Teaching Permaculture in Universities

Article published in the May 2016 issue of Permaculture Design Magazine.

Four years ago, I was finishing my Environmental Studies degree and trying to decide what to do next. I’d learned in great detail about the world’s problems, and I was struggling with some serious eco-despair. I decided to take a PDC for credit toward my degree at O.U.R. Ecovillage in British Columbia. For me, this was a transformative experience immersed in nature and community. I emerged with a different perspective on the challenges ahead: one that saw the possibility that by designing systems with observation and intention, humans could meet our needs while regenerating ecosystems rather than destroying them. Developing relationships with people working on inspiring, solution-oriented projects instilled in me a new motivation.

Universities are increasingly offering permaculture education. I found 35 universities and colleges in Canada and the US that have offered a PDC or permaculture program for credit. Dozens more have offered non-credit PDCs or credit courses on permaculture. There are surely examples that escaped my view. But the data I could find suggests the number of PDCs offered for credit has begun to rise more quickly within the past decade:

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Table 1: Approximate number of PDCs for credit by year, Canada & U.S.
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Figure 1: Geographical distribution of permaculture courses (credit & non-credit) at universities & colleges, Canada & U.S.

The PDC is offered by a wide range of institutions, the most common being large research universities and small liberal arts colleges in the Northeastern U.S. and Pacific Northwest. Usually, it’s designed as a short-term intensive or a semester-based two-course series. In some cases it’s a required program component. Though horticulture and environmental fields are most common, I see it as a key strength that permaculture is found in a diversity of fields:

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Figure 2: Academic fields offering permaculture education

I wanted to delve deeper into the opportunities and limitations of this trend through my Master’s research. What’s at stake for the movement when permaculture education is brought into academic spaces? And what can permaculture offer sustainability education?

In 2014, I visited colleges and universities in Colorado, Oregon, and New England. I tagged along with permaculture classes and garden clubs, and toured campus permaculture installations. I interviewed students who had taken PDCs for academic credit and permaculture teachers who had taught in academia. I’m grateful to my interviewees, the real authors of the insights shared here. Alongside this, I’ve had the great fortune to help establish the first PDC offered at the University of Victoria where I’m a student.

Benefits for higher education

Colby-Sawyer College in New London, NH is an exciting example of what can emerge when schools engage with permaculture education. Over the past few years, the school has seen many installations influenced by permaculture including the Sunshack, a sustainably built classroom integrating straw-bale walls. Professors Leon-C Malan and Jen White feel permaculture has infused into the culture and language of Colby-Sawyer. White is hopeful that colleges might be changed in a positive way by permaculture: “You can sit outside an institution that you don’t think is doing a good job and complain and throw stones. Or you can embed yourself in that organization and get to know its heart. Figure out ways to change it from the inside out, and see how it can benefit from what you have to offer.”

Permaculture offers a way for schools to demonstrate their commitments to sustainability and their relationships with the broader community. At Colby-Sawyer, community members are allowed to enroll in the PDC. Their students feel this sets the class apart. “You feel like you’re involved in the community,” says Phurchhoki Sherpa, “like you’re a member of the community and learning with them.” Owen Krol says he valued the chance to interact with people of different ages and backgrounds: “People who are retired or grew up on farms come with a lot of different skills and experiences—a lot of different stories.”

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Permaculture Garden at Colby-Sawyer College (Credit: Michael Seamans)

Colby-Sawyer students have produced permaculture designs for the campus, community residents, and the local municipality. Working with stakeholders to implement her garden design helped Morgan Allen understand the effort needed to bring a project into reality: “It really changes your mindset when you actually have to make it work.” The PDC is now a requirement for Colby-Sawyer’s new three-year major in community-based sustainability. In this interdisciplinary, hands-on program, students will work with stakeholders in the nearby city of Franklin to design solutions to community needs, using permaculture as the guiding framework. Colby-Sawyer PDC alum Jenisha Shrestha is already working on this downtown core revitalization project through local partner PermaCityLife.

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Lilly Israel of the UMass Permaculture Initiative in Amherst, MA

From coast to coast, students are redesigning their campuses, presenting their works to top administration, and creating lasting positive impacts on their schools. The president of Naropa University has served as a client to Jason Gerhardt’s students: “He had a lot of stake in it and looked at it this way: these students are doing design work that we pay people to do—I want to forward that on to our campus planners and architects.” Students leave with the confidence to take on bigger projects and a design certificate that can help them find work in sustainability-oriented fields. Many students I met had discovered their passions through the PDC, and most already taken further permaculture courses or hoped to do so.

