Cycling Sabbatical

Michigan community college professor bikes across Africa and uses experience to bring broader world view to her small-town students.
September 17, 2009

Kerri Finlayson has a reputation around campus for being something of a globetrotter, but none of her previous trips abroad could have prepared North Central Michigan College’s sabbatical committee for the adventure she had planned next.

The young anthropology and sociology professor wanted to take off the entire 2007-8 academic year to prepare for and embark on a five-month bicycle trip across Africa, from Cairo to Cape Town. Though none of Finlayson’s colleagues doubted her endurance -- she had recently trekked to the North Pole and summited Mount Kilimanjaro -- the professor’s prior trips were relatively short affairs that took place during the sleepy summer term.

“More typically, our professors will take short sabbaticals to attend workshops or conferences so they can edit and present material to start another class,” says Larry Cummings, chair of the sabbatical committee and a geography and history professor. “No one had taken a yearlong sabbatical before."

Still, Cummings, who has taken a few sabbaticals himself to tour holy sights in Europe and lead a student trip through Mexico, knew the value of trips like the one Finlayson proposed and did his best to assuage the concerns of committee members who were skeptical about the trip’s relevance to the classroom.

As community college professors do not have to live by the “publish or perish” mantra, Cummings explained that their sabbaticals are much more about gaining personal experience and anecdotes to share in the classroom than gathering data to complete a serious research project. This is especially valuable, he continued, in broadening the worldview of students, particularly those who have not traveled far beyond rural northern Michigan.

“It’s difficult for us,” Cummings says of faculty travel. “We live in such a remote area that, as far as academics are concerned, we’re just as interested in personal experience as we are in research. That’s the reason I liked [Finlayson’s] idea for the trip. She’s been able to do something a little out of the ordinary and bring that to the community.”

Photo: Kerri Finlayson

Finlayson by the Great Sphinx of Giza.

And so, with the approval of the sabbatical committee, Finlayson -- along with 55 other cyclists from across the globe -- set out on her bicycle journey across Africa in January 2008. On her trip, managed by a Canadian travel company, Finlayson passed through 10 countries and biked more than 7,500 miles before reaching the finish line five months later in May. (Details of the trip are chronicled in a blog she kept along the way.)

As if summoning the energy to get through each leg of the trip were not enough, the sociology professor also used the trip to study how extreme conditions affect group dynamics firsthand. By surveying and interviewing her biking partners through the trip, she was able to address the sociological questions she teaches daily in the classroom, such as how groups form, how they collectively handle conflict and how varying statuses develop within these groups.

“In my courses, particularly in my intro to sociology course, we’ll use my trip as a case study,” says Finlayson. “When we study group dynamics, we talk about the groups that formed during my trip. How are they organized? Is it by age? Nationality? Language? Biking ability? What’s the status of these groups? How does gender come into play?”

These rich personal examples make for better test questions, Finlayson says, and more engaged students. Though her students do not analyze any of the data she collected during her trip -- those in her introductory courses are not yet ready for the job, she says -- Finlayson notes that her anecdotes have made the course modules and topics more applicable and tangible for her students.

Also, as an anthropology professor, Finlayson was able to interact with African people and cultures that before her trip she had previously studied only from afar. The influence of these personal interactions on her instruction is incalculable, she says, and has given her an opening to discuss the influence of culture on social behavior in the classroom.

Finlayson believes that another important aspect of her trip is the opportunity it's given her to broaden the horizons of her students, who are unlikely to be taking many trips abroad themselves.

“This can set an example for students,” Finlayson says of her trip. “We’re in a rural area, so this can show our students, particularly if they come from disadvantaged backgrounds, that they can have big dreams and get connected with the global situation. It’s very insular here, so this shows them -- wow, look! -- there’s a wider world you can get into. If I can show them that there’s a world outside of Northern Michigan, whether that’s in Ann Arbor or abroad in something like the Peace Corps, then I’ve done my job.”

Photo: Kerri Finlayson

Finlayson with a group of children in Malawi.

The influence of Finlayson and her marathon bike trip does not stop in the classroom, however. To help cover the cost of the trip, which she paid herself, Finlayson was awarded an advance speaking fee by the Michigan Global Awareness Consortium -- a group of eight institutions in the state looking to internationalize their curriculums -- to speak to students about her world travels. (She gave one such public lecture at North Michigan last September.)

“I’ve already spoken to three of the schools in the consortium, and I’ll speak to another in the fall,” Finlayson says. “I try to share my story. But, most of all, I try to get these places to integrate Africa into whatever they’re teaching.”

Though the lecture circuit may be a bit cushier than a bicycle trip, Finlayson says she is still riding her bike to work a few days a week. As for her globetrotting spirit’s influence on her colleagues at North Michigan, she said she has heard nothing but rave reviews.

“There might be some enviousness or some naysayers who asked, ‘How’s this going to apply to the classroom?’ " Finlayson says. “But no one has said anything to my face. I’m just trying to do a good job in the classroom. Also, I’m taking advantage of what’s being offered and nobody can say that I haven’t.”


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