Field courses need more units


Field courses are critical for the development of scientists in a variety of disciplines.

This fact is self-evident to many. For those whom it is not, then Chris Buddle has already written a great post explaining exactly why field courses matter. He also has some top-notch specific tips on how to run your field lab.

In this post, I’m not talking about an outdoor lab section during the semester. I’m thinking of a course that is based somewhere away from the university, in a field location apart from a university. These are immersive experiences, that don’t last a whole semester, but include a semester’s worth of work in a shorter period of time. They are taught in a way similar to how courses in the block system are taught.

It’s getting harder to find these courses within universities. Why is that? I think there are a number of complex intertwined factors. I’d like to single out one of those factors:

At many universities lacking a strong tradition of field courses, students don’t get enough academic credit for their field courses, and faculty don’t get enough credit to teach these courses.

This creates a disincentive for faculty to offer such courses and for students to enroll in them. This isn’t the only reason field courses have experienced atrophy, but I think it’s a big piece.

You might ask, “What atrophy? We have plenty of great field courses at my university over the winter break and in the summer!” I might then, ask you, “How many semester hours of credit go with the courses, relative to the hours of instruction, and how much credit do faculty get towards their annual teaching loads?”

Field courses are often undervalued relative to traditional courses taught within the university. This undervaluation reflects not just the funds allocated towards operating the courses, but also the work of the students and faculty. After chatting with some colleagues at an international field station, I’ve discovered that some of the faculty teaching field courses are working out of generosity, because they’re being undercompensated. Moreover, the students on field courses are participating even though they’re not earning the academic credit that should be associated with their effort on the course. I’ve discovered more often, though, that faculty aren’t teaching field courses because it’s not worth their time, the way that their universities account for their time.

I do realize – and have witnessed – that some field courses could actually be light on academics and hard work, and could amount to a vacation for all people involved. (Taking an undergraduate course traveling throughout Costa Rica is definitely not my kind of vacation.) For a course to receive appropriate credit, it’s only reasonable for there to be some degree of accountability so that everyone involved knows the hours of specific directed academic work that were conducted by the students on the course. However, this entirely point is a red herring because the potential for a no-work vacation-like aspect of courses is independent of the field. Lots of on-campus labs and lecture courses lack rigor, perhaps more often than field courses.

Here’s my relevant anecdote: Just weeks into my first tenure-track position, I put together a new course proposal that I brought to a departmental meeting. The proposal was well-vetted and approved by my chair, who was a lab-oriented scientist. The proposal was for a standard field course in Tropical Biology, in a few sites in Costa Rica, during the university’s January break. The proposal was straightforward, without any hitches, resembled excellent courses with which I was familiar, and followed standard practices. Running an entire class as a field course, with a few pre-departure sessions, was a novelty in my department at the time.

The department thought the course was great. However, they wanted it to be offered as a three-unit course, not as a four-unit course, as I had proposed. I looked at how much time was being spent on the course, how much work was scheduled for the students. I also looked at university guidelines for the hours of instruction and lab activity are supposed to be associated with units.

My proposed four units was a lowball, because the amount of class time and field activities with the course far exceeded a typical 4-unit course, even if the time frame was relatively short. This notion didn’t sway my department from the request that the proposed course run at three units.

Most of my new colleagues simply thought that the duration of the course shouldn’t merit four units. They wanted me to lengthen the course by several days if I wanted a four-unit class. I said if I did that, then I wouldn’t have any time for my own field research, and that also wouldn’t be fair to the students who would be doing much more than 4 units’ worth of work. (Alternatively, I could have organized the course for students to be working fewer hours per day, which I rejected a recipe for mischief, as I’ve seen in other undergraduate course traveling around Costa Rica.)

They asked, what’s my priority? Teaching or research? Do you have a problem with spending all of winter break teaching a four unit course? I thought to myself, I do have a problem if it’s far more than four units worth of work for myself and for the students.

