Teaching “The Black Athlete”: Part 3 Designing Assignments

This is part 3 in a series of posts that explore the questions and issues of preparing a sport history course. The first post introduced the course and discussed selecting books and other materials. The second post explored issues of organization and choosing what to include. This is the final post in the series. It will discuss designing and creating assignments.

By Andrew McGregor

Student evaluation is the core of any good course. You can write good lectures and assign good books, but at the end of the day, it’s difficult to tell what students have actually learned without effective evaluation. Assignments that have clear requirements and are honest about their purpose enable students to succeed. This is important because effective student evaluation serves as a form of dialogue between the instructor and student, helping students have a stake in their education. In order for this student-teacher dialogue to be meaningful, it must be transparent with clear expectations and happen incrementally. This simple philosophy guides me while I create assignments for my courses.

While utilizing this outlook, I also try to craft assignments that build on each other. In my classes, graded work serves one of three purposes:

  1. it provides feedback to help both the students and me see what information sticks and what needs to be covered more;
  2. it offers students a place to acquire new content information and connect it to their own knowledge or lives;
  3. it pushes them to apply knowledge they’ve learned in the course and demonstrate critical thinking skills;

Embedded within these three purposes are fundamental skills grounded in humanistic inquiry, such as the ability to apply critical thinking skills to books, films, and other media based on concepts and ideas acquired throughout the course. The ability to synthesize and evaluate sources is another important skill taught through these assignments and the humanities writ large. Linked to these skills is the ability to craft oral and written narratives that effectively convey these analyses. The assignments I designed for “The Black Athlete” work together to accomplish these goals.

Studying the history of sports in America allows students to uncover how sport mediates the experience of black athletes within broader American society and consider how other factors — such as class, gender, and sexuality — inform the narratives that surround them and alter the experience of black athletes. In each of my course’s assignments, students are given opportunities to ask question, compare and contrast interpretations, and seek out new information. They partake in a dialogue with, and about the past, becoming more than idle receivers, but instead active agents and critical thinkers.

The biggest challenge for me was to figure out the appropriate workload for an interdisciplinary, upper-level course. Because the class is offered by the African-American Studies program, not the history department, I was unsure what the normal expectations are. Similarly, because I haven’t taught my own upper level course before, I’m not 100% what is manageable to grade. After a few conversations with my mentors and colleagues, and looking over some syllabi from my own undergraduate days, I settled on the following assignments.

Discussion Questions: Because I’ve built in weekly discussion days and assigned a document reader, I’m having my students submit discussion questions each week. These questions will help form the basis of our discussions and hold students accountable for reading the assigned documents. Likewise, it gives them a stake in shaping the course. Reading their questions indicates to me not only what they think is important but also how well they understand the information (individually and collectively). Furthermore, because they occur weekly they keep the student engaged and build on each other to demonstrate growth as they learn more throughout the semester.

Book Reviews: I’ve designed this course to be centered around biographies. Because of this, each student is required to read a biography of a notable black athlete (they have their choice of reading a book about Joe Louis, Satchel Paige, or Arthur Ashe). The book review provides an opportunity for the student to learn about an athlete in more depth. The due dates of the book reviews are staggered to coincide with class discussion of these athletes and offer students a chance to share added content with their classmates who did not read them. More importantly, the book review requires students to critically evaluate their chosen biographies and apply ideas and information from the class to explain how they fit in or add to our understanding of black athletes.

Film Reviews: Like the book review, the film review pushes students to critically evaluate representations and narratives about black athletes. The film review also challenges students to dig deeper to unearth hidden meanings within popular culture. By taking critical evaluation outside of the formal academic setting (such as the book review), the film review helps students locate concepts from the course in the world around them. Matt Hodler’s discussion of “black space” in the movie Pride earlier this summer is a prime example. Combined, the book and film reviews lay the foundation for seeking out new content and evaluating various types of media to analyze and explain the lives of black athletes.

Midterm: Midterms are central parts of incremental evaluation. While tests and quizzes are not always ideal forms of evaluation, they do help serve as checkpoints during the semester. Using short answer and essay questions, midterms can require students to both explain what they know and connect the dots between different lecture themes and ideas. This helps emphasize change over time and requires students to integrate individual stories within thematic developments.

Research Paper and Presentation: Harnessing the skills from the previous assignments, the research paper and presentation require students to engage in independent research based on their personal interests. Throughout the research process, they will be forced to evaluate primary and secondary resources and use them to craft narratives illustrating their analysis. With this outcome in mind, the research paper must focus on a significant event in the life of an individual black athlete. Depending on who the student selects, this can range from a single season to a specific competition. The idea is to have the student explore the context of the event, representations of the athlete, and perhaps even remembrances of the event. Building off of class discussions, previous assignments and course readings, the research paper serves as a capstone for the course. Paired with the paper is an oral presentation where students must practice the lifelong skill of summarizing their research and reporting their findings. To make sure students are learning and improving, the drafting process is a part of the course. Providing students with feedback on their thesis statement, introduction, outline, bibliography, first draft, and final draft promotes succinct writing and well organized papers. These built in check points also inhibit procrastination.

Illustrated in these assignments is my belief in the importance of critical thinking and writing to humanities students. These skills are applied in various ways — research, review essays, and examinations — catering to different learning styles and contexts. The difference between the book and film review highlight how similar skills can vary based on the context or medium. This is important because it helps students add new tools to their toolbox as they progress through the course and then use them to construct their own analysis.

Essential to the development of student skills and the success of these assignments, is quality feedback. It is difficult for students to improve and correct their mistakes without written comments. Similarly, providing rubrics and discussing alternative answers or viewpoints is important for encouraging critical thinking. To be sure, this is a laborious process, but I believe that learning occurs as much, if not more, after an assignment is graded and returned. Incremental due dates, scaffolding assignments, and revised drafts create an environment where students can thrive.

While this post mostly discusses my own approach to teaching and evaluating students, I think it’s particularly useful for sports-themed courses. Many of our students sign up for these classes because they are interested in the topic. Most of them probably aren’t majoring in our discipline, and instead are taking it as an elective. Because of this background, they likely need a little help adjusting to our expectations. One of the most difficult things students face in college is adapting to new teachers and unfamiliar disciplines. Anyone who’s had to switch between MLA, APA, and Chicago style knows the headache. Teaching incrementally with assignments that build on each other and providing feedback so that our expectations are transparent, is a sound strategy. It allows us to take curious and interested students and equip them with the skills of our own disciplines, shaping them into well-rounded, critical thinkers. Sports is their gateway drug, our job is to effectively harness it.

Andrew McGregor is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Purdue University and the founder of this blog. His research focuses on American culture, politics, race, and the history of sports. You can reach him via email at amcgrego@purdue.edu or on Twitter:@admcgregor85

2 thoughts on “Teaching “The Black Athlete”: Part 3 Designing Assignments

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

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

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