The littlest field trip

Like this, but less ambitious. And without the scenery. Or the tabbards. Or the sunlight, for that matter.

Field trips are great.

They’re great because they get you out of the classroom and remind students that there’s a wider relevance to what you’re taking about and you’re helping them make a connection to it.

They’re great because they stimulate everyone to try something new (or at least, different) and get people on their toes.

So why don’t we do them more?

As with most things, it’s time and effort. You’ve got to organise it, prep from it, run it, debrief it: all important stuff, but (you ask yourself) is it worth the hassle?

Often, the answer is: no, it’s not. Especially if you’re working in a discipline that seems a bit remote from what one can do with a field-trip.

I’m very sympathetic to that viewpoint, but I’d also like to challenge it.

A useful starting point would be to note that I live and work in a quite small, commuter town, not far from London. Logically, that suggests if I wanted to run a Politics field trip, I’d get everyone on a train and head into the Big Smoke.

Actually, London’s one place I’ve yet to go with my students.

Instead, I’ve either gone long or gone short.

The long option has been Brussels, taking advantage of the Eurostar and (more importantly) the possibility of money from the European Union to pay for it all. Several times I’ve taken a group to play in big simulations in Belgium, in the institutions’ buildings themselves.

That’s all great and grand, but a lot of work. So let’s talk about the short option.

Many years ago, I was in the position to teach a module about terrorism (let’s leave the phrasing neutral and you can make up your own thoughts about how that came to be) and wanted to do something more applied. By coincidence, Guildford was the scene of a famous IRA bombing (with subsequent miscarriage of justice) in the 1970s, so one class, we just walked into town and spent the two-hour session walking and talking about that.

It was an excellent exercise, connecting the literature with the place, grounding students’ understanding in a material space and exposing a layer of local history that many of them didn’t know about. Plus it ran in the second semester, so it was sunny and warm and generally pleasant weather.

I only taught that module a couple of times, but the value of that mini-field trip has remained and now I’m about to try it again with a different group.

Later today, I’m taking my Liberal Arts & Sciences students approximately 20 metres off-campus, to show them the cathedral that sits above our university. There, we’re going to talk about different disciplinary ways of seeing the world and then I’m going to send them off with some video cameras to find their own projects, which they can then bring back to our base (which may, or may not, be a cafe) so we can see what they found.

The idea is just the same as a normal field trip – applying knowledge to the real world – but on a much smaller scale. Even if you don’t have an eventful local history or a cathedral nearby, you have something that you can use as a starting point for a discussion or an activity. So why not break free of that classroom?

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