I am not a travel writer, but I nonetheless feel compelled to write about my recent travels.
When it comes to vacation, my wife and I believe in going big or staying home, so while the trips are infrequent, they’re memorable: a honeymoon safari in Kenya, biking through Tuscany, hiking and snorkeling in the Galapagos Islands, and just this past week, touring Alaska’s Inside Passage by boat.
Touring these fjords by boat is actually pretty common, as “grand class” cruise ships carrying 2000 plus passengers abound. In Juneau (pop. 30,000), where we started our trip, no fewer than eight of these bad boys that challenged the Mt. Roberts peak for skyline preeminence moved in and out of the port during our 36 hours in town.
Our experience was a little different, though. We sailed as two of 11 passengers on the M/V Catalyst, first christened in 1932 as an oceanographic research vessel for the University of Washington, that has since spent time hunting Japanese subs off the Aleutian Islands, hauling Tungsten ore, and even as a floating dentist’s office. It’s currently owned and operated for touring by Bill and Shannon Bailey who serve as captain and trip guide/naturalist (among many other roles) respectively.
Granted, most of my knowledge of what goes on aboard cruise ships is limited to a childhood of watching The Love Boat and David Foster Wallace’s classic essay, “A Supposedly Fun Thing That I’ll Never Do Again,” but seeing one of these vessels doing a slow U-turn in front of the Dawes Glacier seemed, frankly, grotesque, a kind of floating cross between Atlantic City and Dollywood dropped into something out of National Geographic.
As the cruise ship departed, Captain Bill killed the Catalyst’s Washington Diesel engine, and in silence, we watched and listened to the glacier do its thing. Some of the creaks and pops sounded like rumbling thunder, others more like pistol shots. Small (by iceberg standards) chunks broke free and dropped into the water and we knew this place to be alive.
I reflected on the different experiences we were having, the thousands on the Star Princess versus the 11 of us on the Catalyst, the different philosophies of travel on display.
The Star Princess has 12 restaurants including dedicated steak & seafood and Italian outlets. The Catalyst has one chef and no menu. What you get is what you eat.
The Star Princess offers round-the-clock wifi and cell phone access. My 3G signal went dead fifteen minutes outside of Juneau and stayed dead for the entire trip.
For evening entertainment, the Star Princess features theaters, bars, and a casino. On the Catalyst we had readings by the captain of the poetry of Robert Service (The Bard of the Yukon), and the essays of Patrick McManus, or conversation with our fellow passengers.
The Star Princess docks in major ports like Juneau and Skagway, which, if Juneau is any indication, are primarily opportunities to shop for loose diamonds, t-shirts, and authentic “Eskimo” art, despite the local tribes being Tlingit, not Eskimo.
On the Catalyst we had a small skiff and sea kayaks to navigate off ship to a brown bear sanctuary (where only 24 people are allowed to visit per day) or uninhabited islands for an evening campfire with scratch-made s’mores. At night, we moored in quiet bays where you could hear the humpbacks breathing nearby.
It seems to me that the primary ethos of the grand cruise ship is “distraction.” The very nature of the trip is to distract passengers from their everyday lives, except that once on the ship, the bars, restaurants, nightclubs, casino, spa, theater, fitness center, wave pool, and climbing wall seem designed to distract the passengers from the fact that they’re on a ship. It seems to be a kind of generic fantasy of a PG-rated adult playground with rotating scenery. Foster Wallace identified it as “pampering,” not failing to note the infantilizing connotation of the word.
On the Catalyst, the initial experience is one of “dislocation” and “disorientation” The ship is beautifully appointed, but it is impossible to ignore the fact that it is 15 people (11 passengers + 4 crew) on a 75 foot boat, or that you will be sharing a head with six others, or that when the Washington Diesel fires up at 5:30am, the drive shaft for the propeller seems to run directly under your bed.
Boarding the ship and seeing our cabin that my wife and I could just barely stand in simultaneously, and the nine strangers with whom we would share such close quarters for seven days, I had a couple moments of panic. What if the food was terrible? What if I couldn’t sleep? What if I couldn’t shower? What if one of the other guests was insufferable?
