Note: This was written January 30th, 2006.
I went on a class field trip on Saturday – we left town at 7 am and didn’t get back until almost 8:30 pm. Generally it was a good trip. It met one of my basic requirements in that it wasn’t just pile out of the vans, stand around and listen to the prof, then climb back in and head for the next stop. Instead, we actually made some measurements – looking at differences between canopied and open areas. I think it’s really important to get students engaging with the field trip topic/site rather than just feeling like they are stuck in one long lecture.
However, the trip also demonstrated one major ingredient of all class field trips in my -ology. At some point, poor organization and lack of attention to surroundings threatened the sanity and safety of the class. This has happened, in one form or another, on almost every field trip I have taken from undergraduate through Ph.D.
This weekend’s example: About 4:30, with <1 hour until dark, the class (~20 people) headed out of our last field site, ~1/2 mile from the vans. The professor was in front of the group and didn't make a turn to retrace our steps going into the site. Instead she continued along a different trail. I was near the back of the class, and I thought that maybe she was leading us on a shortcut back (our way out had been circuitous), but, no, she had missed the turn. About 10 minutes later I finally dared to speak up - we were in my field area and I could tell that the topography was wrong for getting us back to the vans. She acknowledged her mistake and the class turned around and disintegrated into small groups at various speeds on two different routes back. The prof took up the rear guard position but as she approached the parking area she became convinced (because of the splitting up) that there were people still wandering the woods in the falling darkness (and snow). So she headed back in to look for them. In the meantime, the entire class waited in the parking lot for her to return. Total time lost = 1+ hours. And this is a minor example compared to some I have experienced. I know the job of field trip leader is extremely difficult - you are teaching for 10 straight hours, coordinating logistics, and dealing with the same physical exertion as the students, yet you are generally older than them. But it seems like the frequency of these sort of incidents occuring is more than it needs to be. The original wrong turn could have been avoided by alertness to her surroundings (or marking the trail with flagging), the group disaggregation could have been avoided by forcing the group to stay together (maybe putting the prof in the lead and designating a grad student to take the rear guard), and the needless searching could have been minimized if we had brought the walkie-talkies and/or cell phones that were sitting in the vans. Hindsight is, of course, 20/20, but this sort of leadership/planning failure wouldn't be accepted among commercial wilderness guides. It makes me wonder whether my -ology is particularly full of bad field trip logisticians or whether it is common to other disciplines to have these mishaps. But even though every time I go on a field trip I take mental or actual notes on how to do (or not to do) things, I know that this something bad is someday likely to happen on a trip I lead. I just hope that it's not every time.