I was supposed to be travelling to Berlin on Sunday with 135 undergraduates. Clearly, the current situation with Covid-19 has meant that we cancelled the trip as part of our preparations for what is likely to be quite a long period of campus shut down and remote working. It has to be said that our students have been incredibly supportive and understanding of the need to change our working patterns, including around fieldwork – for which we’re all really grateful.
Although we aren’t going to Berlin in 2020, this does seem like a good opportunity to reflect on our undergraduate fieldcourse programme and some of the changes myself and colleagues at Birmingham have been making. Particularly since the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) was introduced in 2017, some of the top UK universities have been grappling with the question of added value: why should undergraduates come to a research-focused institution, rather than universities where staff spend a much higher proportion of their time on teaching.
Even prior to the TEF, I have been very keen on the idea that instead of referring to undergraduate students we should be talking about undergraduate researchers. For me the advantage of coming to a research-focussed institution isn’t the snob value of attending a traditionally ‘top’ university with high entry grades and it certainly isn’t because of vague phrases around “teaching from research”. Of course, students do like it when we talk about research that we’ve been doing ourselves and it makes them feel connected to work at the cutting edge. But we can push this a bit further by emphasising the idea that the undergraduates are themselves part of a research community.
Right at the start of my career in the early noughties I quickly got very bored marking the same essay over and over again. Thanks to a conservatism drummed in at school that there is a single “right” answer, students simply reproduced versions of my lecture notes. As a result, I altered my assessment strategies. Teaching urban regeneration at the time, I started forcing students to find their own case studies to use in their essays, drawing on media sources, web searches and even field observations of sites they knew from home. Suddenly the essays got a whole lot better, with students starting to get excited about taking the ideas they were learning about in class and thinking about how they could apply them to their own research. And, yes, I learned new things too. Since then, I’ve been keen to employ this research-led approach to undergraduate work wherever possible.
For years our fieldwork was stuck in a bit of a rut. We took the students to the same places year in, year out, giving them the same sources to read (or, more likely, ignore) and saying the same things in the same sites. This inertia tends to happen when you have quite a high staff turnover (as we used to at Birmingham) meaning that people get dumped with a fieldcourse at the last minute and don’t have time to design something new.
One of the things I’d always been really impressed with at other institutions like Manchester was fieldwork opportunities where the whole first year cohort was taken to a single location. This gave an opportunity for a year group to develop a bit of a collective identity. I’d also been interested in how we could use economies of scale to enhance our field teaching while keeping costs manageable.
In 2017 we hatched a plan to bin all of the existing first year fieldcourses and move to a single trip. This gave us an opportunity to do an overseas visit for the same cost per head as we were spending on our UK trips – slightly greater expenses on the coaches vs. a substantially cheaper (and nicer!) hostel in Rotterdam. The Netherlands is a great location for a first ‘overseas’ fieldcourse since while locals speak pretty good English, culturally it’s quite a different place which can be very stimulating for the students.
What we didn’t want to do, however, was simply create another ‘show-and-tell’ fieldcourse in a new location. Instead, students now spend the first five weeks of term learning about research methods and project design. This cuts across human and physical geography as well as planning. Groups of 20 students are then allocated to a member of staff who divides them into smaller teams, takes them out to some field sites and asks them to develop their own small research project – thinking up a research question, collecting and analysing relevant data before coming to some tentative conclusions.
This approach completely changes the mindset of students entering the field as they become active researchers. It also reinforces the independent research mentality which is developed by those who do the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) at A-level and gives a chance for those who haven’t done the EPQ to get up to speed.
In the setup lectures I really emphasise the importance of failure as a learning tool – allowing them to get out of the A-level mindset of having to get everything right first time. By embedding small research projects throughout the curriculum – starting with the Rotterdam fieldcourse in their sixth week of university – the idea of doing a dissertation in year 3 suddenly seems a lot less intimidating.
This year I had redesigned the setup for our year 2 Berlin trip to build on this model. Students were given ten weeks to design a research project that they were going to implement in Berlin. Teams met with their group leaders fortnightly to pitch their ideas in semi-formal presentations, showcasing their developing thoughts, the reading they’d undertaken and the work they had done to set up interviews and other activities in advance of travelling to the city.
The overall Berlin trip was going to be for 135 students which is much easier to organise than the groups of up to 265 we’ve taken to Rotterdam! As a group leader, I was supervising 20 students, who had formed themselves into four teams doing four different projects. It was a real shame that they didn’t get to implement these in Berlin because they’d done an amazing amount of work in advance of the trip. There was a really interesting project looking at physiological response and wellbeing in relation to green space – with one team riffing off some research that I’ve been playing with for the last few years. There were a couple of groups doing really thoughtful projects in relation to memorialisation and the curation of memory. Finally, there was a group looking at the art-led gentrification of Neukölln who had created a map of all the new galleries that had opened there as well as having set up an interview with the district Mayor. Really great stuff.
Even though we didn’t get to go to Berlin, the students I spoke to were very enthusiastic about having been given the opportunity to develop their own projects. Of course, the sneaky thing about all of this is that it’s not just about making ‘research’ part of the USP of studying at a research-focussed institution. It’s really about the independent critical thinking skills and teamwork that they develop through doing this kind of work so that they have really valuable things to talk about in job interviews. Because, let’s be honest, no matter what sector they end up working in, employers are going to be less impressed by students’ grasp of poststructuralist theory and much more interested in how well they can independently deliver on a project task.
Phil Jones is a cultural geographer based at the University of Birmingham.
Phil Jones, Geographer