to take some public policy classes; also, I feel like having a focus is a good idea. There’s this concept of a ‘T-shaped person’, where you are a ‘T’ because you have a lot of broad, wide knowledge about many issues, but then you have one area of expertise. I like this idea because when you look at a problem, it’s really helpful when every person in the team has one specific area that they have the expertise to work on. I recommend considering what that area could be in which you want to become really proficient. 

I would also emphasize the importance of not always ‘taking things apart’ (analyzing, dissecting, and over-talking), but also putting ideas back together. Because a lot of the time you only get to the first step, where you think, “Ah, this is a problem because…” and then you take apart the issue. You end up with the conclusion, “We should improve this” and “We should improve that.” But then it’s also important to think about the problem together again, as in: how can we work with what we have? And transform the issue, synthesize it, instead of just disrupting it. 

C: I think this is great advice in this regard, putting all the pieces back together, when you can. Thank you for talking with me!

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