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Portland Underground Graduate School goes above ground

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When Douglas Tsoi’s father died of ALS in January 2015, his last piece of advice to his son was “don’t wait for anything.”

That advice was the catalyst for Tsoi to create Portland Underground Graduate School.

PHOTO BY JAIME VALDEZ - Peter Bauer leads a class on Rewilding at the Portland Underground Grad School in North Portland. “I’m one of those people who just loves learning. For years, I was always tempted to go back to grad school just to learn something new,” he says. But he had no reason to get another degree, and grad school cost tens of thousands of dollars.

PHOTO BY JAIME VALDEZ - Doug Tsoi in the Rewilding class at the Portland Underground Grad School in North Portland. “I realized what I wanted was the learning and camaraderie of school, but in my daily regular life. I assumed a lot of people felt the same way, so I created the thing I wanted,” Tsoi says.

“I’ve always said PUGS (Portland Underground Graduate School) is half learning and half community; a community of people who care about learning, about the world and about each other. That’s the goal.”

PUGS classes differ from community education classes offered through a community college, Tsoi says. Those focus on practical courses such as languages or tai chi, he says, while PUGS courses focus on academics. “Also, PUGS courses are generated from what people want to take, as opposed to what an institution generates,” he adds.

How it works

Courses are taught in various locations around the city, are usually four weeks long, 90 to 120 minutes per class and start every month (except for a break in December).

Almost all the course fees are based on the basic wage in Portland of $15 an hour. The courses are six hours of class time, resulting in a $90 fee.

“After expenses, we split the revenue from each course with the instructor. That way we profit with, and not from, the instructors,” Tsoi says.

No credits are offered, but students put PUGS courses on their resumes and on LinkedIn, he notes. Students range from 20 to 50 or older, and typically love learning or are intellectually curious.

For those interested in a taste of PUGS, Tsoi is offering PUGSfest, a one-day sampling of classes, all organized around the topic of time, on June 18.

Fifteen different instructors will offer classes such as David Bowie and the End of Time, taught by Jon Ross; the Millennial Attention Span Explained, by Arturo Martinini; and Social Media Trends, Now and in the Future, by Maggie Summers.

Regular four-week classes begin in June, and include Tsoi’s class, How to Teach, and a wide range of other classes, including Portland Architectural History, Improv for Transformation, Unlocking the Wisdom of Yoga and the Importance of Wes Anderson.

Previous classes have revolved around earthquake preparation; Portland Urban Development; Beauty and Aesthetics in Western Art; Privacy: Law and Theory; and Portland Black History.

Informal time with teachers

Teaching is “completely transformative,” Tsoi says. “Engaging with enthusiastic students in what you care about is really inspiring and fun. And it reconnects you with what you’re really passionate about.”

His favorite part of PUGS is a tradition that teachers and students go out after the first and last class of each course.

“I really love seeing people meeting and connecting. Learning together creates a wonderful way to connect to other people,” Tsoi says.

Christine Dupres, who has taught a class for PUGS titled “Portland’s Urban Native Americans: How to be an Ally,” says she loves the fact that students of all ages, walks of life and a wide economic range take classes.

“It is really exciting and fun to teach and hang out with my students and build community,” she says.

Rewilding

PHOTO BY JAIME VALDEZ - Peter Bauer, here teaching his Rewilding class, says Portland Underground Grad School is a way for the city to stay weird.  Peter Michael Bauer says teaching at PUGS gave him his “mojo back.” He teaches Rewilding 101.

“Rewilding is a way of looking back at the majority of the human story and learning how humans lived for such a long time without wreaking havoc, then looking at how we can transform what we have today to something more along the lines of what we had then,” Bauer says.

The movement, he adds, is “basically both a new and old way of looking at the earth and humanity’s role in it.”

In the class, Bauer and his students start out “exploring common myths of prehistory, move on to what the word ‘wild’ means and how our culture has created the myth of wild and wilderness, and how this myth continues to create barriers for humans to understand their ecological role on the planet. Then we look at the ways in which civilization holds us captive and what we may do to break free. I end with examples of subcultures and native cultures that are doing this work.”

Bauer founded Rewild Portland, a local nonprofit dedicated to creating cultural and environmental resilience, and published a book “Rewild or Die.”

“To me, that is real education,” Bauer says. “I also love that PUGS has a social and environmental justice aspect to it that continues to go deeper. A lot of classes would never see the time of day at a regular university, but at PUGS, there is no such thing as a ‘radical,’ because there is no institutional idea that you have to battle against.”

Lindsay Burnette is a student in Rewilding 101. It was a shock to her, Burnette says, to hear how the advent of agriculture changed society so much, and to learn about hunter-gatherers and how their relationship with the land was much more sustainable.

Trish Stormont finds the class stimulates creative thinking. It has caused her to “look at old ideas; maybe infinite progress and growth are not the best,” Stormont says.

She recommends PUGS classes because they are affordable and foster lifelong learning.

“PUGS is a way for Portland to ‘stay weird’ (innovative) as it continues to grow,” Bauer says.

PUGSfest 2016

What: Portland Underground Graduate School offers a taste of its classes. Fifteen instructors will make presentations about the topic of time.

When: 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday, June 18

Where: Taborspace, 5441 S.E. Belmont St., Portland

Cost: $39

Details: For more information, with a full list of instructors and topics, visit pugspdx.com/pugsfest-2016.