To understand the culture of learning in the field and barriers to equitable participation and inclusion, social scientists Anne-Marie Nuñez and Julie Posselt each participated in postsecondary field-based summer learning experiences in the U.S. Nuñez observed a summer field camp for undergraduates in the Rocky Mountains, and Posselt observed a summer field course for graduate students on the west coast. As participant-observers, they resided in dormitories or apartment complexes where students and instructors stayed; they completed day trips with the group to field sites for mapping, data collection, and more; and attended meals, meetings, and work sessions with student participants.
At each site, extensive field notes focused on group interactions, cultural norms, instructors’ approaches to managing student learning, and moments where social identities became salient. They also conducted 30-60 minute interviews with as many leaders and participants as possible to learn more about their experiences with fieldwork. The preliminary findings from this work identified three key cultural qualities of fieldwork, which are notable for their potential to be wielded for either student engagement and inclusion or for marginalization and exclusion.
- Erosion of boundaries encourages norms of informality and togetherness. They found that in the field, typical spatial and temporal boundaries defining the learning environment are broken down, shifting relational boundaries that define interactions. For example, instructors, teaching assistants, and students spent all of their time together during the duration of the field experience. They slept in the same dorms or apartment complexes; ate around the same fires, tables, or dining hall; and socialized in the same places. All time became class time. These conditions opened opportunities for personalized interactions, integrated learning, and informal peer mentoring – the latter especially among women.
- Challenging conditions reinforces the value of toughness. In the heat of summer, students hiked miles into the wilderness, up and down mountains and river valleys, across rugged and rocky terrain offering little to no shade. The students and instructors alike not only engaged cognitively with scientific interpretations of their surroundings; they strove to immerse themselves fully in the natural system. The physicality of the work under difficult conditions was a challenge that most students took up willingly. Yet it also reinforced the value of toughness as essential to the prototype of a good geoscientist, so that physical (dis)abilities and varied degrees of physical fitness and prior outdoor experience shaped students’ sense of belonging in the field.
- Alcohol reinforces informality and togetherness, and is a reward for toughness. It was no surprise that beer and alcohol were an everyday part of the cultures of these courses, given the prominent reputation it has in the culture of geology overall. Some participants emphasized the ability of alcohol and social drinking to foster connections, community, and the easygoing culture for which geology is known. In the graduate course, however, participants also used the language of “at the end of a long day” to legitimize drinking, connecting the demanding work conditions in the field from their beer drinking. In this way, beer was defined implicitly as a reward for demonstrating the toughness that fieldwork demands.
Summary from Posselt, J. R., & Nuñez, A. M. (2018). Mapping the culture of geoscience fieldwork. Paper to be presented November 2018 at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education. Tampa, FL.
See also the following blog posts about the FIELD project:
- “Pure sunshine all day”: Fieldwork Inspiring Expanded Leadership for Diversity
- Rebranding tough