Daily Review-Atlas (Monmouth, IL) 7-27-98

by William Urban

 Students with backpacks invaded Europe this summer again. They were everywhere: uniformly dressed in shorts or jeans, sandals or tennis shoes, suntanned, tired and often lost, but determined to cover a lot of territory in a few short weeks. They don't know where they are going, or what they are going to see, but they are sure there will be beer or wine and people just like them wherever they end up. Overheard conversations always seem to include "what is there to see here?"

Knowing that there was a tremendous desire among students to make sense of their travel was one of the inducements that made me accept an offer of summer employment from Eastern Michigan University's cultural studies program. Being with young people for six weeks would be an opportunity to do some real teaching. I taught two courses in history (western civ and 20th century) and an art instructor gave two museum-oriented courses. In contrast to my past semesters abroad, I could relax when time came to make train and check hotel reservations, to see that everyone was ready to go at 7AM, and when the really tough decisions had to be made (such as when a student wasn't packed up yet and we had to get to the train). In addition, I got paid.

It was not exactly a vacation. No one who lives six weeks out of a backpack, has lectures every day, goes with small groups of students to sites of individual interest, gives and grades exams and papers, and moves to another city every three or four days is exactly living in luxury. Especially not when the temperature hits 90 and more, as it did in Italy. But that was another one of the attractions: I had seen too many luxury "study tours" with students arriving in big buses, hauling giant suitcases, and being interested only in the nearest pub. I had too much experience with hostel managers thanking me for the good behavior of my students to take on the really tough-to-teach crowd. I guessed (correctly) that anyone willing to rough it a bit would be fun to be with, and anyone who signed up for academic credit would at least be willing to listen to a "what there is to see here?"

It was a well-organized, well-led program. In Venice I heard some students traveling on their own complaining, "We can't get a room because some group with thirty-eight people took everything." I was tempted to say, "don't show up without reservations, then. Grow up." But I didn't. Far too hot, far too late in the day, and I would sound too much like a parent. Eastern Michigan plans a year ahead. Many students traveling alone seem to be blown by the wind, trusting to the same good fortune that provides them the means to travel through fairly expensive countries for weeks on end.

In contrast to the students and even those serious tourists who spent a lot of time studying guide books, we really did the museums, art galleries, palaces, and historical sites. No time wasted. We were there when the doors opened. I would lecture on the Blitz in London, then take students to the War Cabinet Rooms; lecture on Louis XIV in Paris, then take the students to Versailles; talk about Franz Josef and Sisi in Vienna, then go through the palace's living quarters to see why Sissi was the Princess Di of her generation.

It was a lot of fun, too. The students studied hard (well, fairly hard, with a few who really worked) and they drank hard--watching the stars come out over the Eifel Tower, passing a bottle of cheap wine around, dancing a bit, and talking endlessly. Sometimes even about the places we had been and asking for more detail. On the whole, a nice way to pass half the summer, and no one asking, "what's there to do here?"

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