Essentially, my department rejected my argument, not with any specific rebuttal about the value of units or how much work or time was spent on the course. They just didn’t like the idea that students could earn four units over such a short period of time. I think they didn’t realize how much I’d be working the butts off of these students on the course. They didn’t think I’d be running a field course with twelve solid hours of work per day. I’ve seen such courses, and in my view they’re the most successful ones.

I dropped the proposal.

Instead, I resolved to make as many field opportunities as possible for research students.

To date, I have yet to teach my own field course in the tropics, though I often have a very minor role in other courses offered through other institutions. And I am now an instructor on a field course operated by a field station.

I thought my experience in getting mildly shafted on the units was rather unique, but then I was chatting with a variety of people and realized that this limited-units situation might be the norm rather than the outlier. One of my field station buddies just finished teaching a demanding field course this summer. The students just went home.

I asked her if the summer course counted towards her academic year teaching load. She said it did, that the field course counted for half of a regular lecture course.

I saw her course in action. They were traveling around for multiple weeks, and working in earnest 12 hours per day, if not more. Even if you run the numbers so that all activities are considered as a “lab” rather than a “lecture,” then it’s obvious to everyone that the students should be earning a full lecture course credit for the experience, and also that the instructor receives full credit for a teaching a full course. Clearly, from where I sit, this course was far more work, cumulatively, than any normal lecture course during a regular semester. Yet she only got a half-course credit.

She said that she was turned down for full credit for the course, and she taught it anyway. Her circumstance was similar to my own, but the difference is that her students benefited from her decision to sacrifice herself.

I told her I was surprised that she decided to do it. (We’ve never had problems sharing our unsolicited opinions with one another.) If I were in her shoes, I wouldn’t be teaching it again unless everybody involved got appropriate credit. She had wonderful reasons for teaching the course. She provided amazing opportunities to a group of students that she likes and at her university. If she didn’t do it, those opportunities wouldn’t exist. If our job is to inspire and change the lives of our students, then her field course epitomizes her success as a teacher, from what I saw.

I also saw how much time she had put into the experience: far more than any normal course, and for half of the credit. That’s not only unfair, it’s also unsustainable. I can’t imagine anybody sensible person doing a more than a full course’s worth of work for the credit of a half-course on a regular basis.

Why do these field courses not get enough credit from universities? This might be overly simplistic, but I suspect it’s because most faculty – who don’t teach these courses and probably have never taken one – don’t understand them. Perhaps we could invite them along to join one of these courses for a few days and then evaluate if they’re worth the credit. If they’re not willing to invest their own time into sizing it up, then they should be willing to abandon their objections. The understanding of these field courses is inherently experiential.

I don’t know whether, from campus to campus, the problem is more often at the level of the department, the college, or the dreaded and dreadful curriculum committee. Perhaps if students finishing up a course wrote a summary of exactly what they did, and what they learned, and how it fit into the calendar, it would make a difference.

In theory, the numbers should be the numbers. But at some places, the number of hours in lecture and the lab (or field) aren’t enough to satisfy critics, who might find other reasons to oppose full credit, with the tacit bias that fieldwork isn’t as valuable as labwork.

Have any of you helped gain adequate credit for a field course in a system that had undervalued them? Does your university offer strong field courses, and if so, are they accompanied with a robust credit structure for students and faculty?

Tips o’ the hat to Alex Bond, Chris Buddle, and Cat Cardelus for digital or corporeal conversations on the topic.

