Reading Nature, Observing Science: Examining Material Practices in the Lick Observatory Archives and Kenneth S. Norris Papers

Case 2: Natural History Field Quarter

During his time as professor of natural history at UCSC, Norris created the Natural History Field Quarter, a course which is still offered by the university's Environmental Studies Department. This popular field course focuses on the natural history of California, as students are immersed in different habitats across the state in order to gain first-hand experience in field observations and naturalist work. Norris's Field Quarter, which was often co-taught with environmental studies professor Stephen R. Gliessman, consisted of four to six field trips that were approximately five to ten days long. These trips involved lengthy bus rides to sites such as the Granite Mountains in the Mojave Desert, Big Creek in Big Sur, Santa Cruz Island of the Channel Islands, Kelso Dunes in the Mojave Desert, Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, and Lake Mono of the Eastern Sierra. Once at their destination, students and instructors hiked, camped, and cooked communally. Students were required to write daily journal entries during field trips, and gave group presentations about the different areas they visited. 

Norris's Field Quarter went well beyond the confines of the traditional classroom. In an interview with Randall Jarrell for his oral history biography, Norris states, "our little moving organism across the state became an organism into itself and it was terribly different than teaching in a laboratory or a lecture hall on campus, where you’re propped up in front of the students and the students are taking down your every golden word. In this case, you’re living your life with them in a very real way" (35-6). The Field Quarter thus created a different pedagogical dynamic between student and instructor. Instead of dispersing knowledge in a unidirectional manner, as in the case of the traditional laboratory or lecture hall that Norris describes, this course integrated students' and instructors' different knowledge and perspectives within a communal and collaborative learning experience.

After teaching the first Field Quarter Norris became aware of this integration of lives, personalities, and viewpoints. He states in his oral history biography, "I was dealing with the lives of 23 young people, all bright, all special in their own ways, who were busy trying to find their place in the world. I was part of it. I wasn’t just on the sidelines. I was a part of that search and it marked me for life. It wasn’t anything, anything, like getting up in front of a class and then teaching it and then sitting down. It was a slice of life" (39). From its first offering in 1973 to 1990, when he retired from UCSC, Norris's Field Quarter was a meaningful life experience that challenged traditional conceptions of learning and authority in the classroom.

Contents of this path: