OS Faculty Profiles: David McGivern

Which comes first, experience or judgment?

Wrong question, says Associate Professor David McGivern.

For OS students, attitude is everything.


Not long ago my colleagues and I were thinking about our expectations for students who undertake backcountry journeys of their own. On our minds was the tale of a student who attempted to surf an incoming bore tide in Turnagain Arm only to capsize in a current so strong that it ripped away most of his dry suit and quickly carried him a half-mile away from his boating group.

And then a rescue helicopter arrived. Our student was shaken up but otherwise OK.

As APU takes stock of 20 years of OS, it’s gratifying to know that rescues involving students venturing on their own time are virtually unheard of—making it even easier to blast away at the one who capsized. But we didn’t do that. As classroom teachers and expedition leaders, every OS faculty member knows there are lots of sides to every story.

What I do know—and remind classes regularly—is this: As Outdoor Studies students now and professionals later, expect to encounter conditions far beyond loose rock, avalanche risk, current speed or a bear around the next bend. A whole culture is arrayed against us, and it turns a deaf ear on trips that go according to plan in favor of descents into the epic: There I was, death all around me…

As any OS student, faculty member or instructor can tell you, what comes first in addition to experience and judgment is attitude—the kind that confronts a celebration of the epic. OS students experience for themselves that professionalism in our field is a real-world combination of humility, competence and cooperation.

We want students to live the skills they’re learning. It’s why APU’s OS degree requires expedition coursework for practical experience in leadership, route finding, risk management, decision-making and hazard evacuation, among other key competencies. It’s very satisfying to observe students set up camp professionally despite unfavorable weather, cook a mouth-watering meal and know that they’ll be sleeping warm and dry that night. But we don’t stop there. OS faculty routinely advise students to grow their skills by executing their own trips. And therein lies the rub: How to keep students safe when we’re not there?
OS at APU suggests at least two answers. First, ensure that we offer the best training we can and do it through active learning involving long trips staffed by seasoned instructors. Second, demand the same back-country expectations of OS students whether they’re in or out of our classes. We remind students that they’re members of our program at least until graduation—beyond then for those pursuing OS as a career.

As OS at APU plans for the coming decades, I hope our program and our students continue to be shaped by a threshold question: Which comes first, experience or judgment?

OK, that question’s just a cheap trick.

Because by the time they graduate, OS students understand that field courses impart deep lessons about partnership, planning, responsibility and physical abilities. Each contributes to competence, the highest compliment I know.


An OS faculty member since 1998, David McGivern teaches courses in leadership, climbing, environmental ethics, natural history interpretation, and public land recreation. His retirement plans following the 2013-14 school year include writing and travel.

This article originally appeared in the APU Summit Magazine, Summer 2013.