Monday, August 25, 2008

Male Wilderness Instructors: Old School vs. New School

Having had the opportunity this summer to lead trips with several male instructors, and to observe their habits and behaviors in their natural environment, I now believe myself qualified to share my understandings of the two major categories of wilderness guys: old school and new school.

I worked my first trip with perhaps the archetypal old school outdoorsman. In his fifties, Uncle Jeff had a wide variety of wilderness survival skills. I fully believe he could have extracted us from most kinds of scrapes we might have found ourselves in.

There was also a high likelihood of him causing us to be in a disaster. Uncle Jeff was so disorganized that he left the kids' meds behind on the first day (a 7-hour drive behind) and could rarely find the (only copy of) the map. He chastised the kids for being slow, only to be the last one ready each morning, and he never once lifted a finger to help make dinner, leaving the coordination of that task to -- who else? -- the two female leaders, of course. It was important to his ego to be first, so he led the way, whether by canoe or on the trail, rarely looking back, and usually unaware of how the group was faring. He made decisions quickly and without discussing them with me or my female co-instructor; one day, when the two of us weren't around, he suggested to the kids that we spend our last day of the trip at an amusement park instead of hiking. Upon our return, I was left with the unhappy job of being the mean lady who ixnayed that scheme. (Luckily I am used to playing the role of the mean lady, so I didn't mind too much.)

Yes, Uncle Jeff was old school: silent, stoic, tied to no one. Also, dictatorial, defensive, and misogynistic.

You can imagine my surprise, then, when I met Carl, my 24-year-old co-instructor for the second trip. To all appearances, Carl is your typical college student, concerned with maintaining a bronzed, muscular physique while still managing to consume as much beer as possible. But we had been prepping together for less than a day when he sat down beside me and announced, "I feel like we need to talk about leadership stuff." Carl, it turns out, wanted to discuss leadership styles: how we would make decisions together, how we would share responsibilities, our preferred modes of communicating and giving feedback, and when we would debrief each day. Yes, I was working with a new school wilderness guy.

Not only did he want to process each day with me in the evening and make decisions by consensus, he also wanted to check in, often more than once a day, about how we were working together. He was thoughtful, organized, and efficient, always keeping safety and Leave No Trace ethics in the forefront of his mind. When we agreed that there would be no place for homophobic comments on our trip, I asked that we also have no tolerance for the word "retarded." "I don't feel that way about that word," he responded. "But I have no problem pretending to feel that way to back you up." We were a united front. And no more evenings of the girls cooking dinner while the boys built fires: equality ruled in this partnership.

New school wilderness guys. They communicate. They check in. They process.

I may sound a little tongue-in-cheek about all of this, but the truth is, I learned a lot from this tan guy whose major interest in the frontcountry is kegstands. He set the tone, early on, of communication and mutual decision-making, and we worked well together. In fact, I am quite sure it was the closest I have come to what many couples with children experience as they make decisions together on a daily basis. The kids wanted to swim before dinner? "What do you think, Carl?" I would ask, and we would share our opinions before reaching a verdict. If I told them something, he backed me up, and vice versa -- we presented them with a united front.

At the end of the trip, I realized that this had been my first experience of teaching with someone as true, one-hundred-percent equals. I work and teach with other people all the time -- colleagues, community partners, student teachers, assistant teachers. Even when we strive to collaborate as equals, it is rarely ever the case that we truly have the same amount of power. I often work with others over whom I clearly have authority (student teachers or assistants). Or, in the case of collaboration between peers, one person often takes over as the de facto leader, whether out of personal style, experience, or just for simplicity's sake. To have the chance to operate as a true team, making constant decisions together and giving each other honest feedback, was a treat, and an unexpected one.

I didn't anticipate having that experience with someone still in college, and even less so with a guy. But that was my mistake -- I was expecting an old school outdoorsman. I had forgotten how well-trained the students of the new school are.

1 comment:

  1. That's completely fantastic.

    I'd like to say something insightful and deep, but I think you've covered it all. Go Carl and go you!