I’ve been pretty fortunate to have the opportunity to teach a course called Special Topics in Travel Writing at Stevenson University, where I am a full-time professor. It’s one of my favorite courses to teach, and for years in another course I teach called Feature Writing, we cover travel writing as part of the curriculum. To be able to teach travel writing as a semester-long, intensive 400-level course is something I treasure.
The students in my class are required to each pick a location relatively local to our region. Some explore cities or towns in Maryland, some in Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, Washington, D.C. or any other destination that they can access easily. I require them to tackle two days in that place. Before they go, they must first research it, then gather secondary research when they travel, along with their own primary research of experiencing that place themselves. They must write a minimum of 20 pages in their travel journals. They must speak to people and garner quotes that they can use in their stories. But even more than all of that, they must immerse themselves in travel and the experience in order to produce a final piece of writing that is 2,500 words worth of engaging storytelling.
Travel writing, therefore, is a person’s experience in a place. Travel writing recounts a person’s story that they came away with from travel, no matter where it takes place. I like to explain travel writing as a personal experience you have with travel whereby you use storytelling techniques to engage a reader. And to top it all off, you typically learn something from the experience.
In class, we also read a lot of travel writers and dissect their pieces, as we focus on both content and technique. Writers such as Pico Iyer, Paul Theroux, Andrew McCarthy, Don George, Bill Bryson, Susan Orlean, and Elizabeth Gilbert all share their stories of what they learn through travel. Some may take the form of travel writing, others the form of memoir, but regardless, storytelling is at the heart of it.
I first fell in love with travel and the idea of travel writing on my first-year anniversary when my husband and I went to Italy. We completely immersed ourselves in the Italian culture—which happens to be our heritage—and I became enamored with all of it (and ate a lot of really great pizza). I painstakingly and carefully kept a journal of that trip, and then subsequently did the same during our trip to Great Britain the next year, and continue to use those journals in classes as examples of how you can use an abundance of note-taking to your advantage when writing. The journals are detailed, full of emotion, and replete with facts and things we learned.
The best part of teaching the travel writing course is watching the students fall in love with the idea of getting to know themselves even better through travel experiences. With each trip we make, we grow and learn. We typically learn to appreciate things we have and sometimes gain a greater understanding of the world around us simply by traveling. Additionally, as a faculty member in the Business Communication department, our team of communicators values travel because all of our communication theories and practices come into play with a heightened awareness.
There is a downside to teaching travel writing, however. Teaching the course seems to bring on an incredible itch to travel. It makes me want to go places even more so than I already do. I’d like to experience the donkeys in Morocco, stand on the moors along the coast of Cornwall in the U.K., and drive the countryside and meet the locals in pubs in Ireland.
It seems the students and I have bucket lists that just keep on getting longer and longer.