What if I was insufferable to the other guests?
At our initial orientation, Shannon Bailey said that by the end of the week, we would be like family. I didn’t really see how that was possible.
Over the week, though, I learned how important dislocation and disorientation were to the overall experience. By forcing me to shed my comforts - the quiet home of just my wife and I and the dogs; control over my schedule, and my meals; the Internet to fill unscheduled time; unlimited bathroom access – I was nudged into something more valuable than distraction: “engagement.”
I shall illustrate. One morning, mid-trip, we were scheduled for a walk among the tide pools. It was chilly, foggy and drizzling, and from the Catalyst, it looked like an undifferentiated shore of rocks, kelp, and barnacles, things I was already well-familiar with. First landing seemed to confirm this impression, until Shannon overturned a rock and I saw that there was a whole new world underneath: anemone, eels, sea cucumber, five different varieties of starfish, snails, crabs, fish…
Under each rock it seemed like there was something new – to me at least – and I started looking closer and seeing more and more life, and I realized that I had crossed a threshold where my gaze had been altered and I was not the same person that first stepped on that boat. I was being educated in coming to know things previously unfamiliar. Without that dislocation and disorientation, I’m not sure it was possible.
I thought of a quote from Cornel West that I use as a kind of talisman for my teaching.
“I want to be able to engage in the grand calling of a Socratic teacher, which is not to persuade and convince students, but to unsettle and unnerve and maybe even unhouse a few students, so that they experience that wonderful vertigo and dizziness in recognizing at least for a moment that their world view rests on pudding, but then see that they have something to fall back on. It's the shaping and forming of critical sensibility. That, for me, is what the high calling of pedagogy really is.”
My trip had unhoused me in personally profound and important ways.
I recognized the experiences on the Catalyst as a kind of microcosm of good practices for education. The unavoidable proximity to other passengers fostered intimacy and I came to know the thoughts, feelings, and attitudes of others I would otherwise have never met. We had three Australians, a couple from Arizona, another from Pennsylvania, and another from the San Juan Islands who told me about the progressive, independent school (Spring Street International School) that they help foster in their community. They showed me their mission statement, which says in part, “Our teachers teach students, not classes,” and I was hit with a solid thump of truth.
My other worries were unfounded. Sharing a bathroom with six people can be a challenge, but it’s not such a bad thing to consider the comfort of others. By the end, the Washington Diesel engine’s throb was like a heartbeat lullaby. I could nap easily to its thrum. I came to recognize the shift in gears that meant Captain Bill had spotted something worth slowing down to see.
The Catalyst does not need 12 restaurants because it has Chef Tracie Triolo, who is more like 15 restaurants in one person. The food that came out of the ship’s galley was a marvel, the best meals I’ve had this year, and I happen to live in a city well-known for its cuisine. The last night we had salmon, caught by one of the passengers off the back of the boat. I wanted to weep over the freshness. Returning to our real lives, my wife and I have had a hard time adapting to a world where we have to choose what we’re going to eat.
The final evening we were treated to a slideshow, a compilation of photos taken by Shannon Bailey and some of the guests, and I wasn’t the only one who got a little misty. How I could be nostalgic for something not even past, I don’t know. As we pulled into the final port of Petersburg, I began to wonder if I was capable of going back the life I’d been living just a week earlier.
As I think about the semester just before me, I’m telling myself to remember the importance of dislocation to spark learning.
I believe in education that meets students where they are, but I think there is the potential to go too far. Just because students respond to games doesn’t mean we should embrace the “gamification of education" or think that software can do the job of teachers.
And maybe there would be some value in disconnecting the wifi in dorms across America, at least some of the time, forcing students off the Internet and into face to face engagement. Maybe we should scale back on the amenities and comforts designed to make students think their college is a resort, rather than a school.
If our goal is to get students to see the world in new ways, we need to reorient where they’re looking.
I spent zero time on Twitter over vacation and missed it not at all, and yet, here I am, flogging myself.