I'm writing this from a giant bed in a giant room at the Inn Virginia Tech and Skelton Conference Center where I am ensconced for a couple of nights to attend the Conference on Higher Education Pedagogy (CHEP), sponsored by the Center for Instructional Development and Educational Research (CIDER). I have been a full time college teacher for a decade, but the first I heard of these groups was when my office neighbor and friend peeked his head into mine one day and asked if I'd like to join him for a road trip to Blacksburg, Virginia for Valentine's Day to present on our own teaching and pick up some tips to bring back to the job.
I'd like to say I said a quick yes because of my dedication to the craft of teaching. That was totally part of it, I swear. Teaching is, for me, a calling, one I am honored to have, and I take every chance I get to get better at it.
But if I'm being real, I mostly said yes because I've never been to Blacksburg, Virginia, and Donald said he'd do the driving. That last bit was key, because if you look on the ol' map, you'll see that Blacksburg is kind of in the middle of nowhere. It's only “nowhere” because it's so hard to get there without a car. A train trip would leave Baltimore for Lynchburg, Virginia, and after five hours on that, there's another two and a half hour bus ride here. I love the train as much as the next guy, but wow, no, not doing that. Or I could take a regional jet to Lynchburg and rent a car and drive from there, but I'm nothing if not a woman of convenience, and that's not convenient. Transportation options make this place “in the middle of nowhere,” just as the lack of public transportation options, I-83, and MLK in Baltimore cut some neighborhoods off from the city. Donald's got a sweet minivan that he shined up for the trip, though, so I happily hopped in the passenger seat for our drive down south.
We left from UMBC, got straight on I-95, and headed south. We hit that traffic on the beltway and on I-66 heading into Virginia. It was barely three in the afternoon, and already those spots were just blankets of cars. We took the carpool lane, because apparently having two whole people in your car is a rare and wondrous event, and zoomed by the stop-and-go traffic. I can't believe people sit in that traffic every single day, that that's somebody's normal. We could add more lanes, but it would just mean more cars sitting in that same traffic. There is so much that is efficient about urban living, but this driving thing certainly isn't one of them.
And then we were on I-81, our highway home for miles and miles, and it started to feel a little different. We were hitting Trump/Pence Country, and I could tell, not just from the Make America Great Again bumper stickers, but the confederate flag on trucks and the memories of that breakfast in Front Royal, Virginia with the ladyfriend; let's just say you can tell when you are not welcome. There's certainly every bit as much political complexity here as back home in Baltimore. It's too easy to think we're all divided along a rural/urban split and all the queers are back in the city. Heck, I was a queer in Idaho, and I wasn't the only one. But it also feels really different out here, and it's not always comfortable.
We stopped for an early dinner at a restaurant I'd never sampled: Cracker Barrel. I was hesitant at first—isn't this the restaurant that got in so much hot water for not serving African-American people not that long ago? Isn't the place just a barrel full of crackers? I'd never been, though, so there we were, settling in with the rest of the 5:30 dinner set. The sign on the door promised we were all welcome to eat there, regardless of race, color, or nationality, and I had a man there as my beard, so I went ahead and ordered the chicken and dumplings because that seemed like the kind of thing you order at a place like that. And then I ate my way through my gray-tan plate and we were back on the road.
We rolled into beautiful Blacksburg, tucked in the shadows of the Appalachians, checked into the hotel, and were up early the next morning for the conference. We got some tips for becoming more dynamic lecturers, tactics for getting students to disagree with us, and gave our presentation about why teachers maybe shouldn't be so scared of social media. And then I set off for a walk around town, since that's what I'm really here for. I picked up a copy of the student newspaper, read their cover story on how Donald Trump is already showing that he's a man of action who keeps his promises and will certainly be re-elected. I thought about the very different front page of the UMBC student paper, with its multiple articles about Trump's immigration policies and first person accounts of students at marches and rallies. I sat with the memory of the trauma that wrecked this place in 2007, and wondered what traumas are here that we haven't heard about.
I grabbed a quick dinner at Buffalo Wild Wings—my sister's favorite restaurant. This one had a sign on the door imploring us to NEVER FORGET, 52 television sets, and $3.50 tall beers. This was my first trip to B-Dubs, but I'm guessing they are the same everywhere, whether in White Marsh, Blacksburg, or Brooklyn. I know I should have found the farm-to-table restaurant or something, but sometimes there's pleasure in predictability, even if the predictable gives some pretty terrible heartburn. I was back at the hotel by 7 p.m., pleasantly tipsy, ready to watch whatever was on HGTV, and grateful for my job and that I get to go home to Baltimore.