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Nancy Willow, State University of New York at Delhi

Nancy Willow.jpgThe concept of permaculture, developed in the 1970s in response to the environmental crisis, is a philosophy of "working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour; of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system" (Mollison, 1991, p. 1).  The original definition of permaculture, abbreviated to “permanent sustainable agriculture” (Allison, 2013), quickly expanded to “permanent sustainable human culture” (Allison, 2013), reflecting its numerous applications beyond farming and food production.  With its focus on opportunities rather than obstacles and its advocacy for top-down systems thinking coupled with personal, bottom-up action, permaculture provides a unique model for responding to change in a variety of environments (Mollison, 1991; Holmgren, 2002). 

Today, as budgets continue to shrink and expectations continue to rise, we face our own crisis in higher education.  Many advisors are being asked to do more with less: more advisees, more meetings, more technology, more nights and weekends, more data, more assessment, fewer resources, less time.  This kind of environment has the potential to become toxic, leading to a culture of fear, competition, segregation, and blame.  Permaculture offers us insights as to how we can respond to these challenging times in a positive, productive way.

Working With

Let’s begin with the idea of working with, rather than against nature.  For those of us who have ever grown a vegetable garden, we may recall a time when we arrived at the garden to harvest lettuce for dinner only to find that the slugs had already devoured our salad.  Many of us might complain at this point that we have a slug problem, but Bill Mollison, one of the founders of permaculture, would say we have a “deficiency of ducks” (Allison, 2013)!  Ducks are natural predators of slugs and would therefore help restore balance to the system, curbing our infestation of slugs.  When we work with nature instead of trying to impose our will, the solution is often found within the problem (Holmgren, 2002).

One of the problems we sometimes face as advisors is a lack of time, particularly during certain parts of the academic year.  We cannot impose our will on the sun and add more hours to the day, nor can we – in most circumstances, at least – impose our will on our departments and diminish our advising loads, so how can we creatively respond to time in a way that works with, rather than against it?  In the webinar Maximizing Your Day: Effective Time Management, Alfonzo (2013) posits that time management is primarily about our mindset; what we think impacts how we feel and act.  What if we thought about time as a creative puzzle rather than a problem to be solved?   

Thought and Observation

Permaculture stresses the importance of careful, thoughtful observation over careless, thoughtless labor (Mollison, 1991).  Most of us can recall days when we’ve arrived at work and lunged into our day with a vengeance, plowing through our inbox, plugging through our reports, and pushing through our appointments on auto-pilot, only to leave exhausted at the end of the day with a sinking feeling that we are actually further behind than when we began.  We persist with the same futility as the gardener who spends hours plucking slugs from her greens only to return the next day to more slimy creatures feasting on her garden.  Again, let’s look at the bigger picture and search for the solution within the problem.  What kind of ducks can we find to help us restore balance to our system of time?

While we often think that more time or more resources would be the most logical solution to any problem, permaculture suggests that these are not usually the best responses (Holmgren, 2002).  Alfonzo (2013) offers several insights about how we can better manage our time, working with what we have instead of focusing on what we lack:

  • Be purposeful about how you spend your time. 
  • Know what you are doing and why you are doing it. 
  • Focus on effectiveness, not just efficiency. 
  • Take care of yourself.

What would happen if we took the first 15 minutes of the day to observe rather than produce?  To see and be rather than to do?  What if we deliberately chose to spend time observing throughout the day?  It may seem counterintuitive to many of us, but this sort of careful, thoughtful observation would allow us to prioritize and take care of ourselves and our students, granting space for colleagues and advisees to do the same.


As we observe, permaculture reminds us to focus on functions, connections, and relationships (Mollison, 1991; Holmgren, 2002).  In our garden, if we focused solely on the relationship between ourselves and the slugs or the slugs and the lettuce, we would miss the bigger, more comprehensive picture, closing ourselves off from a wider range of possibilities and limiting our opportunities.  In advising, we give much thought and attention to the relationship between ourselves and our advisees, a relationship that is critical to the advisement process.  However, especially in challenging times, it can be easy to lose sight of the importance of connections with colleagues, campus offices, and community organizations.  At times, we may even fall into the trap of seeing other people or departments as threats, competing with us for positions and resources.  Whether the resulting isolation is the consequence of neglect, rivalry, or fear, it does little for us as professionals or as human beings.  Permaculture offers us a different way to look at the edge between our advisor selves and the greater college community.

There is a special place in permaculture for the use of edges, the space in nature where two ecosystems meet (Mollison, 1991; Holmgren, 2002).  Whether it is the ocean and the land, the soil and the air, or the pond and the turf in our own backyards, there are unique opportunities to be found along these edges.  Instead of seeing edges between ourselves and others as obstacles or threats, we can learn to look at them as places brimming with opportunity for mutual benefit and growth. The edge between Academic Affairs and Student Life has led to the development of learning communities.  The edge between Academic Advising and Career Development has led to one-stop advising and career centers.  The edge between advisors and other professionals has led to new programs, insights and growth.  How else can these relationships, these edges, enhance our ability to creatively respond to challenges?

Permaculture calls on us to integrate rather than segregate, to value cooperation over competition, and to look for opportunities rather than obstacles (Mollison, 1991).  It asks us to observe carefully and think creatively about problems, challenging us to look at the big picture and take thoughtful action in the manner and place in which we can make the most impact (Holmgren, 2002).  In the face of constant change and lingering uncertainty in higher education, permaculture offers us a guide for our collective, creative response. 

Nancy Willow
RN to BSN Program Advisor
School of Nursing
State University of New York at Delhi


Alfonzo, J. (2013). Maximizing your day: Effective time management. Retrieved from https://nys.powerflexweb.com/indexContentDetail.php?idDivision=25&nameDivision=Centers&idCategory=&nameCategory=&idModule=9013&name

Allison, P. (2013, March). Permaculture: A toolkit for designing our gardens, homes, and lives [Lecture notes]. Conference presentation at the Organic Growers School 2013 Conference conducted at the University of North Carolina, Asheville, NC.

Holmgren, D. (2002). Permaculture: Principles and pathways beyond sustainability. Hepburn, Victoria, Australia: Author.

Mollison, B. (1991). Introduction to permaculture. Tasmania, Australia: Tagari.

Cite this article using APA style as: Willow, N. (2013, December). Working with: Creative response to change using permaculture design. Academic Advising Today, 36(4). Retrieved from [insert url here]


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