by Jo Kadlecek
Three arrived this summer. A handful came last spring. The rest from semesters past.
There are the cows of Vermont. Elvis with his Spanish omelette recipe. The standing, waving bears from California. Wegman’s Grocery store and parking lot. A western jackalope; a cigar-smoking chimp from Mexico; even a giant ‘lobstah’ from Cape Cod.
Academic treasures? Hardly. Tacky? You bet. Still, I consider the postcards pinned to my office wall valuable educational tools for one simple reason: they came from students. My students. Journalism students who have grown up in virtual worlds, navigating online satellite maps and watching cultures bump into each other more on screens than on sidewalks. The cows and creatures represent another encounter altogether, another way of communicating (void of electricity); another way of observing a place they might otherwise ignore. And for writing students there’s no better advice than, as Flannery O’Connor put it, to stare.
Here’s how it happened. Two months into my first semester as a new faculty member on campus I began asking students to send me a “tacky postcard” whenever they’d leave for a break or a trip. No research incentives here or grand hypothesis; I’d just always liked tacky postcards.
Truthfully I wasn’t sure if I’d captured enough of my students’ imagination yet for them to respond. What right, after all, did I have to impose on their break from academia? Then again, I reasoned, if I asked them to send me tacky postcards, it
might also send a non-tacky message that I was interested in their lives. And they might pay attention to more than their virtual worlds.
Happily—and surprisingly—they obliged. Whether it was Christmas break in Florida—from which I got the sunglasses postcard with one eye at the beach (“me”) and the other in a snowstorm (“you”)—or a semester abroad (the monastery and vineyards in Italy), these young high-tech reporters did something they hadn’t done much of before. They held in their hands the anachronism of a picture postcard—some yellowed from years on the rack—representing a history and a slice of culture worth a million story possibilities. Then my students pulled out pens (instead of keyboards or cameras) and
wrote in cursive with their own hands. They’d venture bravely into actual post offices to purchase stamps—sometimes with foreign coins—from real humans. After which they licked the stamps, stuck them in the corner of the postcards, and dropped them in mail slots.
Which brings me back to this summer when a couple landed in my mailbox. There was the Louisiana “See you later, Alligator” postcard and the truly tacky lights of Las Vegas. Followed by the Ocean City boardwalk and the night-clubbing Scottish couple in skirts, each reminding me of the wonderful reality that my students are paying attention outside of the classroom—and to more than their electronic screens.
They are looking at curious parts of new places, scouring details for clues, listening carefully to unfamiliar voices and experiencing the best kind of training possible for a journalist: Life. Their physical senses captured in ways no website could reel them in; their emotions pricked in places no Facebook wall could touch. My postcard collection reminds me that real travel will always be more exciting than the Internet; that its people, stories and adventures are richer sources for understanding the issues of today’s world.
I’m hoping they ignite a pirate’s thirst for treasure, a little like the postcard of Captain Jack, who hangs not far from the Parthenon. Of Nashville, that is. And I’m hoping I’m going to need a bigger wall.