15 March 2017

Thinking About The Bicycle

Go to any residential college or university--or even to some commuter schools--and you will see racks full of bikes.  Where racks are lacking, bikes will be locked to lamp posts, fences and any other stationary object.

It's likely that the majority of those bikes belong to students.  Administrators don't seem to ride much, but more than a few faculty members (including yours truly) pedal from their homes to their campuses. 

Given how many bikes and riders are on American post-secondary campuses, it's astounding that so little academic attention is paid to them.  I don't recall any course about any aspect of bicycles or bicycling--or even any class that mentions them in any way--offered in any of the schools in which I've studied or taught.

Among that rare breed of academic offerings is something with an unlikely title.  At least, the first part is unlikely--for a college class, anyway:  Cars Are Coffins:  Ideologies of Transportation, offered at Adrian College in Michigan.

The emphasis is, of course, on the second part of the title.  The course in question "draws attention to how decisions we make concerning mobility and the design of our public environments have profound implications for how we understand community and identity," according to Scott Elliot, one of the course's instructors.  A study of such matters is important, he says, because it provides an "opportunity to discuss matters of justice, ethics and quality of life."

What makes that course unique (to my knowledge, anyway) is that it includes work in a bicycle shop.  The students dismantle, repair and reassemble bicycles, in part to make them intimately familiar (if they aren't already) with the mode of transportation they're studying.  Another reason for this work is that it brings students into contact with people and communities they might not otherwise encounter.  You see, the shop in which they work isn't selling carbon fiber machines with five-figure price tags to investment bankers.  Rather, it's ReBicycle, located in the same town as the college.

Adrian College senior Scott Campbell works on a donated bicycle under the guidance of  Scott Dedenbach, a professional mechanic who volunteers at ReBicycle.  Photo by Mark Haney of the Daily Telegram.

Like similar shops in other locales (such as Recycle-A-Bicycle, which I've mentioned in this blog), ReBicycle refurbishes used bikes donated to them.  Some of those bikes are sold; others are earned by people--including some students--who take their classes and volunteer in the shop.  Places like ReBicycle and RAB, as a result of such work, serve a wider cross-section of a community--from people who see bikes strictly as a form of transportation to those who cycle for fun, and a few as a religion--than bike boutiques.  

Elliott and fellow Adrian professor Tony Coumondourous taught a smaller but similar course for two years.  That effort helped to bring about Bruiser's Cruisers, the campus bike sharing program.  The increasing demand for the service and what the class was teaching were among the factors that motivated Elliott to continue and expand the course this year.

Another thing that spurred him on was an experience he had last July: "I was nearly killed when I was hit by a drunk driver while riding my bicycle".  If such an experience doesn't highlight how auto-centric transportation planning and infrastructure are (at least here in the US), I don't know what does.  

Interestingly, neither Elliott nor Coumondouros has any formal education or training in urban planning or engineering.  They are both professors of Philosophy and Religion:  Elliott is a Bible scholar and literary theorist, while Coumondouros is a specialist in ancient and political philosophy, the history of philosophy--and ethics.  So, not surprisingly, students in the bicycle course come from a wide variety of majors and backgrounds.

Talk to any scholar and educator, and he or she will probably tell you the purpose of research and education is not to "know stuff".  Rather, it is helping people to learn ways of thinking about a number of topics, including some students may not have previously considered.  From what I can see, Coumondouros and Elliott are doing that for their students, precisely because they had to do it for themselves.


  1. Absolutely! Your last paragraph sums it up. The point of education is to learn how to think, not know a lot of stuff. I might add that the teacher should make sure to point out that the stuff you do learn represents the state of the subject at the time of teaching. This will change and develop as the years go by. In the future, knowing a lot of superseded facts will get you nowhere. But by paying attention to what is going on and thinking about it, you stay relevant.

    I have heard several people say that they could never be a teacher. Their worst nightmare would be to be a teacher and have somebody in class ask a question they couldn't answer. For a good teacher, this is a golden opportunity. "Let's think about it, look stuff up, and figure it out." and do it for real right there in front of the students. That process is more important than the answer.


  2. Leo--Believe it or not, I was once one of those people who thought I never could teach, for exactly the reasons you mention. And the people who told me I should teach all pointed out that I am willing to explore a question with students. That, really, is what keeps a person relevant as a teacher and makes teaching interesting.