John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

The Intentional Tourist

John N. Gardner
President

This posting was inspired by a conversation I had on a flight from Sydney to Auckland and by the 1985 prize winning novel by Anne Tyler, The Accidental Tourist, and also the movie of the same title.

But I am writing as an “intentional” tourist, not an “accidental” one. I didn’t used to take many vacations. And I was eligible for four sabbaticals in my three decades at USC and didn’t even take one.  I am not proud of that. It would have been good for me on many levels had I done more of both. I guess I thought I was just too indispensable to be gone very long. But one of the many good things that has happened to me in my later life as a result of being married to Betsy Barefoot is that we do take vacations, albeit ones with our laptops in hand to keep in touch with our many colleagues, who expect us to be available to honor our contracts with them and their institutions to be available on demand.

Let me state the point of this before I go any further. I am suggesting that my higher ed readers think about spending some more time as “intentional” tourists on their own campuses and get into random conversations with students as a source of inspiration for them and for you!

I fly a great deal, understatement. And once the aircraft is in flight (meaning not taking a mechanical delay) and sufficiently on time to make my connection (I fly out of a “downline” airport and have to connect to almost anywhere) then I relax and have some of the most private time of my working moments. I say “private” because no one is talking to me, and no one can reach me by phone (at least until the FAA allows us to receive phone calls in flight). On the wireless equipped flights, now people can and do reach me and vice versa. I say “no one is talking to me” because I intentionally, and assiduously avoid striking up any conversation with my seatmates. I am not rude about it; in fact I make a special effort to be my usual very polite self to my fellow passengers; but I just want to be left alone and get my work done. I must confess, I do a lot of last minute preparation on planes and this is critical time for getting myself  “up” for the presentation I am often going to do at my destination.

One of the two protagonists in The Accidental Tourist is a middle aged, single, writer of travel guides. In one of his guides he gives advice to readers on how to avoid talking to seatmates on airplanes and how to deal with the seatmate from hell who just won’t leave you alone. But, alas, even this sage traveler has met his match in one hilarious episode where he cannot shut up the seatmate no matter what stratagem he employs. Seeing this scene in the film was even funnier than in the novel and was truly unforgettable. In the film he goes through a transformation as part of a love story, after he serendipitously meets a women in a veterinarian’s office. He has had a career of being an intentional traveler to write intentional travel guides. But his new relationship transforms him in many ways, including into an “accidental” tourist with his new companion.

Now this flight of mine that I referenced in my opening above, was not to tell a tale of the seatmate from hell. In fact, he was just the opposite.  It was my way of putting this exchange in the context of my normal practice of not talking to seatmates. But my wife was with me and she does talk to seatmates. She is also better prepared and always has fewer last minute preparations to make en route. Our third seatmate, who was sitting next to me on my right, with my wife on my left, was a mid 20’s male, from Canada as we learned. Even though he was not a university student, he was having a “high impact practice” experience, namely, travel abroad. He was en route to New Zealand to meet a female companion for hiking on the South Island. And she was a relatively new item in this life as he had terminated a prior relationship we gathered, in the not too distant past. His former woman friend was the daughter of a large Canadian city public school superintendent whom we deduced may have had reservations about this young man because he was not yet university educated. Like most of my US college students he was in search of adult life purpose. My rare plane conversation with him reminded me of so many I have had with my own college students. There is just no source like this to be reminded of the purpose of our work.

Like many of my and our students, this gentleman had a peer group of friends who in the 25-30 year old range were all in the process of settling down and mate selection leading to marriage. They were also focusing on settling into careers. This young man, whose name was also John, explained that most all his friends were university graduates. And Betsy and I as we listened to him were having cognitive dissonance, as he definitely sounded educated beyond the high school level. John spoke to us about his wanting to settle down and have a family, and hence the need to get much of his wanderlust out of his system first, as in trekking in New Zealand.

John also told us something that most of my American college students would not. He did not aspire to a white collar job. Instead he wanted to be a professional firefighter in a major Canadian city. He explained to me that the starting salary was about $50,000 Canadian, and that then annual earnings ranged between 50 and 100,000. He literally said that in his country it was possible to live a very decent middle class life without a university education and that he intended to do so. In preparation for his chosen occupation he had been working as a professional firefighter in the Canadian “bush” both because he loved the outdoors and that it would make him competitive for his career goal of being a salaried city firefighter.

We enjoyed talking to him. He personified the stereotypical Canadian politeness and articulateness. He was a young adult who clearly knew what his values were and was living consistently with them. He had a strong sense of purpose towards which he was an active searcher.

This conversation was serendipitous. Neither party had sought it out. Of course, I gave him feedback and hopefully that was useful to him. I found myself wishing that my American students could even think about gaining entry in the middle class as autonomous self-supporting young adults without a college education, and in a civil service job that provided a decent standard of living. Of course, the reality is that in many states at least one party is at war with public servants and blames them for the national debt (as was argued in Ohio and Wisconsin by politicians attempting to reduce the benefits of public, unionized state employees, like teachers, professors, police officers and fire safety professionals).

I don’t work on a college campus any more. And I miss my serendipitous conversations with them—and the more intentional conversations that I scheduled as well. I envy those of my readers that have more opportunity than I to talk to our students. I urge you to take maximum advantage of this by being an intentional tourist on your own campus. When talking intensively to students becomes “accidental” maybe you need to ask yourself if what you are doing is really worth it.

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