Inciting this motivation for learning and contributing positively to society’s challenges is the great task of higher education today. Increasingly, universities are looking to offer more practical, interdisciplinary, and community-engaged learning, and permaculture’s teaching methods are an excellent framework for this. “It’s a lot about engaging your body, about engaging your heart, and being a whole person,” says Jen White, “which is what many in higher education view as the ultimate purpose of a liberal education.” Permaculture’s “whole person” approach integrates the learning domains of head, heart, and hands in a distinct and unique way.[1] It engages the head through its interdisciplinary systems framework and design process, which encourages critical reflection, analytical problem solving, and new solution-oriented ways of seeing the world. It engages the hands through skill-based and applied real-world learning. It engages the heart—the emotional and motivational domain—through community-based learning, relationship building, and providing space for students to develop and pursue passions and aspirations.

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Gord Baird shares the magic of composted humanure with UVic permaculture students at Eco-Sense

Sean Carney is one student who found his passion in permaculture. After his PDC at Plymouth State University, he took a teacher training and began teaching other university students about permaculture. “It’s a great breath of fresh air when you’re 18 or 20 years old, and everything seems doomed,” says Sean, “it’s showing that people are doing something. Something good.” The experience nurtures students’ sense of possibility in terms of their own individual abilities and actions, and in making a difference through collective change. Many permaculture students I’ve talked with have experienced a powerful perspective shift toward solutions thinking and reconnection with land and food. Educators point out that this transformative level of learning is necessary for real movement toward sustainability.[2] For me, being part of the new PDC at the University of Victoria with instructors Mike Simpson and Hannah Roessler has only underscored further the transformative potential of permaculture education. Ryan Harb witnessed this transformation in leading the establishment of permaculture courses and gardens at UMass Amherst. “It shifts this thinking that we’re very limited, we can only do so much,” says Ryan, “but we have the potential to make everything around us better. So it’s really about personal transformation.”

Movement perspectives

Fourteen of seventeen teachers (and all the students) were very enthusiastic about this growing integration. The others were not opposed, but voiced stronger concerns or questions about academic linkages as an overall strategy. Concerns centred around authority and control in knowledge production and teaching, the “academization” of community-generated knowledge, and the hubris of faculty teaching without the proper permaculture credentials. Some cited movement concerns that working with academia could lead to co-optation or potentially detract from permaculture’s mission. Though permaculture originated in academia, Mollison and Holmgren diverged away from the university for good reasons. I sensed enduring movement tension between the privileging of academic or expert knowledge, and the practice-based ways of knowing through “on the ground” connection to people and land. This tension may underlie other movement debates and is a healthy one. Academia’s power to influence claims of authority in the movement should continue to be openly critiqued and examined—but without paralyzing active experimentation.

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Steve Gabriel, permaculture instructor at Cornell University

Even for teachers who held stronger concerns, however, spreading knowledge of permaculture still seemed to be the most important goal. “We’re seeing it as an ally,” says Steve Whitman at Plymouth State University, “People are here to learn, they’re looking at all their possibilities, the world’s changing really fast—we need all hands on deck with good solutions.” On these pages in 2014, Steve Gabriel asked, “We are beyond the point of ‘choosing’ to keep permaculture and academia separate—how can we design this relationship for the mutual benefit of all?”[3] Several of my interviewees agreed with Steve that both sides can greatly benefit from a more intentional connection. Teachers often used permaculture concepts in analyzing the costs and benefits of working with universities, and this usually led them to feel the tradeoffs were worth the effort. Following their lead, I suggest the design process can help the movement create more mutually beneficial relationships with academia. Of course, each instance of this integration will be unique in its challenges, opportunities, and wider context. But based on the advice of practitioners, I highlight here some of the most widely relevant concepts for understanding why working with universities makes sense, and how this can be navigated effectively by permaculture teachers.

Leverage points

Especially in larger universities, the slow pace of change, bureaucratic minutiae, illogical policies, conservative attitudes, and closed decision processes can create frustration. This environment can be a challenge for teachers who like a high degree of autonomy. Take a holistic view and keep the big picture in mind—don’t let the details detract from getting more people involved in permaculture. Here are some key leverage points for getting courses established:

  • Student demand – Permaculture and sustainable agriculture are very trendy topics, and universities know this helps them attract students. They want to be seen as leading edge and don’t want to be left behind. Now is an opportune time to propose courses as there are many established examples to point to— Pacific University, UMass Amherst, Oregon State, Plymouth State, Cornell, and the University of Vermont are just a few. How can you demonstrate student demand? Are there student groups you can present to?
  • School priorities – Can you frame your proposal in the language of the school’s stated sustainability goals and strategic priorities? What strategic planning cycles can you tap into? What other indicators suggest a department is ready to try something new? Community colleges and liberal arts schools tend to be more flexible and accommodating of smaller class sizes and permaculture’s hands-on focus. Large research universities have different priorities and unique funding opportunities. Funding for courses and field trips can be secured through sustainability grants, student clubs, course materials fees, or offering courses through Continuing Education.
  • Allies – What insiders are already working on sustainability issues? What existing relationships with visionaries or potential champions can you leverage? Invite them to take one of your courses. Make friends with the grounds department, they are often excited about students’ campus designs and may even drop off free materials for workshops.
  • Accessible sites – Funding, scheduling, and liability can present barriers to field trips—what local permaculture sites can be easily accessed from the school?
  • You – Critically, do you have the experience needed? Having a strong reputation and experience is essential, while graduate credentials may not be necessary. Instructors recommend teaching several PDCs before trying to teach in the academic world.

