Why Field Journals?

When I go to work most days at Thompson Rivers University (http://www.tru.ca/), I lecture on plant evolution and ecology. My field journals—some with spines hand-stitched, others with spines torn and duct-taped, but all filled with musings and scrawling—represent the touchstone that transcends these worlds. While the completed journals sit quietly on a bookshelf sandwiched between the thick spines of botany textbooks, the work within their covers is the passion that fuels both my personal and professional life. My journals are the place where I can cast off the tyranny of hard numbers and testable hypotheses and revel in the intricate wonder of the natural world. They are also the process by which I find my own place in the world. I am terrified of living a life half-noticed. If I don’t pay attention, the sparkle of individual moments is lost to me. My own complacency is transcended each time I pick up my pen or dab with watercolors. The mundane becomes momentous and I am filled with joy to be a part of this spectacularly vivid existence.

Illustrated journals also represent my own minor rebellion against the omnipotence of scientific knowledge, for both myself and the students I teach. Each time I turn to the clean sweep of a blank page, I am invited to investigate the world around me. The immediacy of the events unfolding around me allows me to observe what is truly there rather than what I have been trained to expect. As an educator, I can think of no better skill to inculcate in my own students. Illustrated journals, within which drawings and text live side by side, have become the cornerstone of how I teach science. Drawing, especially, forces my students to pay attention, to observe. Rather than occupying seats of “knowing” my students and I can become active investigators of the object of our attention—whether it be the arrangement of cells in the cross section of Geranium stem or the placement of aspen stands across a landscape. Journaling is another way to learn about and to rejoice in science. Each stack of journals, completed in the lab or in the field, that I have to mark represents an opportunity for me to learn about how my students learn. My student’s journals (and their complaints about their drawing ability!) provided the impetus for an ongoing collaboration between myself and a TRU visual arts instructor, Ila Crawford. For several years, Ila provided drawing tutorials for my students and together we analyzed the impact of the illustrated journals on student learning (Baldwin and Crawford, in press). I first turned to illustrated journals when the quantitative demands of my own PhD research were robbing me of my naturalist’s curiosity. And while my journals remain my best, my most authentic celebration of the natural world, they have also become a critical tool by which I teach my students to explore their own understanding of science and the world around them.

Baldwin, L.K. and I. Crawford. In press. Art instruction in a botany lab: a collaborative approach. Journal of College Science Teaching