Geoscience Fieldwork – barriers to participation (Part 2 of 2)

Following on from Part 1. This was the second piece I wrote for the course. This one expands on some of the material from the first one – discussing Fieldwork explicitly in the language of Education and pedagogies. I particularly recommend checking out the reference list – there are lots of people publishing interesting stuff around geoscience education, particularly in regards to fieldwork (virtual or otherwise), diversity, barriers to participation, and best practices.

My student education practice primarily consists of field-based teaching on geoscience field courses ranging in length from 1 day to 2 weeks. This may seem incompatible with many traditional principles of curriculum design which tend to be applied to classroom or lecture hall environments, however many of those principles do still apply. For this discussion I focus on mapping training courses which tend to be 1-2 weeks in length and involve training students to produce geological maps and associated documentation, culminating in their independent production of a map. This taught exercise is a supervised precursor to an independent 6-week mapping dissertation which is required in a subsequent year of their degree. Thus there is a multi-stage constructively aligned process where students are taught to map, practice mapping in a semi-supervised context, and are then assessed on their independent work. This is what Healey (2005) (and the “Leeds Curriculum”) describes as research based learning – students are engaged in inquiry based activities in which staff are active collaborators rather than didactic instructors. This exercise is notionally also an authentic assessment, as it mimics the kind of work that graduates may do as part of a national geological survey (such as the British Geological Survey traditionally did) or a resource exploration company. However, this is an increasingly outdated model of what Geoscience graduates go on to do. The case can be made that modern geologists are significantly less likely to practice traditional geological mapping in an employment context and some have controversially argued that our educational focus should be elsewhere (Brodie, 2013). Nevertheless, it does still serve as an excellent pedagogical method in several aspects of curriculum design.

This curriculum is by definition a Project Based Learning pedagogical approach, or “learning by doing” (Dewey, 1897). Students are given a real world challenge (understand the geology of an area, produce a map) which is explicitly taught with a research-oriented design. Students are taught how to map at the beginning of the trip via a combination of direct instruction, iterative practice with formative and peer feedback, and managed small group and one on one discussions. Field teaching staff focus on an inquiry based style, emphasising that we’re not there to state facts about the geology, but instead there to train students in techniques which will enable them to gather data and come to their own conclusions. Students are asked to describe and interpret their findings, and often are then asked to defend those interpretations from criticism and challenging questions (Buddington, 2006). This Socratic method challenges students to think deeply about their evidence and reasoning behind their interpretations (Dow, 1999). This also has the effect of creating a “Community of Inquiry” style of learning (Garrison et al., 1999). Students work together in small groups in the field (for health and safety reasons, initially) and discuss ideas, debate interpretations and share skills. The less formal, more relaxed nature of the fieldwork setting also helps students to relax and get to know each other, forming strong communities of learning. Whilst educational, this also has the significant downside of occasionally normalising plagiarism and collusion. Students frequently express confusion about what is specifically allowed in this working environment despite being given explicit guidance on the topic (University of Leeds Library, 2019).

This inquiry based method proves very effective at the stated goals of training mapping students, but can prove to be extremely frustrating for some students. Those who are convinced that there is a “right answer” which they’re being deprived of find dealing with the uncertainty of this kind of fieldwork – where the research methodology being used and documented is what is assessed, not just facts – extremely demoralising and challenging. Staff frequently speculate that this difficulty stems from a secondary level education of rote learning and assessment-led teaching, promoted by certain individuals of questionable pedagogical qualification (Walker, 2012). The inherent uncertainty and ambiguity of results in geoscience fieldwork is an excellent example of a threshold concept which is difficult, yet transformative, in a student’s education. Some cognitive science research has actually suggested that these kinds of frustrations can actually be very effective at promoting learning. “Desirable difficulties”, such as applying knowledge in a new place (the field) or using tests as learning events (e.g. assessing work produced for the first time in the field) can aid in learning and memory recall (Bjork and Bjork, 2011). Some have, rightly, criticised minimal guidance teaching methods as being less effective than direct instruction (Kirschner et al., 2006). However, it should be noted that on these field courses students are provided extensive guidance and instruction on the methodological aspect of the exercise, which is in fact the desired learning outcome. Never-the-less this remains a challenge for educators, who may find it challenging to help students get over this intellectual hurdle, and even more so to maintain an environment of “desirable difficulties” in the face of module evaluation questionnaires which frequently express frustration about those same difficulties.

