International Perspectives on Fieldcourses

Karen Nairn (New Zealand), David Higgitt (United Kingdom) and Dominique Vanneste (Belgium)

1   The Main Issues Affecting Internationalisation of Fieldcourses
2   Specific Issues and More Questions
2.1   Syllabus Integration
2.2   Financial Considerations
2.3   Sharing Courses, Staff and Resources
2.4   Overseas Fieldtrips/Expeditions
2.5   Do International Exchanges Ensure Cultural Tolerance?
2.6   Safety
2.7   Student Involvement in Fieldtrips
3   A Proposed Action Plan for Taking the Ideas Forward
4   Discussion Questions from the Action Plan
1)   Summary of student survey conducted at K.U. Leuven Unversity
2)   Summary of Karen Nairn's PhD research about residential fieldtrips in New Zealand
3)   Summary of collaborative efforts by universities by Belgium

1) The Main Issues Affecting Internationalisation of Fieldcourses

The internationalisation of fieldcourses could mean a number of things:
  1. international fieldtrips
  2. international sharing of knowledge and innovative ideas about fieldcourses
  3. the pooling of resources to facilitate fieldwork, e.g. staff providing information about their local area for fieldtrip leaders from other locations or sharing a course between two or more institutions
  4. virtual fieldtrips to international sites
  5. an opportunity to raise the level of discussion about pedagogic and logistical issues of fieldwork planning from local or national networks to an international stage
  6. the difficult balance between place-driven and pattern/process-driven topics
  7. (international) fieldwork could be the flagship for internationalism in geography as a whole
  8. BUT is so-called internationalism really an exchange of ideas about fieldwork (in the English language) between 'westernised' geography departments? How can we find out about other fieldwork practices?
Internationalisation will mean different things depending on our respective geographical locations. E.g. Europe incorporates a lot of different countries on a relatively small scale which more readily facilitates internationalism. In New Zealand, Australia and the South Pacific region, the ease of international exchange is constrained by the costs of air travel.

BUT discussion of the internationalisation of fieldcourses is based on assumptions that fieldwork and fieldtrips are valuable student experiences. It seems important to 'back track' one step and ask questions about the practices of fieldwork and fieldtrips?

What do students think of fieldwork and fieldtrips? How do students perceive the integration of fieldwork and fieldtrips within a course?

Students' perceptions of fieldtrips will depend on how staff perceive and therefore present fieldtrips (e.g. the assessment requirements of fieldtrips, questions about fieldwork included in course assessment, the quality of fieldtrip materials, etc.).

(see Summary of student survey conducted at K.U. Leuven University, Belgium and Karen Nairn's PhD research about residential fieldtrips in New Zealand)

Justification of fieldwork activity has become increasingly acute as institutions face constraints on resources, larger class sizes without concomitant increases in staff numbers, and rising costs for students.

What do staff think of fieldtrips? Are there unrealistic demands made on staff time and energy? What about staff with young families? Is there a greater demand on some staff to organise fieldtrips than on others? How does this affect departmental morale? Will the internationalisation of fieldcourses place increased demands on staff?

What context is needed for meaningful experience (e.g. length of fieldtrips, preparation time, spacing of field days, total days in degree course)? How might internationalism facilitate more meaningful field experiences?

Does the fieldwork experience enhance students' previous knowledge and experience? If so, how? If not, why not?

Which students might not experience fieldwork and fieldtrip practices positively? How is this shaped by gender, age, socio-economic status, race/ethnicity, sexuality, and physical abilities? E.g. is there an unspoken assumption that students are able-bodied in order to take part in fieldwork/fieldtrips and geography more generally? What about students with family responsibilities? (Liverpool Hope University (UK) offer non-residential as well as local and international residential fieldtrip options for students to choose from) (Maguire, 1998).

What content can only (or be best) delivered through fieldwork? What content currently delivered via fieldwork might be best delivered in other ways?


2) Specific Issues and More Questions

2.1) Syllabus Integration

The traditional model (in the UK and in New Zealand) has been for a residential fieldtrip to be undertaken largely in isolation from the rest of the course and justified in terms of the importance of field experience alone. With the introduction of modularisation across many institutions the relationship between fieldwork and module content has become more of an issue. How is fieldwork best integrated into courses?

