Designing field work in a pandemic
The COVID pandemic and the need to socially distance can create problems for fieldwork, but it’s still possible to gather data safely. Last semester Dr Nick McGlynn, Dr Paul Gilchrist and Dr Carl Bonner-Thompson created a new, local field trip on the final year optional module Gender, Sex and the Body.
Previously this module included a field day in Soho in Central London, where students studied the making of LGBTQ urban spaces. Due to COVID this field day couldn’t be repeated in 2020. Instead, informed by the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, the team redesigned the field day with a focus on Brighton instead. Blended learning materials were provided days in advance, to help set the academic contexts for the day and explain the history of LGBTQ Brighton (images 1-3).
On the day itself, the fieldwork instruction was redesigned to be entirely accessible via mobile phone. Students were organised into groups of two to three to help maintain social distancing, and given staggered starting times and locations to minimise potential contact. Short instruction videos for each activity were put on YouTube for easy mobile access. Finally, all-day live video support from lecturers was available via Microsoft Teams. Dr Nick McGlynn and Dr Carl Bonner-Thompson set up a temporary base at a University of Brighton building close to the fieldwork site, just in case any problems arose.
The small, socially-distanced groups undertook two field exercises, with routes and tips provided on the Google Earth app (image 4).
For the first exercise, students walked through and noted observations about the St James Street area of Brighton. Students spotted obvious markers like different flags of the LGBTQ community, as well as more subtle signs like graffiti, street art and branding. In addition, they examined the creation and function of commercial spaces such as LGBTQ bars, sex shops, and services aimed at the LGBTQ community. Here students were able to consider what makes an area an ‘LGBTQ space’, as well as how we might complicate this. They also identified ways in which LGBTQ communities have influenced the material development and transformation of the area.
For the second exercise, students undertook a body mapping of their walk through a cross-section of the Brighton seafront. Following the assigned route, they moved across different surfaces and sensory environments – from paved streets to the pebble beach, and from the doughnuts by the pier to the public toilets under the promenade – recording what their physical body experienced as much as possible. Through this method students learned how it can be useful to consider the entire body when it comes to geographic research, rather than just words or numbers.
The next day, a follow-up workshop was held so students could share their findings, uploading images, videos and written notes to the module’s Teams group for everyone to see and discuss. As a result of the trip, students on the module were better able to link the theoretical materials on the making of LGBTQ space to an empirical setting, and had effectively commenced their reflective learning on embodied geographies, which was the core theme of the second half of the module.