Teaching “The Black Athlete”: Part I Choosing Course Materials

This Fall I’m teaching a new course. I really enjoyed teaching the second half of the U.S. history survey last fall, so I’m thrilled to be back in the classroom. The class is called “The Black Athlete” and is a regular offering in the African-American Studies program here at Purdue. I’ve been assigned to teach it this fall and next spring. Prepping for this course is one of my major tasks for this summer. This is the first in a series of posts, where I hope to share questions and issues that I’m wrestling with as I plan this class. Feel free to offer your own suggestions and tips along the way!

First, the basics: The class is a relatively small, upper level course, capped at 25 students that meets three-days per week. Over the past few years, several PhD students have taught the course and added their own perspectives to its content. While I’m not necessarily designing the course from scratch, I have a fair amount of leeway to put my own spin on it. This includes the freedom to write the syllabus, choose books, and design assignments that reflect topics and themes that I think are important. The most recent instructors have graduated, so now it’s my turn.

This is my first chance to teach a sport history course on my own. It’s also my first upper-level teaching assignment. I’m excited because my previous 6-years of graduate school have pointed me to this. At the same time I’m also nervous because it’s my first time and I want to make sure my student receive the best instruction possible. The decisions I make and the work I put in this summer goes a long way to ensuring they do.

Step one of preparing the course was imposed on me earlier than I would have liked. I was required to submit my book orders in mid-April, only a few weeks after learning about my assignment. This forced me to decide what books I wanted to use relatively early. Usually, I like to have the course a bit more sketched out before hand. I try to assign readings for specific purposes and relate them to different components of my course, such as discussion days, book review assignments, and filling in my own blind spots.

University of Illinois Press, 2005.

University of Illinois Press, 2005.

Before deciding upon books, I looked over a couple of old syllabi to see what past instructors used. I also talked with my advisor and a couple of friends about what they would assign and how they’d approach the class. Going into these conversations I already knew that I wanted to build the course around biographies. The course is “The Black Athlete,” so engaging with individual stories and personalities is a must. It is also a central component of my research and teaching philosophy, which, summed up in this hokey phrase, is “I use familiar characters to tell unfamiliar stories.” Beyond sharing unfamiliar stories, however, is my insistence that students connect these lessons to their own lives. This requires carving out a space for discussion during the class. Because the class is relatively small, and the topic is ripe for discussing personal experiences alongside course content, I decided that I needed to choose a book to aid in this. Something like a document reader.

My advisor helped me brainstorm ideas to fit these criteria. He suggested I take a look at David K. Wiggins and Patrick B. Miller, The Unlevel Field: A Documentary History of the African American Experience in Sport, and helped me make a list of biographies to consider. Based on the list, it became clear that there were two different types of biographies to choose from. There are biographies of individual athletes, and there are books that feature chapter long biographies of multiple athletes.

There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach. Singular biographies are longer and more detailed. Collections of biographies within the same book, on the other hand, offer less depth but can be easier to break into smaller reading assignments and provide coverage of more individuals. If they are in a multi-author edited collection, however, they can be of uneven quality and scope. Both approaches have their merits and can be used to serve different purposes. The ultimate choice comes down to finding a book that fits your assignments and matches up with the athletes you want to cover. Cost is another factor. How much should a student spend on books for a single class? If you estimate one book costs $25-30, anymore than two or three books seems like too much. Books featuring multiple athletes can offer more bang for your buck, unless you assign a widely popular biography with a lower price.

University of Arkansas Press, 2014.

University of Arkansas Press, 2014.

When it came time to sit down and order my books, I chose a combination of all three approaches. First, I decided to require my students to buy the Wiggins and Miller text because it fit my plan for class discussions. The reader includes documents that discuss a range of athletes from boxer Tom Molineaux in the early nineteenth century to recent stars like Allen Iverson and Michael Jordan. For the second book, I selected Jennifer Lansbury’s A Spectacular Leap: Black Women Athletes in Twentieth-Century America (reviewed by Lindsay Parks Pieper on this blog). Lansbury’s book provides a collection of biographies that helps fill blind spots in my own knowledge and expands the number of athletes covered in the course. Finally, for the third book I elected to give my students a choice of three biographies based on their interests.

