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Can't Leave Your Brain Behind
September 6, 2010 - 7:45pm

Vacation is supposed to be a time away from one’s normal routine – an escape from the drudgery of day-to-day life. However, when you are trained to critique and engage in critical dialogue, it becomes virtually impossible to unplug and escape. This is the conundrum of an academic on vacation. We can’t stop thinking and we don't really want to.

I recently returned from a short vacation to Mexico. My husband, son, and I went to Cancun and Playa del Carmen to visit with family who live in the area. On this trip, I realized that downtime looks very different for an academic. I couldn’t help but view the Mayan Riviera through at least three lenses: those of researcher, teacher, and administrator.

Like most of the people in the region, my family works in the tourism industry. Not only are they selling vacation homes and rentals, they are also selling dreams. To appeal to people while on vacation, you must appeal to their desire for escape, for fantasy. As a sociologist, I was fascinated by Cancun – truly a “postmodern” city (Jameson). I instantly drew parallels with The Celebration Chronicles, Andrew Ross’s work on Disney’s planned community – both attempt to construct an alternate and improved reality.

For me, vacations are filled with curiosity, questions, and new insights, followed by a frenzied search for what has already been written on a topic as soon as I’m back in my office (if I’m not using the airport’s Wi-Fi while waiting to board my return flight). I spent this morning searching for academic literature on Cancun – specifically tourism’s impact on society. On the map of Mexico, the Riviera Maya is located on the east coast of the Yucatan peninsula roughly between Cancun and Tulum. On the chart of tourism urbanization, it falls between Gladstone’s “tourist metropolis” (Las Vegas and Disney World) and “leisure city” (Fort Meyers and Daytona Beach). It is a make-believe play space filled with sun, sand, and beaches, and supported by an army of flesh-and-blood workers drawn from across the Yucatan and beyond.

When I wasn’t reflecting on the societal implications of selling dreams, growing up in a city of escapism, and using another country as an exotic playground, I was thinking as a teacher and administrator. I think students have much to learn from Cancun’s rapid rise as a top international tourist attraction – from tourism branding and marketing to the challenges of urban planning and transportation in a hurricane hot spot to the sociological and psychological study of “the postmodern pursuit of pleasure as an end in itself.” (Gladstone)

Programmatically, my initial ideas involved experiential education. What a fantastic opportunity for students in so many areas: business, engineering, social sciences, and humanities came to mind immediately. I wanted to know about the local colleges and universities, local coop and internship opportunities, and ESL and other language programs. How could US institutions partner with local institutions? How could I help professors bring students on short-term programs? What are the security issues that would need to be addressed with risk management? How could I convince parents that students would be studying rather than partying at Coco Bongo?

These were the thoughts I had while lying on the beach in Playa del Carmen, in the shade of a palapa, sipping sangria that was beginning to take on the appearance of a magical elixir - part vino tinto, part limeade and eating ceviche overflowing with bright purple tentacles and crunchy-sweet jicama. At first, I envied my husband and son for their ability to effortlessly unplug from our lives in Boston and be completely in the moment, playing in the surf. Upon reflection, I realized that I thrive on curiosity, engagement, and making connections between research and “real life” and that I have little desire to fully unplug.

One necessary societal role that academics play can be witnessed through our constant stream of questions and critiques -- an endless litany of dialogue openers filled with how?, why?, and what next? rather than conversation closers made up of “because,” “so what,” and “who cares”.

I wondered --Would the zoologist be intrigued by the animal that hung out at our hotel’s pool and looked like a cross between my Siamese cat, a raccoon, and a lemur? Would the geologist have an overwhelming desire to swim underground and explore the local cenotes?

Mary Churchill is the Executive Director of University of Venus.


Alarcon, Daniel Cooper. 1997. The Aztec Palimpsest: Mexico in the Modern Imagination. University of Arizona Press.

Gladstone, David L. 1998. “Tourism Urbanization in the United States.” Urban Affairs Review. 34:1

Jameson, Fredric. 1991. Postmodernism , or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke.

Mullins, P. 1991. “Tourism Ubanization.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. 15:3.

Ross, Andrew. 2000. The Celebration Chronicles:Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Property Value in Disney’s New Town. Ballantine.

Sontag, Susan. 1977. On Photography.Doubleday.


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