In a regular classroom, it’s relatively easy to arrange topics in the order you want. You have to work around constraints like Thanksgiving break, and obviously the number of topics has to fit the number of class sessions in one way or another. But that’s about it.
A field course also has constraints of the calendar. The biggest challenge is somewhat different: making geography fit both a chronological sequence and an analytical one. We don’t have transporters that get us from place to place in whatever sequence we like. Instead, the geography must tell a story.
In past years, I’ve been constrained by the airport at Jackson Hole – some students have chosen to ride the van with me while others have flown. I’ve used that to tell a story of tourism, starting with a superficial engagement of the Grand Teton range. We see the Tetons as a tourist sees it while driving through, and then engage the landscape more deeply with hikes and an introduction to wildlife and ecosystems. Then we engage wildlife more deeply in Yellowstone, and loop back to Jackson Hole and the airport.
This year I had the freedom to do something different, a great crescent through the parks. We began at Cody, Wyoming, with an overview of the mythic West. My impressions over the years is that “the West” often helps recruit students to the class, but students vary considerably in terms of how detailed this vision is. They do know what a rodeo is, however.
After a long drive on the second day, students had the option of attending the nightly rodeo in Cody, Wyoming. Questions of animal welfare sparked some reactions, especially when they saw calf roping and bull riding.
Another cultural surprise came as the announcer and rodeo clown engaged in some banter that consisted mostly of bad jokes. A few of those jokes used stereotypes that would be socially unacceptable back in Illinois. That introduction to Western ways had most of us rooting for the bull against the rodeo clown.
We formally began class at the Buffalo Bill Historic Center the next morning. We visited the Draper Museum of Natural History, providing an introduction to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem from low-elevation sagebrush flats to high-elevation tundra. Students explored the other four museums according to interest (Plains Indians, Art, Firearms and Buffalo Bill). We finished with a live raptor show.
Then . . . off to Yellowstone !