Overall, our field curriculum is often singled out in student feedback (MEQs, NSS, and anecdotally) as a defining high point of their degrees. Students make statements such as “it brought everything I’d learned together” and discuss how they only really understood geology in 3D once they’d seen it on a fieldtrip. I believe this highlights how effective our curriculum design is, following fieldwork students express far greater understanding and recognise that they’ve understood threshold concepts such as 3D thinking, uncertainty and the magnitude of geological time.

Assessment on this module is split between assessment of work produced in the field and subsequent refinement and presentation of that work as a final report. The fieldwork assessment has several components, principally a field notebook, map and cross section. All three are pieces of Authentic Assessment, which students could be expected to produce in employment. They also comprise work at multiple levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy (Bloom, 1956). The field notebook is largely descriptive, the function of the assessment is to determine the student’s abilities to collect data, make observations and accurately describe what they see within the context of their previous education on geological materials and concepts. Students should then demonstrate the ability to apply this data collection to come to conclusions (or hypotheses) about the geology of the area, synthesising this information into an interpretation. First class students should also demonstrate the ability to critically assess their own work with regards to data quality, ambiguity and determine what additional information would be required to falsify or confirm hypotheses.

The maps and cross sections the students produce are “higher” up on Bloom’s taxonomy, involving the creation of new work assembled from students’ individual observations and interpretations to produce a comprehensive summary of the overall geology of the area. They are synoptic exercises which require the application of knowledge and skills from throughout their degree so far. Some educators (e.g. Didau (2015)) have criticised the uncritical application of Bloom’s Taxonomy, pointing out that there are aspects of learning where the “lower” levels of the taxonomy are more appropriate and that it is impossible to do “higher” level creative work without foundational knowledge. In a geological context this would be akin to expecting students to produce a map without having first memorised a great deal of knowledge about rock types and minerals which is necessary to interpret their observations. The comprehensive nature of field skill assessment allows assessment of student performance at all levels of the taxonomy, avoiding the frequent misapplication of Bloom’s work (or for that matter Biggs (1999)) which blindly assumes that “higher” level or “deeper” activities inherently lead to better learning. Instead, students work simultaneously at all levels – using all of their knowledge and skills together to build a complete picture of the geology. They are required and prompted to recall knowledge from earlier in their course, ultimately promoting the recall of this “basic” knowledge via a form of spaced learning (Xue et al., 2010).

This style of in the field assessment also proves very effective at capturing a true picture of student’s actual abilities without reference to texts, internet, or assistance. Field notebooks in particular are essentially impossible to plagiarise from another source. The staff on the trip know where the students have been, and what they’ve seen and been shown. Individuals from one cohort may make different observations than those on a trip the week before as tides or vegetation bury and expose different things. This essentially eliminates the threat of contract cheating, and minimises the potential for plagiarism from previous cohorts. Some degree of collusion may take place in the field, but given that each student must still record their observations correctly this is closer to a form of peer learning than academic malpractice. The subsequent interpretive work builds on these observations and directly refers back to them – again minimising the possibility of malpractice. Indeed, the assessment criteria weight the recording of information, and development and justification of a hypothesis more highly than getting the “correct” answer.

Following the field course students are tasked with completing a final field report, synthesising and presenting their findings in a formalised format (again, an authentic assessment simulating an employment activity). The process of writing this report is accompanied by small group tutorials (see attached Observation of Professional Practice form) designed to encourage students to reflect upon their own field practice and look forward towards their independent mapping projects.

