The Lakes, the Field, and Beyond: Designing Field School Assignments

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This essay provides an introduction to the concept of the “field,” and explores how fieldwork can be brought into humanities-based courses to reinvigorate humanities pedagogy. It provides a detailed survey of digital-based assignments, which we promote because they more readily allow for cultural fieldwork to be multi-modal, shared, and archived. This digital approach enables greater integration between the students’ home and field environments, breaking down artificial distinctions between the two and supporting ongoing virtual fieldwork.

The Lakes, the Field, and Beyond: Designing Field School Assignments

Colette Colligan and Michelle Levy
Simon Fraser University


1.        We are directors of two Field Schools offered through the Department of English and International Services at SFU. One is to London and the Lake District, and the other is to Paris and the Loire Valley. For the past few years, we have worked together throughout the lengthy process of seeking Senate and Department-level approval for the Field Schools, and we thought it only natural to continue to co-develop our field schools’ pedagogical approaches and assignments. The importance of sharing ideas and collaboration is in fact a common theme in the essays collected for this issue on Lake District Field School Pedagogy. Our full-credit ten-week Field Schools include two upper-division English literature courses taught by us as well as a third course in another discipline which is taught by another instructor to enhance the interdisciplinary nature of our programs. We encourage our students to attend both of our Field Schools, which run in alternating years, as part of their international post-secondary education and engagement.

2.        Fieldwork is not typical of humanities pedagogy or scholarship. It is a practice associated with other academic disciplines, chiefly the social sciences (especially linguistics, geography, anthropology, and archaeology). In this paper, we develop a critical approach to fieldwork that is specifically designed for the humanities and the kinds of historical and literary cultural study that we do with our students. Our aim is to bring fieldwork to the humanities and reinvigorate humanities pedagogy through fieldwork. To that end, we have developed a series of assignments that provide training in humanities-specific fieldwork methods. We advocate for the use of digital-based assignments because they more readily allow for cultural fieldwork to be multi-modal, shared, and archived. This digital approach allows for greater integration between the students’ home and field environments, breaking down artificial distinctions between the two and enabling ongoing virtual fieldwork.

3.        Published along with this essay is an appendix, London and Lake District Assignments, that describes in some detail the assignments for our Field Schools (Appendix D). We hope that by sharing these assignments, others can adapt them for use in their own Field Schools.

What Is the Field and What Is Humanities Fieldwork?

4.        Part of the process of developing our Field Schools has been to inquire more deeply into our objectives for the program, as well as our very concepts of the field and fieldwork. After all, “going out” into the field and undertaking empirical-based fieldwork is not fundamental to literary research or pedagogy as it is for the social sciences. We might bring our students to a library, a special collection, a museum, or a cultural site, but these are all brief excursions rather than sustained emplacements with established practices and assignments. What do we mean by “the field” and what kinds of “fieldwork” should we ask our students to undertake in it?

5.        If we start with the dictionary meaning of “field,” we encounter complication rather than clarity. One definition is an expanse of ground that has been opened or cleared for human use, thus a physical place, clearly demarcated from other places. Another definition is of an outlying area different from a home base, as in sending representatives out into the field. A third definition is a sphere of human activity or interest, as in a field of knowledge or engagement. The meaning of the word “field” thus shifts from the locational, and thus more clearly demarcated, to the social and cultural, whose boundaries are more difficult to locate or define. This third definition has become crucial to our concept of the field. We will not be bringing our students to outlying locations cut off from the distractions of their “real” lives, but rather bringing them to locations overgrown with social, political, historical, and literary engagements that have transected time and place. Our Field Schools to London and the Lake District, and to Paris and the Loire Valley, are cultural sites that offer students rich opportunities for multi-situated historical study.

6.        The prevailing definition of student “fieldwork” is the empirical one. For Elia Shabani Mligo, fieldwork is “the act of inquiring into the nature of phenomena by studying them at first hand in the environments in which they naturally exist or occur” (38). In this understanding, fieldwork uses the environment and the people within it as its laboratory to make discoveries and construct theories about existing phenomena (39). The model of fieldwork presented is one of going, observing, leaving, and remembering (39). In addition to the empirical model of the student researcher authorizing and isolating knowledge through observation and experience is a more touristic notion of student fieldwork, which draws from the language of exploration. Richard Phillips, a geographer who advocates for incorporating fieldwork into geography courses, speaks of fieldwork as a form of exploration driven by curiosity and discovery (84). Both these empirical and touristic models of fieldwork, we argue, are based on a reductive understanding of the field and do not adequately describe the kind of multitudinous work and learning that can be done by students in humanities-oriented study-abroad programs.