The first option I went with Donald Spivey’sIf You Were Only White”: The Life of Leroy “Satchel” Paige. It gives students the chance to explore a familiar baseball player other than the commonly discussed Jackie Robinson. Satchel Paige’s life and career features significant amounts of time on both sides of baseball’s color line. This provides opportunities discuss an athlete in the Negro Leagues and the Major Leagues, highlighting change during one person’s life. The next option is Randy Roberts’ Joe Louis: Hard Times Man. I originally thought about picking a book on Jack Johnson, but any discussion of Louis must also require Johnson and this book does a great job of connecting the two. Likewise, the book emphasizes the importance of the Second World War in making Louis one of the first black American heroes. Eric Allen Hall’s new book: Arthur Ashe: Tennis and Justice in the Civil Rights Era is final option. Much of it deals with the connection between sports and politics in both the United States and South Africa. Ashe’s story is more contemporary than the others, providing a postwar perspective in a sport not usually connected to African-Americans.

Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.

Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.

Yale University Press, 2010.

Yale University Press, 2010.

University of Missouri Press, 2012.

University of Missouri Press, 2012.

Combined, these five books met my criteria and contributed to my vision of the class. Selecting books pushed me to read more and familiarize myself with the content and non-historical approaches to the topic. I’m thankful that I had a couple of conversations with sports sociologist Earl Smith on Twitter. He suggested that I look through his textbook Race, Sport, and the American Dream, which helped me think more broadly about the topics and how I want to approach discussions. Although I didn’t assign it to the class, I plan to keep it handy when preparing lectures. Similarly, making a list of biographies forced me to read book reviews that expanded my knowledge and helped think about how structure the class.

With my books chosen, the only remaining course materials to select are documentaries and movies. Film is an important tool to help bring history to life. While I may not be able to show a full movie during the class (well, maybe one), I hope to show a variety of clips. ESPN’s 30-for-30 series has some terrific documentaries on recent athletes. Older films are more difficult to find. Fictional films can be instructive, however, because they offer overt narrative representations that are ripe for interrogation.

As I continue on the journey of choosing course materials and preparing the course, I’d appreciate your feedback. Feel free to ask questions and leave suggestions in the comments below. I’d especially like to hear your favorite documentaries, movies, and film clips relevant to black athletes, and/or other books to consider for next spring. I’ll compile your suggestions and share them in my next post. You can also share any tips on topics, themes, and athletes that I should cover.

Look for the next post in this series on June 18. It will explore questions of structure and chronology, such as: Does this course require a linear timeline or would it be better served by a thematic approach? When should I begin my discussion of black athletes? How much time should I spend on each era? What is the best way to split up lecture and discussion? These questions will pave the way for the series’ final post on July 20, which will discuss designing and creating assignments.

Andrew McGregor is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Purdue University and the founder of this blog. You can reach him via email at amcgrego@purdue.edu or on Twitter:@admcgregor85

5 thoughts on “Teaching “The Black Athlete”: Part I Choosing Course Materials

  1. Seems like a great class. Ben Carrington begins his outstanding book Race, Sport, and Politics (2010) by stating that “the black athlete was created on 26 December 1908 in a boxing ring in Sydney Australia.” Of course, he was referring to Jack Johnson. The first few chapters of that book might be very useful to you, and I’ve had a professor who assigned the PBS documentary Unforgivable Blackness (to varying degrees of success) for students to learn about Johnson. Also, I had my students read Bill Rhoden’s $40 Million Slaves — it seemed to offer an accessible history for them.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Teaching “The Black Athlete”: Part 2 Organizing the Course | Sport in American History

  3. Pingback: Teaching “The Black Athlete”: Part 3 Designing Assignments | Sport in American History

  4. Pingback: Reflections on my “Teaching The Black Athlete” series | Andrew McGregor

  5. Pingback: Choosing Your Own Adventure: Teaching Sport History Online | Sport in American History

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