Tread Shed: Tinkering as Pedagogy
The Tread Shed, a new cooperative center for bicycles on campus, opens officially on April 25. The shop's founders want to use bicycle ownership to cultivate an ethic of personal stewardship and explore more dynamic modes of learning through the maintenance process.
Without excursions off-campus or opportunities for outdoor exercise, the size of Amherst’s campus can become physically and mentally limiting. The Tread Shed, a new vision for a cooperative center for bicycles on campus, is founded with a solution to that essential problem in mind. The shop, which will have an official opening on Tuesday, April 25, is founded on the principle that getting a bike to every person — whether student, staff, or faculty — should be not only easy but supported by campus infrastructure. This kind of shop requires a thriving community, so the Tread Shed is poised to be an experiment in the use of campus space. For it to succeed, the founders of the shop believe that it must not only function as a place where people who own bikes can get them fixed (though it certainly will fulfill that need): It must create new bicyclists, serve as a space for gathering and education, and sustain itself over time by the active participation of the campus community.
The Tread Shed has its origins in the summer of 2022, when several parties on campus with independent interests in bicycles came together. The cast of characters starts with Assistant Professor of Chemistry Ren Wiscons, who offered weekly bike maintenance workshops in the Science Center with the support of Administrative Director of the Science Center Jess Martin, providing a service they found to be lacking for the members of the community. At the same time, the Office of Sustainability’s Green Dean for 2022-2023, Willoughy Carlo, organized the return of the bike share program, which currently stores its bikes by the Alumni Gym. She was working underneath the college’s new Director of Sustainability Weston Dripps ’92, who previously worked at a university with very strong institutional support for biking and was extremely supportive of the bike share. He created a paid position, the Alternative Transportation Fellowship, so a student could continue to research ways the college could support efforts to improve biking on campus.
Also wandering around summertime Amherst were two enterprising seniors, Colin Weinstein ’23E and Max Kurke ’23E, looking for a place to work on their own bikes and potentially also collect and repair the many abandoned bikes they observed around campus. Rachel Willick ’25, too, was an avid cyclist with experience in repair who attended Wiscons’ workshops and really never left.
According to Carlo, this widespread but disparate interest in bikes coalesced into the beginning of the Tread Shed in the same way the shop would continue to evolve: “naturally and organically.” Weinstein and Kurke’s abandoned-bicycle project underlay an early goal of the shed: to identify those abandoned bikes and try to collect them for the shop. But a shop with a bunch of scrap bikes and no tools is really just a storage shed, so students and staff involved with the project navigated the complexities of funding acquisition for non-registered organizations to get sponsorship for the necessary tools. That too, though, happened through the same decentralized process: As Carlo recalls, “that was the beginning of a really collaborative, pretty organic structure,” where a lot of bike-interested people “came together to say, ‘Hey, we need a bike shop — what could that look like?’”
And so a bike shop was built. The Tread Shed’s spaces were found through collaboration with Facilities and especially the help of Landscape and Grounds Supervisor Kenny Lauzier. The shop itself currently resides in the Cooper Garage, a beautiful, two-story, standalone garage built between Clark House and Cooper House. The bottom floor houses the shop itself, and the upstairs space will be used, once it is renovated, for workshops and community events held by the Tread Shed. The shop’s storage space, to be used for abandoned bikes as well as registered student bikes over academic breaks and terms abroad, is currently in two ex-hazardous waste containers by the college’s East Drive entrance, and in a space reserved in the basement of Mayo-Smith Hall.
The Tread Shed will spend a lot of time over the next few semesters with those abandoned bikes — fixing them up, recycling or finding disposal places for unusable parts, cleaning unfixable pieces for use by any artist who wants them. It will also use the bike registration program to provide basic services like maintenance and safe indoor storage for community members who need it. But, for the founders, the unique opportunities the Shed creates go far beyond these basic operations.
Currently, the Tread Shed’s physical operations are handled by three main people: Wiscons and Rachel Willick ’25, who have stuck together in bike maintenance ever since last summer, along with Emma Lee ’24, who worked in Professor Wiscons’ lab before joining the Tread Shed project. The Tread Shed’s structure means that none of them is in charge: as a cooperative, it is governed horizontally, and in the future, members of the Tread Shed will be able to join the governing committee and vote on decisions made by the shop. It is built to prevent a hierarchical structure, to share knowledge and responsibility, to keep as its primary goal teaching as many people as much as possible so that they can carry on the work of the shop.
For Wiscons, the work of the shop is in offering members of the college community freedom. Her undergraduate years at Oberlin taught her that college campuses, especially small ones like ours, are often tightly-closed bubbles. She was only able to escape that closed-in feeling when she got a bike and learned how to maintain it. Doing so, Wiscons said, “changed my relationship with the campus from something I saw from the inside out into something that I was able to now see from the outside in.” A bike, for Wiscons, was a source of agency. As such, the Tread Shed represents for her a way to “equip students with the skills that they might need” in order to gain that same agency for themselves.