7.        The first problem is with the definition of the field as a differentiated space, sharply distinguished from the student’s home environment. James Clifford’s critical work on concepts of the field in anthropology proves helpful, for he recognizes the field as a discursively constructed space. In Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century, Clifford outlines how the field has been traditionally constructed by means of localizing spatial practices and argues that such spatial practices restrict our understanding of the field to a space over there, of the past, or linked to exotic difference or indigeneity (97, 100, 107). Instead of being attuned to the ways culture travels across space and time, researchers sustain a view of the “world as exhibition” (Heidegger 125). This limited sense of the field as a distinct outlying place, cut off from dense regional, national, and global networks of migration and communication, is perhaps less of an issue for study-abroad programs in major international capitals like London and Paris, but not if such models of the field predetermine the kinds of fieldwork that will be undertaken in these programs.   

8.        The second problem arises from the understanding of fieldwork as an empirical method of observing, recording, and analyzing phenomenon. This understanding—taken in its pure form—presumes a non-porous and unidirectional relationship between the student researcher and the subject of study: she travels to the field to gain specialized knowledge, returning with data and research and experience to be analyzed and incorporated into coursework, which is legitimized by the first-hand experience and the notion of differentiated space. Traditionally, fieldwork has been encouraged to overcome what Phillips, writing about geographical research, has called the regrettable tendency to “cite not sight” (4). As Clifford points out, however, this sense of the field as “other” also means that interactions between students and the field are premised on separation and distance (66; 89–90).

9.        Another consequence of this understanding of the field as geographically and temporally bound and cut-off from the rest of the world is what Fiona Smith (a geographer at the University of Dundee who has led a field course in Costa Blanca in Spain) calls the “fieldwork bubble” (78). This is the flipside of the student researcher who travels to the field to extract specialized knowledge to bring home for analysis. In this scenario, the student researcher who travels to the field superimposes her home culture onto the field. As with the “tourist bubble,” the “fieldwork bubble” evokes what Jens K. S. Jacobsen has called “travelling parochialism,” whereby students and tourists alike “adopt some kind of furtherance of a home-like culture.” The problem is that this bubble “confines and isolates” students through the “protective walls” of their familiar institutional and regional cultures (Jacobsen 71-72). Neither the researcher who mines cultural resources to bring back home nor one who sets up home in the field are adequate fieldwork models, as both are based on the dualism of home and field, and the residual colonial ideologies of fieldwork.

10.        In our view, a different model is needed for student fieldwork in the humanities, one that is neither strictly empirical nor touristic and one that does not view the field as an extension of home or a necessary other. We want to destabilize the binaries between campus/field, home/abroad, here/there, and now/then that help sustain “the fieldwork bubble” and the notion of the field as an outlying place of the world where one goes off to accrue knowledge through experience. In line with geographer Jennifer Hyndeman, we want to emphasize the way the field comes home and home goes to the field.

11.        We advocate for an interactive, multi-situated, and expressive mode of fieldwork, one that promotes humanistic values and methods, by which we mean the critical study of human cultures across time and place alongside their expressive modes of representation. Our model of fieldwork is distinctly humanistic insofar as it is premised on a capacious understanding of culture—ranging from food to theatre, art to architecture, literature to film, graffiti to photography. It is also based on an understanding that cultural histories and encounters occur both in sites of high culture, such as museums, art galleries, and libraries, and on the streets and in the underground. These sites offer numerous opportunities for students to relate their learning to the places, objects, and people they are studying in environments that are richly layered by time. We want our students to engage in fieldwork as a shared and ongoing inquiry into a living past whose location is neither here nor there and is never fixed or finished. Finally, our vision of student fieldwork is centered on creative expression and critical thinking as we encourage students to communicate their experiential learning in a variety of modes and venues. We have embraced new forms of digital media in fieldwork precisely because they enable simultaneous and networked forms of inquiry, experience, and communication—so that fieldwork can be shared, continued beyond the field, and both real and virtual at the same time. All of our assignments are, therefore, what we call transfield in approach, designed to have students move across disciplinary, historical, geographical, cultural, and communicative boundaries that can restrict engagements with the field and the fieldwork they undertake. Our goal is for our students to be transformed by their experiences in the field and to understand their own impact on the field as participants, observers, and creators.

Fieldwork Assignments

12.        Our Field School courses have been designed around five core assignments, each with the purpose of enabling students to integrate their learning with interactive experiences in the field. A notable feature of our assignments is their significant incorporation of digital technologies, a recent trend in fieldwork (cf. Welsh and France 48; Bedall-Hill 19). The practical reason for this decision is that students will not have easy access to printers, ink, and paper, though they will have their own laptops, mobile devices, and internet connections in the dormitories. We also believe that digital tools can help our students explore multiple modes of acquiring and communicating knowledge, which will not only expand their notion of the field, but also give them important training in digital technologies. An argument could be made that we are simply creating a different kind of fieldwork bubble, one that allows students to retreat into the digital environments and virtual social networks they already know. We have tried, however, to balance kinesthetic, visual, auditory, literary, and digital modes of investigation into our assignments, which will push students of literature beyond the usual, academically sanctioned modes of writing and research in our discipline, while encouraging them to learn, perceive, and communicate in multi-modal and multi-situated ways, both individually and collaboratively. The assignments that we describe below pertain, in particular, to the London and Lake District Field School.

