Monday, March 5, 2012

Norway Doorway, pt 4: Way up North and Academic Travel

Randall Stephens

Academics do their fair share of traveling. Research trips. Conferences. Job interviews . . . Hiltons. Best Westerns. Off-season dorm rooms that smell of Ramen Noodles and stale beer. Roach motels that smell even worse.

For me, a trip to Svalbard this week for my work as a Fulbright Roving Scholar is without comparison.

Today I join my two colleagues, Sarah Anderson and Isaac Larison, at the Longyearbyen Skole. The three of us will be speaking with students about the American educational system, postwar US history, Native American culture, religion in the South, and more.

Longyearbyen's population hovers around 2,000, much more if you throw in polar bears and Siberian Huskys. The village looks a little bit like an IKEA-designed base camp on the planet Hoth. Very cool. We're thrilled to be up here 800 miles north of the arctic circle. And strangely, thanks to warm ocean currents, it's more mild than one would think. All three of us have spent plenty of time crisscrossing the country in planes, trains, and automobiles. It certainly helps that, like plenty of others in our profession, we like to travel.

In a primer for grad students who are about to make their way into their field of choice, Paul Gray and David E. Drew write in the Chronicle about one of the perks of higher ed: travel. (A shrinking perk, for sure, as states cut budgets, and deans slash and burn.) In "What They Didn't Teach You in Graduate School 2.0," Gray and Drew write:

Travel is a major fringe benefit in academe. The amount of travel varies by field and by institution. In most fields, one or more major meetings a year take place at the national and regional levels. Despite financial stringencies, most institutions pay your way if you are on the program or involved in recruiting (usually restricted to senior faculty members). Furthermore, each meeting is scheduled in a different location. Because it is easier to win approval for a short trip than it is for a long one, take the opportunity to attend nearby meetings whenever they occur.

Food for thought for those, to quote the Pernice Brothers, "contemplating suicide or a graduate degree."

Perhaps the travel bit was a bigger boon in ages past. More than 30 years ago David Lodge parodied the academic jetset in his hilarious, exuberant novel Small World. (Sadly, no characters are zooming north to Svalbard.) As a send-up that's now become a period piece, Lodge's book reads like a Mad Men version of the tenured-and-sinecured classes. A choice passage:

The whole academic world seems to be on the move. Half the passengers on transatlantic flights these days are university teachers. Their luggage is heavier than average, weighed down with books and papers--and bulkier, because their wardrobes must embrace both formal wear and leisurewear, clothes for attending lectures in, and clothes for going to the beach in, or to the Museum, or the Schloss, or the Duomo, or the Folk Village. For that's the attraction of the conference circuit: it's a way of converting work into play, combining professionalism with tourism. . . (162)

Now where was that Svalbard Museum, and where did I put my extra hat?

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