The Intellectual and Professional Benefits of a Working Vacation
In my last post I waxed eloquently in support of working vacations: short-term overseas academic posts. However, there is a question that needs to be answered before moving on, and that simple question is "Why?" Why pack up the spouse and kids and head off to the other side of the globe to teach or consult for a few months when you already have a comfortable, rewarding, and enjoyable job right here at home? Many of my academic colleagues laugh at me when I work overseas saying any trip that includes a work component is, by definition, not a vacation–the two concepts are incompatible.
That's a reasonable argument, and one that I wish to address. After all, you can buy a 10-day excursion to London or a two-week stay at a seaside resort, so why complicate things with a job? Why leave the comforts of home, friends, family, and job for months at a time? There is the money factor (you get paid on these working vacations), but if you are a tenured academic you can probably afford a reasonable family holiday, so why a working vacation? Let me offer a few reasons:
• Making friends around the world. When living and working overseas you meet new people and establish friendships that can last a lifetime. My wife and I are regularly in contact with a young woman we first met in Mauritius. We just had friends from Australia, a couple I first worked with 20 years ago, visit us in New York. These and other international relationships have become an important part of our daily lives.
• Becoming an integral part of a different culture. On your typical one or two week family vacation you will go on tours, see historical and cultural sites, eat well, and relax by the pool. Fun, yes, but you probably won’t have the opportunity to meet locals, join in their cultural and religious activities, learn about your neighborhood, or get involved with community groups. The country and its culture will be defined by guides, hotels, and views from a tour bus window.
• Doing it for the kids! Travel is a fabulous learning experience, as valuable as any ideas presented in the classroom. This is especially true when you settle somewhere long enough for your children to gain a deep appreciation and understanding for their new home–culture, language, and history. If you are worried about pulling the children out of school there is a simple solution– take your short-term working vacation during the Northern Hemisphere summer–June, July, August–when school is not in session, exactly what my wife and I did on our first four trips. My two “children,” now 41 and 37, consider their extended stays in England, Israel, Australia, and Kenya to be one of the most important contributors to their growth and maturation as young adults and global citizens.
• Gaining a better understand for what is happening here at home. One's own social and political orientation can be profoundly influenced by working vacations as you not only expand your understanding of the world but also gain greater insight into what is happening here in the U.S. For example, working in countries with deep-seated religious differences can make you more aware of the terrible societal damage caused by our own homegrown zealots. Living in the midst of a culture struggling with racial and tribal hatreds sensitizes you to the hurt—both physical and spiritual—arising from intolerance, bigotry, and racism. Teaching in a developing nation whose economic policies exacerbate the gap between rich and poor opens one's eyes to the ugliness of greed and the shame of our own society's tolerance of poverty amidst widespread wealth. Living in a country struggling with massive unemployment, hyperinflation, or rampant corruption makes you appreciate the (relative) stability of the U.S. economy and the need for vigilance and oversight of our own financial systems.
For many academics these social and cultural experiences are far more rewarding than a Las Vegas getaway or a week in Paris. As Mark Twain wrote in Innocents Abroad, "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely.” A working vacation is a wonderful way to combine the relaxation of a holiday with the professional and intellectual growth that comes from working with, interacting with, and learning from other cultures.
G. Michael Schneider is the Academic Travel Editor for Wandering Educators. You can read more of his work at http://otherguysdime.wordpress.com/, and learn more about his new book, entitled On the Other Guy's Dime: A Professional's Guide to Traveling without Paying.