13.        The first assignment is field school participation. It is based on attendance as well as regular and thoughtful contribution to the class meetings, presentations, and excursions.

14.        The second and most significant assignment is the fieldwork blog. Over the course of the ten-week program, students will create a minimum of twelve blog entries in a variety of different genres and media formats. The goal is for students to develop an online portfolio of all of their fieldwork, which can be shared both virtually (with friends and family at home) and also with fellow students, and students will rotate presenting on their blogs during our in-class meetings. The genres of field blog entries are fully described in the handout, but briefly are as follows:

  • Journal entries, which describe an aspect of the day’s fieldwork;
  • Tour descriptions, which sketch a historical or personal tour through space;
  • Critical reviews, of a performance, museum exhibit, gallery show, or restaurant;
  • Critical responses, to an assigned secondary reading;
  • Soundagrams, which are edited audio recordings accompanied by a brief written caption;
  • Audio or video interviews, with an individual met through the fieldwork experience;
  • Digital postcards, which include a photograph, with brief epistolary accompaniment;
  • In the footsteps of, which is a creative attempt to re-enact an experience or activity described in the course material;
  • Pinterest boards, which have the students thinking creatively about bringing the works in question into current social media trends; and
  • Digital maps, which uses online software such as Google Maps to chart the distinctive geography of the cities and landscapes we are visiting and studying via art and literature.

15.        Our third assignment asks students to prepare two on-site field presentations, one that is individually led and the other collaboratively prepared, in which they present on a specific historical site or artifact in a manner that is interactive and site-specific. The collaborative on-site field presentations require considerable planning and involvement on our part, as we must familiarize ourselves with the site, its features, and the route, and anticipate issues related to weather, scheduling, and group needs. This assignment thus highlights the dynamic and improvisational nature of the field and positions the students as co-instructors and the instructors as co-presenters.

16.        The fourth assignment focuses on archival work and specifically develops the important scholarly skill of textual editing. For the London and Lake District Field School, students will begin by transcribing from digital surrogates and rare printed books from our own library’s Special Collections, and this work will be the foundation for a specially-designed short course we have arranged via an institutional partnership with the Wordsworth Trust. Over the course of three mornings, students will be directly involved in archival study as they receive training in material culture, the handling of rare books and manuscripts, manuscript transcription, and textual editing. This work will enable them to contribute to an ongoing research project, a digital edition of one of Dorothy Wordsworth’s poetry notebooks.

17.        Our fifth and final assignment asks students to present two lightning-style talks at the end of their time in each destination, reviewing and synthesizing their learning and providing the capstone event for the Field Schools to London and the Lake District or to Paris and the Loire Valley.

18.        In designing these field school assignments, a primary goal is to move both instructor and student beyond traditional forms of academic literary work by combining critical and creative as well as private, social, and public forms of communication. With the on-site field presentation, we co-develop and co-present along with our students, transforming the field into a more democratic pedagogical space. Similarly, the transcription and textual editing assignment enables students to participate in our research by having them contribute to a publicly available digital edition. Our field blog assignment also moves beyond traditional forms of academic, print-based essay writing, as it requires students to write regularly, in multiple genres, imagining different kinds of audiences, and using a repertoire of voices. These blog entries will be read by fellow students as well as friends and family back home, thereby allowing students’ fieldwork to travel and reach some audiences not incorporated in traditional coursework. For a student perspective on the value of writing fieldwork blogs, see this short video by Cassidy Anhorn, France Field School 2015 participant (at 1:30).

19.        Another aim of ours is to prompt students to express themselves through multimodal forms, such as the soundagram and the digital postcards that they will produce for their field blogs. We are asking students to use a range of digital media (visual, audio, video), allowing them to develop a skill set in and familiarity with using these digital technologies and thus “burst” the fieldwork bubble through ongoing communication, dialogue, and remediation activities that link field to home and fieldwork to homework through material and virtual experiences. Another argument in favor of allowing students to do course work in these multimodal forms is that they are engaging in vernacular forms of communication, ones that help them connect to work outside of the academy (Takayoshi and Selfe 3).

20.        A further goal is to have students move through space and time, performing, retracing, and reviving encounters with the dynamic space we are calling the field. In so doing, we are encouraging them to reflect on their own geographical and temporal movements, and on how the locations we move through are and have been tourist sites and global hubs, and a part of the larger history of transatlantic migration, globalization, and colonization. Our “digital mapping” and “in the footsteps of” assignments, for instance, allow students to think critically and historically about different encounters and journeys in a field overgrown through space and time.

