Field Journal Instructions

Education is the ability to perceive the hidden connections between phenomena – Vaclav Havel

A major component of the field school (worth 30%) involves keeping a detailed field journal. As conceived here, the field journal is a hybrid cross between a scientific field notebook and a reflective journal. While a field notebook is a “comprehensive and cumulative record of field expectations and objectives, information and data, experiences and observations, analyses and insights” a reflective journal represents a “place for thinking and feeling, harvesting the moment, image, idea and the place you occupy”. It might be thought of as a tool for taking time to think and record the world around you and your evolving relationship with it.

The main purpose of the field journal is to connect different field experiences, your own prior life experiences and the readings, ideas, analytical tools / frameworks etc. developed in the first week of lectures / discussions.  Your journal will include written observations, stories, inspirational quotes, written reflections, images, diagrams, maps, art, collages, songs and / or poetry. It is meant to be thoughtful, insightful and creative.

Field journals may take the form of traditional paper notebooks or as electronic “notebooks” completed on a tablet, iPad or portable laptop (submitted on a USB drive).

Note: Our field course departs from physical geography, ecology or other courses where “the field” is clearly defined as a physical setting distinct from the laboratory / university. “The field” for us will include: city streets, planning offices, urban farms, university campuses, as well as more classic “field” locations as we learn about sustainable community development and Northern Europe. Recall Nairn’s troubling of the binary between field and school.

You will work on your field journal everyday completing the following:

  1. “in the field” notes
  2. summative and personal reflections (explained below)

The field journals are due on June 14th. In the assessment, the instructors will ensure that you have completed all requirements, will skim your daily “in the field” entries and will focus in detail on four of your reflective entries (two that you have chosen and two at random). You are to meet at least once before that time (preferably in the first two weeks) with one of the instructors to discuss your journal and ensure you are on the right track. Hopefully we will be able to return the field journals to you on the morning of June 16th. Students in the past have found them to be thoughtful keepsakes of the field school.

** Thanks to Brenda Beckwith and the Redfish School of Change for some of the inspiration for this assignment. Quotes are taken from her teaching materials

Here are some more details on the field journal entries, followed by some helpful tips:

“In the field” notes

During field trips and during your own free explorations of the places we visit, you will record observations and insights always keeping in mind the course analytical tools provided in the first week. Sometimes the instructors will provide specific “assignments” or things to look for, other times you will decide on your own direction for inquiry.  These entries should be undertaken daily while “in the field” and can be “rough”. They should include the following:

  • A record of the date, time, location, site and a descriptive title at the beginning (very important)
  • you may include site characteristics, weather, important contextual factors etc.
  • A statement of the objectives or the purpose of this field entry (include your own objectives and where relevant the stated purpose / objectives of the presenter / guide) – you might need to leave a couple lines blank and come back after to record objectives once they have become clear
  • Record any observations, experiences, information, data in as much detail as possible organizing as much as possible around headings / sub-headings and course analytical tools
  • Include images, sketches, maps or other visual aids
  • Record any immediate analysis, insights, questions, follow-up opportunities

Reflective journaling

After the field activities of the day you will do your reflective journaling, considering what you observed in light of course objectives. These reflections should be undertaken at least once per field school itinerary stop but may occur at the end of each day.

  • Include date, time, location and a descriptive title, objectives
  • Record your reflections and analysis (more detailed than in the field), consider questions raised in the field and any follow up possibilities
  • The key here is to making connections between the field experiences and readings, course themes, other sites
  • Self-reflective journaling – you will also reflect on your own personal self-discovery - what you are learning about yourself; on your own assumptions about sustainability and the Northern Europe region and how the field experience and entering into conversations with others is informing the transformation of your thought; on what blind spots are being revealed; on what is helping you to become better informed and develop a more articulate and constructively critical appreciation of these places and the issues; on what you want to learn /what you want to further develop and how you can
  • if you experience resistance in self-reflective journaling, try to notice what and why that comes up

Think of these reflections as valuable memos to yourself for when you return and want to work for positive change in your own community.

Important considerations for field journaling

  • Remember your field journal is a scholarly document. Do no think of it as a daily diary. Approach it as a place to legibly record careful observations, insights and reflections. However, in the best, contemporary sense of scholarliness – you are encouraged to be creative and deeply self-reflective.
  • Be disciplined and consistent. It is not an onerous task if you work on it a little bit each day. Do your reflective journaling in the evenings or on travel days.
  • Organization is key. While field notes are hurriedly put together … they can be remarkably accessible if you follow guidance above  (e.g. always include title, date, location, objectives etc. and headings / sub-headings, space for adding memos + links to readings / course tools)
  • Keep a few blank pages at the beginning so that you can go back later and include a table of contents
  • While there are multiple styles of field notes you may wish to divide page into columns – one for observations and one for spontaneous insights, questions, follow-up, links to readings / course tools etc.
  • Always take time to observe. Let your mind slow down to the task so that you can detect subtler and subtler elements. Make sure you take time away from the group to allow yourself time to go into deep reflection mode
  • Don’t be lazy. Include as much detail as possible at the time… you’re bound to forget something. Think of journals as memos to yourself. Write out acronyms the first time. Include contact info, websites etc. – so you can follow up on things later
  • Engaging fully in your field-work is much more rewarding than just doing the minimum required.
  • Reflect frequently on course objectives to help you focus and synthesize knowledge but also be open to interesting insights that don’t fit our course analytical framework.
  • Ask lots of questions and move to more and more piercing questions. 
  • Be as detailed as possible in visual aids. You do not need to be a great artist but ensure your sketches, maps, diagrams are labeled, units are included (where relevant) etc.
  • Be precise in your descriptions. Avoid vague descriptors: “good”, “bad”, “beautiful”, “nice”, “amazing”, “awesome”, “a lot of”, few” etc.   Rather than describing some place as “amazing”, detail exactly what it was that inspired you so much.

journal sketch mapFigure 1 Example of a student Field Notebook sketch (of market gardens) -You do not need to be a great artist but ensure detail and effective labeling

Helpful hints (from Dr. Beckwith) on writer’s block

  • Free write. Just pick up your pen or pencil and start writing, without self-editing.
  • Find a quote from one of the readings that stuck with you. Write about that.
  • Think about what one of our hosts told you. A story or a challenge.
  • Choose a colour. Sometimes working with colours allows for new creativity.
  • Start doodling. Let your right brain do the work!
  • Address your entry to someone else, as in a letter.
  • Look through your class notes for a phrase or idea that jumps out at you, and start there.
  • Start with a mind-map, creating clusters of ideas. Then plumb the connections.
  • Play the devil’s advocate—start with a phrase or idea that you don’t actually believe.
  • Outline some ideas in point form – these may be inspirations or actions to take
  • Find a beautiful, quiet place to sit in order to begin. See what happens.
  • Start with 5-10 minutes of silent observation. THEN pick up your pen.
  • Turn the journal upside-down or diagonally, and write that way.
  • Keep a notebook, or stickie notes, and jot down neat ideas so you don’t forget about them when journaling later.
  • Build on what you already have written; refine previous thoughts and delve deeper.