Yes, I’m teaching a tropical field course. No, it’s not a vacation.

Images: Howler monkey (Alouatta pigra); Royal Flycatcher (Onychorhynchus mexicanus); Helmeted basilisk (Corytophanes cristatus).  All photos © 2017 S Heard, CC BY 4.0

In March, I’ll be heading to Belize to teach an undergraduate tropical ecology field course (not alone; I have an excellent batch of co-instructors).  I mentioned this to someone last week, and their reaction was to chuckle and say “wow, must be nice!”.  And maybe it seems petty, but I’m getting really tired of that reaction.

The thing is, it’s near-universal.  It comes from people outside the academy and outside science, but it comes even from my departmental colleagues – especially my non-ecological colleagues*. They, you see, have never taught a field course, and apparently, don’t have much idea of what’s involved.  I suspect they picture me lying indolently in a hammock, under a coconut palm next to an azure sea, sipping a cool drink while occasionally glancing over to see how my students are getting on with their tans.  Do I exaggerate?  Probably.  Maybe.  Maybe not.

Here’s what teaching a tropical field course actually involves:

  • Teaching – and lots of it. We guide students through pre-trip library research and presentations.  We teach, in the field, from about 5:30 a.m. to midnight, nine days straight, and with no real breaks: if one of those lovely and huge tropical cockroaches lands on the dinner table, that’s a teaching opportunity.  Once we’re back, we grade journals and we grade research-project reports. This isn’t necessarily more teaching than a regular course, but it isn’t less, either (I’ve done the calculation).
  • Logistics. In a regular course, if I need a vial, a net, or a roll of duct tape, I grab it from a cart or ask a teaching-lab technician. In a field course, if we haven’t schlepped it through 3 plane flights in our own baggage, we probably don’t have it.  And those 3 plane flights: arranged and purchased a year in advance, because we need to get 15 students on the same set of planes – along with layover hotel rooms, field station slots, buses, and more.  (Fortunately for me, one of my co-instructors does a bang-up job of most of this.)
  • Supervision. When we teach, we’re also – temporarily – supervising student behaviour and safety.  This is an important piece of the teaching job, but one that’s pretty well defined and familiar in an on-campus setting.  It’s a little more complicated, and a lot higher stress, given charge of 15 young people in airports and customs queues, on the streets of an unfamiliar foreign city, and (especially) deep in the tropical rain forest.  I’m not suggesting that my students are problematic, in terms of behaviour – most of them are serious and responsible and most of the time, they heed our advice.  But they’re inexperienced, and the stakes are high.
  • Conditions. About that cool drink in a hammock by the azure sea… not so much.  Routinely, we stand and teach in a downpour.  We’re afflicted by biting flies, gashed by thorns, chafed by salt water and sweat and slogs through the bush.  And 33° may sound lovely to my colleagues at home, where it’s -15° and their nose hairs are freezing at each breath, but at least for me, it’s not lovely at all.  It’s 9 straight days without once feeling comfortable (or even dry), with every shirt I’ve brought wet and reeking of sweat, DEET, and exhaustion**.

I’m making the whole field-course experience sound awful, I realize, and of course it isn’t entirely so.  There are wonderful things about teaching a tropical field course too.  A chance to teach ecology immersed in nature is something special – no amount of clever bench- or computer-lab design can touch the teaching power of poking a hole in a termite mound and watching what happens next.  You can’t embed enough photos in a lecture PowerPoint, or run enough screenings of Blue Planet, to match the motivational force of having a dolphin swim past your student group on the reef.  And if there’s one thing better than seeing a toucan perched in the tree above your breakfast table, it’s seeing a student who’s never been to the tropics before see that toucan.  So despite  the work and the discomfort, I go back.  My complaint isn’t actually with the work, or the discomfort; it’s with the people who jump to the conclusion that my field course is a vacation.

I’m sure there’s nothing more sinister going on here than a good old-fashioned case of the grass being greener on the other side of the fence.  And the taller and more opaque the fence, the greener the grass.  As galling as I find field-course envy, it’s a useful reminder for me, because I’m not immune to the grass-is-greener syndrome.  My grad-student self envied my (future) professor self; and if I don’t think carefully, I find my professor self envying my (past) grad-student self.  And I have days when just about any job I don’t have seems more appealing than the job I do have.  (Other days – most days – I remember that I have the best job on the entire planet.)