Livingstone et al. (1998) use a classification of fieldwork (based on McEwen, 1996) with the following headings: status in the course; pattern of delivery; skills training; delivery (e.g. staff led, issue based, etc.); assessment; management; resources. These headings might be useful in considering the variation in approach within and between countries.


2.2) Financial Considerations

What variation is there between institutional policies on costing fieldwork? How do departments deal with cases of financial hardship - is fieldwork becoming elitist because only some students can afford fieldcourse fees? What is the experience from other countries of the impact of fees on fieldwork participation?


2.3) Sharing Courses, Staff And Resources

One positive aspect of growing internationalism may be the pooling of staff and other institutional resources to facilitate fieldwork.

(See Summary of collaborative efforts by universities in Belgium)

How would institutions react if this became more widespread? How would assessment, financial support, etc. be calibrated between participants?


2.4) Overseas Fieldtrips/Expeditions

Overseas expeditions are expensive and risk being considered elitist. Should the expedition be considered archaic for discipline fieldwork? Does expedition activity merit inclusion within curricula or should it be regarded as an incidental add-on? If expedition activity is shared between several institutions what are the rules about assessment and credit transfer? Does an expedition format provide the most effective means of promoting internationalism through exposure to different cultures and co-operation between visitors and hosts?


2.5) Do International Exchanges Ensure Cultural Tolerance?

There is the potential problem of 'privileged' university students going to view 'unprivileged' groups whether it be locally or internationally. Staff and students could discuss issues of power and cultural imperialism. Roger Robinson (1988) cautions against paternalistic sympathy that sometimes occurs if 'privileged' students are encouraged to consider the 'unprivileged' Other. Instead he suggests "the development of a realistic empathy" (p.154). How might we facilitate realistic empathy?

There are similar issues for "within-country" experiences. E.g. the aim of an expedition to rural China for British students was to live in rural communities, to experience life and facilitate empathy. Chinese students were also involved but they were almost exclusively from urban areas. The facilitation of empathy between urban and rural Chinese was in many ways as great a challenge.


2.6) Safety

Many institutions have developed fieldwork safety regulations. Some institutions do not have specific regulations: e.g. at K.U. Leuven, staff appeal to students' sense of responsibility (there is one rule: not going out at night with less than 3 persons + old-fashioned organisation = no mixing of sexes per room, not even couples).

How do we avoid re-inventing the wheel when safety regulations exist elsewhere? What role can international networks play in assisting the flow of information? How do different countries legislate for field safety? What are the implications for joint fieldwork? International fieldwork raises issues about field safety guidelines; often it is difficult to maintain the same control over facilities compared to home country (e.g. vehicles).

Geography is not the only discipline to undertake fieldwork and require fieldwork regulations but often there is no co-ordination between departments in one institution regarding the consistency of safety guidelines. How do discipline networks interact with related experience outside the discipline? One example is an interdisciplinary project on fieldwork involving several universities in the English Midlands (UK) (Clark, 1996; Higgitt, 1996).

Safety is not only about the pragmatics of risk management and physical safety, it is also about ensuring the emotional safety of fieldtrip participants. Fieldtrip leaders need to pay attention to group dynamics, to students who might feel excluded by their peer group and/or alone in spite of the group-based nature of fieldtrips.

One female student made the following comment after a 3 day fieldtrip:

"I had no friends on [the fieldtrip], it sort of made me feel quite stink... I ended up quite depressed (laugh) . . . and I wanted to go home"

Issues of emotional and physical safety might be accentuated when students participate in international exchanges/fieldtrips in foreign countries.

Attention to group process and to student involvement in fieldtrip planning are relevant here - ideas are suggested in the next section.


2.7) Student Involvement in Fieldtrips

Preparation, e.g. pre-fieldtrip discussions with students about what it means to go away and live as well as work together in a foreign context; a pre-fieldtrip information sheet for students to convey information about their expectations of an international fieldtrip, their physical abilities, medical conditions, food and sleeping preferences, etc.

Decision-making, e.g. self-selected groups who share similar food preferences could plan menus and buy the required food for a forthcoming fieldtrip. Self-provisioning as well as eating out might be incorporated on terms in which students have played a decision-making role. Although experience at the Erasmus University of Rotterdam contradicts this: students gave up field trips because of costs but then started to organise fieldtrips by themselves under the supervision of staff. Students appreciate these fieldtrips more because they have experienced the difficulties of organisation (budget, collaboration, content, sponsoring, etc.) To what extent has student involvement in the decision-making processes of fieldtrip organisation become widespread internationally?