In many ways field teaching has an inherent advantage in promoting student engagement. Students taking part in field courses are engaging in a form of place-based learning (Smith, 2002), an immersive experience where students are removed from their normal environment (and the distractions and routines therein) and set tasks in an unfamiliar environment which demands their complete attention. This gives educators an easier time in promoting student engagement, but in addition to the lack of distractions this environment is extremely conducive to learning. Geology field trips are intense immersive experiences where students spend 1-2 weeks in an environment saturated with geology. Rather than just a couple of lectures per day the students eat breakfast with fellow geologists, spend 7-8 hours in the field, dine with geologists, spend 2-4 hours of the evening working and then sleep only to begin again the next day. Even the accommodation is filled with geology – the Assynt field course stays in a lodge that caters primarily to geological field groups, is run by a geologist and has walls decorated with geological maps and rock displays. Some field courses are remote enough that the only human contact students have is with fellow geologists. Several students have remarked to me that by the end of the trips they dream about geology. Field courses have been described as “liminal experiences” where students go through a transformative rite of passage into becoming geologists (McCay, 2019). Not all aspects of this total immersion are positive however, many students find this intensive experience to be extremely challenging (Giles et al., 2020; Stokes et al., 2019). My personal experience has been that fieldwork can prove particularly challenging for students from a mental health perspective. The stress of impending assessment, challenging threshold concepts, and separation from support networks (and many other psychological stressors (John and Khan, 2018)) can precipitate crises – particularly amongst students with pre-existing conditions. Staff need to be conscious of this and trained to effectively support students in these situations.

In addition to mental health challenges there are of course physical challenges in geological fieldwork. Many students are not comfortable with urinating in the field, and individuals who menstruate or who require privacy to address medical needs find that fieldwork presents difficult challenges (Greene et al., 2020). These challenges are finally starting to be addressed by field trip leaders, but addressing this inclusivity challenge has taken longer than it should have due to entrenched attitudes of privilege.

Though we rarely march students to the top of mountains, field locations are typically in remote rugged terrain and often located off paths. Students with physical disabilities, or even just less experience with exerting themselves in the outdoors can find these trips very challenging (Stokes et al., 2019). In an effort to promote inclusivity there has been a lot of work done by a variety of institutions to attempt to recreate the fieldwork experience in more accessible settings. These range from fieldtrips in accessible terrain (e.g. on campus or along a road/permissive path) through to entirely virtual fieldtrips. Some examples of the former include classroom exercises common to many institutions, campus based exercises such as the University of Glasgow’s “Rock around the university” project (Dempster, 2020), and a University of Leeds field course named “Access Anglesey” designed specifically around accessibility (Houghton and Gordon, 2019). Virtual fieldtrips can be as simple as a webpage collection of outcrop and sample photos, or as complex as a video game or virtual reality experience (Cliffe, 2017; Houghton et al., 2015; Hurst, 1998; Minocha et al., 2014; Stainfield et al., 2000). The general consensus amongst the geoscience community is that these virtual substitutes are not yet equivalent to the real thing (Cliffe, 2017), but nevertheless are “reasonable adjustments” which can and should be made so as to minimise any disadvantages which students with disabilities may face. Stokes et al. (2019), in particular, extoll the benefits of maximising participation in fieldwork for students with disabilities and emphasise the importance of making best efforts to make all field trips inclusive and accessible wherever possible. The best practice, and the one which I personally support, is to maintain “real” field trips as the standard wherever possible, but modify them to enable participation from as broad a student body as possible. Virtual field trips have their place, but cannot be considered truly authentic assessments.

With regards to my own field teaching I am constantly on the lookout for opportunities to develop my skills and abilities as an educator. I believe that it’s very important to look beyond the academic echo-chamber to look for best practices in other fields. The challenges we face in designing effective, inclusive and enjoyable field based curricula are not unique to the geosciences and have been examined previously in a variety of other fields. Outdoor professionals in particular have faced many of the same challenges we do, and as a result their publications contain a wealth of advice (Long, 2003). This includes a great deal of best practice recommendations on techniques for skills training. As part of my own continuous professional development I’ve been working on several Mountain Training qualifications for this very reason (Mountain Training, 2019).