Small and slow solutions  

Universities work at very slow paces. Long term education and demonstration will be needed for administrators to really get it. Don’t expect they’ll understand right away (or ever). Take the time to do it right:

  • Establish proof of concept – Start with a small, well-managed “intro to permaculture” course, and build outward from a strong reputation and foundation of support. Many schools have “Special Topics” options for pilot courses. Don’t try to fit the PDC into one course.
  • Be upfront – Build what you need for guest teachers, field trips, and materials into the budget to begin with. Get them to understand what’s really required for a quality course. You might be surprised at the willingness to accommodate, especially if they came to you. When people really understand what you’re trying to do, they get creative looking for ways to make it work.
  • Back it up – Provide references and supporting documentation early on, and be open to critique. Many questioning faculty are genuinely curious—don’t assume they’re opposed from the beginning to what you’re saying. Explain it in the language they’re using and highlight the student research opportunities.
  • Think twice about gardens – Have a solid long term maintenance plan for garden installations as campuses are transitory places. Insufficiently maintained gardens can create damaging misconceptions of permaculture.
  • Be in it for the long haul – Be careful about burning out as you may need to build the groundwork over several years. Those who initiate conversations with schools may no longer be around when the school is finally ready to move forward. Consult movement members and develop an informed vision for how new permaculture educational offerings can best be designed for the unique context of each region and school.

Stack functions

Despite how they may look from the outside, academic jobs often don’t pay well unless you’re on the tenure track. Several teachers had to pay guest speakers out of pocket or in trade. Others offered unpaid apprenticeships to secure teaching assistants. Academic jobs are better thought of as one element contributing unique functions in a larger ecology of work. Increase your yield by stacking multiple functions:

  • Access grant funding, technical equipment, and staff services
  • Get health benefits and a steady, if small, paycheck
  • Let the school do registration and marketing (universities have excellent search engine optimization!)
  • Create research partnerships
  • Dialogue with academics from a diversity of fields
  • Use institutional resources to strengthen your curriculum and teaching skills
  • Leverage institutional affiliation and connections for bigger projects
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Sirius Ecovillage in Shutesbury, MA

Value the edge

Being on the institutional margins is less secure, but you can use edge effects to encourage creativity and innovation while maintaining more independence. Functional interconnections can be built between academic courses and independent initiatives. Lisa DePiano at UMass Amherst brings her university students and community members together through shared work parties: “Working on that edge, you can craft experiences that are more real. There’s all kinds of learning happening and such a win from every angle. I’m in the process of merging those two worlds—there’s a lot they can learn from one another.”

One institutional edge that permaculture could greatly benefit from engagement with is critical literature and pedagogy. Confrontation with the continuing effects of colonialism, oppression, patriarchy, and racism is limited in many PDCs. Political ecology, critical ecoliteracy, ecopedagogy, and eco-justice education offer valuable frameworks for critical reflection on the political and economic dimensions of environmental issues as well as the design of curriculum and learning environments that aim to transform, rather than reproduce, power imbalances and injustice.

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Abrah Dresdale, permaculture instructor at Greenfield Community College

Catch and store energy  

“Universities have all these people that have dedicated time to learning—they’re mostly younger students and they’re idealistic sponges,” says Abrah Dresdale at Greenfield Community College, “We’ve got this awesome catch and store opportunity to inoculate peoples’ minds and skill sets in this very fertile moment.” It’s a good time to connect with students at a critical life stage. Colleges are key places young people are finding out about permaculture: most students I talked to had never heard of it until encountering it at school. Those who did know were unable to take a PDC until they had the option at their institution, because it was hard to afford or to fit into school schedules. PDCs in academia are significantly more accessible to university students: many only choose take it because it’s right on campus and included in tuition, making it eligible for financial aid.

But know your audience: university courses are tremendously different environments than independent PDCs. Students are usually juggling multiple courses and commitments; their focus may be more split and they tend to be less self-directed. Relationship building can be more difficult. Constraints in funding, student schedules, and liability can pose challenges for field trips. But most instructors felt even if academia is not as dynamic as an independent PDC, it is still a worthwhile experience. Aim to have options for students to continue their permaculture education after the course, as these can be challenging to find and access.

