The Chronicle Review

Lyft and Learn

July 02, 2017

Rosena Fung for The Chronicle Review

It came out of the blue. A curious email from the desk of one John Pinna: "John Pinna thinks you’d be a perfect Lyft driver," the message said. What’s more, it promised an extra cash bonus "just for signing up through John’s link."

A Google search suggested no direct connection between Mr. Pinna and Lyft, but that anyone should think of me — former journalist, retired university professor, and 80 years old to boot — as "a perfect Lyft driver" was puzzling even if flattering. I hate driving. I don’t see well on dark, rainy nights. I can rarely find my way around the Washington, D.C., area, where we live, let alone the many nearby neighborhoods in Maryland and Virginia. I always get lost.

Once, just arrived in the United States from Iran in 1980 during the tense days of the hostage crisis, a wrong turn on the parkway found me in the Pentagon complex. It was near midnight; there wasn’t a soul in sight in this supposedly security-sensitive place from whom to ask directions. As the minutes ticked by and I couldn’t find my way out, I was terrified lest I be arrested as a foreign spy. The idea that I, of all people, should be the "perfect" person to direct passengers to their destinations seemed preposterous.

But on further reflection, I thought that seeking out professors, active and retired, as possible Lyft drivers could be a brilliant idea.

The ride service could then offer passengers something more than just a ride. It could offer them culture and knowledge as well. The professors-turned-drivers could lecture in their areas of expertise as they drove.

My area of expertise, for example, is modern Middle East history. I could offer riders short courses on the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Iranian revolution, or the Iraq war. Colleagues at my own and other universities could lecture on Shakespeare, Jane Austen’s novels, quantum theory, or the founding principles of modern science.

Lyft, in brief, could offer a kind of "Great Lectures on the Go" series. Just consider how the service might advertise itself in different locations across the country: in New York: "Faulkner to Fifth Avenue;" in Los Angeles, "René Descartes to Rodeo Drive"; in Florida, "Plato and Palm Beach." For short hops or for riders with short attention spans, it could offer "Dante for Dummies." For adventurous riders, "To Hell With Dante."

This could give the ride service a big advantage over its rival, Uber, and could be a real moneymaker, since few subjects can be covered in a short cab ride. Riders could have the option of coming back again and again to the same professor/driver to complete their courses. A short course on the writing of the U.S. Constitution, for instance, should generate at least 10 lengthy rides.

The "Lyft and Learn" scheme would be a great thing for the professorial class, too. Professors would know, when called by a rider because of their specialty, that their fares were really interested in the subject. No bored students taking required courses here; no papers and exams to correct. Professors will feel that they are still doing something useful during stretches of writer’s block.

"Lyft and Learn" would be a blessing for new Ph.D.s as well. Forced to teach as adjuncts at the rate of $3,000 per 15-week course, they could surely do better lecturing to passengers on busy streets. Besides, academic salaries being what they are, the bonus money "just for signing up" will surely come in handy.

Shaul Bakhash is a professor emeritus of history at George Mason University.