Authority and efficiency – Jan Schakel in Rennes – Part 6

Last weeks, I have seen some wonderful examples of higher education. Like during the ‘Stage du terrain’ in Plouha, where there was a good balance between theory and practice, and between the classroom and the field. The students were very pleased with the high number of professors: 40 students, with over 12 staff members! Also the way how tools and techniques were taught and practiced in the laboratory as well as under the open sky, was of high quality. And of course above all: the integrated and multidisciplinary approach. At least 5 different disciplines (like in hydrology, biology, architecture, economics, sociology) were mixed up in transversal groups to integrate the different types of knowledge.

This week, again the course was very well structured and all kinds of methodologies and techniques were practiced. Really fascinating was the application of the IDEA tool (“Methodes d’Evalation de la Durabilité en Agriculture “). After a long day outside in the fields (together with farmers, researchers, agronomists etc), the next day a workshop took place (for almost 10 hours), where all the information, gathered in the field, was interpreted and assessed  in terms of ‘indicators’. Almost 200 indicators past by. First divided into three categories: ‘échelle de durabilité agro écologique’, then ‘échelle de durabilité économique’ and finally the ’échelle de durabilité socio-territoriale’. But within every category, again indicators were distinguished on a lower level, and again theseat a lower level, etc. So all together there were over 200 indicators. With different researchers within the classroom, the whole group of (30) students, analyzed their findings in the field within this framework; a really intensive but also very efficient way of dealing with data from different sources and different disciplines.

Continue reading

Fez Noz and Black Cross… – Jan Schakel in Rennes – Part 5

Last week, I was asked to take part of a jury to assess  a thesis (‘memoire’), and it was a great experience. The classroom was filled up with many students (rather unusual), but that was due to the topic:  the performing arts in rural Brittany). The title of Alice Varagnat’s (the student) thesis was: “Le spectacle vivant dans le milieu rural en Ill-et-Vilaine” . Before I go into the ‘rural-urban’ aspect of her topic, it is good to mention that again I was too biased (or unaware) about this event. It was a real ‘defense’, even more then we are used to in Wageningen. There was a solid presentation, and after that, there was a real argument between the candidate and the committee (of 4 staff members, including me). Both took at least one hour. After that, the committee (likewise a real  PhD-thesis defense) went into ‘retraite’, and evaluated the thesis, presentation and defense. I was really pleased with the quantity and quality of the data, of her resources, findings, presentations, etc., but I had some serious comments on the structure of her report: there was no hypothesis, no methodology, no theoretical framework, no reflection, etc. But my comments didn’t make sense, because I was not participating a Master-thesis defense, but the ‘Memoires de fin d’études’, which  has more the character of an internship then from a scientific research project.  Again I had to find out that the degree of d’Ingénieur  is very different from a Masters degree. Alice’s thesis was not a scientific prove of competences, but a practical one: the report covers the ‘stage’, and shows that you’re able to organize your activities in a professional way. When I realized, that this was the context of her research (and findings), I was even more enthusiastic about it. So I proposed a high mark… just like the rest of the committee did. Finally her mark was a 17,5 (so almost belong to the best 5%), so really good!

The topic attracted many students. Rennes is a city with a lot of concerts and other cultural events. But also the rural area is famous because of an old British or even Celtic tradition: folk music, in bars and village halls, sometimes whole weekends or late in the evening. Festivals during the night, ‘feast at night’, so in Breton language called: ‘Fez Noz’ are very popular!  Alice’s study was on much more then jus this phenomenon of Fez Noz (she looked at cabaret, theater, dancing etc; see her report if you are interested), and the results of her empirical study were rather impressing: there is a vivid world of ‘spectacle vivant’ in the’ very’ rural Brittany (in areas far from the city). When I tried to compare these findings with my experiences in Holland, I couldn’t think about more or other things like the “Zwarte cross”(a multi performance and cultural motorcycle event), the “boeren bruiloften” (Farmers weddings) or “zuipketen” (no translation…). When I talked about this with the other members of the jury, they said they had the same idea before this project started. Part of the rural identity was the tradition of the ‘spectacle vivant’, and everybody thought it had disappeared, so the main goal of this project was to find out ‘why so’ and ‘what to do’ to restore this tradition (by means of infrastructural or economical or institutional arrangements), etc. But –to everybody’s surprise-, it turned out that there still is a rural identity in Brittany in terms of these cultural traditions. Maybe a topic for a thesis at the RSO-group in Wageningen?

