Archive for Travel

How I Spent My Summer “Vacation”

I wrote this for Kansas State University’s Department of English blog — we were asked to write about what we did over the summer.  But I wrote a little more than the blog needs.  So, we’re running an excerpt on the English blog, and I’m printing the full version here.


“Being a professor means you get the summers off!”

— frequently expressed misunderstanding

“HaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHa….  And no.”

— response from professors to this misunderstanding

Writing of the work I did this summer risks losing an (admittedly small) audience after this first sentence. But making academic labor visible helps correct the common (and false) impression that professors do not work in the summers. As is true of many jobs today, there is no clear boundary between work and not-work. Technology allows us to bring work with us everywhere, and creates the expectation that we do just that. Also, academic labor doesn’t really break down into discreet parts. Professors think, write and edit (articles, books, grant proposals, letters of recommendation, committee reports), evaluate manuscripts (of articles and books), prepare for class and grade student papers where and when we find the time.

At the risk of causing your eyes to glaze over, here’s a paragraph on some of the work I did this summer. (Feel free to skip ahead to the next paragraph.) I built my fall on-line Literature for Adolescents class: each week, I created two weeks of curriculum (4-6 video lectures/sets of discussion questions, 2 quizzes) and did related preparation (including reading the books, refining the recurring journal assignment, creating grading rubrics, etc.).  I wrote the introduction to a special issue of the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly on Refugees, Migration and Diaspora in Children’s Literature, and edited the 6 essays that will appear in that issue.  Philip Nel, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children's Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books (Oxford UP, July 2017)I wrote a new Afterword to the forthcoming paperback edition of my most recent book — and presented a version of that afterword at a conference in San Antonio.  With my two co-editors, I worked on editing the second edition of Keywords for Children’s Literature, which has about 60 contributors. We co-editors occasionally met via Skype (my two co-editors are based in Canada and in Denmark, respectively), and we began writing that book’s introduction. I studied German with a tutor, in preparation for fall research in Germany (where I am now). I reviewed a book manuscript for a press, at least one article for a journal, and three dozen applications for an award. I drafted an invited talk I am giving in Stockholm in November. I appeared on a podcast and spoke with a few journalists. Since the waning attention of my remaining reader is doubtless about to evaporate, I’ll end the work chronicle here.

I am very lucky to have a job I enjoy, and to do work that I find meaningful. But interesting work is still work: indeed, the fact that we derive meaning from our work risks refashioning labor as leisure. “Hey, we may work 60 hours week, but at least we like what we do! Many people work many more hours, dislike the work, and are paid even worse!” But that is a dangerous line of thinking. It insists upon gratitude for lesser degrees of exploitation, when we should instead demand that all work receive respect, appropriate compensation and adequate vacation.

inflatable flower, NYC, July 2018

Though it violates the American belief that everyone work all the time (and must feel guilty if they do not), I have been making an effort to do less — and to actually take some time to spend with friends and family. In May, I attended my 30th high school reunion and visited family and friends in New England. In July, Karin and I went to New York City, where we saw three excellent and very different plays: Spongebob Squarepants: The Musical (a delightfully absurd, whimsical spectacle about the [possible] end of the world), Cypress Avenue (a disturbing mixture of comedy and Greek tragedy that satirically takes racism/prejudice to its most extreme), Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts 1 and 2 (fun, effective melodrama, magnificently staged and costumed). In August, I accompanied my mother to a family reunion in Switzerland, where we saw relatives from the UK, South Africa, and (obviously) Switzerland. My family is very spread out geographically, and so we don’t get to see each other often: I in particular very much enjoyed catching up with one cousin whom I had not seen in over three decades.

family in Alps

I of course worked during these vacations — but not as much.  For instance, during the family reunion, in the hour before others were up and in the hour after they’d gone to bed, I worked on the introduction to the second edition of Keywords for Children’s Literature.  So, yeah, despite my efforts, I find myself unable to let a day pass without doing any work. (This is a problem, I know.)

So, in sum, I had a great summer — busy, productive, interesting. I even managed a healthier balance of labor and leisure, though should still strive for more of the latter. I hope you all enjoyed your summers and are having an invigorating fall semester, and that you’re able to manage the right combination of hard work and necessary rest.


Images:
  1. Cover to Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books (Oxford UP, 2017), designed by Lucas Heinrich.
  2. “Rose” from the collection “Grown Up Flowers” by PLAYLAB, INC. (2018), hosted by The Avenue of the Americas Association & Rockefeller Group, 1221 Sixth Ave, NYC. July 2018.
  3. Photo taken by Linda Nel. Lac de Moiry, Grimentz, Switzerland. August 2018.

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The Pleasures of Displacement

planeI 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!

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