Monday, July 03, 2006

Travel and class

I’m traveling in a few days. Going to New York, a city that I adore and have spent a lot of time in. (I crafted a PhD dissertation that was in part about New Yorkish things, giving me a convenient excuse to go there on research trips.) I’m staying with friends and flying on points, so it’s a relatively inexpensive trip. But my very precarious financial situation has me nervous even about the play we’re seeing, one pricey museum admission, and a few meals out. I’m on EI for three months – that’s UI to you Americans – because of the charming new propensity of many of our Canadian uni’s to hire full-time faculty on contracts that are less than a year long.

Even in this financial mess, I am also planning a trip I will actually have to pay for, to London in October to visit my dearest friend. The ticket hasn’t been bought yet – I can’t afford to add to an over-inflated credit card right now. The very good salary I will get once my new job starts seems perversely to cancel out the worries of the summer, and I envision a carefree fall trip.*

All this trip-planning in the midst of a financial squeeze recalls to me my class position – profoundly middling, urban middle-class, not upper- or lower-middle – and the unexcavated sense of entitlement that comes with it. Most of that entitlement, for me, comes out in the feeling that travel is a necessity. I don’t have too much credit debt because I bought shoes or electronics or endless dinners out. I have it because even toward the end of my PhD, when my external funding had run out, I continued to indulge in travel that I couldn’t afford.

What does travel represent, that I imagine it as essential? Mobility, of course, but what need or desire does that speak to? I realize that though I am a fairly content homebody much of the time, travel offers itself up as a kind of phenomenology of reinvention. It reminds me of other possibilities, other pictures of what a life – my life – could look like. It lets me live those – that’s what I mean about its phenomenological quality. This itself is class-bound…there is a very real question of who has the psychic space and the tools, much less the time, to re-imagine themselves…(which should act as a check to those of us in the Humanities who are so enamored of the subversive potential of the imagination).

Travel also – and I cringe to admit this, but it seems important – adds to my cultural capital. And so I see how intimately cultural capital can function. Where travel brings me security is in my own rendering of it to myself. I’m not a big talker or a name dropper, or really a snob, I don’t think. (In this day and age, nobody’s going to be impressed by plenty of time spent in Europe, anyway.) But having traveled, and approaching travel with ease, gives me what feels like an entirely personal sense of self-satisfaction about my own expanded experiences, my own worth. Of course, it’s not just personal – nothing ever is – and in this I am, as are we all, a perfect illustration of the reproduction of social structures through our most intimate mythologies.

A lot of this, of course, is tied in with my identity as an academic, that is, as a member of a seriously "classed" profession. It’s difficult to imagine myself in this profession as a non-traveler…I would feel inadequate, wouldn’t I? For in this regard travel is tied to knowledge, the province of academics. It lends itself both to knowledge as accumulation of facts, and knowledge as understanding – even when we don’t truly understand. The experiential nature of the voyage seems to lend it a credence that other forms of knowledge-building can’t have.

I recognize all this and then don't quite know where to put the recognition. What do we do about the way class, the elephant in the (North American) room, structures our thinking? Or, more hopefully, how can that recognition itself help to restructure what we do in our travels? And in our jobs?

*Yes, I have problems being a sensible budgeter – or any kind of budgeter at all, really.


App Crit said...

Hilaire, you've well expressed and related several topoi that I regard often, too: the academic on holiday (it's fieldwork, isn't it?); and the academic pachyderm cubicular (class and its place/non-place), and often so referred.

Travel is something, indeed, though not quite the standard experience of all academics. I know of several academics who shun Mediterranean summers, Bodleian winters, and Grand Tour "elitism". The irony of this guilt-fed, "marxist-lite", retroflex classism, from so stoldly middle class a profession as the professoriate, is beyond humour. It's the seed of satire.

Americans seem not to care to talk about class--everyone is middle class, just ask. (How does Canada differ? Canada, beyond high tea at the Empress, does seem to retain some Britannic quality, but is well possessed of its own identity, far more than any other (former) Commonwealth state--another post perhaps) But Americans still are class-aware, even if the dialogue is not there. This creates some interesting dynamics in the academy, not only among scholars, but affecting as well how scholars and students relate. Since most scholars have traveled more than students...

Yet, how can we not travel?!?!?

Of course, there is much to be said for home. I first came to the States for gap year, then for grad school, and I've yet to leave.

In any case, your post was a delight to read, as they all are. Time for coffee.


Hilaire said...

Exactly, app crit! Your comment about the way travel distinguishes scholar from student. I taught at a uni with a mainly working-class student population last year. For a few reasons, I had to let them know that I would be away for two weeks over Xmas. I didn't say where because I didn't want to look pretentious. When someone asked, and I told her, "Spain," the look on her face horrified me. She clearly resented and disdained me, at least in that moment. She reacted as if I were a caricature. It has made me *very* wary of talking about travel with students.

And also: how, indeed, can we not travel?

May sometime get to the differences between Canada and the U.S. There's lots to say there. Thanks for your thoughtful comments...

Sfrajett said...

Most of the older academics I know would have said "Spain" proudly, and gotten admiration for it. After all, in academia being able to travel to Spain means you've made it, doesn't it?

Your post reminds me of all kinds of classed relations to travel in academe--the assumption you've done it, for one thing, or that you can arrange as a graduate student to go to the British Library, for another. I remember laughing to myself about the irony of being (in part) a 20th century British scholar who defended a dissertation yet had never been to England. In those days I worked on Woolf in large part because so much of her archive has been published and was available to any university library.

Class is one of the things people forget about when they talk about theory in academia. Archives take money and support to work in and visit. Theory can be done with lots of reading and Amazon, if necessary. I'm all for archival work, but I'm sick and tired of the invisible class politics of an academy that expects its workers to be able to pay for what is essentially business travel themselves. And let's not even get into how much grad students pay to be allowed the privilege of going on the job market!

Great post.

Flavia said...

This is a great post for so many reasons, but this in particular resonated with me:

Travel also – and I cringe to admit this, but it seems important – adds to my cultural capital. And so I see how intimately cultural capital can function. Where travel brings me security is in my own rendering of it to myself....having traveled, and approaching travel with ease, gives me what feels like an entirely personal sense of self-satisfaction about my own expanded experiences, my own worth.

Damn straight. I have such travel-lust myself, and such a sense of how little I've travelled (although I've done a respectable amount), and such an odd anxiety about that fact--but I've never quite understood why. You've diagnosed it perfectly.

Texter said...

Thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I've thought alot about this as I have entered a realm unexperienced by my parents in terms of travel and going abroad. In terms of my academic interests, I often reflect on the privileging of the exiled writer vs the "stay-at-home" in colonized societies. Travel is a passport... to many things.

Hilaire said...

Right on, are *so* right about the insidious class politics that articulate themselves in so many ways...

Flavia, yeah, once you start to think about your own relationship to this question, there're so many layers, huh? It's a big, complex one, I think. Deserves analysis!

And texter, you've hit on something very important, which I have noted in my own life but forgot to mention here...This is not only a class thing, but a generational one, too. My parents don't take travel for granted in the same way. My father, well-educated as he is in world history, has never left North America. My still-living grandmother, the very embodiment of middle-class propriety, hates, I mean really hates, the fact that her grandchildren are living spread out all over the world, and travel regularly. This definitely complicates it...(I don't know your own class background so I don't know if you have the same reasons for different levels of mobility from your parents.)