In a (Mini) Van Down By the River

Joy Santee

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Joy Santee recently completed a 17-state, 7000 mile road trip in her van from Kentucky to Oregon and back. She is an Assistant Professor at the University of Southern Indiana where she teaches in the Professional Writing and Rhetoric program. Prior to that position, she co-created the Writing Studies program at Utah Valley University and the Professional Writing and Rhetoric program at McKendree University, where she also served as Director of the Writing Center and Coordinator of Writing Across the Curriculum. Her research focuses on curriculum development in Professional Writing, multimodal pedagogies, and rhetorics of cartography, and she spends way too much time researching van renovations and planning upcoming road trips, hiking excursions, and backpacking adventures.

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My official office, the one on campus, is pretty minimal, kept that way both for easily distracted students and as a declaration that not every academic displays their books as identity markers, or messy stacks as a sign of intellect or busyness. But I get most of my work done in the back of my van, yes, down by the river.* I’m no soccer mom, but you wouldn’t know it from my ride. My Town and Country makes it look like I should be ferrying my (non-existent) kids to practice, but it’s really my mini camper and mobile office.


I live near the Ohio River, so I often park the van in a riverside park, where I can watch the commerce of barges and trains while reading, writing, and grading. I find reminders of such commerce to be reassuringly physical and linear, in contrast to the meandering ways of the academic mind. But I, too, must pay attention to the physical, finding sunny, windless spots on cold days and shady, breezy spots when it’s warm. I choose spots with attention to birdsong and the angle of the sun while avoiding bugs, the noise of rambunctious children, and secondhand smoke from those who share these public spaces.


Most of my work in the van is done from the comfort of a bean bag chair I bought to furnish my grad school apartment over a decade ago, ergonomics be damned. The cot I sleep on during road trips becomes an extended desk, holding phone, scattered papers, and, during long sessions, an external battery for my phone and laptop. Built-in cup holders (I have many to choose from!) keep my coffee at hand; a compartment in the ceiling stores basic office supplies, even though I hardly ever use them. And if I do want to work at a desk, I have a camp stool and a compact table that fits where my Stow ‘n Go rear seats used to be before I removed them to add storage space for road trips.


I have a perfectly acceptable work space at home, which I resort to when temps dip below 40 or rise above 80, but I work in the van when I can. Perhaps my preference for this mobile office stems from an inclination toward minimalism that I find difficult to achieve in the rest of my life or a suppressed desire for full-time travel, supported by frequent perusals of #vanlife accounts online. Or, more immediately, a hope that solitude and minimal access to power will help me work more efficiently and without interruption. Usually, it works. But I’m also road-trip ready with solar lights, a cooler, and hiking gear, the van a constant reminder that the more work I can get done during the academic year, the more time I’ll have to travel in the summer.


*Note: No doobies are rolled in my van. I use my paper for writing, not rolling.