Continue reading

Inclusion and exclusion of the rural… – Jan Schakel in Rennes – Part 4

As I wrote before, there are many relations between the urban and the rural. I just mentioned some of them: the markets, the food,  the regional identity, the life histories of families and …. biking trails… Although many people (in Rennes) don’t recognize this aspect, they do agree when I explain it to them. Maybe it’s too familiar to them –it might be in their backbone. But maybe also, because many Rennes’ peoples are getting very global: they just travel by car, TGV, Thalys or plane. Not any more by bike. Anyway, every day –after work- I’ll take my Batavus, and start roaming around. But when sunsets starts, I go to the écluse de St Martin’ (“shiplock”),  just nearby the Agrocampus. It is exactly on the edge of the city and the countryside. I go there, just to experience a beautiful phenomenon. I am not the only one that goes to that place. When it’s getting dawn, I see ten, hundred, thousand and ten thousands, maybe even millions of birds (starlings) coming back from the countryside. I don’t know where they have been all day, but every night the gather together on the electricity pylons and its wires; they come from everywhere, with thousands and thousands. Like me, but I’m there just to watch them. It almost takes an hour when they’re “all there”..(although I do not count them).  And then, suddenly (who said to leave; which bird took the initiative; and why?) they disappear, and they all go into the city. I’ve been told that they always go to the same places, and that hundreds of  trees are fully loaded with birds, really: fully loaded, and you can listen all night to their talks and stories…you can’t even sleep. But the next morning: they all have left. Where have they gone? Fascinating. But even more astonishing is the fact that this daily rural-urban migration became part of an urban ‘exclusion’ policy. The birds are not welcome anymore in the city, at least: not everywhere. For example, in the luxurious  Avenue de Jean Janvier (just opposite the central railway station)all trees are covered with nets(see picture), so the birds can’t have their sleep there anymore. I noticed these nets one morning on my daily trip to the station to buy my “de Volkskrant”. Rennes is changing … Anyway; the peoples who I asked about these nets, they just shook their head; they didn’t understand it either. Why exclude the birds…?

Some years ago, Rudolf van Broekhuizen and I did some research on “breeding and culture” as part of the EU funded project called “Sustainable Farm Animal Breeding and Reproduction” (SEFABAR). We studied the cultural context of breeding (for four species: poultry, pigs, ruminants and aquaculture)in 6 different countries.  France was one of them, together with the USA, Thailand, Norway, Italy and the Netherlands (by the way: why do I have to say in French that ‘je suis Hollandais, je parle Neerlandais, et je habit a Pays Bas’? Three words for one nationality; rather complicated!). Anyway, breeding can be embedded in or intertwined with culture in many ways and with different meanings. Although we noticed –especially in breeding – an ongoing process of globalization, we also noticed processes of (re-)localization. Our main conclusion was: culture and context still do matter! In Italy for example, breeding is strongly related to food, and in France breeding still is deeply rooted in the region: ‘origine’, ‘identity’ and ‘terroir’ are the keywords  to understand the cultural context of French breeding.

Continue reading

“I bike, so I am” (or was it…”I am, so I bike”?) – Jan Schakel in Rennes – Part 3

Tomorrow I will leave Rennes and go the  countryside (to Villarceaux) to assist a field practical on sustainable indicators in the rural area. But I already miss the city. As I wrote before, Rennes is an special city: it has character, class and culture. And after three weeks you’re getting to feel at home: I know my way around, do my daily shopping’s, shake hands, have a kiss here and there (‘des bisous’, more ‘cheek to cheek’…), etc. After three weeks you also get a rhythm:  I buy a Dutch newspaper at the station, have  a coffee on the terrace and a late dinner at the bistro (see picture).

Rennes is a very beautiful city, also due the fact that they have a major that is very well respected and who is major for over 30 (!) years already. So compared to other cities, Rennes has a very sustainable and constant policy, and you can feel and see the results of that everywhere.  I will show you two –also for me – very interesting examples. First : Rennes urban strategy (and at the same time: rural). Rennes, with almost 200.000 inhabitants within the city, is a very ‘compact’  city. Also due to ecological and rural motives, the city of Rennes decided over 30 years ago to  concentrate housing within its walls, and by that, saving the qualities of the surrounding countryside. So the policy was to intensify the density of its buildings, but according to very high architectural standards. So indeed, you don’t see any suburbs, industrial zones or slumps within the city: it all has quality and a very special atmosphere.

