‘We’re ideally situated,’ said my host from the University of Lethbridge: ‘We’re three hours’ drive from Calgary and an hour from Glacier National Park.’ Not everyone would say the location was ideal but that sort of cheerfulness was typical of many academics teaching off the beaten path in the United States and Canada. Invited to do so by Phi Beta Kappa, the American university honour society, I spent most of the fall toting the torch of learning from sea to shining sea.
Despite strong family resemblances, American collegiate cultures vary enormously, from the film-school Greenwich Village hipness of NYU to the weekly military dress parade at the all-male Citadel in Charleston or the Ethan Fromish isolation of small colleges in New England. At a time when American higher education is embattled over date rape, multiculturalism, faculty productivity, rising fees and political correctness, you are quick to notice which college newspapers feature ads for the suicide hotline, which for the all-night toga party, which for the lecture on feminist theory or the talk by Minister Farakhan. Some campuses, like Ole Miss in Oxford, Mississippi, and Macalester, in St Paul, Minnesota, are served by bookstore-cafés, which double as literary salons; others inhabit a wasteland of thrift shops and greasy spoons.
Faculty lifestyles and manners vary widely as well. At Queens College, in a polyglot borough of New York, we dined at a noisy Italian bistro on portobello mushrooms and linguine frutti di mare, while at a small Mid-western college the English department chair picked me up for dinner at 4.45, greeted his colleagues in an empty restaurant at five and by 5.30 was briskly scraping the remnants of my half-eaten chicken kebab into a styrofoam box. ‘No point in wasting this,’ he said. ‘I’ll take it home to my wife.’
My all-time favourite academic junket, several years ago, was to Lyndon Johnson’s alma mater, Southwest Texas State University on the Pedernales River in San Marcos. My talk was scheduled for a hot afternoon in early spring, and the auditorium was completely empty when I arrived, but my hosts didn’t have that twitchy look of folks who have paid a bundle for a speaker and don’t see an audience showing up. Sure enough, at five minutes to the hour, the students began to file in like convicts. ‘Ma’am,’ asked a tanned young man in the front row, ‘how long is this here lecture going to last?’
Afterwards, when the students had gone back to basking by the river, I wandered around the arcades of the deserted funfair where I had been lodged. In one empty shed, a fortune-telling chicken spotted my entrance and started to cackle and flap. It didn’t get fed unless a sucker put a quarter in the slot; then the chicken grabbed a card out of the deck with its beak, and a few grains of corn dropped into the cage. I don’t remember my fortune anymore, but on the bottom it said: ‘The management is not responsible for the opinions of this chicken.’