Diversity  

University courses tend to be more homogenous in terms of age, race, and socioeconomic status than independent PDCs. As higher education costs continue to rise, it will become even more exclusive of marginalized communities who may need permaculture’s tools and strategies most. This trend will likely not help the movement toward greater diversity, instead reinforcing existing inequalities in access to permaculture education. This is a call for independent permaculture education to take accessibility and diversity more seriously. How can the movement maintain a dynamic independent existence that is accessible and relevant to a wide diversity of communities? One strategy promoted by Jeanette Acosta is to offer discounts or scholarships to Indigenous PDC students. This model could be adopted easily in PDCs.

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Phurchhoki Sherpa, international student from Nepal, in the Colby-Sawyer College permaculture garden

Succession and evolution

“Universities are not crumbling, they’re getting bigger,” says Andrew Millison at Oregon State University, “so permaculture in a university represents the more expansive colonization of the mycelial web. This is what it looks like when the system takes a leap to the next level of organization.” Permaculture’s independent evolution should be celebrated and continued, but academic integration can be seen as a new successional stage with unique niches. The movement should be staying on top of the latest research. As Steve Gabriel suggested in his article, the scientific approach found in academia can enhance the rigor and integrity of permaculture. He feels academia has helped him question his claims and assumptions—and ultimately become a better teacher. University students can contribute fresh perspectives and important critiques, helping permaculture ideas evolve. We can benefit from engaging them in needed documentation, while recognizing that important work can and should be done without waiting for more research.

Scaling up

“Managers—people that are making decisions—went to college,” says Terry O’Day at Pacific University, “so if they get information about permaculture in college, then they’re going to have that information going into their decision. That’s a really important thing if we’re going to turn this corner and make this change we need to make.” Several teachers felt working with institutions is necessary for the movement to scale up and achieve urgently needed movement toward sustainability. Thousands of people pass by campus permaculture projects every day. Likely the greatest benefit in academic integration is enhanced visibility and uptake as graduates take permaculture to new fields and challenges. Applying permaculture to a variety of university initiatives and disciplines can widen its accessibility and understanding by more diverse audiences, whether they are students, faculty, campus staff, or local residents.

Self-regulation and feedback  

“Permaculture cannot be taught from an academic perspective,” points out Keith Morris at the University of Vermont, “It needs to be taught from a place of practice.” I heard about professors watering down the curriculum or simply adding permaculture to their list of subjects without having taken a PDC or built any practical experience. It is critical that experienced permaculture teachers lead the design and delivery of academic courses. Teachers should remain firm in communicating the real needs of a PDC, and ensuring its integrity is maintained. Some teachers felt specific standards or guidelines for working with universities should be developed. This question would need to be taken up by the movement. At the least, focused discussions to identify areas of agreement in terms of acceptable practices, and activities to be discouraged, might be useful at this point. Regional networks can then respond with some alignment in the event of efforts by universities to develop courses, and avoid misrepresentation. By consulting with others in the region first, teachers can also explore whether a proposed course is actually opening up a new niche, rather than fuelling enrolment competition.

I invite feedback on the concepts presented here. Should guidelines be developed—if so, what things should be considered? What other resources or connections would be helpful? Those I spoke with expressed desires to connect with others teaching in academia to learn from and adapt models, share research and academic curriculum, identify research needs that could be filled by university students, and connect to campus permaculture groups and projects.

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Franklin Permaculture Garden at UMass Amherst (Credit: Keith Toffling)

Toward mutually beneficial relationships

Hearing students’ stories has solidified my belief that permaculture should be taught in academia. Though limitations exist, the constraints of academic courses don’t negate their value for educating young people. These linkages can also strengthen the permaculture movement and academia, moving them both toward their goals. With thoughtful assessment and design, we can maximize the mutual benefits and mitigate many potential risks and drawbacks. Functional interconnections with academia can be one element in a diversity of movement tactics for societal transformation. Since permaculture’s initial divergence away from academia, major changes have occurred in both—and the global ecological crisis has only worsened. In light of the urgency called for in these times, perhaps permaculture and academia need each other more than ever.

[1] Sipos, Y., Battisti, B., & Grimm, K. (2008). Achieving transformative sustainability learning: Engaging heads, hands and heart. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 9(1), 68-86.

[2] Sterling, S. (2001). Sustainable education: Re-visioning learning and change. Schumacher Briefing No. 6. Bristol, UK: Green Books.

[3] Gabriel, S. (2014, Autumn). Forming a more perfect union: Why permaculture and academia need each other. Permaculture Activist, 93, 37-41.

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