The Field School as a Living-Learning Community

The idea of the Living-Learning community is hot on my campus. Dorms are partitioned to offer special programs (the Honors College, Fine Arts students) so that students with similar academic interests can live together. The idea is that learning will continue from the classroom to the dorm, resulting in a new type of intellectual community.

I’ve run the field school for cultural documentation in Arlington, but this is the first time I’ve attempted a residential field school. The idea came from GMU’s Center for Field Studies, a non-profit organization on campus that helps professors develop field-based experiential learning opportunities. The Center has most often been used by scientists who study things like coral reef and rainforest conservation. My idea was to create a one-credit course to complement my Appalachian Folklore course. The eight students who enrolled are a subset of the 27 who took the three-credit course in the spring semester.

We got her yesterday afternoon and spent the rest of the day settling into the cottages (rented from a Berkeley Springs Cottage Rentals), making a grocery run, and getting dinner. This morning we held class in the Fairfax Coffee Shop (which has the added benefit of free wifi service). The first class session was an overview of the project, our goals, and the basics of participant-observation research and fieldnote writing. It’s a cool rainy day, but I still sent the students on their first assignment: a walking tour of downtown Berkeley Springs. They’ll walk the town with the guidance of a brochure that highlights the local historical sites (thoughtfully provided by the Berkeley Springs Chamber of Commerce). They’ll complete the tour and write a field note based on their experiences.

One of the best aspects fo this experience so far is that, as an instructor, I have the students’ full attention. They are separated from their everyday lives, the internet and probably most importantly, other classes. I can’t think of any other time in the history of my teaching career where this has happened. As I sit in the coffee shop composing this post, I see my students walking around town, popping in to the shop to draft their fieldnotes, and huddling under their umbrellas talking about what they’re seeing and experiencing.

This field school was an experiment of sorts. I enjoy teaching the field school in Arlington and will continue to do so. But if this works well it opens the possibility of more intensive, three-credit courses here in West Virginia and elsewhere. Perhaps the residential field school is the best way to intensify the learning experience in a information saturated world where most students’ attention is being drawn away by social media, work and even other classes.


One thought on “The Field School as a Living-Learning Community

  1. eolson3

    “They are separated from their everyday lives…”

    I think this is great. I think we should encourage high school or college students to do a “semester abroad” in an area of their own country, or even their own state, that is fundamentally different at the cultural and economic level. A student that comes from the high-resource schools of Northern Virginia, in a class of 500+, will probably learn quite a bit by spending time at a school in Grundy, VA which graduates fewer than 50 students a year (and vice versa). Rather than sending a privileged ($$$) few to Germany or Switzerland, provide this opportunity for cultural exchange to dozens of students.

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