Volume 8, Issue 2: Fall 2012
Roundtable on Teaching Motorcycle Studies
Motorcycle Myth and Culture: An Honors Seminar
Steven E. Alford and Suzanne Ferriss
Division of Humanities
Nova Southeastern University
We teach at a large private university in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in a small undergraduate program at that admits a disproportionate number of two groups: women and biology majors (each about 70% of the general student population). Why not, then, design a course on motorcycles—and pitch it to the top 10%, our honors students? Why not?
In fact, we thought—and still think—that our course would be perfect for this population: it’s interdisciplinary, considering the motorcycle as a modern object with a rich cultural significance tied up with complex issues of history, technology, engineering, consumerism, psychology, design, aesthetics, gender and sexuality. And it emerged directly out of our own research for a book Motorcycle that considered the motorcycle as a purpose-driven design object, a nexus of social and cultural relations, an instrument of individuation and community, a pop culture icon, and an aesthetic object in its own right. The course would be team taught, just as our book had been co-authored.
But how to convince our colleagues, who had to approve the course, and our dean, who directs the honors program? We argued that these features—its interdisciplinary nature and connection to cutting-edge research—matched the criteria for any honors seminar. It fit right in with other honors courses with wildly different subjects: on myth and fairy tale in popular culture, chick lit and chick flicks, the idea of the hospital, philosophy and politics in film, utopias and dystopias, quarks and quasars, and the misbehaving brain. Our colleagues agreed!
But would students take it? Would they think they had to be riders before signing up? That they needed to possess mechanical skill? That only guys would take it? Recalling that Katherine Sutherland created posters—“really sexy posters”--to drum up interest in her course, we did the same. (See samples below.)
We posted them around the halls and asked the academic advisors to pass them out. We don’t know if that did the trick, but we wound up with 10 interested students when we first offered the course in 2008.
They were a diverse group in almost every way, equally divided between males and females, with a range of academic majors—biology, English, business, psychology. Only one student fit what might have been the stereotype: he was a rider and knew the mechanics of the machine. Two others were definite enthusiasts who read the magazines and hoped one day to ride. In fact, one of them took the course with the avowed intent of amassing all the evidence he would need to convince his parents to allow him to fulfill his dream to own and ride a bike of his own.
We designed the course to follow the basic structure of our book--design, community, images and aesthetics—but with additional sections derived from other areas of our research on motorcycle travel and travel literature, and the psychology of risk and danger, and speed. Students had three required texts:
Alford, Steven and Suzanne Ferriss. Motorcycle. London: Reaktion Books, 2008.
Our book served as the guide for the course’s organization and as the touchstone for interdisciplinary considerations of the motorcycle’s cultural significance.
Pierson, Melissa Holbrook. The Perfect Vehicle: What It Is About Motorcycles. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998.
Pierson’s remains one of the key texts in explaining the appeal about the motorcycle and motorcycling—particularly to an audience of non-riders. We incorporated sections from it throughout the course.
Zanetti, Gena. She’s a Bad Motorcycle: Writers on Riding. Da Capo Press, 2002.
Zanetti’s book includes selections from a wide range of writers, including iconic pieces from the past as well as more recent examples. Some are complete essays, others excerpts from seminal books. We used the following:
· Robert E. Fulton, from One Man Caravan (7-21)
· Ralph “Sonny” Barger, “Harleys, Choppers, Full Dressers, and Stolen Wheels (32-45)
· Ernesto “Che” Guevara, from The Motorcycle Diaries (46-55)
· Hunter S. Thompson, “Lifestyles: The Cyclists” (73-86)
· Tom Wolfe, “The Hell’s Angels” (97-106)
· Ted Simon, from Jupiter’s Travels (172-80)
· Allen Noren, from Storm (196-203)
· Karl Taro Greenfield, from Speed Tribes (204-226)
· Erika Lopez, “Pulling My Hair Back Without Any Hands” (233-236)
· Rachel Kushner, “Girl on a Motorcycle” (237-55)
We supplemented these assigned texts with additional handouts, lectures supported by PowerPoint presentations, films and film clips, a video game and more. The course was offered in an intense 7-week format, with two 2.5-hour class meetings each week, which allowed plenty of time for discussion, in-class writing, group work and film screenings. We screened two films in their entirety—The Wild One (1954) and Easy Rider (1969)—but clips were used liberally throughout. We used the final exam slot for student presentations. Our outline details the assignments and discussion topics:
We were cognizant, as we taught, that the course met general education requirements. As such, while the subject itself was interdisciplinary, we capitalized on opportunities to draw from specific disciplinary perspectives (in addition to our own training in literature and film). For instance, in the session devoted to the ride, we emphasized the embodied experience of riding. Augmenting Pierson’s discussion of motorcycle sound, we played recordings of various bike engines as well as excerpts from a symphonic performance in Germany that incorporated Harley-Davidson engine sounds and horns. Pierson argues that riding induces “a delight that feels just like freedom in simply moving through the air” (30). We pressed the students to articulate the complex philosophical, political and psychological definitions of “freedom” and introduced them to Mihayli Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “flow.” To elaborate on the lure and affects of riding, we introduced the students to other psychological and physiological explanations, such as those in Michael Apter’s book Dangerous Edge: The Psychology of Excitement. In discussing risk and danger, we not only reviewed the results of the Hurt report, but directed the students to Jeremy Packer’s study of safety, Mobility Without Mayhem. To situate motorcycle travel, we introduced the students to the four kinds of human movement Paul Fussell identifies in Abroad: exploration, travel, tourism and anti-tourism. Since none of the students knew anything about Che Guevara, we offered a quick history lesson derived in part from Patrick Symmes’ book Chasing Che. Our discussion of speed distinguishes between acceleration and velocity, but also considers social acceleration, as defined by Hartmut Rosa.
