Unit 3, Vacationland: Introduction

vacationland headerBy now, your writing muscles should feel plenty warm — far more efficient and powerful than they felt when you started this course! Your goal in essay 4 is to try your hand at travel writing.

You will, of course, be learning some new skills in this unit. These specific skills will be useful to you in writing the essay for the unit. They are as follows:

  1. adopting a clear tone of voice
  2. using quotes to develop and support your ideas
  3. handling quotations (mechanics)
  4. conducting research
  5. MLA format: In-text citations & Works Cited Page

What we will be reading and writing about

Travel writing is one of the oldest forms of writing. When human beings go out into the world and have adventures, they bring back stories and new ideas, and long to share them with others back at home. Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, and Charles Darwin kept diaries of their voyages. Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, Sarah Orne Jewett, Jack Kerouac, and William Least Heat Moon have all written important travel narratives about America, Today, travel writing can be found in newspapers, which often have separate travel sections; in magazines like National Geographic, Conde Nast, Backpacker, and Travel & Leisure (and many, many more); on television in travel shows like Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Todd Carmichael's show, Dangerous Grounds (of course, the writing is in the form of a script); on the internet in the form of diary-like blogs, podcasts, photo slideshows, and videos.

In this unit, you will read several essays by travel writers, view photographs, and listen to interviews with travel writers. The goal is to learn about the genre and become familiar with writing techniques you might use to develop your own travel essay.

Why this topic is worth studying

With travel and travel writing, we are (again) addressing a topic that we don't really think about very often, but which is relevant to our lives. Many cultural critics argue that our vacations reveal unflattering things about us. For example, Walker Percy, way back in the 1970's, stated that when we are in tourist mode, we (Americans, in general) reduce the world, including people, to objects to be consumed (photographed, brought home, entered into photo albums). And more recently, several critics have suggested that tourism has become so commodified and packaged that we have become passive consumers of experience: on the whole, we'd rather be pampered and entertained and taken care of in specialized tourist spaces like resorts, cruise ships, and hotels than encounter real people in real places. And yet travel writers like Bill Bryson, Pico Iyer, Dean Maccannell, and Paul Theroux teach us to consider the transformative power of travel. For example, Bill Bryson tells us that travel allows us to "experience everyday things as if for the first time." Pico Iyer says "the open road is the school of doubt in which man learns faith in man.” And Dean Maccannell says that when we travel, we seek to participate in, and often find something larger than ourselves.

So which is it? Is there a difference between being a tourist and being a traveler? What is at stake in this question? By reading essays by wonderful travel writers like Theroux and Bryson (and I have to say, my selection of essays was really tough to narrow down!), you can decide how you feel about the purpose of travel and what is at stake in how and where we travel (and spend our travel dollars).

In addition, this type of essay gives students the opportunity to continue to work with narrative and descriptive writing and to further develop these skills, but also to learn new skills that are essential to a student's success in college: working with sources and creating a Works Cited page. Moreover, in a travel narrative the writer must successfully weave together different types of writing — storytelling, concrete description, historical research, dialogue (sometimes), geographical information, etc. — into a unified and coherent argument.

Readings Overview

Below is a description of the readings which make up the content of this unit. For a complete schedule of assignments for this unit, please go to the calendar link.

Dictionary Definitions & Travel Quotes This link takes you to dictionary definitions of the words "Vacation" and "Tourist." We begin this unit by considering these concepts, and how these concepts have evolved. In addition, several quotes on travel provide a glimpse into how others view the purpose, difficulties, and rewards of travel.

"Samsara: The Birth, Life, Death, and Rebirth of Skaggs Island," Leila-Anne B. (2014)" This essay by a former student is a wonderful example of travel writing for an academic setting. Her research adds depth and interest to her narrative about the mysterious Skaggs Island.

The Tourist Dean MacCannell's 1976 book on tourism in America is an important scholarly work (its subtitle is "A new theory of the leisure class"—which should tell you that the book will be pretty theoretical). It is difficult reading at times — phrases like "candidate for sacralization" and "mechanical reproduction" abound. Therefore, you will only be presented with short passages from his book and his epilogue, which I will ask you to read closely and test against your own experience.

"The Country Just Over the Fence" Paul Theroux. Paul Theroux is probably the best-known travel writer around today. This essay about the border towns of Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Mexico, is a great example of Theroux's work, and provides students with a good model of techniques to use in essay 5.

"Fat Girls in Des Moines," Bill Bryson. This essay is a non-traditional travel narrative in that it is about the place where Bryson grew up. Bryson moved away from Des Moines as a young man and became a world traveler and travel writer. He wrote this essay after his father passed away. What is interesting is that he simultaneously captures Des Moines as a place that is foreign to him and as a place that is a part of him.