Study abroad: immersion and intellectual homes

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At the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference last month (12,000 writers and teachers, all descending on Washington, D.C.!), I attended two panels on writing and study-abroad programs. Mostly, those colleagues opined that immersion–settling students in one place for a sustained period of time–was pedagogically the thing to do. It helped students develop a genuine sense of a place and a connection to the people there, not only checking items off a list of tourist drive-bys. It helped students think through the questions of culture and privilege that can bedevil study-abroad programs (especially since some of the colleagues speaking run a program in Jamaica, where they are eager to avoid a sort of "privileged white kids parachuting in, engaging superficially, and then leaving" phenomenon.) Obviously, immersion really helps language learning and other long-term projects, like Luther's Earth and Environment geology studies in Italy. Staying in one place for a longer period of time can transform a student's mind and heart more deeply than a quick visit can; as I tell my senior-project writing students, there are things you can only learn about a project, or a place, by living with it for a period of time.

As I listened, I wondered: what does all this mean for my own course, "In Frankenstein's Footsteps: The Keats-Shelley Circle in London, Geneva, and Italy," in which students visit five cities (London, Geneva, Venice, Florence and Rome) over the 3 1/2 weeks of January term? Am I shortchanging them by not settling down in one of those cities and staying there? Am I whisking them along like the "tourists" so disdained in so many study-abroad contexts, often for good reasons? To be sure, I will soon have a longer-term experience: in spring 2019, I will be directing the London portion of the Associated Colleges of the Midwest's "London and Florence: Arts in Context" program, which immerses students in two richly specific cities for a whole semester. Should I be worried that by traveling to so many places, my Frankenstein students are having a diminished, because un-immersed, study-abroad experience? It's a fair question.

Yet despite our frequent moves between cities, we Frankensteinians do remain rooted in one "place": the texts and the biographies of our writers. Mary Shelley, "Frankenstein" (1818), and the Keats-Shelley Circle are the mobile intellectual home base of the course. Because we arrive at our first city, London, with the texts of "Frankenstein" and a great group biography, Daisy Hay's "Young Romantics," in our heads, we are able to start reading the place as a palimpsest, a surface written on, partially erased, and then written on again, so that it bears the traces of all the stories and histories ever inscribed on it, with our own stories as the topmost layer of that inscription. And we can bring what we know in our heads to "read with"–not only the Keats-Shelley Circle but Orwell, Dickens, Woolf and English history–as we learn more. When we walk up to Mary Wollstonecraft's burial site in St. Pancras Cemetery, we can understand it not only as one of the oldest sites of Christian worship in England but as a place where Mary and Percy Shelley met clandestinely, and where, even before that, young Mary learned the shapes of letters by tracing her mother's carved name. Hampstead is, for us, not only a posh London suburb but the home of John Keats, whose footsteps we trace on a lively walk up and down the hills and across the heath before moving through the rooms of the house where he lived. In Rome, we spend some time in the bedroom above the Spanish Steps where Keats died before visiting his grave at the Protestant Cemetery. This sort of "before and after" experience of a major literary figure in two different places is echoed by our experience of Byron as a boy at Harrow School and as a dissolute, rockstar-ish poet in Venice, the Las Vegas of Europe in Byron's time; these two "before and after" experiences of writers provide additional coherence to the course. Even our experience of major sites like the Colosseum is colored by what these writers saw first: in "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage," Byron famously describes his own visit to the Colosseum by moonlight, and the Doge's Palace by day: "I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs; A palace and a prison on each hand…" When we stand in those spots and read his words aloud, we feel time double back upon itself and knit itself together, including us, in an exhilarating way described best by another writer, William Faulkner: "The past is not dead; it isn't even past."

In practical terms, I keep returning to this reality: why leave out any of these cities, each so important to these writers, while we are in these countries and have the chance to go? More broadly, I think the intellectual underpinning of the course keeps us from being, or feeling like, only drive-by "tourists," especially since the realities of our own lives intersect with the past in these places, too. In the Alps, above the little town of Chamonix, we can see not only the Sea of Ice and the looming presence of Mont Blanc (so vivid a presence in "Frankenstein" and in Percy Shelley's famous poem "Mont Blanc," which we read aloud on the spot), but we can see the retreat of the glaciers due to climate change; images of the Mer de Glace when the Shelleys first visited it in 1816, for instance, show the ice rising much higher up the sides of the valley than it does today. All these things, I hope, give the course an internal intellectual cohesion that allows for variety and new experiences while providing a consistent experience of the way the past and present constantly impinge upon one another, and upon each of us.

Students themselves, although they admit the course is busy, say they appreciate the opportunity to see so much in such a short time ("good value for money," some testify.) Even more, they are philosophical about the nature of an intense experience: "it's worth it to push yourself," they say, "otherwise, you're just sitting at home watching Netflix, right?" They take good advantage of "free time," including afternoons in each city for independent group excursions and early evenings in to write in journals and get some sleep. Most of all, they speak and write about how the trip transformed them, and how what they experienced and thought is still reverberating through their minds months later. And that's what any study-abroad course leader hopes for.

I share these thoughts to illustrate how deeply faculty think about our courses, and at how many levels, and to invite students to consider, as they plan their study-abroad experiences, which courses meet their needs, and how. I was challenged, in good ways, by the conference panels on immersion, and I'm thinking more richly about the next incarnation of my Frankenstein course (January 2018) because of it.

Amy Weldon

Amy Weldon, native Alabamian, is associate professor of English at Luther College. Her essays, short fiction and reviews have appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, Best Travel Writing 2012 (Solas Press), Cornbread Nation 2: The Best of Southern Food Writing (UNC Press), Shenandoah, New Haven Review, Keats-Shelley Journal, The Millions, Bloom, and Southern Cultures, among others. She regularly blogs on sustainability, spirit and self-reliance at http://cheapskateintellectual.wordpress.com.

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