21.        Finally, and most importantly, we want students to be more conscious of the ways they learn and acquire knowledge. We are prompting students to move from being passive consumers of information and culture to becoming active and critical producers of cultural knowledge in a social context, and to do so by teaching forms of responsible and public-facing digital literacy that are dominant in the culture at large (Williams xii). There are several distinct kinds of inquiry and knowledge production in which our students will engage as they learn by doing and observing with their field school peers. Our emphasis on expression—written, oral, and performative—will be familiar to our students, but we will challenge them, by asking them to think, work, and present improvisationally, multimodally, and collaboratively in person and in media forms that enable networked and virtual communication. We will also encourage students to reflect critically on how concepts of periodization, national cultures, and cultural heritage have shaped their approach to Romanticism and Modernism, travel, and expatriation. Lastly, borrowing from recent popular approaches to material history, such as the BBC’s History of the World in a Hundred Objects based on the British Museum’s Collection, we want our students to be attentive to the opportunities presented by the traces of the past that survive into the present and by the way a single object can animate an historical moment.    

22.        Our assignments will develop our students’ international experience and knowledge and have them think about their roles as students, researchers, tourists, and travellers as part of a multi-scaled history of transatlantic culture and migration, mass tourism, globalization, colonization, and disciplinary research practices. Our assignments will also have students undertake intercultural work, embedding their study of literature, history, art, geography, book history, and digital humanities within their own personal experiences in the field. We will certainly capitalize on our immersion in the landscape, history, and material culture of London and the Lake District, as well as of Paris and the Loire Valley, but we will also have students regularly communicate and remediate their studies in the field in written, performative, collaborative, and digital multi-media formats, thus offsetting the romance of foreign immersion and appeal to experience with regular reflection and dialogue in a supported but intense fashion that will help make our field schools a transformative pedagogical experience for us and for our students.

23.        It is our hope that the fieldwork we have assigned for the Field Schools will not end with the study-abroad semester. Not only have we linked fieldwork to ongoing research projects to which students may be invited to continue as contributors, but we are also developing undergraduate courses in humanities fieldwork methods and applications. These courses will offer opportunities for past or future field school students to reflect on fieldwork practices and develop digital tools for fieldwork activities and assignments, including virtual fieldwork. It will also be a platform for liaising with our colleagues who specialize in fieldwork and digital media. These courses will thus function as recruitment, support, and extension of our Field Schools that will bring fieldwork to the humanities and reimagine humanities pedagogy through fieldwork.

Works Cited

Bedall-Hill, Nicola. “Postgraduates, field trips and mobile devices.” Making Mobile Learning Work: Case Studies of Practice, edited by John Traxler and Jocelyn Wishart, ESCalate, 2011.

Clifford, James. Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century, Harvard UP, 1997.

Colligan, Colette and Michelle Levy. “Fieldwork.” MLA Commons, Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities: Concepts, Models, and Experiments, 2016.

Heidegger, M. “The Age of the World Picture.” The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays, translated by W. Lovitt, Harper & Row, 1977, pp. 115–54.

History of the World in an Hundred Objects. BBC, Radio 4, London, UK, 2010.

Hyndeman, Jennifer. “The Field as Here and Now, Not There and Then.” The Geographical Review, vol. 91, no. 1–2, 2001, 262–72.

Jacobsen, Jens K.S. “The Tourist Bubble and the Europeanisation of Holiday Travel.” Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change, vol. 1, no. 1, 2003, pp. 71–87.

MacGregor, Neil. A History of the World in 100 Objects. Allen Lane, 2011.

Phillips, Richard “Curiosity and Fieldwork.” Geography, vol. 97, no. 2, 2012, pp. 78–85.

Shabani Mligo, Elia. Doing Effective Field Work: A Textbook For Students of Qualitative

Field Research in High-Learning Institutions. Wipf and Stock Publisher, 2013. Google Books, accessed 6 August 2015.

Smith, Fiona M. “Euro-commentary: Encountering Europe through Fieldwork.” European Urban and Regional Studies, vol. 13, no. 1, 2006, pp. 77–82.

Takayoshi, Pamela and Cynthia L. Selfe. “Thinking about Multimodality.” Multimodal Composition: Resources for Teachers, edited by Cynthia L. Selfe, Hampton P, 2007, pp. 1–12.

Welsh, Katharine and Derek France. “Smartphones and fieldwork.” Geography, vol., 97, no. 1, 2012, pp. 47–51.

Williams, Bronywn. “Foreword.” Multimodal Composition: Resources for Teachers, edited by Cynthia L. Selfe, Hampton P, 2007, pp. ix–xii.