I’m also keen to integrate research informed methodologies into my own field teaching. This ranges from practical teaching aids (Murphy, 2017) to incorporating new areas of thought, such as geoethical considerations (Peppoloni and Di Capua, 2015). Some of these I have found to be effective teaching tools, such as the use of a laser pointer to contextualise my statements. Others, such as incorporating geoethics education I have found less useful, as it distracts from the main learning outcomes of field exercises. An idea which I have recently been exploring further in my own practice is that of suggested readings pre- and post-trip, which students can digest at their own leisure. Reading lists have a long history in university education, and despite simmering dissatisfaction have remained largely unchanged in that time (Brewerton, 2014). The typical critiques back and forth between staff and students about varying levels of engagement with them and unclear expectations often lead to their regrettable underuse (Stokes and Martin, 2008). Many have, rightly, criticised the canon of many subjects for lacking diversity in multiple senses (Greenbaum, 1994; Peters, 2015; Salami, 2015). In my own teaching I have been experimenting with “suggested” readings, rather than required reading lists. Required reading lists are a formalised process in the University of Leeds, recorded in the module catalogue and coordinated with the library. I am instead interested in encouraging students to read more widely than just the required course text, and have instead been peppering references to a wider array of readings, audio-visual media, and even fiction from diverse authors into my teaching. This is an effort to encourage students to develop a well-rounded education and a broader awareness of where their subject fits within the rest of society. Some of these recent recommendations have included: a webcomic about ecosystem collapse (McMillen, 2011), a TED talk on research in conflict zones (Al-Shamahi, 2018; Al Shamahi, 2019), a science-fiction novel on climate change and geo-engineering (Robinson, 2015), and a historical account of a contentious scientific debate in the area they do their fieldwork (Oldroyd, 1990). My hope is that some students will be inspired or intrigued by these shorter, accessible works and that will increase student engagement.

References

Al-Shamahi, E. (2018) Fossil fishing in the Yemen. New Scientist 237, 40-41.

Al Shamahi, E. (2019) The fascinating (and dangerous) places scientists aren’t exploring, https://www.ted.com/talks/ella_al_shamahi_the_fascinating_and_dangerous_places_scientists_aren_t_exploring.

Biggs, J. (1999) What the Student Does: teaching for enhanced learning. Higher Education Research & Development 18, 57-75.

Bjork, E.L. and Bjork, R.A. (2011) Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. Psychology and the real world: Essays illustrating fundamental contributions to society 2.

Bloom, B.S. (1956) Taxonomy of educational objectives. Vol. 1: Cognitive domain. New York: McKay, 20-24.

Brewerton, G. (2014) Implications of Student and Lecturer Qualitative Views on Reading Lists: A Case Study at Loughborough University, UK. New Review of Academic Librarianship 20, 78-90.

Brodie, M. (2013) Soapbox – Masters of mapping?, Geoscientist. Geological Society of London, https://www.geolsoc.org.uk/Geoscientist/Archive/August-2013/Soapbox-Masters-of-mapping.

Buddington, A.M. (2006) A Field-Based, Writing Intensive Undergraduate Course on Pacific Northwest Geology. Journal of Geoscience Education 54, 584-587.

Cliffe, A.D. (2017) A review of the benefits and drawbacks to virtual field guides in today’s Geoscience higher education environment. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education 14, 28.

Dempster, T. (2020) Rock Around the University, https://www.gla.ac.uk/schools/ges/community/rockaround/.

Dewey, J. (1897) My pedagogic creed (1897). School Journal 54, 77-80.

Didau, D. (2015) What if everything you knew about education was wrong? Crown House Publishing.

Dow, P. (1999) Why inquiry? A historical and philosophical commentary. Foundations 2, 5-8.

Garrison, D.R., Anderson, T. and Archer, W. (1999) Critical Inquiry in a Text-Based Environment: Computer Conferencing in Higher Education. The Internet and Higher Education 2, 87-105.

Giles, S., Jackson, C. and Stephen, N. (2020) Barriers to fieldwork in undergraduate geoscience degrees. Nature Reviews Earth & Environment.

Greenbaum, V. (1994) Expanding the Canon: Shaping Inclusive Reading Lists. The English Journal 83, 36-39.

Greene, S., Ashley, K., Dunne, E., Edgar, K., Giles, S. and Hanson, E. (2020) Toilet Stops in the Field: An Educational Primer and Recommended Best Practices for Field-based Teaching.”. OSF Preprints.

Healey, M. (2005) Linking Research and Teaching to Benefit Student Learning. Journal of Geography in Higher Education 29, 183-201.

Houghton, J. and Gordon, C. (2019) “Access Anglesey”: An inclusive and accessible field course. Teaching Earth Sciences 44, 7-11.

Houghton, J.J., Lloyd, G.E., Robinson, A., Gordon, C.E. and Morgan, D.J. (2015) The Virtual Worlds Project: geological mapping and field skills. Geology Today 31, 227-231.

Hurst, S.D. (1998) Use of “virtual” field trips in teaching introductory geology. Computers & Geosciences 24, 653-658.

