On Dreams, Intimidation, and Bicycle Academia

I start to feel stuck as I work on doing outreach to bicycle-oriented researchers and organizations around the world. There are many people who are WAY more established in their ideas, thoughts, cultural and academic explorations than I am. I talk about wanting to give a human face to non-motorized transportation by creating short documentaries for web purposes about people and the role non-motorized transportation plays in their lives, but haven’t deeply explored the best way to methodologically approach that. What version of the each story do I want to tell? Design-wise, how do I want to present it? I envision myself using ethnographic methods of interviewing and participant observation to connect ideas and initiatives from different places, but what’s the best way to go deep and what’s the best way to remain compelling and relevant? What does it mean to produce documentary vs. ethnography?

I have more questions than answers, but here is something I do know: I am presently most interested in the different ways the bicycle is framed, understood, promoted, and utilized in different cultural contexts, particularly as a tool for empowerment. I believe comparative narratives of bicycle use in different places and ways can help get more people on bicycles in different parts of the world. My goal is to spend time in various places doing ethnographic research through interviewing, participant observation, and the production of short videos/interactive media highlighting localized transportation initiatives and illuminating the diverse and widespread human faces involved in sustainable transportation. The trick is establishing relationships in each of these places.

For the people I’m reaching out to, reasons to promote cycling are obvious. The Bicicultures  and Cycling and Society networks have much-more-established academics in their realm;   Bicycles Against Poverty in Uganda already has videos similar to the ones I’d like to make. My goal now is to understand for myself any of the people I contact should bother working with me–how can what I’m trying to do further what they’re trying to do? In other words, how can I work with them without being a bother? I only have an undergraduate degree in cultural anthropology, and I’m still shaping my idea of what goes into  high-quality, compelling digital storytelling. I get both overwhelmed and excited when I start to see how many bicycle-related articles exist in the inter-ether… and they approach the bicycle topic from so many angles!

Some Blogs of Cycle Scholars:
Thinking About Cycling
Urban Adonia
Bicycle-related Academic Articles

Other High-Quality Bicycle Resources:
League of American Bicyclists Blog
Denmark’s Bikeability Site
Mexico’s Ciclociudades
Europe’s Cosmobilities Network
Denmark’s Bicycle Innovation Lab

Some Impressive Bicycle NGOs:
World Bicycle Relief 
Bicycles Against Poverty

In the yoga philosophy I’m studying right now, the concept of vinyasa krama is to step (krama) and to place (yasa) in a special way (vin). On the one hand, this speaks to cultivating a deliberate and beneficial physical practice (asana), but the concept also applies generally in life: “it is not enough to take a simple step; that step needs to take us in the right direction and be made in the right way.” I’m applying for a digital storytelling fellowship for which the application is due on Feb. 28, but I haven’t yet been able to connect with scholars or institutions in my desired places to the extent that they’d be willing to affiliate with me. Part of me feels I need to have a clearer idea of how I delineate (or don’t delineate) ethnography from documentary from advocacy from academic research, etc., before I confidently move ahead in this game.  That process, I believe, would be best cultivated and developed in an academic setting, a world in which I am currently not living in. I AM, however, living in a world of freelance video editing and working as a communications assistant for an active and positive bicycle advocacy non-profit (San Francisco Bicycle Coailition). This is where I develop my thoughts and real-world practices of effective narratives/storytelling methods, and this real-world, applicable-skills process is just as important as the academic thought development process.

The bottom line is that the application is due in 20 days and I don’t have relationships or affiliations worked out yet. This makes me feel like I’m rushing into the Fellowship part of the process. I’d rather spend the next year developing relationships and see where it takes me and how my thoughts and methods develop. I still feel too new to this world. Being just nine months out of my undergraduate degree, I’m just getting the hang of this ‘real-world’ thing, yet I feel immensely under-qualified when it comes to academic conversations I want to be participating in. I love the learning process, but sometimes fear I’m trying to rush through it too quickly.

So once again, my current main goals with these Comparative Narratives of Sustainable Transportation:

  • Give a human face to non-motorized transportation by creating short documentaries for web purposes about people and the role non-motorized transportation plays in their lives:
  • Blog about cross-cultural similarities and differences in transportation trends—why might a trend in one location be the opposite in another?
  • Utilize ethnographic methods of interviewing and participant observation to connect ideas and initiatives from different places
  • Highlight organizations using the bicycle for different social goals
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