“Bluegrass makes community,” says Keith Reed, banjo, guitar, and bluegrass ensemble teacher with Colorado College’s studio faculty in the Department of Music. “You add players, you add community.”

It’s a simple premise, but one that Reed and CC’s bluegrass ensemble put to the test in this Summer Session course as they toured the Midwest and Southeastern United States.

“I wanted the students to get the real road experience, to feel what it’s like to do the hard miles,” Reed says with a huge smile.

A lifelong bluegrass player and touring musician himself, Reed is in a unique position to present the realities of a musical life on the road to his students. Having performed across the country and around the world, including shows at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center, Reed’s band of merry musicians have been hitting the road since early June.

Field-study courses like Reed’s are an integral part of the Colorado College experience, and creating and enhancing these opportunities is a key initiative of the “Building on the Block” strategic plan, which envisions every student going on multiple field experiences throughout their time at CC.

One of CC’s most immersive Summer Session courses, Advanced Topics in Music: On the Road and American Bluegrass, Reed’s students spent their June playing festivals, campgrounds, and clubs across the American heartland and Southeast. They got up close and personal with professional musicians across a number of venues and stages across the country.

“This is such a great group of students,” Reed says. “They want to do the work of touring musicians, to be exhausted, to perform, to form that community.” It’s one of the most “CC” experiences anyone could think of putting together — nearly a month, on the road, in a 12-person van, touring across the country, living and breathing the experience.

“There are huge opportunities here, and not strictly musical ones. For students interested in the industry, we’re meeting with music executives and producers, working with sound engineers and roadies — every person has worth on this trip, every single role is incredibly valuable,” Reed explains.

The students played, camped, and Airbnb’d their way across Montana, South Dakota, and Indiana. From there, they headed east to Asheville, North Carolina, then to Nashville, Tennessee, and finally on to Owensboro, Kentucky, for the Romp Festival.

Garrett Blackwell ’17 says the course showed him a musician’s perspective of life on the road, but he also was able to experience different parts of the U.S.

“Traveling from the west to the east, we experienced a wealth of culture. Overall, this class has epitomized the experiential learning opportunity that makes CC such a magical place.”

“We’re experiencing almost everything that a bluegrass band would be on the road,” says Yuexin Chen ’18. “From camping and jamming, long drives, inevitable junk food at the rest stops, to the exciting parts such as recording and busking late night on the streets.”

Along the way, the class played with some extra-ordinary musicians — real legends of bluegrass and folk — like Chris Thile of Nickel Creek and the Nitty Gritty Dirty Band.

“What this course does, this experience, is it allows us to get a real feel for the country as a whole. We go through so many places with unique music cultures, through Utah, Montana, the Badlands, down into the South – it’s amazing,” says Reed. “Music doesn’t pay attention to age groups, what people do, what they believe. As long as you love it, you’re accepted. That’s what this class is all about.”

Another big believer in field trips is Associate Professor of Art History Rebecca Tucker, who has led many in her teaching career. As director of CC’s Crown Faculty Center, she also helped lead and coordinate faculty development, and she is particularly interested in studying the pedagogy of field study at CC.

“Field study makes different types of learning possible; it expands the arena of engagement for students, but also for the faculty. Faculty are very much in favor of field study, as a particular type of learning opportunity, as a means of getting students to go all in,” says Tucker. “What field study does is it takes the academic part of learning, which is incredibly intense here, and replaces it with something that is more holistic. So physically, emotionally, psycho-logically, you are all invested in what you are doing.”

Faculty and students at CC can experience a block together in a profound way. Having this involvement together out in the field amplifies the focus, and the depth that students and faculty experience.

“In the classroom, a class commonly addresses questions from polarized positions. Asking questions in the field enhances nuance and breaks down expectations. The same thing happens to the faculty; the transformative experience is true for all of us,” says Tucker.

Tucker says many of the field experiences at CC would be impossible if not for the Block Plan.

When students and faculty have only one course at a time, field trips can be a significant part of the educational experience. Going into the field gives students the opportunity to see the application of concepts taught in the classroom, and it can be transformative. The Block Plan opens up teaching and learning opportunities that are extremely difficult, if not impossible, under a normal semester schedule.

