The travelling academic (1)


I’m republishing here something I originally wrote for my department’s newsletter, in 2015. It’s about another side of being an academic: the travelling. I’m at the career stage at which I’m lucky enough to be invited to give lectures – public ones – in interesting places. But I want to preface my travel account with some introductory thoughts which may come in useful for someone else.

Selling yourself

When I started out as an academic, I had a very low income, no access to research funds (when I was working at Liverpool Institute of Higher Education, there was at first no expectation that any of us would even do research), but lots of need to network. The British Academy used to offer a fixed amount towards the fare if you had a paper accepted outside the UK. It was an excellent scheme but set limits on how many times you could apply; and it no longer exists as a scheme. But now I’m in my fifties, I have a far higher income, access to research funds (until now, the OU has been generous in this) and not so much need to ‘put myself about’. Yes, it’s ironic…

When I first went to the USA, because I’d had a proposed paper accepted by a conference, my supervisor gave me excellent advice on how to cover the fare, the accommodation and the conference registration fee: sell yourself! So I wrote to people I’d heard of, whose work I liked, in the area around the conference venue, offering to come to their departments and speak about my work. I suggested half a dozen or so titles to which I could speak. My hosts arranged accommodation (spare room at someone’s house/college house/hotel), paid the travel between venues, and took me for meals, so the honoraria  (they paid me from $50-$200) went to fund the main part of the trip. Enough of them picked me up on the offer that I was able to fund my trip and I also got to meet lots of people. So: try it!

And now to recent travels…

My geography isn’t very good. I blame my school, which didn’t teach O-level Geography because it was ‘rote-learning’. When I was invited to give the 2015 Lane C. McGaughy Lecture in Ancient Studies, an annual event honouring the founder of the Classical Studies Department (est. 1998) at Willamette University in Salem I said yes, of course. It was only a bit later that I realised it was Salem Oregon not Salem Massachusetts, and thus a west coast trip rather than the less exhausting East Coast sort. My lovely host, once I pointed out it was a long way to go, fixed me up with two other lecturing venues, as well as sneaking in a lecture to the art history class, which was fine by me.

So I ended up visiting two small private colleges – Willamette University (around 2,000 students) and Reed College (a mere 1,400) – and one public university, the University of Oregon (20,000 students). After the Open University (nearly 200,000 students when I started there) that’s tiny. All of them have flourishing Classics departments, although at Willamette there is talk of reducing the curriculum to offer fewer possible subject combinations. All focus on language; at Reed a beginner’s Latin student will have a class on every weekday, and it is impossible to get a job in a US university without strong Latin and strong Greek (remember that, when you are thinking about what subjects to drop).

The size of department is in the half a dozen or so area, but enhanced by ‘adjunct professors’ who are just paid for one course, and ‘visiting professors’. This last category doesn’t mean they are visiting ‘from’ somewhere that they normally work – which is what it has always meant when I’ve held that title – but simply that they are on a fixed term contract of, say, two years, which may or may not be renewed. Job insecurity is not just a feature of the UK.

In addition, at the University of Oregon, MA students assist with a lot of the classes. Often the staff member lectures and the students take all the discussion classes and grade the assignments. There is concern about this, especially among parents who are paying huge tuition fees for their son or daughter to be taught by a person who was an undergraduate only the previous year! It is also rare for the smaller colleges to offer a PhD programme so one of the concerns I found among students was where they should go to if they wanted to study at that level.

Juggling in an alternative universe

For me, Reed was the most extraordinary place. All students take a compulsory humanities course, HUM110, which covers the Greeks, the Romans and other ancient civilisations. The problem with it seems to be that nothing can be done in sufficient depth; students study an author or text without much historical context. They also do compulsory science and compulsory sport, although as juggling counts as a sport this doesn’t mean you need to do something ‘team’, or competitive (I’d have found that a relief).

Most amazing of all, for a UK visitor, is the fact that Reed students are not given their grades. Apparently if they really desperately want to know, they can find out, but the norm is to receive work back with comments but no mark. The rationale is that this stops students becoming grade-obsessed, comparing marks all the time with their friends, and losing the interest in learning for the sake of learning.

Over 80% of ‘Reedies’ go on to take a higher degree. The dorms – the halls of residence – have themed floors, so science fiction fans or social justice activists or whatever can live with like-minded people. The dress code is super-relaxed, with so many Afro hairdos, Birkenstocks and long skirts that the visitor feels like she has strayed into a 60s time warp.

Sharing stories

At all my destinations, I did more than just lecture and answer questions at the end. A group of students would await me, some who’d accepted the department’s open invitation because they had read my work, others because they were just the sort of students who like to get involved. They asked me to speak about my career – and here I stressed the sheer randomness of how I ended up being an academic, and how a lot of it was down to being in the right place at the right time – and about the state of CS in the UK. And, of course, both staff and students wanted to know what the OU is, and how it works, and what that is like for students. In two of the venues, members of the public came along out of general interest, which always makes the question time particularly interesting.

Learning what it’s all about

And yes, unlike those hard-working Reedies, I did have fun. I dined with colleagues and ate some great food. My lovely hosts took me to spectacular national parks and local wineries. I had a wonderful time with one of my colleagues exploring the Oregon State Capitol, where we noted how all the local animals shown on the artwork were male, and I discovered an early depiction of a man with his underpants showing over the waist of his trousers; and his wife holding an apple, making this a true Oregonian Adam and Eve.

I found out why there are so many Christmas tree farms – it means your land is designated ‘agricultural’ so you get a tax break – and I discovered that they harvest the trees by helicopter.

I asked questions about the ‘Greek organisations’, the fraternities and sororities which, if you are positive about them, give students a small community with which to bond, or if you are negative, encourage excessive drinking and appalling sexual assaults (Reed is a Greek-free zone, in contrast to the University of Oregon which has 35 Greek organisations, and insists they are all dry, something which appears to be only an aspiration).

I rode on the Amtrak bus and on the Amtrak Cascades train so I saw lots of forests and mountains. I also met up with people whose work I know, or who I’ve met at conferences in the past, and got to catch up with them over a drink. Some of those meetings have now borne fruit in terms of collaborations. And, away from the stresses of the day job, I slept like a log! It’s good to get out.


2 thoughts on “The travelling academic (1)

  1. I really enjoyed your post! My son is a sophomore at University of Oregon but we looked at the smaller Oregon schools. He is a history major and really enjoying the school. Oregon is a special place from what I have experienced in a half dozen visits, and each time I travel up there (from Calif) I learn new things. I thought I would share my blog with you: The past several posts have been about a recent trip to the Balkans, but before those are several Oregon posts you might enjoy. You’ll detect a definite focus on wine. 🙂


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