What I Did on my *Summer Research Trip (*not vacation!)

2 Jul

For many of us, summer travel means vacation, a time to take a mental break from the work that occupies us the rest of the year. Not so for many researchers. It’s not that they’re staying put at home—far from it! But summer travel means something different to them.

Take professor of musicology Marica Tacconi, for example. Her summer schedule may sound glamorous, with trips to Florence and Bologna, but some folks misunderstand the nature of her sojourn and think she’s on vacation. She’s happy to remind them that she’s not there for the sightseeing, shopping or even the food and wine.

Professor Marica Tacconi in Florence

“The summer months are when most faculty members have the time and freedom from their teaching schedules to undertake these sorts of trips,” Marica tells me. “It’s also the time of year when we are able to devote more uninterrupted time to our research endeavors, away from the pressures of committee work, and other departmental obligations.”

Tacconi’s scholarship relies heavily on archival research and on unique books and manuscripts housed in European libraries and special collections. “So the summer months are crucial time for my work, a time when I can travel to those locations and to devote precious time to those endeavors,” she says.

A detail of Luca della Robbia’s cantoria (organ loft), 1431-38

The mid 16th-century organ of the Badia of Florence

Her agenda includes activities decidedly not found in guidebooks: “At the church of the Badia Fiorentina,” says Mar, “one of the nuns took us up a narrow passageway that led to a room behind the organ that still houses the original bellows.”

The staircase Marica climbed in 100 degree heat

“While in Florence we had also made special arrangements to view five of the most lavish choirbooks ever produced in the Renaissance — sumptuously illuminated manuscripts containing the chants that were sung for church services at the cathedral,” Marica tells me with evident excitement.

“As this is my main area of research, I had the privilege of leafing through these magnificent books and discussing their significance and beauty.”

Of course, all this serious research doesn’t mean there’s no time to savor the Italian sunshine and flavors!

“The best caffè shaccherato (iced coffee) in Florence!”

Sometimes one’s routine of summer travel to the same place—France, in the case of French and Jewish Studies professor Willa Silverman—is interrupted by travel to a very different locale, but one that provides new insight into one’s research subject.

“I recently returned from Nanjing, China,” Willa tells me,  “where, along with about forty Penn State colleagues from many different disciplines, I spent a week meeting with faculty at Nanjing University in view of Penn State ultimately establishing a number of exchanges with this institution.”

It was enlightening, Willa tells me, “to meet my counterparts in the French department at Nanjing University, to learn about both how their department is structured (with a strong emphasis on linguistics and translation studies) and the opportunities available to their graduate students for study in France. I enjoyed our discussions about how our departments might collaborate.”

From left, Penn State professors Eric Hayot and Willa Silverman, with Nanjing University counterparts

Regarding her own research, Willa reflects on how “the perspectives offered by my Nanjing colleagues during my presentation on my current research project—an edition of private diaries of a late-nineteenth century jeweler and art collector, Henri Vever—made me reformulate my ideas about why and how Vever developed a collection of decorative arts from China.”

“France viewed by an American scholar in China certainly took on a different look than the one I was used to,” notes Willa.
I think the moral of this story, reader, may be that seeing things in new and enlightening ways—whether for work or play—is always one of the best reasons, to leave the familiar behind every so often and strike out into the wide unknown. And remember: the next time you meet a researcher who describes spending the summer doing research in an exotic location, believe them that they’re truly working, not vacationing. That is, unless their research involves personally analyzing (by mouth feel) the comparative differences in the tastes of the world’s finest wines or chocolates. Then I give us all total permission to be both dubious and jealous!

At the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum

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2 Responses to “What I Did on my *Summer Research Trip (*not vacation!)”

  1. Marica Tacconi July 3, 2012 at 4:18 pm #

    Thanks for this very well-crafted blog post and thanks to Penn State Research Communications and Melissa Beattie-Moss for giving us this opportunity to share the work we do and love.

  2. Willa Silverman July 3, 2012 at 11:34 pm #

    Well-written, interesting and informative blog! I look forward to reading more!

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