Secret Life: Dr. Steven Alford and Dr. Suzanne Ferriss

Sometimes, studying what you’re passionate about can turn what was once simply a hobby into an academic breakthrough. This was certainly the case for Suzanne Ferriss and Steven Alford, professors in the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences in the Department of Literature and Modern Languages, who merged their interest in motorcycles with their passion for scholarship.

Alford and Ferriss, who ride a Triumph Speed Triple and Yamaha FZ1, respectively, travel cross-country and even commute to work on their motorcycles. But since they started studying motorcycle culture, they’ve published a book on motorcycle culture, traveled the world to conferences where they’ve met other scholars with similar interests and even taught an honors course on motorcycle myth and culture.

How did you both get started with motorcycling?

Alford: “Well I rode when I was young and irresponsible, and much later, one of one of our students here had a bike, and he was going back to his home in Switzerland, and Suzanne arranged to buy the bike from him for me. So then I was going to take the Motorcycle Safety Foundation course, and so I said, ‘If I’m going to do it, you’re going to do it.’ So then we did it together, and then we got another bike, and she got that bike.”

Ferriss: “Yeah, so I basically didn’t start until I was in my 40s. I came to it late.”

What made you both interested motorcycles in the first place?

Alford: “Get on one and drive 85 miles per hour on the expressway, and you’ll be very interested. I think it’s just as much fun as you can have with your clothes on.”

Ferriss: “I think there’s also this more immersive sensory experience, and that could be good or bad. When it’s really hot, and you’re going through Texas, and it’s 105 degrees, and you’re feeling dehydrated, then you do not want to be on a motorcycle. You would like to be in an air-conditioned car. But when it’s a beautiful day outside, you can feel the sun, and you can feel the breeze, and you can smell things, even through a full-face helmet. We’ve gone through Florida, and you can smell the orange groves. I think that part of it is really interesting. You feel like you’re more connected to the landscape when you’re on the motorcycle than you do when you’re in the car.”

How frequently do you just get on your motorcycles and just ride round?

Ferriss: “I would say a few times every week to commute. We don’t do it so much to go out for fun. We do it more to commute. We ride to work.”

Alford: “But preferable to riding among South Florida drivers for us is going on trips. Spending a couple of months on the bike over the summer is really what we prefer.“

Ferriss: “It’s the preferable experience, but we use it for commuting because it’s also more environmentally conscious and cost efficient, even though it’s sometimes difficult to jockey with the drivers. And, of course, when it’s raining, we have the alternative: taking a car. If it’s raining, we usually avoid it, but if it’s nice out, we usually ride.”

What’s the coolest place that you’ve gone to while riding?

Ferriss: “I would say that we’ve been to lot of really cool places. I would say the Canadian Rockies was one of the best places we’ve been to. Going along the ice fields parkway toward Jasper was amazing. And wouldn’t you say Southern Utah and the Grand Canyon?”

Alford: “Yeah, Utah is all rocks, right? ‘Oh, let’s go look at some rocks,’ right? It turns out that Bryce Canyon National Park, Zion National Park, Canyon Lands, Arches National Park, all of this stuff is in Utah, and, as long as you don’t find the need to drink alcohol, it’s a very interesting state.”

What made you interested in studying motorcycle culture?

Alford: “Well, first of all, it was a way to be a scholar and still do fun stuff. We have been editors for the Journal of Motorcycle Studies for 10 years, and then we published a book in 2008 called ‘Motorcycle,’ and we have another one coming out this spring on the relation of bicycles and motorcycles.”

Ferriss: “But I think, initially, it was going to popular culture conferences. That’s how it started. It was a way to combine something that we enjoy doing but also learn more about it, and then to meet other scholars who are also interested in it, and then looking at how it intersects with popular culture, with history, with design, engineering. The ways that you could gain entry into other fields was, to us, very interesting.”

Alford: “In 2009, we had a conference put on by the University of Trier in Germany. The American Studies department there put on a conference based on our book, and it was really cool. They had artwork and stuff that some Germans did, and we had lectures and showed movies and stuff. That was fun to do.”

Ferriss: “We’ve met people from all over the world who ride motorcycles and study them.”

Through your motorcycle culture research, what were your major findings?

Alford: “I think one of them is — I wouldn’t call it negative — but one of them is sort of corrective to try through scholarship to get out of people’s heads the idea that people who ride motorcycles are these unwashed, bearded, smelly, uneducated, potentially violent outlaws. First of all, there are 7 million motorcyclists in the U.S., and that is an extreme minority, but, of course, because they’re very attractive to the media and because we have this whole history since 1954 of popular culture sort of buying into that with ‘The Wild One’ and all of the films that follow that, it’s just pervasive. And we wanted to sort of emphasize these gender issues. There have always been female motorcyclists, and they can ride bikes, too.”

Ferriss: “I think that’s been driving all of our research. It’s to open people’s eyes to the fact that, first of all, it’s not just the way it’s represented in America, too. This is an international phenomenon, and motorcycling is in some ways more pervasive in other countries than it is here. It’s not the minority.”

Alford: “And when you look at it in other countries, it’s fundamentally a utilitarian vehicle. It’s how you get your fish to market, you know? It’s how you get your family to the mosque, or whatever, so people find it a cheap, efficient, reliable vehicle. But here, because it’s America, you have to buy something to get in touch with yourself. So you have to use it as some kind of self-oriented, therapeutic tool to engage in these very self-oriented recreations. That’s, to me, sort of silly over the long term.”

What advice do you have for those who might be interested in motorcycling?

Alford: “There’s one piece of advice, and that is to take the Motorcycle Safety Foundation course. It’s usually on a Thursday night, and it’s all day Saturday and all day Sunday. It’s not cheap. It’s like $300 bucks or something, but they start you out by giving you a motorcycle and you learn how to walk it, and you learn how to park it, and you learn how to sit on it. Basically they teach you how to not kill yourself. There is so much valuable information and skills that you learn in a short amount of time, and, in addition, on Sunday, when you’re done, they hand you a little piece of paper, and this is your chit that you can take to the DMV and get your ‘Motorcycle Also’ endorsement on your driver’s license. So you don’t have to go down there and deal with the cops and take a driver’s test. It’ll give you that right to have it on your license. It’s true for everybody, but especially for younger people who are more likely to have a higher opinion of their skills than they might actually have. And, of course, you see so many idiots riding around here in their flip flops and their shorts and wanting to feel the wind in their hair with no helmet. Those people are organ donors, and they clearly have not been apprized of how one should ride, which is with protective gear.”

Ferriss: “We also recognize that it’s not for everybody, and we’re not trying to convert people to motorcycling, but take the Motorcycle Safety Foundation course if you’re even at all interested. Take the course, and check it out in a safe, controlled way with expert guidance. It’s a great way to train.“


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