Fieldwork is a challenging beast: long hours, grueling terrain, black flies, heavy loads to carry, black flies, long distance hikes, black flies...the black flies are particularly bad this year. Yes, Dear Readers, I’m writing a blog post while still in the field.
We’ve just started our field season in earnest. Our goal for this summer is to expose and document as much of a large-scale dinosaur track site as possible. Although a footprint site, our first week has been fairly typical of most dinosaur excavations: we have to remove a lot of overburden in the form of plants, soil, and a few thin sandstone and silt layers. This means digging, sweeping, and bucket carrying.
This type of work gives my brain a chance to flit around, and my thoughts settled on various field assistants and volunteers we’ve worked with, or have heard tell of from colleagues (many, many stories - field workers talk to one another a great deal). My thoughts particularly settled on the personality traits that keep popping up like that damned poplar growing on our nice Early Cretaceous track surface (sorry - I really hate plants right now). These are the types of behaviors that we really could do without when we’re out in the field. For every crew of really great students, field assistants, and volunteers, there’s the crew that contains...that person.
That person is one who, by their behaviors*, reduces efficiency, increases stress, and trashes the morale of you and the rest of your crew. No amount of correction seems to diminish these behaviors. In fact, it makes it worse. All one can seem to do is to ride out the storm of their negative behavior. Every field season comes to an end.
*NOTE: This list does not include sexual harassment and assault, bullying, intimidation, or abuse. That shit also happens in the field far too often.
The following list is a composite of various stories I have heard or witnessed over the years, or, in one embarrassing instance, remember doing myself (prepare to be shamed, Past Me).
The Lily Dipper
Lily dipping is a canoeing term: that one person who looks like they are paddling for all their worth, but they are really just performing a mime show and not contributing to moving the canoe forward. As a result, the rest of the canoe paddlers have to paddle more to make up for the Lily Dipper.
There are Lily Dippers in field work as well. I remember one year when we had a month’s worth of overburden removal work ahead of us (no mechanical equipment could be used on this particular site). When we interviewed field assistants, we were brutally up front about what was ahead of them: pick axes, shovels, buckets, wheelbarrows, blazing heat, 14 hour long days. They enthusiastically said they were no strangers to this work, and were ready to pitch in.
Lily Dippers are the quiet morale killers. Everyone knows who is working and who is not. Everyone also knows who is consuming resources while not working. Those who are working will resent the Lily Dipper because they now have an increased workload. It’s almost easier for crew morale to have a person leave mid-season than to have one who doesn't work.
I’ll be the first one to admit that field work life is difficult, both physically and emotionally. While we are in the field, we are in the field, full stop. The field season doesn’t care if you are having a bad day (especially if your field time/budget is short), and everyone has a bad day from time to time. I get it. However, for some people being in the field is so emotionally challenging that their issues become your issues. Regardless of the reasons for said challenges, the result is a crew member who is visibly and vocally miserable. The Woe-Is-Me can be broken down into sub-categories:
- The Black Hole of Praise: Remember when you told that crew member that they did a good job on excavating that unicorn saddle? Well, you didn’t praise them enough, you heartless person. In fact, you couldn’t praise them enough, because they need constant praise, day in, day out. A simple “Good job”, “Thanks, it looks great”, or “Excellent work” will go unheard, even if you and everyone around you remembers you praising the Black Hole. The Black Hole will then complain to others that their efforts are ignored or unappreciated. When you finally hear about it (and you will, but likely from a third party), you’ll be confused as hell because you’ll remember telling the Black Hole that you thought they did a good job. As one PI told me “It’s like they expect me to launch a parade every time they do their job.” Unfortunately, if you do launch a Rose Bowl Parade for every action of the Black Hole, the rest of your crew is going to notice. They may know why you’re doing it (because they will have heard the complaining) but hearing the Black Hole suck up exorbitant amounts of praise will wear on them.
- The Line-Reader: This is the polar opposite of the Black Hole of Praise. Everything that comes out of your mouth will be taken as a slight, insult, or outright declaration of the Line-Reader’s (self-perceived) incompetence. They will read in-between the lines of whatever you say and find meaning that only they can see.
Let’s say you’re moving a heavy load, like shifting a big footprint slab onto helicopter webbing so that you can airlift the slab out of a canyon. You’re going to be giving directions to anyone helping you muscle the slab in to place. Those directions will be short and simple: “over there, grab that end, lift it higher, more left”...and, if you need someone out of the way, the all-famous “Move!” You don’t have time to say “Excuse me please, but you are standing in the way of where I need to go, and this slab is awful heavy. Could you please move?” By the time you say that, the slab has slipped and crushed three of your fingers. I’ve been “Move!”d more times than I can count, and have done the same. The joyfulness always returns after the heavy lifting is done. When you’re under a load, it’s all business.