Critical reflexivity, e.g. completion of a journal might be one fieldwork task in which students write critically and reflexively about (international) fieldwork/fieldtrip practices; post-fieldtrip evaluations and/or debriefing allow student feedback about their (international) fieldwork/fieldtrip experiences. The definition of what counts as geographical knowledge might be broadened to include information that students have already gained about (international) people and places from other contexts such as holidays, popular culture, fiction, film and music.


3) A Proposed Action Plan for Taking the Ideas Forward


4) Discussion Questions from the Action Plan

Internet Discussion Comments

  1. What are the best mechanisms to use for information exchange (e.g. email, Web sites etc.)?
  2. How can we improve the flow and exchange of students between fieldwork opportunities?
  3. What kinds of costs do students face in 1999 for fieldwork?
  4. What are the minimum training requirements for leading fieldwork?
  5. Should fieldwork manuals/expertise be pooled?



1) Summary of student survey conducted at Vanneste's university:

Dominique Vanneste reports that geography students (at K.U. Leuven University, Belgium in 1997) preferred:

Vanneste acknowledges that it is very difficult to fulfil these expectations all at the same time. Moreover, some of the students' preferences are contradictory and/or opposite to educational objectives such as recognising outcomes of the same spatial process in different contexts.


2) Summary from Nairn's PhD research about residential fieldtrips in New Zealand:

Karen Nairn (1998) writes about two university residential fieldtrips concerned with recent international migration patterns in New Zealand which enabled/required students to meet migrants from different cultures.

The migration fieldtrips facilitated the possibility for students to see different cultures but also to see New Zealand from a 'different' perspective. "Seeing the multiculturalism... I've never really experienced that before" (male student), "I'd never heard of the Refugee Reception Centre, barely knew what happened to refugees" (female student) and "we went to that Buddhist temple . . . I've never ever seen anything like that. I didn't even know there were Buddhists in New Zealand" (male student). These students' experiences were congruent with staff goals for these fieldtrips.

But what might be the unintended consequences of a migration fieldtrip about cultural difference? There is the potential problem of 'privileged' university students going to view 'unprivileged' groups.

"I felt sort of uncomfortable about, because, you know . . . people were out on their lawns [in a lower socio-economic suburb] . . . I felt sorry for them, us driving past looking at them, thinking oh we must be studying them, we must be poor or we must be rich or . . . classing them you know . . . I wasn't worried about us, I was sort of, I felt quite stink for them, sort of driving through looking at them, looking at these people but there's no other way you can do it really . . ." (male student)

Are there other ways of conducting fieldwork? How might we conduct fieldwork that is not invasive? How might we formulate culturally sensitive fieldwork practices?


3) Summary of collaborative efforts by universities in Belgium:

Belgian staff appeal to foreign colleagues for assistance on the spot in foreign countries and foreign colleagues do the same when coming to Belgium. Dutch and English students are coming to Belgium on a regular basis. No charge is made. The collaboration can be on a non-official basis (e.g. with the University of Utrecht - Netherlands) or on an official basis, namely via the European Union exchange programme Socrates (e.g. with the University of Greenwich -U.K.). The advantage of officialisation is the financial support for preparatory or evaluation workshops as well as the recognition.

Summary of collaborative efforts by universities in the UK:

David Higgitt reports from a 1993 survey that



Clark, D. (1996) The changing national context of fieldwork in Geography. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 20, 385-391.

Gray, M. (1993) A survey of Geography fieldwork funding in the 'old' U.K. universities. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 17, 33-34.

Higgitt, M. (1996) Addressing the new agenda for fieldwork in Higher Education. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 20, 391-398.

Livingstone, I., Matthews, H. and Castley, A. (1998) Fieldwork and dissertations in Geography. Geography Discipline Network, Cheltenham.

Maguire, S. (1998) Gender differences in attitudes to undergraduate fieldwork. Area, 30, (3), 207-214.

Nairn, K. (1998) Disciplining Identities: Gender, Geography and the Culture of Fieldtrips. Unpublished Doctoral Thesis. University of Waikato: Department of Geography.

Robinson, R. (1988) Development issues: sympathy and paternalism, empathy and realism. In R. Gerber and J. Lidstone (Eds) Developing Skills in Geographical Education. Brisbane: International Geographical Union Commission on Geographical education with The Jacaranda Press, 152-155.

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