Embodied Learning – By Way of a Bicycle

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By Margot Higgins

This is the fourth in a series, “History En Vêlo,” about cycling and thinking historically, shared with NiCHE.

In an empty parking lot with patches of silty snow and grey ice, Kaisy wobbled, skidded a bit, and struggled to maintain her balance. She had barely bicycled previously and hailed from Brownsville, Texas, and yet she had signed up for my winter bicycling class. As an informal pre-requisite to that class, students agreed to spend the winter semester pedaling for their education around the Twin Cities; she was well aware of this. Home to the International Winter Bicycling Summit that year, Minneapolis is well known for a vibrant winter bicycling culture. I wanted to offer my students a different take on what is widely perceived as a lethal activity, and to learn about the politics of bicycle mobility in the area. We were admittedly off to a bumpy beginning.

Kaisy had e-mailed me to ask for some “tips on how to stop and start.” Adhering to my promise that I had designed the course “for all  bicycle abilities,” we met for a practice ride in the lot behind our classroom as the late January sun set.

Bam! Within less than 30 seconds, Kaisy collided into my bicycle, dented and bent the fender – years later, I still haven’t been able to straighten it out entirely. Nevertheless, she saved herself from toppling over, and me from doing the same. Failing at lesson number one, I gulped and thought to myself, maybe I should start requiring students to sign a waiver? But when Kaisy also mentioned that she had recently started playing ice hockey, I knew this young woman from southern Texas was determined. She was not the only student with little previous experience.

Cycling near the Capitol in St. Paul..Photo by Margot Higgins.

By semester’s end, Kaisy bicycled smoothly and confidently throughout the Twin Cities – she never had another crash. Empowering my students to be comfortable in a variety of bicycling conditions is just one of the small things that I love about the bicycle curriculum I teach. Entitled “Bicycling the Urban Landscape: A History and Politics of Bicycling,” designing the Twin Cities-based course had also introduced me to the array of bicycle players in my new community.

Having moved there with experience as a car-free activist during graduate school in the Bay Area, I had a sense of who to reach out to: bicycle activists, those focused on gender and equity, members of city government, media, bike shop owners, artists, and others. I became friends with a bicycle cartoonist, surveyed new bicycle infrastructure with city planners, attended pedestrian-only open streets events. I had formed an instant social circle in my new home ground. Within a year, I became the co-chair of the St. Paul Bicycle coalition.

My students became more and more familiar with the network of connected bicycle lanes throughout the Twin Cities. Though we were honked at, and often startled by distracted drivers, I insisted that we demonstrate polite behavior to earn a better reputation for the bicycle community. Other vehicles seemed to respect our efforts and waited patiently for our long line of bicyclists to pass. By the end of the semester students could anticipate the pot holes in the street around campus, how long the lights took, which intersections felt safer than others.

This was not my first experience with embodied learning.

Ten years before, I had filmed and instructed a college course entitled “Cycle the Rockies: Energy Use and Climate Change,” offered by the Wild Rockies Field Institute. Beginning in the ranchlands and coalfields near Billings, Montana, we bicycled through various energy production facilities on the central plains, immersed ourselves in the center of energy policy debates at the state capitol in Helena, and finally pedaled over the Divide to Glacier National Park. Aligned with the topics we examined and people we met along the way, traveling by bicycle had offered an appropriately less carbon intensive pace for learning these issues, and continuing our conversations throughout the day.

Open-air discussions on the east side of Glacier Park. Photo by Margot Higgins.

Implementing the bicycle as a tool for education has led me to hold the firm belief that learning can thrive in a physically active setting. The physical exertion of riding up to six hours a day sharpens our ability to absorb our surroundings. While cycling through Montana, we noticed the subtle shifts in daily temperatures, the strong headwinds blowing against us as we bicycled east to west, the high number of dead migratory birds on the road, likely displaced by a changing climate and unusual weather patterns. Once, we experienced snow in July and had to re-route our itinerary to a far more strenuous option.

Cycle the Rockies. Students at the top of the Going to the Sun Road. Photo by Margot Higgins.

Spending an extended period of time moving across a landscape by bicycle affords participants the opportunity to understand communities with greater depth and detail than what is normally experienced at the high speeds that typify contemporary travel, in the traditional classroom, or increasingly in the virtual environment that now characterizes much of college education. Travel by bicycle also provides opportunities for students to experience the hospitality of residents along the way. Over the years, we have been hosted in numerous private homes, ranches, public libraries, and businesses. People stop and stare at our seemingly strange looking group cycling through town, and they ask questions. Where did we start? How far are we going? What are we eating to fuel ourselves along the way? Sometimes they are intrigued by our unorthodox format for learning. A former coal miner invited us over for pancakes.  On another occasion when the area had experienced unprecedented rain and flooding, we were offered a place to stay in the basement of a Catholic church.

Navigating a cattle grate in Montana. Photo by Margot Higgins.

Such curious attention about the experience of a traveling academic course can present opportunities to discuss politics in an un-confrontational way.  Our gentle pace may open a space for more genuine interaction with local people. The conversations that have unfolded stand in stark contrast to the dominant discourses often characterized by animosity, danger, and polarization in contemporary rural America. I believe this is direct, lived, experiential learning at its finest.

A panoramic pause in Montana. Photo by Matt Frank.

I have revised and re-written my bicycle syllabus seven times. The overarching objective of all of these classes is to provide intellectual and active engagement with bicycling. This includes understanding local, national, and global trends in bicycling, and what needs to be accomplished to increase mode share of bicycling locally and globally. We compare cases and we get our hands dirty, literally, while changing bicycle tires.

In my current version, “Bicycling the Wisconsin Landscape,” the community is our classroom, and we spend much of our time engaging with it. Students interact directly with city politics and planning. I assign them to attend bicycle planning meetings and to conduct bicycle counts. They pursue research projects for the city and non-profits. We also examine the history of bicycling in the United States. Among other examples, students are surprised to learn that bicycles provided mobility and freedom for women during the Suffrage Movement.

By semester’s end the majority of students have become avid bicycle commuters, some abandoning their vehicles for good, others vowing to never own a car. After graduation many decide to live in pedestrian oriented communities.

Navigating cracked pavement near Macalester College. Photo by Margot Higgins.

I believe this mode of learning is especially relevant in the pandemic. According to People for Bikes, a non-profit organization, during the COVID pandemic four percent of Americans rode bicycles for the first time. As many people were riding bikes at unprecedented levels, increased sales of bicycles left store shelves and bike shops critically low of inventory. Cities were closing streets to make way for this surge in bicycling. And bicycling offered a novel form of pedagogy that is commensurate with the challenge of organizing students spatially indoors in traditional classrooms.

With escalating gasoline prices, pollution and congestion, more awareness of the relationship between climate change and driving, and more interest in improving physical activity, bicycling is experiencing a recent boom as a transportation option. Thus, it makes good sense to expose students to the affordances of traveling on two wheels. They will likely share their experience with friends, and perhaps a larger, less carbon intensive, more vibrant community of alternative transportation users may be formed.

Feature Image: Cycling in Montana. Photo by Matt Frank.

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