A Transect Walk through the first semester
The first few weeks: complex problem solving training
An ice-breaker to get to know one another and personality types that you will frequently refer to in the upcoming weeks. Classroom sessions on skills you will need for the semester projects: communication, diversity, observation, interviewing. There is also a light introduction to agriculture in Norway. Remember the pedagogical approach of this semester is that you immediately work in the food and farming systems instead of studying them from a classroom.
The visit to Fokhol Farm: This is a bootcamp designed to show you how the semester projects should be approached. In one week, you will go through two steps of the Kolb learning cycle: Concrete experience, and Reflective observation. By the end you will have captured a screenshot of what is happening within a system, which is a farm, at that particular moment from a systems-level, and analyzed for improvements.
Literature seminars on systems thinking and learning: Many of these papers are about ontology (what realities exist and how they relate to each other). This philosophy has been developing through the last hundred years and has influenced the field of ecology as we know it. Some can be difficult to understand – be assured they are about the same concepts discussed in the classroom. Put on your academic hat and make a study/discussion group with your colleagues. You may suggest papers that are meaningful and interesting to you and make your contribution to the seminar.
September: The semester projects groundwork
There are two projects, the farm case and the food case. You will be assigned to work with two different team and follow through both of these projects simultaneously. Over several weeks in September, you will identify stakeholders, plan interviews, make visits to both of your cases to conduct fieldwork, and come back to NMBU for a lot of assimilation, reflection, and writing. You will present your findings to the classroom, and hear from other teams. It is a great idea to take these discussions further and learn from each other’s cases as well as understand how they are approaching and handling the messy complex reality under study. Remember there is no competition amongst the projects, as well as amongst individuals. Within this short time, you will make first drafts of both the food and farm case stakeholder documents. These first drafts are important for helping you to identify your focus, and how you arrived at it, rather than deliver a finished product. The drafts do not need to feel incomplete, almost everything will rather feel incomplete and unfinished, because you will be in the process of becoming. This is how it is supposed to be! Instead of sitting behind our desks to perfectionise a document on our own, action learning encourages you to dive in the phenomenon with community partners and deliver a prototype that will always evolve.
Throughout the first months, you will explore the problem area and define it together with your stakeholders. You are no longer the expert! That is why it is important to build on all of your perspectives and communicate with your stakeholders to explore and describe the prominent themes. This stage is where you will diverge to understand the case. The boundaries and the structure of the system may feel vague and unclear, because it is a real life problem you are dealing with! The problem briefs will not come crystal clear or structured, and to narrow your focus might feel painful. In this stage, you might have a lot of suggestions to your stakeholder; you may know exactly what they should improve or even change. However, without building a vision for the future, such suggestions might come across too premature and ungrounded.
October-early November: Visions to action, and in-depth farm and food system analysis
The course will make a turn here and introduce you to some very valuable tools that you can use in your personal or professional practices in the future. There will be classroom sessions on how to facilitate a group to build a shared vision, and some techniques to encourage visionary thinking. By now there may be some sessions on special topics including Soft Systems Methodology, Farmer Field Schools, Force Field Analysis, among others.
You will be having second visits to food and farm cases. Now it is time to converge and narrow down your focus. This is also an opportunity to strengthen your relationship with stakeholders, they are future colleagues. You will feel motivated to do good work for them, and feel the cooperation. You may use the farmer field tool and/or the visioning method with your food and farm cases, and advance in completing the steps in the agroecological approach. In order to improve the situation within a system, it is important to include those who are within that system to build their own future, rather than “you” deciding what the ideal future looks like for them. The deadline to deliver your farm case stakeholder document is around the corner, therefore you should start structuring your report while the outputs of your second visit are still fresh. A good idea is to share all your notes, mind-maps, meeting minutes, diagrams and photos on a shared platform such as Google Drive, Slack, or Microsoft Teams for an easier collaboration from the beginning.
Literature seminars on farm and food systems: approach these papers with the same critique you have been using on your farm and food cases. Do you agree with the author? Most of the times we have felt that we needed papers with more content, showcasing techniques and practical suggestions. The number of papers that do that are endless. Do you have a specific area of interest? Do you feel like you lack knowledge on a particular field? We, your alumni, have gathered hundreds of papers and reports on a wide range of issues so far. We are here to share! Check out the resources tab on the web. Another point is, these papers will prepare you to write academically in a limited amount of space. Even this objective is secondary, ordering your thoughts and communicating your argument in written language is a must-have skill if we are to transform the agrifood systems.
Often this is a challenging part of the semester. See Stories from Us.
The final weeks: Writing, reflecting, writing
The schedule may look empty but you will be busy having long and intense meetings with your team and writing the rest of the final documents (the food case and learner document) and prepping for the final oral presentation. The stakeholder documents prepare you for professional projects. In many jobs you will have responsibility for reporting to clients and to the public, and perhaps writing grants. This is a skill you with a masters degree should bring to a position, even if it was not done before, so your organization can have a greater impact. Diverging and writing is the part where you will learn a lot, mostly because you will want to deliver a good stakeholder document that will benefit your stakeholders. This may urge you to go deep into subjects that you are not very well-informed of.
The learner document helps you acknowledge your own progress in your learning journey; untangle your confusion by putting in down on paper; document this process as you may want to remember it later. The oral presentation is a reflection of your take-aways from the entire semester. You may innovate how you present this learning journey, as both the oral presentation and the learner document are absolutely personal deliverables; however it might feel painful to go through these assignments.
There will be an introduction to the thesis near the very end. Don’t panic about that now, it’s just a chance to introduce it while everyone is together.
Tips: Continue thinking about your career goals, so you can choose courses for the next semester. It is wise to choose a thesis that will help you reach your desired future – meeting people you want to work with and gaining experience in an area you enjoy. Tap into ideas from other students and teachers, and recent graduates who are still in town.