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  • Ken Ilgunas

My first paid article: A story on Duke’s new campus farm

(Photo Credit: Megan Morr / Duke Magazine)

A few months ago, I wrote an article about Duke’s new campus farm. It just printed in Duke Magazine. You can read it here.

This occasion makes me want to discuss two things: my paid writing “career” and campus farms.

1. Paid writing

I’ve been writing semi-professionally since 2004. It all started when I became a writer, and later, an editor, for the Arts & Life section of my undergraduate school’s student newspaper. In the years before I started this blog, I wrote a couple freelance articles for Buffalo’s alternative weekly newspaper (Artvoice) as well as a guest op-ed column for The Buffalo News. (I’m exceedingly embarrassed about most of my work back then, so I won’t be going out of my way to share any of those articles.) Anyway… during the past seven years, I estimate that I’ve made a mere $1,800 for my words.

This article marks this first time I’ve been fairly paid by a publication. And goddamn, it feels good. Between this article and another that will print in their next issue, I received a check for $1,200. I guess it’s my goal–and my main purpose of being up here writing in Alaska–to make a living with my words. While this goal seems as impossible as ever and this check is by no means enough to permit me to live in anything more than a van (or as a freeloader up in Northern AK), I guess it’s a step in the right direction.

2. Campus farms

I absolutely love the idea of a campus farm. The great thing about Duke’s new farm is that it’s not only run by students, but all the food produced on it is sold to the food company that runs various dining halls at Duke. In other words, students produce the food, then eat the food.

More and more, I think colleges should encourage, if not enforce, their students to receive a practical education to complement their classroom-based liberal arts educations. Don’t get me wrong: I do not think college should be a place where you go only to obtain “career skills.” That’s not what I’m talking about at all… Rather, I think college should be a place where we go to become the most well-rounded, cultured, and complete persons we can be. It should help us become full-fledged human beings.

College does not do this… By the time we graduate, we’ve spent much of the last 16 years of our lives sitting in front of desks, sitting in front a computers, or sitting at boring on-campus jobs. Not only do we have almost no practical skills, but we’ve focused our studies on some minute subject; “Biomedical engineering” or “Parks, recreation, and leisure studies,” for instance. We become specialists: great at one thing, and useless at everything else.

So what’s a graduate to do who can neither land a job, nor has any useful skills to help her take care of herself? I don’t know the solution, but here’s a wild idea: colleges include a requirement to take x number of “Self-Sustainability” courses during the course of a student’s undergraduate education. It would be a hands-on, dirt-under-your-fingernails education. Some examples of such courses:

“Tending an orchard”– In a semester, you’ll learn about planting an orchard, maintaining the trees, canning, preserving, etc.

“Farming”–You’ll learn how to till the soil, plant, irrigate, etc.

“Construction”–framing walls, the basics of masonry, roofing, etc.

There could be semester-long courses on carpentry, cattle farming, electronics, plumbing, car maintenance. But only the basics of surviving on your own; nothing too narrow or esoteric (i.e. basket weaving). No one will leave such a course an expert, but the student will no doubt feel at least somewhat comfortable with a skill she’d be reasonably familiar with.

I think 2-4 such courses over the course of one’s education would help produce graduates that are on their way to becoming free-thinking, self-sufficient citizens. Crazy? Insane? Any thoughts?

Anyway, campus farms are a step in the right direction. It provides such an arena for students to receive practical educations.


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