The Benefits of Time Away

Full vitae time away peru

Image: Cédric Liénart, Creative Commons

Last summer, I accompanied a friend on his dream trip, a five-day hike to Machu Picchu. As a German-studies scholar, I had very little professional reason to travel to Peru. But having survived a trek up Mount Washington with him (largely remembered for the hail and freezing rain that pelted us on the snow-covered summit), I looked at this next adventure as something to break up my much-routinized existence. And having just received tenure at my institution, the timing was right for an energetic celebration.

Or was it? As the date grew closer, about the only thing that gnawed at me was the thought of leaving directly in the middle of my summer, my most productive time for research and writing. Could I really leave the welcome confines of my office at this crucial time — when the distractions are never fewer and the chance for concentrated work never higher — for a decidedly nonacademic adventure? Would the weeklong trip compromise an entire summer’s writing productivity?

What I didn’t realize was how time spent in a South American culture would spawn new thoughts about my teaching and research.

I arrived in Peru in the summer of 2016 both worriedly and blissfully goal-free, without so much as a research book in my backpack. And yet, it didn’t take long for me to recognize the scenery and experiences as a fresh new muse for professional growth.

Our tour leader was affable and down to earth, and I soon viewed him more as a teacher than a guide. He conveyed his knowledge of the Andes in a rapid, enthusiastic mix of English, Spanish, and Quichuan (I only understood the English). Listening to him was both exciting and perplexing — and it left me thinking about my own students who struggle with German vocabulary and the intricacies of German grammar. Was there anything about his delivery that could help me to become a more effective communicator in class?

Just as important, I understood by Day 3 that our tour guide was overworked and trying hard not to show any signs of burnout. Again, thoughts of how he handled a disparate group under challenging circumstances (including some trekkers going off-trail) led me to reflect on his leadership qualities, and if there were any techniques I could incorporate into my own classroom management.

But it wasn’t just the practical that dominated my thoughts. Tours of the city of Cuzco and smaller surrounding towns informed me of what Spanish colonization did to the indigenous Incan culture, prompting comparisons to my own research on Nazi Germany’s colonization of Eastern Europe. With an entirely new historical canvas to apply concepts, I was able to refocus my gaze from the trees to the forest — revisiting familiar territory, but with fresh eyes. When I did return to my office, it was with far different and more creative thoughts than I could have expected before I left.

The experience got me thinking on the many unexpected ways that time away from academic life — away from our offices, books and professional networks — can actually make us more effective teachers and scholars. Far from demonstrating idleness or a lack of commitment to your chosen field, time away leads to insights you won’t gain in you normal habitat and can inspire a sense of greater purpose in your work.

That doesn’t mean that academics need to purchase a fedora and head off to the jungles of South America, like some modern-day Indiana Jones. Time away from the office, even just being outdoors, can be helpful to truly understanding what it is we think we know.

I remember the winters I spent in the Adirondacks of upstate New York as a carpenter, so beautiful but bone-chillingly cold. Outfitted with proper winter wear, I could spend whole days in that cold, knowing I could always find a place to warm up if needed. That heightened awareness of the physical world has stayed with me throughout my more comfortable existence as a college professor, and led me to consider more deeply how the cold affected and motivated my research subjects. Specifically, I think of the German soldiers in the winter of 1941-42 in the Soviet Union, unprepared for the weather and most often without the option of finding warmer quarters. I also think of the captured Red Army soldiers and Soviet civilians whom they extensively plundered for their warm clothes and felt boots.

Leaving the comfort of our climate-controlled ivory towers could help academics counter our own penchant for broad explanations that sometimes do not give simple existential realities their due. As Solzhenitsyn wrote: "How can you expect a man who’s warm to understand a man who’s cold?"

Another way to benefit professionally from time away from academic work and life is to volunteer.

My volunteer gig as a guest teacher at a local elementary school has reminded me of something that — in my solitary quest for the perfect lesson plan — has too often escaped my attention: enthusiasm. There is simply nothing like witnessing the enthusiasm of elementary-school kids reacting to a guest teacher: Their questions never stop, their pride at showing off their new knowledge is immeasurable.

For many reasons, infectious enthusiasm is often absent from the traditional college classroom. The takeaway for me from that experience was that I should strive to design college lesson plans that are not just reflective of best practices but designed to generate the kind of eagerness found in those elementary-school classrooms.

I must admit: Most students in my courses never display the type of raw, unfiltered enthusiasm I see from the typical elementary schooler. Nonetheless, it remains my elusive goal to create that type of excitement in them. Even if I never achieve this teaching nirvana, I credit my time away from my office for keeping this carrot in front of my eyes.

Engaging with the outside world often exposes academics to a type of serendipity that we are shut off from in our offices, labs, and archives — something that hikers call trail luck. I take research trips abroad, and my favorite ones are not to attend conferences or visit archives, but to interview eyewitnesses to historical events I seek to better understand. In Russia today there are yet survivors of the German occupation, and their insights question at times the accepted scholarly wisdom. While the accuracy of memories over 70 years old can be questioned, their stories served to remind me that the documents I scour over in my office do not represent the entire history, nor truth, of the German occupation.

Travel to faraway, often inconvenient destinations provides an important correction to the biases and omissions of our primary sources, and a stimulus that cannot be generated on our own campus. Unorthodox? Yes, but perhaps more productive in the long run than additional hours spent in scholarly isolation.

If there is a theme running through these diverse experiences, it is simply this: Get out there. Leave the office. Explore. Engage.

Certainly, such a willingness would do much to bridge our world of ideas with the outside world of, well, everyone else. Over the years, I’ve found that pursuing promising leads (and a few unpromising ones) has given a sense of greater purpose to my research — anchoring the experiences of those places and people in my writing, and giving them a voice. By doing so, my research feels less academic, and of more import, which is a nice additional motivation when you’re struggling with results.

I have read my share of articles and books on teaching in my field, and generally receive very positive student evaluations. But I also believe that it is the real world examples of leadership — from Sunday-school teachers to business executives to even my tour guide in Peru — that have most affected, and continue to affect, my own teaching. I wouldn’t have encountered their examples at all had I remained holed up in my office all summer.

Of course, our offices will remain the space where many of our greatest insights, and work, are achieved. All the better, then, to return to them refreshed, reinvigorated, and ready to test the ideas we’ve formed and insights we’ve gleaned while away. True, you’ll never exactly know what you’ll get, if anything, out of time away. But isn’t that the prerequisite for real understanding?

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