So: if you don’t assume my tropical field course is an idyllic week of rest in the sun, I promise not to assume that your lab-with-10-postdocs-to-do-all-the-real-work is a walk in the park.  Let’s all realize that we don’t have perfect vision of the grass across the fence.

© Stephen Heard January 15, 2019


*^Some of whom couple the “wow, must be nice!” with asking, with barely disguised incredulity, whether the course counts toward my teaching commitment.

**^It doesn’t help that I teach a tropical field course, and I hate the tropics.  I mean, sure, biodiversity!  But for the love of all that is holy, why do the tropics have to be so hot?  I’m a creature of the north.  What aren’t I teaching field courses in Iceland?

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11 thoughts on “Yes, I’m teaching a tropical field course. No, it’s not a vacation.

  1. Jeff Houlahan

    Hi Steve, don’t envy you a bit. I get that I’m in the same business as you so it’s not surprising that I understand the workload better than a ‘civilian’ but the thought of running a field course in another country would keep me awake at night. For all the reasons you describe. I know there are profs that really enjoy this kind of teaching, just as there are profs that love teaching in a wet lab and profs that love teaching in a computer lab…but it’s all teaching. It all takes a ton of prep and doing it well takes commitment. I would much rather teach 3 classes of lectures for 13 weeks than spend 10 days in the jungle and two weeks after grading papers. Jeff

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      You raise two really good issues here (not addressed in the post, both worthy of full posts!)

      On the first: I would LOVE to have some kind of needs-based bursaries available for such things. One year, we had a little bit of that, but you know how hard it is to find those funds. Which leaves the question, is it better to have no such courses at all? And I honestly don’t know the answer.

      On the second: looks like things have improved since we started running this course, but are still not very good. I will admit that this was not considered in choosing location (way back in time), and it should have been.

      These are super short and not very satisfactory answers!

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      1. Emilie Champagne (@MissEmilieC)

        In the form it takes at Université Laval, the course is student-lead. Students put together a team of students, convince a professor to teach the course and to travel with them (not easy!), and raise money through various activities and selling of calendar and other.
        So we could think that the money barrier is less important, BUT the students that have the time to put that much time into a course are probably the ones that don’t need to work to attend university…

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  2. David Hunt

    I’m the TA for a field course just 45 min outside the city on a nature reserve and I get this. I usually give my fellow grad students a side long look and a question about 12-16 hour days for 12 days straight. Considering I’m only paid for 180 hours for the TAship, and there is prep before the field course, and helping students do the stats and write reports afterwards, I’m vastly underpaid. But I love my job and can’t bring myself to half ass it and take a day off.

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  3. sleather2012

    I know how you feel, I ran a terrestrial ecology field course based at Silwood Park (so nice and temperate, although some years rather wet) for 20 years. It was two weeks of great fun and interactions, but at the end of those two weeks I was absolutely exhausted and the Department definitely didn’t give me the full 12 hours a day credit for it!

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  4. Peter Apps

    The problem is both wider and deeper than you describe; field work in general is regarded by those who don’t do it as some kind of extended holiday in the bush, and since it is a holiday (and what a privilege to be working on such magnificent animals in such a magnificent area etc etc) then nobody should expect to be paid anything like professional rates to do it. The consequence is underpaid people in underfunded projects, and a larger and larger fraction of the work being done by inexperienced volunteers on short-term postings. That leads to a lack of continuity, and quick grabs at low hanging fruit rather than sustained effort towards strategic goals.

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  5. Marco Mello

    Nice post! Most colleagues really don’t know how much work a field course is. I’ve participated in several and coordinated one for some years. Yes, the working hours usually extend from 8 am to 10 pm, if there is not night practice (shame on us, bat people!). And the degree of comfort varies a lot, depending on the lodging facilities, from hammocks in the middle of the jungle to proper rooms. The worst part is the huge responsibility of taking care of 30+ people in wild, most times with improvised resources, even for personal safety.

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  6. Pavel Dodonov

    People sometimes forget what it’s like in the Tropics. Amazing biodiversity, but also the heat, and the rain, and the moskitoes, sometimes all at the same time! 🙂 The fieldcourses I helped with as a postdoc were really fun and also really tiring; for the students more than for me, but still, lots of work.

    By the way, my cosupervisor, Karen Harper (from Dalhousie), also taught a tropical ecology course in Belize… Wonder if it’s the same one?

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