However, the Line-Reader will take your simple “Move!” as a negative comment on their skills and value. The same goes for if you give a new person to your crew a specific job so that they can get experience with said job. Heck, until I learned how to mix plaster properly, that was the only job I was given. Unfortunately, the Line-Reader will interpret it as you getting them out of the way so you can talk about them behind their back (yes, I’ve heard of this specific scenario). The examples are countless. You’ll have your other crew telling you that Line-Reader is saying some rather odd things, and you will be as confused as they.
- The Hard-O-Meter: The previous two Woe-Is-Me types are confusing to me. This one, however, chaps my ass. Field work is hard work. It’s not a day at the spa. It’s not a pleasure camping trip where you hike a groomed trail during the day and roast marshmallows at night. It is a steep hiking, pick ax and shovel swinging, bog slogging, dirt scraping, specimen packing, bug swatting hard work day, with marshmallow roasting at night if the mosquitoes and black flies don’t drive you screaming into your tent.
What I don’t need to hear (and neither does any field PI) is a constant description of exactly how hard the work is. Removing overburden with a pick ax is hard? Shoveling rubble is hard? Clearing dirt, plants, and rock off of a footprint surface is hard? No shit: field work is hard. See everyone else working? They know it’s hard too. See the PI working alongside the crew? Not only do they know how hard the work is, they can compare it to all of the other hard work they have completed during the previous 10+ summers.
One summer during our dinosaur excavation we had a Hard-O-Meter. It was too hot. The rock was too hard. We were working the crew too hard (this one borders on the Malcontent, see below). We started too early. We worked too late. They were sure the work was so hard and so unfair that legal action could be taken. To spare my sanity (and that of the rest of the crew) I took the Hard-O-Meter off site one day to collect some modern bird footprint samples. Did that stop the Hard-O-Meter from pointing out all of the difficulties? Guess.
- The Begrudger: I’ll deal with all of the Woe-Is-Me traits at once before I want to deal with The Begrudger. The Begrudger is convinced that they are on the receiving end of Fate’s poopy stick, because they don’t see your success or fortune as a combination of hard work and luck. They see it as you had all of your success handed to you for a myriad of reasons (none of which have anything to do with work and luck, and none of which are complimentary to you). The Begrudger is closely connected to the Insta-Expert (see below), because clearly the Begrudger’s obvious skills and talent were purposely overlooked to give you (or your crew members) the unfair advantage.
Here’s an example that still makes me shake my head. I worked with a Begrudger on an excavation. They were working in their section, and were getting rather despondent that they weren’t finding anything in their grid square. So they complained until they were moved to a new square. Someone had to work that square, so another person moved in. Almost immediately the new person on the square uncovered a theropod tooth. The Begrudger actually had the nerve to be snotty about the find, as though it were some great conspiracy against them that they didn't find the specimen.
I have a confession, my friends - I once suffered from Insta-Expert Syndrome. The Insta-Expert is usually young, ambitious, and eager to make a good impression. Unfortunately, their actions do the exact opposite. The Insta-Expert knows everything. EVERYTHING. They are a font of information, especially information on how they would do things were they in charge. Some Insta-Experts will actually try to be in charge. In one case I heard of the One Insta-Expert told other crew members that the PI shouldn't be in charge because the PI had "only" just received their doctorate. How could they possibly know anything, amirite?
A sample conversation with the Insta-Expert:
I-E: I see you’re milking the Unicorn X way.
You: Yes I am.
I-E: I think you should try milking the Unicorn Y way. I was talking with Dr. Big Name and that was how he does it.
You: We tried Y, and Y doesn’t work well out here. X is the field tested method.
I-E: You really should give Y a try. I’ll bet you weren’t doing it correctly. I’ll show you.
You: (Trying very hard not to roll eyes)...
All the explaining of your methods in a thorough and complete way eventually runs dry (or you run out of time, or you can’t risk having your data/specimen/fellow crew members damaged.) You have to give the Insta-Expert the command: do it this way. This is bound to cause Insta- Expert to feel quite put out. They do not care that you already have years of experience working in your field. They do not care that you know your field site inside and out. All they care about is letting everyone know that they have all of the answers. Insta-Expert can also be found in combination with The Woe-Is-Me and the Malcontent.
Here’s my story of Insta-Expert shame. I was doing an internship on an excavation, and I was damned sure I was ready for the Big Leagues of excavating. I’d already had a week of experience and I was 19 - of course I was ready to take charge! [If anyone ever builds a time machine, can I rent time on it to go back in time and smack Past Me?] So I loudly (and rather annoyingly) stated (ad nauseum) that I was ready to work on the important part of the quarry. I was a frightful pain. The only way the pit boss could shut me up was to put me in an important part of the quarry (or at least what they told me was important. I would have lied to Past Me to shut Past Me up).
In a typical 80s movie, I would have entered an excavation montage that ended with me uncovering a tyrannosaur skull. That did not happen. I broke the first piece I worked on. Needless to say, that was an important moment for me. It highlighted exactly how much I didn’t know, and that my job at that time was to listen and learn. Unfortunately, I and many field PIs do not have the time or resources to create teachable moments for Insta-Experts. You can only hope they lose this trait as they get more experience.
