Field Trips: In defence of reality, why ‘being there’ matters, and a serious point

In an age of augmented, virtual and simulated realities, where we can video-conference into meetings, and on-line tutors can work for universities that they’ll never set foot in, I was wondering about the benefits of Field Trips. Can’t we make a VR trip, and allow students to engage from their learning location of choice?
Last Supper in Spain..
I must admit some bias here.  I’m sat typing this on a flight with 37 second-year Undergraduates (and some colleagues), on the way back from our annual 5 night trip to Córdoba (and Seville) in Spain. I’ve been taking students on this trip since the inaugural 2009 visit, and so clearly believe this trips have value. I always presumed that the value of such visits was a matter of universal consensus. Universal consensus is, in Universities, of course neither desirable nor even conceivable. But in recent years I’ve encountered two responses* that I want to counter in this brief post.
1: How awful for you – a lovely trip ruined by having to take students..
I am happy to hear this said in jest, but have also often heard it said in earnest.
Of course, as a tutor (and non-young-person) I have different interests to students, and have to retain a level of distance (I may have to fail their work next year!) and I am not their drinking buddy, but if you don’t have a genuine curiosity for what young people think, and find them engaging and always worth the time to listen to – what are you doing working in education? Seriously.
Every year, I have returned with a higher regard for my students then when we left, and I barely knew them. Ignoring the rubbish talked about millennials, my students are amazing young people. They are a diverse group, with a variety of commitments, opinions, medical challenges, confidence, hobbies and sometimes annoying weaknesses for partying and needing a little reminder of the existence of other humans. Some have travelled the world, for others it is their first time on a plane, or abroad. Some out themselves as frugal and well organised (I like the student this year with a separate envelope for each day, so he could control his spending better), others tumble through complicated adventures and discover the actual utility of being able to read a city map. But when we get back, they are, to the tutors who have been with them, individuals, not stereotypes, and we are reminded of the lives that sit behind the faces we see in class each week.
2: Where is the learning?
Some colleagues worry that we are just taking them away to have fun. While I appreciate the fundamental objection that many have to young people having ‘fun’, and its rampant dangers for those about to spend the rest of their lives in debt, doubt and despair (and therefore its poor expectation-management value), I am happy to note that Field Trips are, phew, all about the learning.
Not only do the HM5050 students learn about time management, asking directions in Spanish, European trains, cultural practices regarding putting your change in those little trays and not your hand, sharing space with people they don’t know, getting real intellectual value from museum visits (motivated by assessment), what to do when you get very lost (and your tutor does too), really looking after friends who need help (not just sharing friendship-matters memes on Instagram), and their tolerance for walking**/lack of sleep, but they learn about the topics we have gone to study. Yes, they could learn from books about the way that Cordoba played host to an amazing intellectual flourishing, or the way that the history of Islam, Judaism and Christianity is intertwined in this part of Europe, but I want them to see it – not just in pictures, but in the archways the walk through, in the recycled Roman columns of some of the Mezquita extensions, as they lean on them. I want them to meet two tour guides (and ask them unpredictable questions), and visit a museum, in the same day, that offer three different accounts of the same history. In this they are learning about the politics and complexity surrounding the representation of the past, and who ‘owns’ it in different sites, and how power is etched into the architecture they walk on, the dishes the cafes serve, and that now, they travel the world not as mere tourists, but as scholars, with, as much as possible, their critical faculties alert.***

Why Field Trips Really Matter:

There is another aspect to all this that I actually think is quite serious and important. I am not just responsible for running multi-night, overseas events, but am really keen to encourage colleagues to get students into valuable spaces for potential learning. Recently I have found myself in Leicester (for Diwali), at the Imperial War Museum, in Avebury, and wandering around galleries, fields and more.
The thing that has struck me is that some students would visit such places anyway, and know the score about how they operate at a theatre, etc – they are at home there, and ‘know the form’. Others students would, if not delivered there by their tutors, never think of making such a visit, or feel like they belonged – that it was an ok thing for them to do. They arrive at University with such a diversity of cultural capital and confidence. I want, by the time they leave us, them to be entirely comfortable with going to a museum, gallery, theatre, or other event – and feeling like they have a right to be there. We can address at least this inequity in cultural capital and confidence, while they are with us, or we can leave it as yet another unchallenged disadvantage for some students. As this is an area we can, without even too much resource usage, address, surely we have an ethical duty to do so?
Links that relate to this post:
The RPE Flickr album shows how much our team has committed to this aspect of learning:
Seville Alcazar (and me peeking)
* I’m ignoring the “how nice”, “enjoy your holidays” responses, though I still receive plenty. Anyone who’s been at A&E in a foreign hospital, using google translate to ask questions about a student that is part of your group, or has heard their ‘field trip phone’ bing at 3am, knows how far from relaxing a trip like this us, even if there are (and there are) fantastic aspects, which make it something I am grateful for being able to do.
** One day of the trip includes seven free hours in Seville, after the Alcazar and Cathedral – and I offer the chance for students to join me on a mystery tour, if they haven’t already got plans (boat trips, more museums, etc.). Many do, but I  tour hard – and most drop off at the Triana area, and none have ever made it as far as the wonderful Andalusian Centre for Contemporary Art, where the mystery ends..
*** Yes, they also go to bars and get drunk sometimes too, and not all leave as advanced scholars, but the steps towards that are incremental, and transformation is subjective and complicated. What matters, I’d suggest, is that we are pushing and pulling in the direction that matters.

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