Continue reading

Jan Schakel in Rennes – Part 2

So, pronouncing and understanding French words in an English way and visa versa can be rather tricky. Moreover, because in France they try to keep their language ‘clean and pure’, so you can not use or pronounce words like computer, laptop or cell phone in French or in a French way (you have to know that they’re called ordinateur, portable, etc). The more surprising it is to find out that words in French sometimes do have the same meaning and structure as for example in Dutch. The English word ‘data’ for example is in Dutch ‘gegevens’, and in French ‘données’. These words have exactly the same structure, which might be caused by it’s origin: a positivistic way of thinking in both cultures. In my workshop “How to tackle reality and complexity” I could make clear to the audience that facts and data or ‘no gift from nature’, and that they or not ‘given to us’, but that it is mankind who takes information from nature in an active way and in this process it creates and constructs fact and data. So no ‘gegevens’ or ‘données’ at all!

Not only knowledge of languages is important to ‘survive’ in a different country (like knowing the difference between chamber, salle and bureau…), but also insight in their cultural and institutional history. I do work almost ten years now within an international framework on education (like IMRD, Erasmus Mundus, Intensive Programs), so I’m rather familiar with differences in educational systems between and within the European countries. But again I was too biased when I tried to understand what’s going on here in Agrocampus Ouest. For example: courses can last over 6 month, and the only way to understand the course and to get access to the content of it, is to join (‘assister’) the course. There are (hardly) any course outlines, no books, no readers, etc. Everything is taking place within the classroom and students have class during the whole day (2 x 4 hours), during the whole week, and this last week after week after week… So the professor himself is very important; not only in research but also in education. He is the authority, and the student really serves his apprenticeship with the professor. The French word for education is ‘formation’ –like word ‘vorming’ in Dutch- and indeed this educational system forms and shapes the student in a traditional way.

Continue reading

Reality is an illusion – Jan Schakel in Rennes – Part 1

“Reality is an illusion, caused by a lack of drugs”. I found this rather philosophical text somewhere written on the wall in one of Rennes’ universities. It made me smile; not only because of it’s statement (very original), but also because I had to give a workshop the day after. The title of this event was: “How to tackle reality and complexity?”. I was wandering what to do? Should I present my 70 slides (as planned) with comments during the four hours of the workshop? Or should I ask the students to use some drugs? Maybe it was even a better way to ‘tackle reality’, according to the quotation on the wall. It was for sure a thrilling idea! I decide not to do so. So I worked with my class through all the slides, and I think I did the right thing. Drugs are forbidden anyway in France! (‘See the PDF-file Rennes handout 2010 for a brief summery of the content of this workshop).

I am in France for some weeks, being a ‘visiting teacher’ from Wageningen University, now working at the Agrocamups Ouest. One week I was supervising 40 students during a “Stage de Terrain” at  the Cote d’Armor (North Brittany), and next week I will do the same during a practical in Villarceaux, west of Paris (just very nearby Giverny). This ‘stage du terrain’ will focus on ‘Identifying sustainable indicators for Rural Development’. In between I am living and working in Rennes for three weeks. Rennes is the capital of Brittany. It is a beautiful city! With almost 200.000 inhabitants, including over 60.000 (!) students, it indeed is a cultural and intellectual city. Besides that, the city is rather wealthy and ‘good-looking’: it represents a rich history, with many important and impressive institutes, and almost no ‘heavy industry’ (except the automobile industry). Rennes is a leading centre in telecommunications and other knowledge based industries. But in spite of that, Rennes also has a different atmosphere, what sometimes makes me remember to my hometown. Rennes is ‘maxi-Wageningen’ (whereas Agrocampus Ouest really looks like a ‘mini-Wageningen’). Rennes isn’t just a very intellectual city; it also is very multi-cultural, very international and also very ‘alternative’. So a good place to be. (Have a look –for example- at and where you can find information on the 9th edition of the three days lasting manifestation on ‘ La Terre est Mon Metier’. I will come back later on the special relationship between Rennes and these organic initiatives in the rural area).

Continue reading