I will preface this section by saying that 99.99% of the volunteers I’ve had the pleasure to work with are a joy. They are gold. They are happy to be elbow deep in overburden, drenched in freezing alpine rain, and helping us find fossils. I’ve often had to remind volunteers to take regular breaks so they don’t push it too hard. Many volunteers I wish I had the budget to hire. Our invaluable head technician started out as a volunteer.
Then there is the Volun-Dictator. This individual “helps” by trying to take charge. They will take the initiative on items without first asking what needs to be done (and simultaneously ignoring what they’ve been told are the main tasks). They will issue orders to your staff and students. They may try to “run” your camp. They will rearrange equipment without you knowing, leaving you and your staff having to undo the mess they made. They will try to take fossils home with them. They will give you demands and ultimatums. All of these examples and more I have heard from colleagues (and some I have experienced) regarding that one Volun-Dictator.
Volun-Dictators are especially bad for crew morale because the crew doesn’t feel like they can correct or counter the bad behavior. Why? Because the person is a volunteer, and this particular breed of volunteer will act as though they are the highest authority on a site. The Volun-Dictator has heard everyone say how valuable volunteers are, and takes this praise - earned by the excellent volunteers - as an excuse to throw their weight around. This will cause grumbling, especially if the crew feels like the Volun-Dictator is given leave to do whatever they want. In fact, the Volun-Dictator will complain to you (or your supervisors) that Crew Member is disrespecting ALL of the volunteers if Crew Member disagrees with or corrects the Volun-Dictator, and will usually demand the person be punished. You as Team Leader will also be given the “how dare you disrespect the volunteers” speech if you redirect their actions. Also, Volun-Dictators tend to drive away the good volunteers: no one wants to voluntarily work with a chore of a person. I’ve had several volunteers say they will not come out if they know Person X is going to be there because this is how they feel when working with that person:
This personality type can often be found in tandem with any of the above mentioned traits. I’ve most often seen it/heard of it seen in conjunction with The Insta-Expert, The Woe-Is-Me, or the Volun-Dictator. The Malcontent is not happy unless they are stirring up active discontent among the crew. They will usually pick a seemingly insignificant topic to start their stirring of the poop pot. Here’s a sample conversation:
Mal: You need to go into town for special groceries for me. I can only drink Organic Golden Moose Sweat.
You: I’m sorry, but that’s a 6 hour round trip on crappy roads. We weren’t told ahead of time that you needed golden moose sweat, and our next resupply is in a week. We did tell you to bring in anything special you might need for yourself. Feel free to have as much of Uncle Buck’s Olde Timey Moose Sweat as you like - we have several cans.
Mal: That is unacceptable. How dare you tell me ahead of time to bring in any personal special items and then refuse to run errands for me during the field season. I AM SPARTICUS!
Replace Golden Moose Sweat with internet/cell phone access, demands to use field vehicles for personal errands, hard work, mosquitoes, sun, rain, wind, bears, no plumbing, no outhouse...you get the idea.
After that, the whisper campaign starts, where the Malcontent will find people on the crew who they think will sympathize with their plight. They try to act as the champions and saviors for the poor, mistreated crew. They act passive-aggressively towards you in relation to their faux cause. They will tell anyone who will listen how poorly you run your field work. Crew who only hear the Malcontent’s side of events (which is usually the case, because PIs usually don’t gossip about conversations they’ve had with other crew members) can also start to grumble on behalf of the Malcontent. When you do squash the Golden Moose Sweat Rebellion, the ire will redirect itself to you, personally.
There is no easy way to remove a Malcontent. The best solution to the Malcontent is prevention: try to work with the person before the field season begins, or check their references thoroughly. Be warned: oftentimes Malcontents receive high praise from former supervisors because the supervisor wants to make damned sure the Malcontent won’t work with them again the following season. This is the field version of Promoting the Problem. Field PIs: don’t do this, please.
If you do find yourself saddled with a Malcontent mid-season, it’s best to quell their behavior early before it infects the rest of the crew. This may involve ejecting the person from your crew as soon as possible. Be prepared to shoulder the expense of removing the Malcontent. In the words of the famous credit card company: “A Malcontent-free crew is priceless. For everything else, there’s the Credit Card.”
The only way I can think of to deal with these behavioral traits is two-fold: make sure you have the list of activities ready (and in hard copy), as well as a Code of Field Conduct package that crew/volunteers must read and sign before heading out into the field with you. If they develop these traits while in the field, the only way you can find out if they actually want to be there is to ask them. This doesn't guarantee they will be straightforward with you: they may have their own motivation for sticking it out that you might be unaware of. If they insist that they want to be there, yet continue with the negative behavior, you may have to decide whether it is worth waiting it out until the end of their field shift. Each situation is different.