Of wetlands and water snakes: Lessons from the field

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Vibrant red and blue roofs dot the water’s surface, while wooden boats skillfully weave between patches of flooded forests and quaint floating homes. This is the Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, where most of Cambodia’s floating villages are located. 

But this illusion of an idyllic retreat belies the reality of extremes of the Tonle Sap’s natural terrain. During the rainy season, its whole landscape turns into a sea and the only way to get around the area is by boat. In dry seasons, its grounds can become so parched that the water becomes almost a trickle in creeks and streams, affecting both lives and livelihoods. 

“There's a lot of everyday realities that those people (living there) have to face. By taking students there, they realise how important water is to society, to particular places, and how difficult it is to live in a place where the water levels change dramatically between the wet and the dry seasons,” Dr Carl Grundy-Warr, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Geography at the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, explained. “I think it's really the direct experience of experiential learning that helps to deepen students’ understanding of the real world environmental and social problems,” he added. 

Therein lies the value of field studies and experiential learning. It is one thing to have an epiphany in a classroom, and another to witness and experience others’ lived realities. 

He remembers taking students to a village once where the only available source of fresh food most of the time was water snakes. “And so, I got used to eating water snakes for lunch and dinner every day. But in a way, that experience made me love the place,” he recalled. “It's because it was so different. I kind of got so used to this notion that that's the food that people had available and that's what they could eat. So that's what we ate.”

The rationale of exposing students to field experiences informs his two courses: Field Studies and Field Investigation in Human Geography. Since 2001, he has brought countless batches of students to Southeast Asian countries to conduct fieldwork. To him, marrying theory and practical experience is key to a fruitful education.

Sitting among the trees at the NUS campus, a gentle breeze sweeping fallen leaves onto the table every now and then, he shared, “It is about going deeper into real-world situations that you can’t do from just the classroom.”

Beyond the borders of a book

Fieldwork is a long-standing tradition in Geography, but Dr Grundy-Warr believes that Field Studies has its own unique charm.

While a highlight is having students spend between one to six weeks in another country during the semester, more importantly, the field is where theory and applied geography comes to life.

It is not that class-based learning is unimportant, he clarified. Rather, it has to be complemented by field experience. “One thing that a field-based (course) can do that a class-based one can’t is engage all our senses. Immersing students in environmental contexts is valuable because they feel it, they smell it, they get an understanding of everyday geographies and ways of life,” he noted.

For example, in his Field Studies trip during 2019, he and his two colleagues, Dr Wang Yi-Chen and Dr Miles Kenny-Lazar gave their students a project on the life cycle of a parasite, opisthorchis viverrini, that lived in the waters of Isan, a region in northeast Thailand. Together with students from Khon Kaen University, they traced how the parasite moved from snails to freshwater fish to human beings.

The liver fluke parasite contributes to a major public health issue in the Mekong region, a fatal bile duct cancer (cholangiocarcinoma) affecting tens of thousands of people. Through the life-cycle, students were engaged in various projects, including landscape ecology, land-use change, fishing and farming livelihoods, food cultures (particularly eating raw, semi-cooked, and fermented fish dishes), and the geographies of public health.

Ms Chong Yee Ching, a former-student-turned-teaching assistant in NUS Environmental Studies at the College of Humanities and Sciences, shared that taking both courses during her undergraduate studies “humbled” her.

On her trip to Kratie, Cambodia, in 2019, she interviewed local fishermen about Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong, which were part of an ecotourism and conservation programme by the World Wide Fund for Nature.

When she asked whether these endangered animals – unintended victims of illegal nets and electrocution fishing practices – should be protected, their answers surprised her. “They said, ‘Yes, because it affects my income,’” she recounted.

This gave her a fresh perspective on environmental protection efforts. “As someone from a position of privilege, conservation value is how I view conservation. But when you’re on the ground, people’s concern is not conservation – it’s getting by day to day,” she said.

“I understand the need for conservation to be profitable, even though that’s not the most palatable concept.”

Living life lessons

Beyond academics, field studies also provide fertile ground for cultural exchange to take place.

“Instead of seeing people as subjects we learn about, we see them as friends, family, and neighbours,” Dr Grundy-Warr elaborated. Through homestays, students eat, work and play together with locals and students from host institutions.

In fact, it is sometimes the minutiae of everyday village life that make the greatest impact. When asked about his greatest takeaways from both courses, Mr Matthew Lu – another former student and teaching assistant of Dr Grundy-Warr – replied without missing a beat: Friends.

From the village chief who taught him to sow rice seeds, to his Cambodian friend who took slow-motion videos of him having a dip in the Se San River where villagers take their baths, these moments are stamped fondly on his memory.

Such moments, including learning to meet and greet people in new contexts, is a soft skill that students have to hone.

“Knowing how to sit with your legs crossed on the floor and conducting a polite interview with an elder is a skill! You don’t just go in as a group, surround the person and fire questions,” Dr Grundy-Warr explained.

Trusting the process

The one thing that he is most adamant about is that education is a process. “It’s not just about grades,” he emphasised.

His teaching philosophy is reflected in how he assesses his students’ progress. Besides field diaries and a final presentation, he makes it a point to gauge his students’ thought processes throughout various stages of their field projects.

This means assessing what methods they use, how they work as a team and whether they have moments of self-reflexivity.

“These are things that aren’t seen as much in a class-based setting,” he said. “I meet all teams at least three to four times throughout the entire process (of a project) to gauge how they’re going about their work.”

Some projects have lived on even after the courses ended. For instance, one project on reducing plastic waste on the Tonle Sap was developed into a year-long funded initiative involving specialist practitioners, students from Singapore and Cambodia, and community volunteers.

“We periodically went back to work directly with villagers on this plastic-on-water project. Field studies essentially enabled us to do community-based work,” he said.

For now, Dr Grundy-Warr is looking forward to field studies making a comeback in the upcoming semesters, after a three-year hiatus due to the pandemic. “Learning can be fun in field settings, and that element of fun is important in exciting the passion of students,” he concluded. 


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