John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Reflections of a Departing Vacationer

John N. Gardner

Once a year I take a New England vacation with my wife, Betsy Barefoot. We depart on the eve of Labor Day weekend and this is the only vacation of the year I try to go cold turkey and totally unplug. While I love staying in touch with an extraordinary range of people, I look forward to my annual untethering.

We go to the Berkshire Mountains in western Massachusetts and have family reunions with my brother and sister. We see outstanding summer stock theater in Lennox and Stockbridge; and a concert at Tanglewood. Then we move on up to Vermont to an idyllic inn on Lake Champlain, for hikes and more live theater. The capstone of the vacation is several days in a rural Quebec “manoir” where the cuisine is known in the indigenous parlance as “gastronomique.” We have a pact to treat ourselves to at least one Canadian vacation a year—this will actually be our second this year. What a relief to be in North America but in a context with universal health care, strict gun control, low crime, and lack of dysfunctional political divisiveness.

As I head out and write on the way, I am, as usual, reflecting on things, what do they mean to me and what I am going to do with myself made meanings. That’s what I learned to do in my liberal arts college education over four decades ago.

I reflect back on my 32+ years of NOT being able to start a vacation on Labor Day weekend because I was tied to the traditional college semester system and couldn’t leave my students. I miss them now, terribly, but do enjoy the freedom of being able to take vacations in the so-called “shoulder” seasons, crowds are down, children back in school, weather still gentle and appealing.

Why are we still starting school in mid to late August to September? Because we always have. This is truly a vestigial artifact left over from an agrarian past. In my day job right now I am providing advice through our self study process, Foundations of Excellence®, to a publicly traded university (with 120,000 on-line students) that has a fall start, once a month, every month of the year. This makes a great deal of sense to me for lots of reasons. Most importantly, it avoids the August train wreck where we make so many mistakes with students that they are doomed to failure even before they start.

Since I became a blogger, albeit an occasional one at that, that status has affected the way I “look” literally at whatever I am seeing on vacation. Being a blogger has turned me into a reporter of sorts. I find I am constantly vigilant to things I might want to report on, especially when I am out of the country.

I think it would be a good idea if more of my fellow higher ed change agents were bloggers. It might make them more observant of their higher ed settings, force them to try to be more objective and somewhat more detached from what they are observing.

For this trip I head from my predominantly red state into two blue states, very blue states. I know I will note differences. At least North Carolina where I live is not as red as South Carolina where I spent three wonderful decades as a higher educator. But I am confident that what I will see will not turn me red!

One year when we were visiting our favorite inn in the world, where we now headed for in Vermont, we met a whining couple from South Carolina, who owned an outdoor advertising sign company in South Carolina. They were not happy in Vermont where such abominations are banned.  They tried to persuade  me that the absence of such signage was a tremendous disservice to citizens “because you don’t know which exit to get off the Interstate for a McDonalds.” State level public policy does make a difference.

I think all of us higher educators, especially those that are not the privileged ones entitled to sabbaticals, should be more intentional to giving thought to what kind of vacations might make us more effective with our students. I didn’t do as well at this when I was a professor on a university campus. I was eligible for four sabbaticals and I never took one of them. I won’t bore you with all my poor excuses for not taking advantage of this privilege.  But I am confident today that my vacation will sharpen my thinking on some things that will make me more effective when I return. And I look forward to that and that’s before I have even left!

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