One professor, 7,500 miles

A University course studies agriculture from Cairo to Cape Town, by bicycle.

by Ashley Dresser

I am talking to University of Minnesota agronomy and plant genetics professor Paul Porter in much the same manner that I imagine he spoke to his AGRO 5999 class during his epic bike tour across Africa last year. Our phone connection (via Skype) is patchy at best, but I remain transfixed. We might be on separate continents, but our wavelengths are practically the same. Like me, he is a classroom escape artist, but in teacher form. He wants to know the world with all six of his senses, and his voice âÄî even through the static âÄî carries a palpable desire to share his knowledge and experience with whoever is willing to listen. And lucky for Porter, the flexibility and vision of our University has allowed him to pursue this dream âÄî twice. The course description for PorterâÄôs Food and Agriculture from Cairo to Cape Town course slotted for spring 2010 promises to provide an introduction to food, agricultural and agro ecosystems in ten African countries via PorterâÄôs travels with the bicycle tour company Tour dâÄôAfrique Ltd. Last year, he traveled 3,700 miles before suffering a compound fracture in his right arm in southern Tanzania. This year, Porter intends to pick up his journey where he left off and continue his discussion on agriculture and Africa via daily written and audio blogs. With the assistance of University guest speakers from a variety of related fields and co-teacher Dr. Mary Brakke, students will be intimately exposed to Africa and to the rigors of a cross-continental bike journey. âÄúIn general, I have received nothing but support from the U, for which I am thankful. I feel lucky that I get to go back and complete the course,âÄù Porter said. âÄúUpon returning to the States in March 2009, I was actually able to meet my students, which was pretty neat, but I would have rather been in Africa. It was hard to leave. It takes a long time to process.âÄù Porter was not alone in his feeling of loss. Many other riders on the tour had become endeared by his presence. Rana Freedman, fellow rider and Lonely Planet correspondent, wrote in an e-mail, âÄúUp until his accident, Paul had the illustrious âÄòEFIâÄô status, which stands for âÄòEvery F*$^%# Inch.âÄô It means that he never got in the truck, hitched a ride or took a day off âĦ He was a strong rider and had such an upbeat attitude that everyone appreciated. His previous time in Africa (in the Peace Corps and in the âÄô80s) made him such a great resource for information and perspective on what we were experiencing. We were all learning from him all the time.âÄù In other words, you can take the professor out the classroom, but you canâÄôt take the classroom out of the professor. Students who took Food and Agriculture from Cairo to Cape Town expressed a similar response. Biology, Society and the Environment junior David Rittenhouse said, âÄúWhen I tell people about the class, they often respond with, âÄòWait, heâÄôs teaching a class, but heâÄôs in Africa now âĦâÄô It was a very different approach than the normal class. ItâÄôs like Paul thought, âÄòI want to teach about agriculture in Africa, why donâÄôt I go there?âÄô âÄù âÄúIâÄôm not the first person to think of this idea,âÄù Porter was quick to point out. âÄúDr. Aaron Doering in CLA does an GoNorth! polar huskies adventure course, and I received a lot of advice from him.âÄù Porter also stressed that it wasnâÄôt an easy undertaking. Aside from the daily physical taxation and constant cultural immersion, the long ride days were the most difficult. He would run out of daylight to take notes or call in to class and would have to fumble around in the dark with his headlamp. He often saw plants and foods that he did not recognize, and he did not have the time or the language ability to ask questions about them. At times, he had to make do, as unpredictability comes with the territory of travel; yet, his blog was never short of insightful observations that stretched beyond just the application of agriculture. âÄúI saw acts of humanity toward me from fellow riders and from the many Africans we passed,âÄù Porter wrote. âÄúI am, however, growing more apprehensive for our collective future, because I see what we are doing to our land, water and air. Farming is hard on the land, water and air. I saw a lot of farming and a lot of people, literally millions of people. They all eat. Africa is not all desert, savannah, rainforests, mountains and wildlife. It is full of people, more full each passing second. Many people are poor and starving. There is reason for concern, and action âÄî better, more efficient and effective action than in the past.âÄù And nothing speaks louder than the words of a witness. Later, Porter writes that he was surprised when a student wanted to shake his hand before he left for his tour of Africa. It was in this moment that he realized just how much his dream could potentially inspire his students. To me, itâÄôs obvious. I have not taken the class, nor do I personally know the man, but Porter and his real-time approach to education has certainly inspired me. Normally, I would be the first to criticize the vague âÄúDriven to DiscoverâÄù slogan and ideologies of the University, but today, I step aside. We should be proud our University supports such a unique and innovative form of teaching and even more boastful that we send such articulate ambassadors like professor Paul Porter out into the world to spread the University of Minnesota knowledge and goodwill. I encourage anyone who is curious to sign up for his class or take a look at his blog at Good luck on your 2010 leg, Paul. If I ever get the chance, I too would like to shake your hand. Ashley Dresser welcomes comments at [email protected].