Gotta get away
University of Nevada, Reno professor Scott Slovic discusses his new book, his life’s work, and the art of running away from home
On paper, Scott Slovic looks like someone who never received the memo on how to “get away.” Not because he is tied to his desk, though. In fact, he is a voracious world explorer—he just tends to be on his way to work when he travels. Especially during the general hangover following Labor Day Weekend, many Americans equate travel with good food, extra sleep and sweet, memorable time away from work. Perhaps Slovic knows something we don't.
Throughout his long academic career, 30 years and counting, Slovic has surveyed the world up close, spending time in Australia, Taiwan, Germany, Italy, Malaysia and China, among other countries. Yet, he remains immune to the drab prospect of haunting dingy hotel rooms and pressing sticky television remote buttons as he kills time before delivering a lecture. He loves his work, he makes friends easily, and he is a professional ecocritic.
The latter fact means that it is sort of Slovic's job to make the most of any journey he undertakes, whether it carries him all the way to Borneo or to a nearby hiking trail on Peavine Mountain. In his new book of essays, Going Away to Think: Engagement, Retreat, and Ecocritical Responsibility, Slovic discusses the difficult but necessary struggle of balancing scholarly responsibility with personal fulfillment.
Faraway, so close
Slovic was raised in Eugene, Ore., where he says he made the local environment an integral part of his daily life, hiking the Central Cascades and touring the Oregon coast. Apart from the passion he cultivated for his immediate surroundings, there was also an early, healthy love of far-flung places, thanks to the academic world navigated by his parents.
“My roots as an academic traveler actually run quite deep—I mean, even back to childhood,” said Slovic. “When I was 13 years old, my entire family went to Israel for six months so that my father could do research with colleagues at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. That was 1973.”
Soon after the family arrived in Jerusalem, the Yom Kippur War broke out. The experience of becoming a front seat witness to a historic event in a foreign country hugely affected the young Slovic. While in Jerusalem, he studied Hebrew at public schools, received an early dose of the singular beauty of desert landscapes, and kept his eyes wide open. He also got a tangential lesson in how academic life can lead to stimulating experiences away from the podium.
“I learned early on that academic work could entail—could provide opportunities for—travel and encounters with new landscapes and cultures. I also learned the value of hosting international colleagues from the many visitors who came to Eugene to work with my father, and this is something I’ve been delighted to be involved with at [UNR],” said Slovic.
In the title essay of Going Away to Think, Slovic eloquently expresses this idea: “In my love-hate relationship with the office, I find myself often seduced by the lure of my book-filled lair. … The temptation to perch in a semi-darkened room staring for many hours at a computer is often overwhelming, seemingly unavoidable. And yet sometimes it seems not to be enough.”
On the homefront
Slovic is professor of literature and the environment in the UNR English Department. Teaching a course load that ranges from Core Humanities to advanced graduate seminars in Ecocriticism and Theory, Slovic works closely with a broad swath of students.
As a relatively young branch of literary criticism, ecocriticism brings the benefit of fresh perspective. It rewards the intuitive poking and prodding performed by lay readers who are broadly enamored with travel, nature, society and literature, as well as the cognitive nature of academic inquiry. Slovic credits his years of study with allowing him to explore “the potential of place-based literature to move, motivate, and even ‘heal’ readers.”
Slovic believes that the field of ecocriticism also has much to offer in the way of social discourse. Even though he addresses the topic of bioengineering—which recently has become a hot button issue on the UNR campus—with noticeable ambivalence in Going Away to Think, he explained that he does not consider it the job of ecocriticism to conclude the argument.
“Literature provokes us to think for ourselves, not simply to be passive, to be persuaded by other writers. Ecocriticism … by exploring such questions as ‘what is natural?’ and ‘is the natural necessarily better than the unnatural?’ and ‘what are the social implications of allowing corporations to engineer and patent essential food sources such as rice, corn, and beans?’ can play important roles in helping the general public to learn about and think through these kinds of questions,” he said. “The truth is it’s very difficult to know exactly how this literature and the scholarship known as ecocriticism move and inspire audiences, but I do hope the work will compel people to think about the connections between what they read and how they live.”
Bringing it all home
The fusion of pleasure and work, and of self-exploration and social responsibility are at the core of Slovic’s book of essays. Going Away to Think pans for nuggets of vibrant experience in the vast hills of professional inquiry. One of its messages is that living and learning can be beautifully linked.
“Whenever I travel, I try as quickly and sensitively as possible to absorb the physical and social subtleties of the places I’m visiting,” Slovic said. “I love this learning experience, find it very stimulating.”
A 13-year resident of Nevada, Slovic has adopted the same peculiar, romantic love for the area that is evident in many natives. That affection has influenced his professional life. Slovic is currently at work on several book projects, including a collection of essays inspired by Nevada and tentatively titled Thinking Like Yucca Mountain.
Going Away to Think is, by turns, fiercely academic and accessibly intimate. In cases when it is most visibly the latter, though, Slovic still finds a way to imbue his satisfaction with travel and personal experience with a sincere sense of responsibility. He is honestly compelled to make a difference through his work.
“When I ‘go away to think,’ I often feel inspired to pay more attention to my life at home in Reno when I come back—to the physical place, to things that work well in our community and things that could possibly work better, to the people—students, colleagues, friends, family—I spend time with when I’m here. Going away has a kind of boomerang effect, actually deepening my sense of connection with home.