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?