6 thoughts on “Field courses need more units

  1. Hearing of your experience, I guess I have been lucky, or gifted with a very flexible department chair and curriculum committee. I teach a 6-week Field Entomology course, which I developed as a pilot project and subsequently got catalog-approved, every summer for a single six-week summer term. It is mixed lecture-lab, students get full 4-unit lec/lab upper-division Bio- or major credit for it, I get 5 credits (thanks, AFT-NJ!) for 3 lecture hours plus 2 lab hours. These credits don’t count toward my annual load, they are considered overload, so I get paid for them- like a super-adjunct. It is fairly rigorous (not 12 hours a day, more like 6-8) and requires a correctly id’ed and curated locally-based collection of 20 orders and 55 families and correctly formatted field notes for the lab. This is the nuts and bolts of what we’ve done. It’s not a real ‘field station’ based course, but I thought I’d share anyway. We take the Department Van around North Jersey and hit all the different types of swamps- I mean habitats in our search for the taxa. These trips are never enough, and students find it necessary to work fairly extensively on their own time and motivation to complete the project.

    Maybe of more interest is how I ‘sold’ the course to our department… what got me and my students to this happy place. First, it is understood that our students have difficulty completing their majors in a reasonable amount of time, creating a constant demand for summer courses. This is particularly acute in terms of laboratory credit- there are few other lab courses at the major-elective level for our students to use toward their majors in summer. Second, the lack of field based courses (our super-outdoorsy freshwater ecologist just retired… argh!) means that any chance to do science outside of the building is a serious broadening experience for our students. We do have resources (vehicles, equipment) for this kind of work, including a small teaching collection, which were waaay under-utilized when I showed up. Finally, as suggested above- we have a union, and no course that is drawn up as the standard number of contact hours for lecture+lab is going to get devalued credit-wise on the whim of an administrator. Without enough paying students to offset the costs of instruction and equipment, classes can be dropped, but I’ve done a lot of recruiting to keep numbers up and that has become less of a concern. It also helps if your dept. chair is a field ecology person too, but that’s a little hard to control.

    I hope this provides a useful counterexample to the problems you have faced. If anybody has organized a major off-campus station-based field experience for multiple students, I’d love to hear about that- the logistics of it seem very daunting, though I’d like to try some time.

    • Thanks a lot! If you wanted to do this to cut down on your academic year load, would that work too?

      I should have mentioned that these problems wouldn’t happen much in union shops, because the collective bargaining agreement prevents this kind of funny business. Though I guess curriculum committees could hold it up for a variety of dumb reasons.

      • There’s really no option to move academic-year load units into summer. Our contract has various protections, but is not quite that flexible (12 units per semester, 3 units of teaching release for research, which makes the job technically 75/25 T/R). We have a newish President, though, and she is increasing the emphasis on research, so we are hoping this may give us some leverage to lobby for more scheduling flexibility.

        • Ours is 24 units per year, rather than 12 per semester. So, in theory, summer units could be moved into the academic year, but it doesn’t happen at my university even though it does at nearby universities with the same collective bargaining agreement. I think I wouldn’t be successful if I tried to make a summer course part of my academic year load.

  2. Immersive field courses are invaluable not only for the skills they teach, but for the relationships they build between students, and between students/profs. Our university has been very dismissive of these types of field courses, for two main reasons.

    1) We want to offer them during the summer session, and since the Uni GUARANTEES students they can finish their degree in X number of semesters, the argument is that offering summer courses violates that guarantee

    2) They do not want to provide teaching credit for intensive courses because they’re ‘over in a week’ and it ‘wouldn’t be fair’ to colleagues who teach all term. There’s little consideration of the actual number of hours put in during that week (as you so eloquently outline above) – just the perception of time spent teaching.

    To be fair, we have had issues with one of our field courses being more of a drinking fest than a course. But then it’s up to the university to cull it, and support solid/valuable field courses instead.

    I have a colleague who teaches a month long field course overseas. Yes she does her own research at the same time, but she gets NO teaching credit for it though students get course credit. While I understand she’s doing excellent work, agreeing to do the course without credit undermines the ability of the rest of us to get quality field courses on the books that are intense, immersive, and credited.

    • This is exactly the kind of hooey that I’ve been hearing about from others, too. If we just boycotted working for free, though, then the courses just wouldn’t exist, because we’re the only ones who care enough to make it happen.

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