Pedagogically Speaking: Teaching Sport History

I began writing this blog post about my recent trip to the Transgender Archives at the University of Victoria for my dissertation. As the post took form, Aaron Devor’s highly anticipated book The Transgender Archives: Foundations for the Future was released. Reading the book, reflecting upon my research process(es), and continually asking myself “what am I doing here, and why?” prompted me to think about this blog post in a new way. I continually strive to make my research and teaching come together in ways that are productive for and give back to both. Following Freire (2000) & Sandoval (2000) I understand teaching to be a political act which expands our definitions of both political action and education. This post, then, is an exploration of my own developing pedagogical philosophy which weaves my experiences teaching one particular course, responses from students, and theoretical perspectives into a critical dialogue on teaching and living history(ies).

I posed a three minute free write question to my Women, Sport & Culture class: What is history?

Facts to memorize.

Events that happened in the past.

Not relevant.


That they didn’t immediately see what history has to do with a course on contemporary issues in sport was not surprising. Their disinterest and dismissal of history itself, on the other hand, I had not anticipated.

It is easy to overgeneralize a student body like the one at the University of Iowa (predominantly white, predominantly middle class) as apathetic and impossible to please. But doing so sells them short and narrowly interprets the purpose of higher education. There is great promise and great responsibility in teaching young white, middle class students raised in a “standardized testing at all costs” atmosphere. There is also great frustration. My centering issues of power, privilege, and social justice, even (and especially) in my physical activity courses, often confuses them.

Wait, what is this course actually about?

Will this be on the exam?

What does this have to do with _____?

Bridging issues of historical context, historical research, and social justice within the classroom is no small task. I start by encouraging my students to think of course content not as facts to memorize or events from the past but as issues which touch their lives. As bell hooks (1994) reminds us, we must remember that all students have particular histories and that we must connect their personal histories with course content. For some students, this is a radical shift. In class discussions and assignments, we spent a lot of time and mental energy thinking and reflecting on our own lives.

I’m from a small town in Iowa, only 500 people.

My high school was mostly Latino.

My brother is gay.

Sharing these personal histories brought the space (physical, mental, and emotional) of the classroom alive and demonstrated to the students that their particular histories are situated within larger contexts. We then used this framework to explore course content and to examine the ways in which seemingly disparate topics and ideas are interconnected.

To make these connections between their personal histories and the histories of sport explicit, we used primary documents to question the seemingly fixed boundaries between past, present, and future. Students sorted through physical and digital materials from the Iowa Women’s Archive to examine scholarship and sport at the University of Iowa at the turn of the 20th century. They wrote reflections about their experiences with these primary documents in mind.

My high school has a girls’ soccer team because of Title IX.

Playing on the boys’ teams, we got the best equipment.

During games, I was taunted for both my race and my gender.

So far, this blog post reads as a rosy depiction of one course, as if students were making connections and discovering the knowledge that they already have every day. Teaching was (and continues to be) a monumental task. The hardest challenge we faced was confronting the myth that racism, sexism, and heterosexism are relics of the past. Most of them understand racism, sexism, and heterosexism as actions and beliefs of bigoted individuals within a colorblind society. We had many conversations about structural racism, sexism, and heterosexism, with me encouraging them to look at the world differently than they have been taught to. That is hard work; often, those conversations ended with them not being able to change their mindset.

As the course went on, we framed these discussions within an understanding of history and social justice as uneven and partial projects. Instead of interpreting history as searching for the truth of past events, we discussed exploring historical processes as particularlized ways of seeing the past, present, and future. For many of them, looking at primary documents about incidents on campus 50 years ago side-by-side with a copy of that day’s student newspaper the Daily Iowan helped make visible the ideological and discursive frames that shape our culture today. It was in learning how to do historical research that they were able to bring their personal experiences and our contemporary topics into context and to question the linear trajectories of US cultural progressivism.

Women have been and continue to be discriminated against in sport.

Sexualized coverage of female athletes taps into long histories of objectification.

The physical standards of femininity for black female athletes were determined by society.


Works Cited:

Freire, O. 2000. Pedagogy of the oppressed (30th Anniversary Ed). New York: Bloomsbury Press

hooks, b. 1994. Teaching to transgress. New York: Routledge

Sandoval, C. 2000. Methodology of the oppressed. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press


Cathryn Lucas-Carr is a graduate teaching instructor at the University of Iowa and can be reached at Despite the variety of assignments, some students still found the class “boring” & “a waste of time” … they are impossible to please after all.


3 thoughts on “Pedagogically Speaking: Teaching Sport History

  1. Pingback: Reflecting Upon Creating an Engaging & Empowering Sport History Classroom | Sport in American History

  2. Pingback: Looking Back and Looking Forward: Four Years of Sport in American History | Sport in American History

  3. Pingback: Looking Back and Looking Forward: Four Years of Sport in American History | History on the mysteryStream

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