John, C.M. and Khan, S.B. (2018) Mental health in the field. Nature Geoscience 11, 618-620.

Kirschner, P.A., Sweller, J. and Clark, R.E. (2006) Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching. Educational Psychologist 41, 75-86.

Long, S. (2003) Hill walking: The official handbook of the Mountain Leader and Walking Group Leader schemes. Mountain leader training UK.

McCay, G. (2019) Fieldwork: The liminal experience you never even knew you had, Teaching Matters blog. The University of Edinburgh, https://www.teaching-matters-blog.ed.ac.uk/fieldwork-the-liminal-experience-you-never-even-knew-you-had/.

McMillen, S. (2011) St Matthew Island, http://www.stuartmcmillen.com/comic/st-matthew-island/.

Minocha, S., Davies, S.-J., Richardson, B. and Argles, T. (2014) 3D virtual geology field trips: opportunities and limitations.

Mountain Training (2019) Lowland Leader Qualification.

Murphy, P. (2017) High powered laser pointers–a useful aid in field teaching. Teaching Earth Sciences 42, 31-31.

Oldroyd, D.R. (1990) The Highlands controversy: Constructing geological knowledge through fieldwork in nineteenth-century Britain. University of Chicago Press.

Peppoloni, S. and Di Capua, G. (2015) The meaning of geoethics. Geoethics: Ethical challenges and case studies in earth sciences, 3-14.

Peters, M.A. (2015) Why is My Curriculum White? Educational Philosophy and Theory 47, 641-646.

Robinson, K.S. (2015) Green Earth. Del Rey.

Salami, M. (2015) Philosophy has to be about more than white men The Guardian. The Guardian, London.

Smith, G.A. (2002) Place-based education: Learning to be where we are. Phi delta kappan 83, 584-594.

Stainfield, J., Fisher, P., Ford, B. and Solem, M. (2000) International Virtual Field Trips: A new direction? Journal of Geography in Higher Education 24, 255-262.

Stokes, A., Feig, A.D., Atchison, C.L. and Gilley, B. (2019) Making geoscience fieldwork inclusive and accessible for students with disabilities. Geosphere 15, 1809-1825.

Stokes, P. and Martin, L. (2008) Reading lists: a study of tutor and student perceptions, expectations and realities. Studies in Higher Education 33, 113-125.

University of Leeds Library (2019) Working With Others.

Walker, P. (2012) Tough exams and learning by rote are the keys to success, says Michael Gove, The Guardian.

Xue, G., Mei, L., Chen, C., Lu, Z.-L., Poldrack, R. and Dong, Q. (2010) Spaced Learning Enhances Subsequent Recognition Memory by Reducing Neural Repetition Suppression. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 23, 1624-1633.

The 2019 New Years Resolutions post that nobody was waiting for

Resolutions don’t work anyway, especially if you tell people about them (Gollwitzer et al., 2009) (more or less, if you read between the lines and make some broad inferences, and with some provisos). But I’ve shared mine anyway for a couple of years in a row now so I might as well keep on going. First, the goals from last year:

Continue reading “The 2019 New Years Resolutions post that nobody was waiting for”

The long overdue “so how did the new year’s resolutions go?” postmortem post.

What do you mean I haven’t posted a blog post in over a year? Lies. I’ve just blocked you. That’s why you can’t see them. Yes you.

 

Well yes, obviously it didn’t go that well given that my secret extra resolution was to blog a lot more. In my defense though it’s extremely hard to motivate oneself to write after completing a massive soul-destroying project (now available for anyone to read here, should you dare) which crushed both my self-confidence and will to get out of bed in the morning. It’s also doubly difficult to blog when you’re technically homeless and sleeping in your boss’s garden like some sort of medieval serf (cheers though Tom!).

 

Still, let’s go through the list and see how I did shall we?

Continue reading “The long overdue “so how did the new year’s resolutions go?” postmortem post.”

12 Nights in a Hammock

I don’t really do New Year’s Resolutions. Most of the time I think they’re just setting yourself up to fail – they’re an all or nothing proposition usually, and they’re often forgotten the moment you have your first stumble. How many resolutions to go to the gym every Saturday survive that first weekend away in late January? How many times does someone declare “no more chocolate” right up until discount mini-eggs appear on the shelves? Not many, I would wager. It’s also very hard to just decide to change based on a whim, rather than by being forced to through circumstance.

