‘Teaching in the Field’ by Olav Slaymaker


The Department of Geography at UBC has a strong reputation as a conscientious teaching department. This reputation was established by the founding Head of Department, the late Professor J. L. Robinson, who was himself a Master Teacher. When I joined the department in 1968, I was surprised to find that there was no undergraduate teaching conducted in the “field”; all truth was communicated within the closed walls of the classroom. My first initiative, that the department should purchase a vehicle to facilitate field teaching, was defeated in solemn departmental conclave by a vote of 15 to 1 with no abstentions. Six months later, the purchase of a “yellow peril” was approved unanimously and twelve months after the idea had been defeated, I was taking groups of ten students at a time out from the classroom and into British Columbia’s magnificent outdoors. Evidently, absolutely anything and everything was possible in this New World.

Geographers “bodily enter the field of their enquiry” (Baker, 2004) in order to observe. A critical part of geographical interpretation of landscape is that of “observation” (Powell, 2002). We have a direct interest in an aesthetic (the Romantic ideal) and in its indirect association with measurement (the Enlightenment imperative). In the image above a group of undergraduate students is being invited to create order out of a wild landscape. Some are overwhelmed by its pristine beauty; others cannot wait to be informed on how this complex sub-alpine ecotone is organized and sustained. These questions are arid and almost meaningless in the classroom, except under the guidance of a charismatic teacher. In the field, such questions come alive even under the leadership of an averagely competent teacher. If you are fortunate enough to have a charismatic teacher interpreting landscape in the field, the undergraduate teaching experience can be life-changing. Many of my most satisfying teaching experiences at UBC have been “in the field”.


Baker, V., 2004. Fieldwork. In: Harrison, S. et al., eds.,Patterned Ground. Reaktion Books, London, p.136-137.

Powell, R.C., 2002. The Siren’s voices? Field practice and dialogue in geography. Area, v.34, p.261-272