In the fall, I applied for and was awarded a mini-grant from the Teaching and Learning Center at the Graduate Center to use in my Spring history course. I planned to use the grant to take my students on a field trip to the Museum of Chinese in America to model part of a scaffolded personalized research paper that they would each complete over the course of the semester. When I planned the trip I envisioned that I would present it as a class trip and expect that most students would attend. Due to scheduling issues, however, I realized that I would have to plan the field trip for a day when our class met for only one hour. Because of the transit time necessary to travel to and from the museum I knew the total time would be much more than an hour, so I made the trip optional. Initially I felt frustrated by this scheduling issue, and worried that very few students would attend the trip.
The museum visit, however, proved to be a great experience, in part because it was optional. About 15 students attended, all of whom seemed engaged and interested in the tour. The fact that the trip was optional also released me from feeling like I had to pressure students to attend, and gave the entire experience a lighter and more relaxed tone. The visit also gave me an opportunity to speak with individual students in a more informal setting, and for them to chat and socialize with each other. Our class meetings tend to be quite busy and with 38 students there is not a lot of time to speak with each one individually. When I meet with students outside of class we are usually discussing readings or assignments so the opportunity to chat as we moved through the museum helped me to get to know some of my students a bit better.
The exhibits also facilitated useful conversations about articles that we had covered in class, and connections between history and the present. A number of students mentioned that the tour through the museum inspired them to reflect on their own identities or those of their families, and others connected our trip to an earlier reading we had discussed about the political context that preceded the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Another interesting element that we discussed was how the museum exhibits presented historical arguments just like the articles that we read every week for class, but did so through a different medium. I encouraged students to consider some of the similarities and differences between these two forms. The trip inspired me to reflect on the utility of getting out of the classroom sometimes, as well as spending informal time with students. Based on this experience I would certainly consider including an optional field trip in my classes in the future.