Enabling access to bikes at the Tread Shed means offering regular maintenance services at open hours (currently Tuesdays and Saturdays from 3:30 to 5:30), holding workshops and trainings to teach maintenance skills, and offering bikes for sale on a work-to-own basis, where the hours one puts into an abandoned bike at the Tread Shed not only gets them membership in the co-op (which is offered to anyone who spends time working or teaching at the shop) but also allows them to take ownership of the bike they’re working on. The shop will also sell bikes and some more specialized parts to community members who wish to purchase them, and hours worked on a bike will be counted as equivalent to a certain amount of money per hour spent towards the cost of a bike for sale.
As a shop focused on transportation as well as maintenance, the Tread Shed stands in a unique position with regards to education at the college. “it is about placing value on different ways of learning … I think learning by tinkering, and being creative and using your hands, is something that just can’t be replaced by learning in a lecture,” Wiscons explained. After all, there aren’t very many explicitly creative, low-stakes spaces on campus. Even studio spaces for art and music are so heavily associated with their departments that they’re largely inaccessible for those who aren’t majors, let alone community members who aren’t students. Moreover, Wiscons says that those spaces are really academic spaces, where the pressure to perform that lies underneath most of the work students do in their classes is ever-present. The Tread Shed provides a new kind of creative space, then, one where there is no restriction on who can participate and how they choose to do that. There is no performance, no connection to school at all.
I believe that it is this dynamic more than any other that may foster the collaborative spirit that the Tread Shed’s founders are hoping to create. The team of Wiscons, Willick, and Lee seek to face community members with a new kind of challenge, like a bicycle that they have never seen before, and to direct them to solve the problem it presents by tinkering, figuring out how it works. Finding joy in collaborative learning around a shared problem, outside of the academic space, presents an opportunity for exactly the kind of shuffling of identities that the project is looking for.
On a college campus, it is generally accepted that professors are instructors, and the role of the student is to learn from those instructors. The members of the Tread Shed are devoted to uprooting that dynamic. At the shop, it will not just be student mechanics giving workshops to professors. It will also be collaborative projects among faculty, staff, and students as equals in the field. Wiscons, Willick, and Lee currently practice this collaboration every day as members of the Tread Shed team, and they hope that more professors take part in the shop to practice learning from students, to, as Wiscons said, “learn how to learn from their students, [and thereby] make everybody feel a little bit more confident about their place on campus.”
This practice of the removal of hierarchy has already been an empowering force for those who work at the Tread Shed. Lee, for example, has been amazed at “being able to work with faculty and staff that, to be honest, I wouldn’t usually interact in this way with.” She has engaged with Community Development Coordinators, the Center for Community Engagement, the Writing Center, the Wellness Center, the Office of Sustainability, and partners across the Five Colleges. It has been an exercise, Lee said, in “bringing everyone together — there’s no really, like, top down.” Of course, that model presents difficulties, since there are no other groups on campus with similar horizontal structures of organization. The Tread Shed, because of that, has to justify and re-explain itself again and again for potential donors, to advocate for their self-governance somewhere between a college entity and an independent shop for the community. It is within that space the Tread Shed will be able to succeed as a collaborative space for education and repair.
More than anything, the vision of the Tread Shed its team put forward is a vision of stewardship as sustainability. The keeping of a bicycle isn’t just a means to carbon-free transport. It requires some time and effort to keep it in good working order, to protect it from the elements, and to repair parts when they start to fail. Learning to keep a bicycle, Wiscons said, is a kind of ownership-as-stewardship, of creating a relationship with and a care for the things we own.
Part of that stewardship is building what Wiscons called resilience — making sure the things we own last and serve their purpose in the fullest possible way because of our care for them. If something begins to fail, if our lives or belongings fall out of balance, having resilience means that we have the ability to continue on while we work to repair what has gone wrong, be it a bicycle chain or a campus organization. The Tread Shed team as a whole maintained throughout our conversation that leading a sustainable life, one that is committed to becoming and remaining people who are good stewards of ourselves and our earth, means creating resilience within ourselves and in our communities. This is one of the reasons the Tread Shed isn’t a student organization: It is enlivened not only by students but by faculty and staff who want a space to learn and take care of themselves in a new and creative way. The Tread Shed, as a fulfillment of that desire, is devoted to building collective care for ourselves and our college community through bicycle maintenance. Otherwise it will just be a campus bike shop, one driven in its activity and usefulness by the year-to-year variability in student interest in bikes. For it to succeed according to its founders’ plans, it has to follow its own ideals and build its own resilience.
In other words, it is necessary for the shop’s success that the Tread Shed makes the campus community tangibly better, because that is exactly its project.