We often used the readings as occasions to develop the students’ skill in writing as well as reading. We created an exercise that required students to distinguish between Erika Lopez’s punchy style and Rachel Kushner’s more evocative prose. Working in groups, they then tried to rewrite one of the two passages using an entirely different style.
We also intended to immerse the students in motorcycle culture as part of the academic experience. Short of getting them on bikes, we opted to take them for a guided tour of Eddie Trotta’s Thunder Cycles, a short bus ride from campus in downtown Fort Lauderdale. A highlight of the course, our visit was filmed by media services and used to promote the course when we offered it again in 2010: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7_OBtwKpeAs. To several students, however, the chance to play the TT game during class was the real highlight.
It was not all fun and games, though. In addition to reading quizzes, the students completed two papers. The first, a short essay (at least four pages/1000 words), asked the students to consider one of the topics we studied in class--design, the ride, identity, women, or images—advancing a specific claim about the topic, supported by evidence from the texts we have read and discussed. Their final papers enabled the students to consider another topic and required them to conduct research on their own and present their work to the class. In these projects, they inevitably linked the motorcycle to their areas of academic specialization and personal interest. One biology student investigated the neurological effects of speed; humanities students wrote about purpose-driven art and the future of motorcycle design. Not surprisingly, the student who wanted to convince his parents to let him ride argued how to minimize the dangers and risk inherent in riding. His argument must have been compelling: he now (safely) rides a Kawasaki.
When we offered the course again in 2010, we changed only the field trip, substituting a tour of a local Harley-Davidson dealer for the visit to the custom bike shop as part of our discussion of manufacture and commodification. We also added several essays from Lee Klancher’s collection, The Devil Can Ride: John Hall’s “Memorial Day Weekend 1967” (56-76) and Mark Singer’s “The Gang’s All Here” (111-23) flesh out the history of Hollister and the subsequent development of “outlaw” groups. We assigned Dan Walsh’s “Mozambique and Tanzania” (148-59) as a complement to clips from Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman’s Long Way Down, and Jack Lewis’s “Riding Home” (238-59), which movingly describes riding through Oregon as easing his return home from the war in Iraq. Hunter S. Thompson’s “Song of the Sausage Creature” (27-32) makes the case, as only he can, that “fast is better”: “Being shot out of a cannon will always be better than being squeezed out of a tube. That is why God made fast motorcycles, Bubba” (29).
As we prepare to offer our course again this semester, we look forward to involving the students in new projects: a documentary film on women’s participation in motorcycling conducted by a colleague at the University of Colorado, Denver, and our own work-in-progress on the International Journal of Motorcycle Studies and a new book on the transition from the bicycle to the motorcycle. In 2014, we’re hoping to collaborate with instructors across the country (and even across the pond or around the globe) on an experiment where several instructors teaching motorcycle courses simultaneously involve their students in one big virtual discussion, with the results to be presented at the IJMS conference in Colorado Springs.
The future of teaching motorcycle studies, like the future of motorcycling itself, beckons.
Apter, Michael J. The Dangerous Edge: The Psychology of Excitement. New York: Free Press, 1992.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihalyi. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper&Row, 1990.
Fussell, Paul. Abroad: British Literary Traveling between the Wars. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Klancher, Lee, ed. The Devil Can Ride: The World’s Best Motorcycle Writing. Minneapolis, MN: Motorbooks, 2010.
Packer, Jeremy. Mobility without Mayhem: Safety, Cars and Citizenship. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008.
Rosa, Hartmut. “Full Speed Burnout? From the Pleasures of the Motorcycle to the Bleakness of the Treadmill: The Dual Face of Social Acceleration.” International Journal of Motorcycle Studies 6.1 (Spring 2010): http://ijms.nova.edu/Spring2010/IJMS_Artcl.Rosa.html
Sutherland, Katherine. “Reading the Ride, or Getting a Motorcycle Course Past the Adminstration.” International Journal of Motorcycle Studies, Vol. 2, July 2006: http://ijms.nova.edu/July2006/IJMS_Artcl.Sutherland.html
Symmes, Patrick. Chasing Che: A Motorcycle Journey in Search of the Guevara Legend. New York: Vintage, 2000.
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