Field study also provides opportunities for college students to develop the qualities that employers are asking for, according to Tucker. “You can’t ever really tune your education to exactly what employers want. But they are saying they want what our students do on field trips — they want them to look carefully; they want them to be flexible; they want them to think on their feet; they want them to work in groups, adjust to different settings; they want them to engage. That’s what a field trip does,” she says.

Recent graduate Joe Jannetty ’14 says he is unique among his friends who attended other colleges in the quality and number of field study opportunities he had at CC.

“Taking one course at a time affords you a lot of individual attention from your professor, and allows you to become fully immersed in the course. I was an economics major, but had the opportunity to go fossil hunting in New Mexico, study astronomy on the Baca campus, and research snow leopards in Nepal. None of my friends from home or from work had those opportunities because studying one subject at a time allows you to travel with your course without interfering with other courses,” Jannetty says.

Georgia Griffis ’18 sketches a rock formation at Red Rocks State Park in Morrison, Co. during her field study course Two Views of One World: Geology and Art in the San Luis Valley, co-taught by Henry Fricke and Michael Arnsteen. Photo by Jennifer Coombes

Mellon Pedagogical Researcher in Residence Heather Fedesco agrees. “The Block Plan already does something unique by immersing students and faculty in a setting with sustained focus on content, but through the extensive use of field trips, students have additional opportunities to learn in settings where their learning is being applied. By creating novel, or unique, learning moments, students are awakened to a fuller and deeper understanding of the concepts being taught. What makes the Block Plan so special is the reinforcing effect these opportunities have on the learning that takes place here.”

The unique place of field study in a CC education has received more attention and support in recent years, with the formation in 2014 of the Office of Field Study and the hiring of Drew Cavin as director of field study. The office was created to support faculty to teach off-campus field study courses. Cavin does this through logistical and administrative means, as well as by connecting faculty to pedagogical support and in-the-field resources. 

In July 2015, Cavin organized CC’s first Symposium on Field Study, which consisted of a small program of selected presenters and workshops designed to share best practices in field study courses. The investigation of field study pedagogy, its learning outcomes, and its contribution to students’ holistic development is an emerging field, according to Cavin, and much of the study related to field experiences has been done within the co-curricular outdoor education context, not from the academic perspective. The CC symposium was an effort to look more closely at the academic point of view of field study, a perspective for which liberal arts colleges have a special advantage, says Cavin.

“In contrast to large lectures and MOOCs [massive open online courses], the liberal arts’ nimble, immersive, and small classes are uniquely positioned to make use of field study pedagogy to create high-impact experiential learning opportunities,” says Cavin.

Students in the course Russian Language, Literature, and Film experienced firsthand the high impact of field learning when they split class time between the CC campus, the Baca Campus, and the CC cabin. Learning a new language and culture became a richer experience for it.

“The field trips in the class were very important to helping us bond as a group and to helping us learn. The field trips allowed us to get to know our classmates better and be more comfortable interacting with each other, therefore, we didn’t feel ashamed or restrained to practice the language with our classmates,” says Eyner Roman ’19.

Visiting Lecturer Natalia Khan, who co-taught the class with Associate Professor of Russian Alexei Pavlenko, says the field trips had multiple goals.

“There are so many distractions on campus. We want the students to get to know each other, and at Baca, there is nothing to do but hang out with your classmates, so it brings us together. Also, it lets them learn about themselves. At the CC Cabin, we stayed overnight and cooked a Russian dinner together. Everyone was participating, so we became even closer.”

Participants in the Russian Language, Literature, and Film course find that learning a new language and culture is a richer — and tastier — experience when cooking together at the CC Cabin. Photo by Bryan Oller

Field trips have traditionally been used to enhance science courses, but at CC, on the Block Plan, the extended time in a class without other distractions allows students to actually become field researchers, trapping and sampling fish populations and examining how they have changed over time. Brian Linkhart’s Animal Ecology course did just that on the last free-flowing major tributary of the Colorado River system. The Yampa River in northwest Colorado is the focal point of the class.

“Students are working with primary data sources — they’re taking and gathering real data. That’s of paramount importance. It builds realism into what they are doing — they see that it’s relevant. There is a sense of ‘here is real biology at work’ and the importance of the techniques and methodologies that we employ, and trying to be as objective and careful with the data collection as we can,” says Linkhart, associate professor of organismal biology and ecology.

“The Block Plan is central to our ability to do this. Being able to immerse in remote locations, those experiences take on a life of their own that can’t be duplicated,” he says.