For as long as she could recall, it seemed to Dr. Abigail Perkiss that her boundless physical energy and analytical mind were at odds. Recently, she discovered the perfect conduit to balance the scales and fuel both. Ironically, that outlet is adventure racing, which pushes her energy and mind beyond the bounds of what many would consider humanly possible.
“I’ve always been athletic and I’m forever questioning the ways of the world,” she said. “It took many years for me to find a way to balance the two and still enjoy them.”
Adventure racing at its core, she explained, is a team sport that consists of running, mountain biking, paddling via kayak or canoe, and map-and-compass navigation. Some events include rapelling, bushwhacking through trees and brush, or pushing bikes through creeks and boulders.
“On the surface, adventure racing is all about physical endurance,” she said. “But winning competitions involves genuine collaboration, strategic creativity, the willingness to take risks and the ability to adjust and reorient when things don’t work out as planned.”
Perkiss and her teammates (one of whom is her husband) have participated in races ranging from a few hours to 96 hours in length, as well as marathons, ultra running events, triathlons and Ironman events, traditional road and mountain bike races, and running and orienteering events.
Competitions, which are held across the globe, also provide a vast array of opportunities for exploration and learning. Collectively, the team has participated in more than two dozen multi-day adventure races including Primal Quest, Raid the North Extreme, Endorphin Fix, PHEAR, Beast of the East Expedition, Adventure Racing World Championships in Scotland, the Costa Rica Adventure Race and XPD Australia.
This summer, Perkiss and her teammates will be competing in Untamed New England, a four-day race in the wilds of Maine, and the Adidas Terrex Sting, a five-day race in the Scottish Highlands.
“We are all professionals who work full time and have to carve out the time and space for training and racing,” said Perkiss, who was a competitive swimmer for 10 years before starting to run marathons in 2006 and competing in triathlons a year later.
At Kean, Perkiss is scaling equally impressive heights in her role as an assistant professor in Kean’s Department of History. She is broadly trained in U.S. history, 20th century urban culture, African American history, oral history and legal history. Her research centers on the history of race, ethnicity and urban identity in post-WWII American cities, and has been guided by questions of identity creation, community cohesion and historical memory.
Rather than traditional academic research, writing and lectures, most of her classes are organized around an innovative teaching approach known as “Reacting to the Past.”
"I don’t know of any other class where students research primary sources, write speeches and go to class in a toga," said Michael Aneson, a senior political science major who wore a toga around campus as part of Perkiss's Emergence of Law in Society course last semester. “Her class was really unique in that it brought the textbook material to life – again."
According to Perkiss, the Reacting to the Past teaching method calls on students to participate in elaborate multi-week modules that draw them into the past and require them to think about notions of change and contingency.
“Students, in essence, become historical actors, reacting to these historical episodes as though they were genuinely inhabiting that space,” she added. “And through experiencing that past first-hand, they gain insight and make critical links to their present-day realities.”
All of these elements speak to her two main goals as an educator: 1) getting her students think of themselves as scholars and 2) to consider themselves modern-day historical actors.
“It’s about creating consciousness,” said Perkiss, whose first history class in college was the day after 9/11, served as the foundation for her career as an educator. “We can’t understand our present and change our future unless we understand our past.”
She is currently working on two projects: a manuscript examining the creation of intentionally integrated residential space in the latter half of the twentieth century, and an article on oral history as an engine for social change.
Dr. Perkiss earned her J.D. and Ph.D. in U.S. History at Temple University. She is a barred attorney in Pennsylvania, and serves as the faculty advisor for two student groups on campus, the Pre-Law Society and Historical Society. Previously, she earned a graduate certificate in creative nonfiction writing at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, and graduated magna cum laude from Bryn Mawr College with an A.B. in Sociology and a minor in creative writing.