My husband and I celebrated our seventh wedding anniversary this past January; we have been together another two years. In the early days of our dating, my husband was game enough to seek out the odd and strange things that surrounded us in central Missouri. We have seen the beginning of the Santa Fe Trail, the largest salt lick in the Western Hemisphere, the world’s largest concrete goose, one of the purported world’s largest pecans, the room where Jesse James was shot and killed, and a “castle” in the Ozarks called Ha Ha Tonka. Since we have moved together – and traveled together – we’ve expanded the list. We’ve climbed to the top of the lighthouse in Key West (despite my near-debilitating fear of heights); stopped to photograph the world’s largest concrete peanut in Georgia; checked out the antiques mall at South of the Border in South Carolina; seen dinosaur tracks in Texas; seen the Hollywood sign; come near enough to alligators in the Everglades, thank you very much; and traveled the boardwalk through the Great Dismal Swamp. Because of where we currently live, we’ve been able to take advantage of weekend trips to Washington, DC and day trips to Raleigh and Richmond.
In Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” Jig asks the American, “That’s all we do, isn’t it – look at things and try new drinks?” While the timbre of the story suggests that this attitude might be one to leave behind (they are, after all, trying to figure out whether or not they want to continue with this pregnancy), there’s always been something particularly alluring in that statement for me. Part of it, I think, is that my husband and I do more than simply “look at things and try new drinks,” but we still also think that there’s some wonder in exploring and trying new things. That’s part of what brings us together.
This gets me thinking about my life as an academic because academic careers mean moving – and sometimes moving frequently. They also mean finding yourself in locations far from our stereotypes of college towns. I currently live in a small town in the coastal plain of North Carolina (a euphemism for the extremely rural and swampy area in the northeastern part of the state). While here, we’ve done many of the things that we’ve always done: we’ve explored the small and unusual locations, we’ve found friends with similar interests, and we’ve figured out ways to participate in the life of this community. It’s been a series of discoveries, including the distinction in North Carolina Barbeques that I learned about at our local “PorkFest.” The joy of discovery and exploration in my life is the same thing that guides my research as an academic: it’s all about being curious about the world – how it is and how it was.
And the acceptance of interesting things in small towns has cropped up in my teaching. To take advantage of what we actually have locally – and because our resources are limited – I decided that to teach my students about cultural materialism, we’d take a trip to our local nineteenth century cemetery. Each student found a gravestone, photographed it and gave a presentation reading the stone against an Emily Dickinson poem, explaining attitudes about death. A slightly imperfect project, but the students had the experience of actual research outside of the classroom. A little bit of creativity, though, and the students got to move beyond the classroom.
I’m not saying there are things that I don’t miss living here (sushi and bookstores spring immediately to mind), but I am saying that there’s a point at which it’s important to acknowledge our surroundings and to appreciate them. Curiosity and openness to the new goes a long way in creating satisfaction and fulfillment in life. That openness doesn’t mean stagnation or forgetting about the larger academic community, either. While I work hard at my life in my small town, I’m also working very hard at keeping up with my field outside of my town: I always keep in mind the larger picture of my career.
I don’t know what the future holds. I don’t know if I’ll stay in the small town for my entire career, or whether a different small town beckons. What I do know is that it is all part of the academic journey, and it’s one where I’m glad to look at things and try new drinks.
Murfreesboro, North Carolina in the US.
Emily Isaacson currently serves at Chowan University (Murfreesboro, North Carolina) as an assistant professor of English and the coordinator of the Chowan Critical Thinking Program. She blogs about teaching introduction to literature at Bedford/St. Martin's LitBits blog, and about everything else at The Seacoast of Bohemia.