October 16, 2017

“Pure sunshine all day”: Fieldwork Inspiring Expanded Leadership for Diversity

Posted by AGU Career Center

<id=”image-anchor” img class=”size-full wp-image-1671 alignright” src=”https://blogs.agu.org/onthejob/files/2017/10/Posselt-e1508187823983.jpg” alt=”” width=”299″ height=”300″ />“Pure sunshine all day…” On June 19, 1869 John Muir opened his journal entry with these four words, describing the conditions for him and the group he traveled with through the High Sierra. This summer, I conducted fieldwork in the same general area, and the conditions on June 19 were brutal. “Pure sunshine all day,” 100+ degree heat, no shade for miles in any direction.

My reason for fieldwork, however, was different from those of my colleagues in a five-week geoscience field course. I observed the course as a social scientist on an NSF project, whose research component is an ethnography aimed at understanding the culture of learning in the field. With fellow social scientist Anne-Marie Nuñez, my “fieldwork about fieldwork” is aimed at clarifying what knowledge and skills field leaders need to make field-based geoscience more inclusive of populations who have been historically underrepresented—women, people of color, and people with disabilities to name a few categories. The project’s called FIELD, short for Fieldwork Inspiring Expanded Leadership for Diversity.

We are still analyzing ~300 hours of field observations and 30+ interviews with instructors and students. A few themes are clear however, such as the power of natural conditions like “Pure sunshine all day” to shape students’ ability to learn and their sense of belonging in the group.

I experienced firsthand how a majestic landscape framed by a clear blue sky opens the mind. For many field scientists, there is a real sense of wonder, such that fieldwork’s essence was described by one participant in my sample as “knowledge with inspiration.” But when you are exhausted from hiking miles through desert-like environments, you don’t do your best thinking (as I also learned firsthand). And certainly, it’s not as easy for instructors to put up with the nonsense of a difficult student when either party is exhausted, or for overheated students to know how to interpret the offhand comment of an also overheated instructor.

Field science creates the unique opportunity to become a part of the system you study. The same heat that bakes the rocks you’re climbing and measuring could easily give you a miserable sunburn—especially at altitude— if you’re not careful. Your eyes wince from the same wind that desiccates the landscape.

The question is: how can field leaders work with and around difficult natural conditions so that the work remains inclusive and safe? In our case on June 19, the instructors loaded everyone into vans extra early so we could engage in planned activities without as many hours outside in the heat of the day. They checked with every single person before setting out to see how many liters of water our packs carried. And of course, everyone wore a hat or head protection of some sort, and we reapplied sunscreen with almost absurd frequency—the grimy layers of sweat, dust, and sunscreen only adding to the very physical experience of the course. I observed two thoughtful TA’s sticking close to students in the group who had relatively little outdoor experience.

These steps are practical, and I mention them as common-sense things any field leader could do in such circumstances to reduce risks and improve the quality of everyone’s learning experience—not just those from backgrounds who are underrepresented in these fields.

But there remains a contingent within the geosciences that upholds—even fetishizes—things like hiking miles through 100 degree heat and no shade as an opportunity to display toughness and other “macho” qualities that for decades or longer have characterized fieldwork. I thought it was telling that even the most fit women in my group experienced dizziness on the hottest days of fieldwork—and confessed to me that they would never admit it to their instructors. To create a more inclusive culture of fieldwork will take naming basic realities like “pure sunshine all day” that can affect the work, naming cultural norms like toughness that deserve a critical look, and naming practices that enable field leaders to create more favorable learning conditions—for underrepresented groups and for everyone.

To that end, the FIELD project will be hosting a free three-day institute in Fall 2018 (in the Rocky Mountains above Fort Collins, CO) for geoscientists who lead field experiences and want to build knowledge and skills for supporting inclusion in the field— you can contact me for more information about this event. Anne-Marie Nuñez and I will also have more conclusions from this research to share in this forum in the months ahead.

Dr. Julie Posselt is an Assistant Professor at University of Southern California.