Travel & Writing Post-Comprehensive Exams

compspicAs I sit here thinking about how to start this post, my first reaction is, well, to stare at the keys and wonder where the past two months went. I feel so out of practice that I’m not even sure where to begin.

So where did these past two months go?

In a word: comprehensive exams. (Ok, two words, but who’s counting?)

For those of you who know me as writer-Kristin and not as graduate student-Kristin (or for those of you who don’t know me at all except for my picture on this website), I lead a double-life. Half the time I’m in graduate school climbing that infinitely tall mountain toward my PhD while moonlighting on the weekends and summers as a writer and blogger. Under the best circumstances, I’m able to find the time to balance both my loves while still maintaining my sanity and keeping up with my fiance and cat. In the past few months, though (and you’ll notice by the way my posting schedule took a sharp and painful dive, oh, in early April), what’s taken up every single hour of my life is the process in graduate school that we call comprehensive exams. I’ll shed just a tiny light on the process for those of you who don’t know–or shudder to imagine–what this entails.

Comprehensive and exam – as an adjective defining that oh-so-scary noun, you can imagine how difficult this process is. Basically, we carve out a year (at Arizona it’s in the third year in the program), define a focus and put together two reading lists of books and articles, read and study like crazy, write a publishable article for a national academic journal, and then take your exams. First, you sit for a four-hour timed exam in a closet-sized office with one window, one internet-less computer, and one chair; then, you take a forty-eight-hour timed exam at home, and then–if you’re still alive after that or haven’t run away from graduate school screaming–it’s a three-hour oral exam in a conference room with your committee of four professors. Then, and only if you pass, can you say you’re “ABD,” or, in normal-person speech, “All But Dissertation.” What this means, basically, is that you’re one step (albeit an enormous and horrifyingly step) away from pitching, writing, and defending a five-chapter book-length study of something that ostensibly relates to the topic you studied in your exams.

And yes, I’m here to report: I am ABD.

It took a lot of stamina, especially by way of my relationship with my fiance and my characteristically anxious personality. Even a bout of EMDR post-traumatic stress therapy and an increase in stress-relieving exercises didn’t always help, and I certainly didn’t have much time to travel. So, now that I’m happily, exhaustedly, and elatedly on the other side, what did I study and why did I study it?

Well, my interest in travel (and, of course, travel writing), runs far and deep–as far back as that first moment my parents gave me the most amazing gift of my life by sending me to study Spanish in a Spanish university for a summer in college. That first moment, my first steps in Madrid (right before I almost nearly got mugged by a flower-selling lady and her stealthy accomplice who’d been hiding in the shadows…but that’s another story entirely), something stirred in me, something I hardly recognized and wouldn’t be able to name until I found myself living abroad again every year for the next three years and

This is partially why I devoted my comprehensive lists to figuring out how we as writers can use feminist philosophies to figure out what the potentials of travel writing are in a postcolonial world. Heavens knows the genre’s gotten enough crap to last it a lifetime and then some. (Nobody, for instance, needs to try and argue the fact that most of the history of travel writing involved white male colonizers going in to places where people already lived and re-mapping it for themselves in ways that would suit their colonial aims, right?) And I don’t want to live in a world or write in a genre where the privileged white person simply gets to wax philosophical on the nature of conquering, devouring, and mapping. I want to live in world of reciprocity, of inquisitiveness, of what Krista Radcliffe in my field calls the act of “rhetorical listening,” or listening to others with the intent of being able to respond more respectfully and culturally aware. I want to live in a world where cultural exchange is valued, even if travel is a necessarily privileged genre due to its relationship with disposable capital and leisure time.

One of my guiding questions–and by “guiding question” I mean one of the research questions that guided my reading–was this: What role or responsibility can contemporary travel writers, who are often from the dominant cultures from where they travel, play in challenging imperialist tendencies? Even more than challenge tendencies, does travel writing offer potential as a genre to posit an anti-colonialist alternative discourse? Is it possible that a genre typically associated with bourgeois subjectivity and colonialism can become a space for critical discourse, reflection, and understanding of difference, and if so, how?

Basically, I was asking whether or not there’s any hope for the genre in the academy, a place where it’s been disparaged and critiqued for as long as critiques have been a part of the academy. Even modern tourism studies critiques travel discourse (“culinary tourism” as “devouring other people’s cultures by side-stepping actually learning about how the food is produced and how it gets to the table, anyone?). I was very frustrated at the beginning of my study, because everything I seemed to read suggested that there is no hope–that if we ever wish to live in a more equitable world, we should just stay home and not bother anybody.

And now, having gone through a year of wrestling with these questions, I am definitely a lot more thoughtful as I read what we’re producing, publishing, and networking. For one, I now cringe at verbs that have haunted Westerners since colonial expansion, words like “discover” (how can someone else “discover” a place where someone else already lived and already “discovered?”) and nouns like “hidden gem” (hidden to who and why?). I’m much more wary of reading guidebooks, because guidebooks inevitably privilege some histories over others (and some places over others). If nothing else, my project was merely one of trying to essay–of trying to figure out exactly how I fit in to the larger implications of tourism, writing, and feminism.

And I’m still trying to figure all that out.

But in the meantime, I’m off this week to Singapore, Malaysia, and Borneo for a FAM trip that should be the trip of a lifetime. The jitters have started, I haven’t even thought about opening my suitcase to start packing, and I’ve been reading more about Malaysia than I have been grading those papers that are due tomorrow. As you can see, the moonlighting has begun–and I couldn’t be happier about it.

Any thoughts on this? Is there hope for travel writing? Would love some conversation to mull over….