Every spring, Marlboro College offers one or two semester-long courses that include a travel abroad experience. A few years ago, I had the opportunity as part of a Freeman grant held by the college to participate, along with students, in a study course focused on Asia.1 The year that I participated, the course was titled Việt Nam: Revolution and Restoration, and it included a three-week trip to north and central Việt Nam. The classwork introduced our group of five faculty and twelve students to key figures and events in the history of Việt Nam, and the trip complemented this learning with visits to cultural, historical, and conservation sites. In addition, we were divided into three student/faculty groups, each with a different focus: ecology (biotic diversity and human uses of the environment), visual arts (traditional art and architecture), and the Vietnamese people’s experiences and uses of nature in urban and rural settings. I was a member of the third group.
Like my students, I was not an expert on Asia, let alone Việt Nam. As an anthropologist and Latin-Americanist, I had helped organize a number of courses and study trips to Mexico and Cuba, but Việt Nam was an entirely new challenge. Because of this, I needed to include myself when I considered what we might do when we arrived in the country and moved from site to site. I asked myself: What kinds of observations would be immediately available to us? What sorts of activities would provide good opportunities for independent discovery?
On previous experiential learning trips, I had learned that keeping a visual record is a valuable method of record keeping and an excellent complement to written notes and photographs. Drawing fosters habits of looking deeply at new surroundings and can be done almost anywhere.2 Of course, what students look at and what they include in their field journals will depend on the focus of their academic projects, as well as what happens to catch their eyes and interests. However, a few general observations point to the worth of drawing as one of a number of research methods useful for experiential learning.3
1. This and other Marlboro College study trips to Asia were made possible by a grant from the Freeman Foundation (2002–2012).
2. Under the label “drawing,” I include work with pens, colored pencils, paints, and even the earth or stone of a place if it can be used to make marks.
3. For a more theoretical treatment of visual field notes, see Carol Hendrickson, “Visual Fieldnotes: Drawing Insights in the Yucatan,” Visual Anthropology Review 24, no. 2 (2008): 117–132. For a different treatment of the Việt Nam material, see Hendrickson, “Ethno-Graphics: Keeping Visual Field Notes in Việt Nam,” Expedition 52, no. 1 (2010): 31-39.