Dateline New Orleans

This piece was written by Mary Sydnor, a junior English major.


 Important learning happens in Drexel classrooms, but it happens off-campus as well. The Pennoni Honors College has recently committed itself to travel-integrated courses — short, intensive, one-credit courses that supplement traditional on-campus offerings. Last fall, students in the Great Works Symposium studied the history of world’s fairs and traveled to the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, China. This spring, writing students explored the genre of travel writing and learned what it means to be “on assignment” in New Orleans.

As careers go, the travel writer’s may seem to be one of leisure, a too-good-to-be-true gig — but we’ve learned that it also takes a lot of hard work and dedication to do it well.

Our writing lessons began over the winter term in Jason Wilson’s travel writing workshop, an Honors College colloquium. The workshop teaches students to write about a place as a professional writer would. Wilson — editor of the Smart Set from Drexel University, series editor of The Best American Travel Writing, a columnist for the Washington Post and a contributor to such magazines as National Geographic Traveler and Travel & Leisure — has plenty of experience himself. He guides students through the process of creating something more than a simple, rote “What I Did On My Summer Vacation” synopsis.

“Travel writing is one of the oldest genres of literature, dating back to the time of Herodotus,” Wilson said. “Unfortunately, many readers’ introduction to travel writing begins and ends with guidebooks or service-oriented, what-to-see, what-to-do, how-much-will-it-cost articles. Good narrative travel writing gets much deeper, and brings us real knowledge of the world.”

“While classroom instruction is important,” Wilson said, “a journalist needs to get out and travel, to report on the word. These are all advanced writing students, and I wanted to create a study tour that would replicate the experience of being on assignment.”

In New Orleans, we met up with Wayne Curtis, an acclaimed journalist for the Atlantic and a certified tour guide. From Wayne, Drexel students learned about the history of the city they were visiting, the architecture of the buildings they were seeing, and the stories behind the food they were eating. Curtis even helped students develop story ideas and angles to shape their own writing during the trip.

 “I wanted students to visit an American city that was completely different from the one in which they live,” Wilson said. “As fledgling travel writers, I wanted them to experience some culture shock. New Orleans’s culture and history is so unique and fascinating that everyone would find something significant and interesting to write about.”

Honors College students were exposed to as many parts of New Orleans culture as possible so that everyone could find something intriguing to write about. A bike tour through the 9th Ward gave students a look at how New Orleans is recovering from Hurricane Katrina.  The tour showed students where the hurricane had hurt the city the most, but the students also saw the neighborhood’s rebirth in the current construction of cutting-edge, safer, greener homes (many funded by actor Brad Pitt).

Music, impossible to escape in New Orleans, was a major part of the itinerary. Students were able to see and interact with local jazz bands, street brass bands, and traditional Cajun music.

The first day of the trip brought students to Super Sunday and the tradition of the Mardi Gras Indians. In this celebration, various neighborhood “tribes” dress up in hand-sewn Native American-inspired outfits made of feathers and beads. “Chiefs” lead their groups out on Super Sunday to “battle” one another, dancing to a steady drumbeat during the packed street fair.

The trips' itinerary included various culinary stops, and students even took a trip to the Southern Food and Beverage Museum for a private demonstration that taught them about cooking gumbo – in many ways, the history of Louisiana in one single dish.

Upon their return to Drexel, students were inspired to write about everything from being a vegetarian in the meat-centric Big Easy to the importance of the sousaphone in New Orleans culture to finding “the authentic” in a city fueled by tourists. Everyone dedicated their time to finding interesting scenes to write about and different angles to make their piece unique, and, most important, answering the all-important “so-what?” to make their articles valuable for readers. After taking the travel writing course, no one was willing to settle for a traditional, boring review of the city. The techniques we had learned in class had sunk in, and we experienced the city not as tourists, but as professional writers, always searching for the next intriguing bit of culture to strengthen our narratives.

Hopefully, yearly travel writing tours will become a tradition in the Honors Program. These trips mesh well with Drexel’s commitment to practical, outside-the-classroom education, providing students with an outlet to apply what they’ve learned in class to real life.