For many fields in science, field work and field courses can be an important (some would argue necessary) component. Geology, geography, ecology, conservation, anthropology, archaeology, taxonomy, and more involve, to some extent, the study of parts of the natural world. And it’s an attraction to some part of the natural world, be it a species, a place, a feature, or an experience, that draws many of us into these fields. Speaking personally, you may be surprised to find that birds weren’t my first love, but rather coasts and islands. The birds just happened to be there.
Many universities’ taught programmes include field components, most of them local day trips, or occasionally an overnight. Some, though, include multi-day overseas field courses which are marketed as giving students a broader international perspective on <discipline name>. But they can be deeply problematic.
There are still about 70 countries where being gay, in particular, is illegal. Many of these inherited such laws from (British) colonial occupation, and there are varying degrees of enforcement (both for local residents and foreigners). But the fact remains that the law is still on the books. Holding field courses in such countries puts students and staff at risk unnecessarily.
I was interviewing for a faculty job at a UK university that will remain unnamed (at least for now) in 2016. During the campus interview panel, the expected teaching requirements were laid out, and it included a field course in Ghana, where being gay is illegal. This wasn’t mentioned in the advert. I knew right there that I wouldn’t take the job because it would mean I would either have to fight (again) with folks I didn’t know and therefore had an unknown chance of losing, or turn down the job if I was offered it. My heart sank. It was all I could think about for the rest of the interview and campus tour. I returned to my hotel by the train station at the end of the day and wept. That university has, for the last several years, changed their social media avatars each June to be wonderfully rainbowed. What a pile of meaningless corporate performative allyship.
This was part of a thread from Prof Christopher Jackson following his announcement that Imperial College London would no longer have a geology field course in Oman. If you want an example of the kind of feedback those fighting for equity, diversity, access, and inclusion in science face, scroll through the replies.
I have often been asked about such field courses, and what folks (from students to instructors to departments) can do to make them better, so rather than write everything out for the umpteenth time, I thought I would put them all in one place.
The first thing to know is that it’s not about being arrested for having sex. It can be anything that, in one’s own home country, would rarely be seen as “same-sex” anything. For example, a British tourist arrested in Dubai after touching another man’s hip as he moved through a bar in 2017. Or a British tourist arrested in Morocco after authorities searched his phone and found images used to prosecute him. Or where even waving a rainbow flag in Egypt resulted in Sarah Hegazi’s arrest, torture, exile, and eventual suicide.
It’s simply not safe for queer folks.
The first question you need to ask if your institution runs an overseas field course, is whether it’s in a place that’s safe for your queer students & staff. The Wikipedia page is very up to date, and the annual map from the ILGA is also a useful (and multilingual) resource. Move. Your. Field. Course. Location.
But if that isn’t enough to convince you, let’s look from an institutional perspective. Field courses are run with varying degrees of oversight (and if we’re honest, many are pretty low on that oversight spectrum). Besides generic “consult travel advice from the Foreign Office” platitudes, does it say anything about the additional threat to queer students and staff? If you run a field course, ask yourself how you could get a student out in less than 24 hours. Do you know who to call? Who will pay for the flight? Who will meet them when they get home? What support they need? What support YOU need? What’s covered by your insurance? Universities are not known for being the most compassionate
corporations organizations, so don’t assume you can pop it on your MasterCard and expect thousands of pounds to be reimbursed.
If you can’t answer these questions before you depart, Move. Your. Field. Course. Location.
A “solution” I’ve seen suggested is that folks just “tone it down” while away. To be clear, anyone suggesting that needs a swift thwack up the side of the head. To suggest queer folks return to the closet for the sake of a field course is harmful, insulting, and immediately suggests you don’t have the student’s (or staff’s) best interests in mind. Move. Your. Field. Course. Location.
And lastly, just because you may not perceive a threat doesn’t mean it’s safe for everyone. Will your trans students be arrested for using the bathroom that matches their gender? Will your gay students be taken aside because their binoculars have a rainbow pin? The number of cases of this, which is ENTIRELY AVOIDABLE is >1, which is more than should exist. Move. Your. Field. Course. Location.
There are other justifications for moving field course locations, too. Their a financial burden (another barrier to under-represented groups in science). One UK university has a Masters course (£9000 tuition) that has an Antarctic field course (another £9000). That’s not equal opportunity. There’s the environmental/carbon cost of flying a pile of students & instructors around the world for marginal, if any, benefit. And at least in the UK, the colonial look of it all (let’s all go to <country> to study <megafauna> because it’s so wild!); getting a bunch of students to meaningfully engage with the colonial history of science in such a short time is difficult, if not impossible, and certainly not prioritized in the curricula of such courses.
And lest there be any doubt, many of the arguments above apply to universities’ overseas campuses, which is a whole other kettle of fish, and an argument for another day.
tl;dr – overseas field courses reward & amplify privilege, are unsafe for queer students & staff, and have marginal, if any, justification compared to field courses run closer to home. MOVE. YOUR. FIELD. COURSE. LOCATION.