This year however, I am going to set a few long-term goals. I’m hoping I’ll have a little more luck than most since they’re things I actually want to do anyway – not chores in service of fitness or self-improvement (though handily they won’t hurt in these areas either).

Continue reading “12 Nights in a Hammock”

Climate, travelling, and the ethics of the round the world plane ticket.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between climate change and travelling. Part of this comes from finally handing in my PhD. I’ve been cooped up behind my desk for a good few months, and it’s been a long time (barring a couple of weekends and field trips) since I’ve really had the opportunity to go anywhere or do much exciting. The last decent trip I did was a pre-conference field trip around parts of Australia, a week long road trip from Sydney to Melbourne two long years ago. Even though it was a work trip (and thus spent almost entirely underground), we had a fantastic time doing some quick exploration of the Blue Mountains and Kosciuszko National Park. Kosciuszko in particular was an absolutely stunning locale, true wilderness in places with stunning vistas and wild horses and kangaroos roaming freely. I would love to go back there (spiders aside) and spend a few days or weeks wandering around.

dsc_0414

Continue reading “Climate, travelling, and the ethics of the round the world plane ticket.”

Quick HowTo: Modding an Alpkit Brukit to take any pan.

My current stove is an Alpkit Brukit. It’s a nifty little thing that excels at one purpose: boiling a pan full of water in its integrated pot. For the price, weight and convenience this camp stove excels. However, it is limited to its built in pot, as putting any other pot on the top will cut off the air supply to the burner.

So here’s a picture guide to a little 15 minute, £4 project that will let you use the Brukit with any old camping pan you own.

Continue reading “Quick HowTo: Modding an Alpkit Brukit to take any pan.”

BBC Sport: If I was in charge

When you work in an office environment (like I do) then you end up watching a lot of sport on your second monitor during the summer. This is doubly true during years where the Olympics or World Cup are held in appropriate time zones. My Masters degree coincided with the 2012 Olympics, and frankly I’m as surprised as you are that I have a Masters degree.

These days, though, it’s all about the cycling for me. Which, when it comes to the BBC, means coverage provided by a BBC sports journalist somewhere in an office with a microphone watching the feed from Eurosport (or occasionally ITV) because the BBC can’t afford the broadcast rights for the events. The exact same thing happens with the main events of most sports, with the exceptions of the rare occasions when the BBC decides it’s worth whatever cost for them to show it. That would be the Olympics, and football. Of course these rights are sold through the IOC, FIFA or the like – and therefore are at an astronomical price to the British tax payer. [As an aside, what is it with large sports organisations and corruption? Is it just an inevitable case of power corrupts?].

Not being privy to the internal budgets of the British Broadcasting Corporation I can’t speculate on how much of their budget is spent on these large events – but I guarantee you it’s a small fortune if the premier league is anything to go by. In fact the BBC is rapidly being priced out of large sporting events.

So, what would be different if I was in charge?

Forget the lot of them.

Any conversation about the BBC and its purpose inevitably boils down to this: Lord Reith’s declared purpose of “inform, educate, entertain” and the inevitable debate over what it means to be a public service, and whether that precludes pushing commercial interests. Personally, I have no problem with the BBC making a bit of money by producing commercially viable entertainments and selling them to overseas markets. America gets its Doctor Who and Top Gear, and we get a bigger budget to spend on other things. That’s fine. But when it comes to commercial sport the BBC is never going to manage to compete with a commercial enterprise which can sell adverts during big events. Every additional viewer of a large sporting event means that commercial providers like BT and Sky can bid even more for it – because they’ll make even more money back on ad revenues. The BBC can’t compete with that for the big events, so as far as I’m concerned they shouldn’t even try. The public get to see their large events anyway – because they’re going to watch them on the ad-supported channels anyway – and on the off chance that they don’t have access to those channels the BBC can continue its excellent radio and text coverage online.

Now that I’ve saved the BBC millions on their budget, what shall I spend it on?

Sport!

