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(Sept. 5, 2002, Gazette)

Learning on vacation

Learning vacation participants at Petty Harbour;(Top to bottom) Learning vacation participants at Petty Harbour; dining in a bunker at Cape Spear; enjoying a "time" with Jim Payne on accordian; and viewing the archeological dig in Ferryland.

What do you think of when you think of Newfoundland? Home, partridgeberries, ice, ocean, the pattern of the canvas flooring in my grandmother’s kitchen in Duntara — that’s what I think of.

But you don’t have to be from here or even visited the island to have ideas about what represents Newfoundland. Representations of Newfoundland are out there and these days they’re getting a fair bit of attention. When Kevin Spacey comes to shoot a movie in Trinity Bay we can be pretty sure people are watching. We’ve got Michael Crummey’s River Thieves, the cast of This Hour Has 22 Minutes, and all those television specials about passengers stranded after Sept. 11.

We’ve also got The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente writing that the Newfoundland seal hunt makes her ashamed to be Canadian, millionaire John Risley calling us a welfare culture and certain members of the Canadian Alliance singing similar sorry songs (ah but they can’t carry a tune like the boys of Great Big Sea).

Representation was the buzzword at Memorial University’s first ever weeklong “learning vacation,” Between a Rock and a Great Place, which took place Aug. 11-17. The new venture, conceived by Dr. Roberta Hammett and Dr. Alice Collins, is a unique concept. Joined by Mike Coady, Bernadette Power, Dr. Clar Doyle and Dr. Andrea Rose, and by corporate partner Maxxim Vacations, the group combined traditional tourist pursuits such as whale-watching and dinner theatre with not so traditional activities like lectures and presentations. As the fall semester begins many students may wonder, who attends lectures on their vacation?

Dining in a bunker at Cape SpearWell, eight tourists — three from the U.S., three from Ontario, one from Italy and one new Newfoundlander — did just that, and were joined at various lectures and activities by curious “floating” participants like me. And while some lectures involved lecture rooms and slide shows, the group didn’t do much sitting. There was a walking tour of St. John’s, animated (and I do mean animated) by Dr. John Fitzgerald who described the richness of St. John’s art and architecture with such genuine passion and pride I wondered why anyone would live anywhere else. There were art galleries and the Veiled Virgin, tea at the Crypt, breakfast at Cape Spear (omelettes made to order and white linen tablecloths, mind you), The Ocean Sciences Centre, the haunted hike, a harbour boat ride on the Marine Institute research vessel, the Lauzier, a kitchen party at The Big R, a pub crawl, a screech-in, and toutons followed by a wonderful day in Brigus.

Lecturers included many a talented MUN prof talking about everything from dialect (Dr. Lloyd Brown) to folklore (Dr. Phil Hiscock) to architecture (Dr. Shane O’Dea), and flora (Dr. Wilf Nicholls). Artist Marlene Creates gave a beautifully visual talk about the idea of place, we discussed writing with Michael Crummey, shipwrecks with Michael McCarthy, and sang with Jim Payne.

Sure there was homework, just a little journal writing and everyone had to give a tiny presentation at the end, but this was a pedagogical dream come true — everyone learned and everyone had fun. In fact the two were so intertwined it was hard to tell one from the other.

enjoying a "time" with Jim Payne on accordianAnd while the food was great and music was grand, the big hit seems to have been an afternoon spent at the Fishermen's Co-op Building on the wharf at Petty Harbour. Three men — Richard Clements, a retired fish plant worker, Cyril Whitten, a retired fisherman, and Bill Lee a fisherman and vice-president of co-op — discussed fishing in Newfoundland. CBC reporter Chris O’Neil moderated.

“Meeting and speaking with fishermen was just a great opportunity for us to get to hear people’s stories first-hand and ask questions,” said Linda Ward of Toronto. "We really know zero about the fisheries except what we see on TV or in the newspapers so it was good for us.

“It wasn’t just seeing a news report and having to fill in the blanks, they were there to put it in context for us. We got to hear their personal perspectives and frustrations, how the community is impacted, how the whole economy of the province is impacted. It was very casual, sort of just being part of the debate.

“Between the three of them they had different opinions about the success or the failure of the moratorium and about the crab fishery, whether or not it will be sustainable. You don’t normally have the opportunity to be part of that kind of discussion. That made this a different sort of holiday.”

The idea that this was a unique holiday experience was echoed throughout the group.

“I guess partly because this tour was associated with the university we got into circles you don’t have access to as a regular tourist; things that we never would have exposure to on our own, meeting Michael Crummey, talking to the fisherman. It’s like we got into the right club or something,” laughed Pauline Turko, also of Toronto.

The organizers too were happy with how the week worked and particularly with the interdisciplinary involvement.

“I was pleased with the support of other MUN faculties and departments. We’re well aware of the expertise within the university to support our venture, and we’ll try to involve many others next year,” said Dr. Hammett. “I think we may even have some return visitors next year.”

viewing the archeological dig in Ferryland“I'd say that the week achieved our goals,” added Dr. Collins, “we engaged fully in discussions of representations of place, particularly Newfoundland and Labrador, and we were involved in public pedagogy which moves education into the community in dynamic and creative ways.”

Ask me what Newfoundland culture is, and although it’s my own and I’ve a “learning vacation” under my belt, I’ll still have no quick answer. We eat toutons and fish and chips but we also eat omelettes. Yes we’re fishers, but we’re also artists and musicians and historians and writers, and a whole bunch of stuff. Our culture is anchored but it’s rolling, it’s got deep roots but it keeps growing every which way.

But judging by the success of Between a Rock and a Great Place it’s certainly something worth exploring no matter where you’re from.

Danielle Devereaux is a student in the master of Women’s Studies program