Travel writing has become a strong focus of attention in literary and cultural studies over the past ten years or so. There is now a significant, growing body of criticism and theory devoted to the genre, at least two dedicated journals in the UK, regular academic conferences here and overseas, and a recently-formed International Society for Travel Writing which should help raise the status of this area of study. However, at the teaching level progress is less evident: there are few undergraduate courses or modules on travel writing, and there is not, to the best of my knowledge, a single UK taught Master's degree in the field. As someone who has designed and taught modules on travel writing at both undergraduate and postgraduate level, my experience may be of interest to colleagues in other institutions considering such ventures.
A number of practical and intellectual problems await anyone planning a course on travel writing. On the practical side, resource issues will loom large. Your library is unlikely to have an adequate supply of criticism unless someone has been purposefully buying in the area for the last ten or fifteen years, and a major book-buying exercise, including multiple copies of certain key works, will be necessary if students are not to complain of a lack of material to support their studies. You will also have to keep a keen eye on the cost of set texts: since most or all of the books you select will not often feature on course syllabuses, cheap student editions are unlikely to be available, and a full set of coursebooks will come to quite a tidy sum. From one point of view, though, the availability of any edition is a bonus, since the greater your desired historical range, the more availability of texts is going to be a problem, and the more your course will risk being driven by what happens to be in print. The supply of modern editions of travel literature from the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries is improving, but is still very limited; anthologies of excerpts can be helpful, but tie you to someone else's agenda, and their selection policies are too often governed by the need to illustrate or contextualise more mainstream 'literary' texts.
However, it is the intellectual problems that are the most interesting. Text selection is again the heart of the matter. There is no generally accepted 'canon' of travel writing. No text 'selects itself' automatically; instead, each choice has to be made for particular, well-considered reasons, and it is a good idea to share these reasons with students at an early stage in the course. My experience is that students are far more ready to question, or even challenge, the selection of texts for travel writing courses than they are for courses on, say, Romanticism or Modernism, where certain writers and texts are included almost because it would be perverse not to do so. My own selection of texts was deliberately catholic, because I wanted students to confront a good range of the different forms of travel, and travel literature, characteristic of the modern period (broadly defined): scientific or philosophical travel, sentimental and Romantic travel, colonial travel, adventure travel and survival narratives, postmodern travel, tourism. I also wanted to pick texts to foreground some of the difficulties of defining or theorising travel writing, and to probe the boundaries between the discourse of travel and other kinds of writing: thus Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage allowed us to consider the claims of poetry as travel writing; Kipling's Kim demonstrated the blurred line between fact and fiction which all travel writing negotiates, however subtly; Thoreau's The Maine Woods provided an opportunity to assess the importance of nature writing in the evolution of travel literature; while the place of travel within postmodern culture was examined via hybrid texts like Barthes's Empire of Signs and Baudrillard's America. In both the undergraduate and postgraduate modules I taught, the syllabus required students to engage with some of the most productive concepts in modern travel writing studies: orientalism, imaginative geography, othering, the rhetoric of anti-conquest, the tourist gaze.
The chronological range and discursive variety I have hinted at would still be my preferred model for teaching travel writing, but it is not without problems. Just as there is no received canon of travel literature, so there is no prefabricated rationale for a course on the subject, and it is more difficult to construct and communicate one when the content of the module is so heterogeneous and the approach so varied. One begins with a whole range of issues that demand to be addressed—including postcolonial questions, Self and Other, the gendering of travel, problems of truth and reference, the rhetoric of the aesthetic, displacement and alienation, and so on—and the struggle is to emplot these concerns in a way that makes sense for students and allows some measure of continuity. Because this is not easy, some lecturers might prefer to adopt a narrower rationale for their course: colonial and postcolonial theory, under the auspices of which much of the best research on travel writing has taken place, can provide one such framework; feminist criticism and theory, excited by a genre in which, because of its strong affinities with the diary and journal, women have frequently excelled, offers another; an approach more rooted in geographical concepts and perspectives would organise the curriculum in a very different way around issues of space, place and landscape. Despite the advantages of 'buying in' theoretical and methodological coherence in this way, it does seem like short-changing the diversity of the genre, and can appear as formulaic, oversystematised, and authoritarian. Students will resist the kind of academic condescension—mixed, in the case of earlier literature, with the condescension of posterity—that rubbishes the notion of self-exploration and treats travel writers as deluded individuals who need to be put firmly in their theoretical place.
While the lecturer needs to think carefully about his or her aims and objectives in tackling a representative body of travel writing, students will have their own expectations that will have to be negotiated. They will have a natural interest in the subject, if only because travel, and the mobility of human lives generally, is such a fundamental dimension of modern reality. As a result, they will expect to make connections between the travel writing they study and their own travel experiences, and perhaps hope to have those experiences illuminated or enhanced. On the undergraduate module I taught, many students took the opportunity to try to achieve this by producing their own piece of travel writing in place of an extended critical essay. This kind of activity is valuable, but benefits from writing workshops and skilled supervision, because given a free rein most students' 'travel writing' will degenerate into a rather flat, banal, diaristic prose. Students may well already be keen readers of travel writing, since—judging from the shelfage devoted to it in most bookshops—the genre is almost as popular now as it was two hundred years ago. However, they may have little acquaintance with more 'literary' travel writing, and some students' expectations may well be shaped largely by the works of Bill Bryson and his ilk. On my own module, such expectations were cruelly rebuffed when the first two texts to be studied were Sterne's A Sentimental Journey, followed by Wollstonecraft's A Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Only much later in the course, when navigating intricate modern texts by Naipaul, Raban, and Chatwin, did students grudgingly concede the value of studying some earlier exemplars and seeing something of the evolution of the genre.
Two final points. A lot of travel writing, and not just that from past centuries, is plainly of dubious artistic merit. In earlier periods, travel writers often conceived their primary task as passing on knowledge of the world, rather than, for example, deploying sophisticated narrative techniques or crafting fine descriptions. Secondly, travel writing from the eighteenth century onwards, indeed up to the quite recent past, is typically marked by attitudes, beliefs and values which today's students are likely to find distasteful or abhorrent. The same could be said of novels or plays, of course, but the problem seems particularly acute with travel writing because so much of it revolves around intercultural encounter. These aesthetic and ethical issues are bound to arise in any travel writing course, and indeed should be made to arise because they are important questions that deserve to be confronted. The success of the course may hinge on the inevitable student response to a text that is racist, sexist, and imperialist, and has no outstanding literary quality: why are you making us read this? To be at all prepared to answer this question, those of us who have developed a scholarly interest in travel writing need to be ready to lay aside our methodological armour and encourage our students to practise some historical imagination, inhabit an alien language and mentality, and take the writing on its own terms. That is, when dealing with texts which so often sensitise us to discursive strategies for controlling and containing the Other, it would be ironic not to let the literature, at least some of the time and only as far as possible, speak in its own voice.
Newsletter Issue 1 - May 2001
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