I have a vision for what BBC sport could be. I can’t claim total credit, because I actually got the idea from the unlikeliest of possible places – the BBC itself. One of the best regular BBC shows is one that you’ve never heard of. It’s beautifully shot, well commentated, focuses on (largely) very British locations and promotes some more obscure events and regions. It’s called The Adventure Show, and the reason you’ve never seen it is that it’s barely promoted and is shown exclusively on BBC Two Scotland at dinner time for 10 nights out of the year. I highly recommend checking out the show yourself, but in a nutshell it consists of a presenter and a camera crew filming episodes around adventure sports. They go to small, interesting UK sporting competitions and film the stories behind them and show some of the highlights. Sometimes they even compete themselves. A good example of this is their Strathpuffer episode where they document a midwinter 24-hour mountain bike race in the north of Scotland (and if you watch very, very carefully you may spot my friend Cat competing in). The show is fantastic, and it doesn’t cost very much because all it requires is a presenter and a camera crew. Half the time the events probably don’t even charge the BBC to film them, because they’re glad of the publicity.

The BBC has national studios spread across the country. They have presenters, they have camera crews and they have the resources to broadcast on both television and online. What’s stopping them from relaunching a new BBC Sport channel showing amateur British sports across the country? And isn’t that what the BBC is for? We can inform and educate the public about sporting events they don’t know about, whilst entertaining them with fun stories and sporting competition. All the while performing a public service by giving exposure to events which might otherwise fly under the radar because there’s not a large enough existing audience for commercial viability. Football doesn’t need any help, but I’m sure British Archery would love to show their larger events to the public. I’m sure the national ice hockey or roller derby leagues would love to have their games on national television. Women’s sporting events can finally be shown in full, I’d like to see a bit more than just the barest highlights of the women’s six nations. There was supposed to be an olympic sporting legacy where people discovered new sports and got out there to try them – maybe a new BBC Sport channel can be the reminder and the gateway which lets them find local, exciting sports which might interest them.

Le Tour de France: If I was in charge

I love watching the Tour de France. For 3 weeks out of the year work in this office grinds to a halt between 2-4pm or so as the cyclists converge around monitors and occasionally coffee room iPads to watch the final 60 odd kms of each stage. We gleefully cheer on breakaways, bemoan our poor choices in our fantasy league (I was last again this year – knew I should’ve backed Froome rather than Quintana and Contador), and wince at mechanicals and punctures. And every year, we have the same conversations about two main topics: doping and touring – and I wonder about how we could make the Tour even more exciting to watch.

Doping

First, the inevitable spectre of doping. Every year at the Tour it raises it’s ugly head. Typically in the lead up we hear from He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, the Tony Blair of cycling, chief-scumbag himself as he desperately tries to get the media spotlight on him once again. This is rapidly followed by someone, usually either a past-offender or the latest Astana team member testing positive for something stupid. Then, finally, through the race itself someone inevitably has a good day of cycling and the unfounded speculation begins.

It’s boring. I’m tired of hearing about it. Everyone (including me) assumes that they’re all on drugs, nobody is particularly surprised when anyone is busted. Nobody is surprised when someone is busted AGAIN, after receiving a trivial off-season ban (or, in the rare cases of a ban with teeth, they then start commentating!). Nobody views therapeutic use exemptions with anything other than weary scepticism.

So why don’t we just give up? If it’s really this hard to stop it, if it’s really so hard to prevent these guys from micro-dosing EPO in their hotel rooms, why don’t we just say go for it?

Imagine this: a 3-week anything goes race across France. A peloton travelling uphill at 60kph with track-marked riders snorting cocaine off their handlebars and guzzling blood bags like nosferatu. Pharmaceutically enhanced Übermensch competing against bionically enhanced cycle samurai fresh from the fevered dreams of William Gibson.

Imagine seeing riders exceeding the limits of human abilities on a daily basis. Superhuman feats of speed and endurance shattering records daily. I’d watch it!

Hell, it might even do leaps and bounds for medical science. Then again, there might be some ethical concerns after the first few self induced health crises…

Maybe this idea will need to go back to the drawing board. Let’s try something else.

Touring

At this point, why even call it the Tour de France*? The Tour de France bears about as much resemblance to bicycle touring as an olympic javelin event bears to spear hunting gazelles on the African savannah. So while the EPO-junkies as described above have their “Tour” sprinting up hills and outpacing the team cars (which they’d otherwise linger against, lovingly stroking the outstretched hand of their team manager for just a little too long) we can run a real Tour de France!

