I don’t enjoy flying, but I do like traveling. There is pleasure in being somewhere else, in experiencing a different city or country. All that is taken for granted in daily life cannot be taken for granted — and this is especially true when in another country, when the food, language, and culture differs in varying degrees from one’s own. Prior to dinner, the Swiss have apero, a kind of extended meal of hors d’ouvres. In a Japanese restaurant, shoes get left at near the doorway, and hands adjust to eating with chopsticks instead of a knife and fork. But even in one’s own country, cities are not identical. Normal, Illinois (where I am flying from, as I write this) has three independent record stores on the same block, and a superlative used bookstore — with lots of children’s books — on the same block. And I ran along a trail I’ve never run along before.
When traveling, daily work does not vanish. The draft of the panel proposal must be edited and rewritten, via a series of email exchanges with a colleague at another university. The invited talk itself must be timed, polished, cut, honed, rehearsed. Emails from students, colleagues, editors, and others require answers.
But all of this work happens out of context, in a different space — on a plane, in an airport, at the hotel lobby, in the back of the taxi, in the hotel room. Because it is happening in different locations, it acquires a slightly different flavor, even a greater sense of clarity. This sharpness of perception may derive from the simple fact of being somewhere else: because they are unfamiliar, surroundings demand more attention, perhaps heightening attentiveness more generally. It may also derive from urgency: being a conference attendee or invited speaker creates a daily schedule that reorganizes time in ways that cannot always be anticipated.
I like that, though. And, since I’m almost always traveling for business, I enjoy the interchange of ideas — in the Q+A session of the talk, or the conversations over dinner, after the panel session, and so on. During the past few days, talking with Jan Susina, his wife Jodie Slothower, their son Jacob, my former graduate student Elizabeth Williams (and other University of Illinois grad students, faculty, and families), I’ve learned about lots of books and articles I need to read: Theories of affect, collections of comics, young adult novels. Beyond that, there are ideas that lodge in my subconscious, emerging later, sometimes long after I’ve forgotten the source. At some point, I’ll ask Jan to elaborate on the connections he sees between Paul Klee and Crockett Johnson.
Though academics work long hours (as I’ve documented elsewhere) for less compensation than we’d like, I feel privileged to have a job in which I get to learn, share what I’ve learned with other people, and learn from other people.
Combining these intellectual exchanges with the displacement of travel brings the experience of learning into focus, sustains a degree of clarity absent from my workaday life, prods me to keep moving forward into new areas.
And it’s especially nice when someone else picks up the cost! (I pay for most conference travel myself, but I’m coming back now from two invited talks, both of which were covered by the host institution.) So, thanks to the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of English (especially Marah Gubar), and to Illinois State’s Department of English (especially Jan Susina and Roberta Trites), and to everyone who hosted, chatted, came to the talks or otherwise participated. It’s been a great few days! Until next time!