Here are my new rules:

  • No team cars
  • No motorhomes
  • No team doctors, chefs, masseuses, mechanics, coaches, etc.
  • No hotels
  • No drugs **
  • Riders must camp and carry everything on their bikes
  • Riders followed only by referee cars and camera crews
  • Stages aren’t rigidly defined – there’s a start and a finish overall, with maybe some checkpoints on the way
  • All supplies and repairs along the way have to be bought from existing businesses or carried from the start
  • We make the riders actually do a real three week bike tour across France

Now this maybe doesn’t sound as exciting as the current form that the tour takes. It will certainly be slower, there’s not going to be lots of attacking up climbs the morning after the whole field has slept on a gravelly French alpine camp site. There might even not be true Pelotons, as teams do their own route finding. But imagine the potential for stories!

Suddenly there’s fresh drama during the stages, fresh tactical decisions to make, and minor events like punctures take on new significance. Legends will be made about bodged self-repairs, camp site shenanigans, risky shortcuts up dirt tracks, tragic losses of maps to adverse weather, and comical misunderstandings by British riders in boulangeries. The age of social media brings immediacy to these stories, we’d get to follow the live outrage as Team Sky buys every energy gel in the Carrefour. Indeed, with live GPS tracking of riders we could see thrilling maps as teams take different routes and commentators discuss the merits of different mountain passes. Even the bikes get more interesting: do you go full carbon, pack light and bivvy uncomfortably? Or do you opt for something more reliable and pack heavier in the hopes that better rest helps you out in the later stages? Domestiques begin to be favoured not just for their riding abilities, but also for their camp cooking skills, sports massage and map reading abilities. Miles from a bike shop there are tense stand-offs as BMC negotiates with Tinkoff-Saxo to swap spokes for inner tubes.

We can even keep some of the modern innovations in the tour, this adds even more tactics to the route finding. Do you go out of the way for those sprint and KOM points? Or do you keep your team together to protect your GC contender? A lot more tactics will start being displayed in the racing.

This would inject fresh drama into a sport which otherwise can often see a peloton riding almost as if the race was neutralised until the last 30km climbs to a mountaintop finish. I’d be glued to the screen for three weeks.

*I’m being facetious and pedantic here, I know perfectly well the history of the Tour – but bear with me.
**Or at least our best efforts. Let’s be honest, nobody believes this’ll be achievable.

A later addendum:

Oh yes, and both of those races should have equivalent women’s races. It’s a travesty the lack of attention women’s cycling gets – it’s just as good. A full women’s Tour de France is long overdue.

Why I Hate Record Store Day

So today is Record Store Day, the day when a whole lot of exclusive limited edition hard to find records are released to the world*. Theoretically this is to promote independent record stores, opening them up to a new audience who might not otherwise wander in, keeping these shops afloat and relevant in this modern age of Amazon and all the rest. I have all sorts of issues with this, but I’ll start instead with an account of my experience of Record Store Day this year.

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Bob Mooches Around the Free Fringe

I love the Edinburgh Fringe. Sometimes.

Last weekend I made the arduous journey northwards through the signal-less wastes of Northumberland and the Scottish Borders to visit one of my favourite cities. I adore Edinburgh; it’s the nearest major city to the town I grew up in, so I have a lot of fond childhood and teenage memories of visiting the place. Oddly though, we never used to go to the Fringe. I really don’t enjoy crowds, the last bus home was too early, and I wasn’t really into stand-up comedy before starting uni. These days though I seem to end up in Edinburgh about once a month visiting one of my best friends (Jono – more on that mess later), and I’ve started a bit of an annual tradition of popping up for a weekend and going to free fringe shows with my good friend Robbie.

This year I decided to go up on the Friday night and stay until lunchtime on Sunday – a good couple of evening’s worth of shows and crashing on Robbie’s inflatable mattress, ideal. Then on Thursday morning a Facebook invite pops up for a Pizza Party at Jocelyn’s place on the Sunday evening. Never one to pass up the perfect foodstuff I decided to change tickets, extend my stay, and crash on Jono’s futon on the Sunday night.

Rookie error. I won’t go into the details, but Royal Mail’s “special delivery” which is “guaranteed by 1pm” is none of those things and nearly resulted in me being trapped in Edinburgh. Fortunately East Coast’s customer service is top notch and they sorted spare tickets out for me. An argument for nationalisation if ever I heard one. But let’s move on.

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