By Andrew R.M. Smith
To bowdlerize the intro of Dickens’ iconic A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas, for this pedagogically-oriented, sport-centered riff on a seasonal classic:
I endeavor in this blog about teaching sport history online, to raise the ghost of an idea, which shall not put my readers out of humor with themselves, with each other, with the field, or with me. May it haunt their pedagogy pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it!
STAVE I: Dickens’ Ghost
The very premise of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol frightens me to an irrational degree. But I recognize its inherent value: great literature, reflective of a particular time and place, which more than 150 years later maintains the power to scare my kids into good behavior around the holidays. The premise of teaching online struck a similar chord in the past. It holds the note through my present and into the future as well. I might never conquer technophobia, just as I will always be afraid of the many ghosts and coal-based heating threaded through A Christmas Carol, but the more I engage with online teaching, or Dickens, the better I recognize their utility. They are both worth the goosebumps.
STAVE II: The First of the Three Spirits; or the Ghost of Online Teaching Past
At the tail end of my graduate fellowship I was asked—although I do not recall the communique being punctuated with a question mark—to teach my Summer-session of the U.S. History survey in an online format. My response was rather Scrooge-like; probably a saltier version of Bah, Humbug! But like Bob Cratchit I could not afford to say no. I was very fortunate to be offered summer teaching throughout my doctoral studies, which saved me from the summer work I took during my undergraduate and early grad years: welding strings of metal into dishwasher racks over the midnight shift (11pm-7am, Sunday-Thursday) in a hot, dusty factory. So I began soldering together my Blackboard site with about as much excitement as I fused the “super racks” for General Electric c. 1998-2008.
My initial reaction stemmed from the fact that I had not prepared for this. Through coursework and prelim exams I had been actively building a portfolio to demonstrate that I was more than just a sport historian—that I could teach as broadly as possible from World history to U.S. history or even U.S. in/and/around the World; that I could cover the recent, modern or pre-modern eras (problematic periodizations of “modernity” notwithstanding). But I never considered a breadth of modality. I just lectured. Once or twice a semester I might deviate into seminars or simulations, but always in-person. My entire modus operandi for teaching was to draw on my background in dramatic arts and a passion for the material in order to bring the past alive through stories, poems, reenactments and even songs…always in the classroom. Now a half-Mennonite from Canada had to reconcile with the digitizing landscape of higher education in the U.S. and figure out how to translate my rousing (sometimes right out of their chairs and through the door!) renditions of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” or “Strange Fruit” into a virtual classroom. Let alone how to tell a remote audience the vignettes of sport history that so deftly, I hoped, integrated my research and teaching. In person, I swear I can see when the light bulbs go off above a student’s head. In cyberspace, I saw nothing but darkness.
The end result of that first online teaching experience was, well, serviceable. It became a very basic survey course that still encouraged and rewarded higher-level college skills, such as conceptual learning, critical thinking, synthesis and analysis, but without all of the fun and frivolity—or the sports—of the on-campus experience. Gone were exclamation-mark-riddled comments of positive student evaluations, in exchange for the equivalent of bubbling in “agree” on every one of a twenty-question survey. It was less an engaging narrative as it was the very-abridged version: cranky old man hates the holidays, is threatened by a few ghosts, then purchases over-sized fowl for coworkers’ family. Humbug, indeed.
STAVE III: The Second of the Three Spirits; or the Ghost of Online Teaching Present
It really was not as scary as I thought it would be. However, there was much to improve on and plenty to experiment with, but no more courses to teach since my fellowship was complete. Fortunately, especially in those earlier stages of the online proliferation, having taught one course was qualification enough to teach more. Soon I had offers to pick up online assignments at a variety of public and private, two- and four-year, for- and non-profit institutions. Before long I became, if not fluent, at least proficient in a variety of Learning Management Systems (LMS) from the most current iterations of Blackboard or Canvas to Moodle and something called “Angel” that ironically kept the teaching pretty grounded. The student bodies were just as multifaceted as the LMS, keeping the process intellectually stimulating and preventing me from ever getting complacent with the last course “shell” and falling into the temptation to re-teach it without reflection.
Finding new ways to keep the reading assignments tailored, projects engaging, assessment transparent, and to create a virtual learning environment that felt interactive, as well as an online presence that made it clear I was a human being rather than a robotic grading machine, became paramount. The student evaluations never reached the level of those halcyon days when I had inestimable energy and a one-course teaching load, but they got better—some “strongly agrees” appeared from time-to-time! Just as important, the relationships I made and kept with friends, colleagues, and supervisors across the country led not only to more offers for online history surveys, but eventually a couple of schools reached out about teaching sport history courses in online formats as well. Here was the opportunity to dredge up any old ghosts from the past, specters of research as well as teaching, and make them dance in a pedagogical revelry of the academic undead. Or, simply put, to finally teach in my field.
Anyone who has had this privilege of “preaching what they practice” or teaching in their area of research likely discovered the same double-edged sword that I did: there is really too much information. And it is all terribly important to us, as instructors and practitioners, so paring down to something manageable is a grueling exercise. In the end, I chose Steve Riess’ edited Major Problems in American Sport History for a text because the blend of primary and secondary sources, with brief introductions from a well-known scholar in the field, gives some exposure to the processes of making history even at the expense of content. Students participate in regular discussion forums based on prompts from the reading, which provide a platform to unfurl not only issues that arise in the book but issues about the book itself, and some of its wonderful, teachable imperfections. For the final project, I assign a “Digital Exhibit”—a Powerpoint presentation that demonstrates argumentation and research in a multi-media format. And throughout the course students are required to engage with sport writers and scholars around the country by reading, analyzing, and responding to sports-centered blogs—including Sport in American History.
These different aspects of the course ask students to think about the building-blocks of history each week before creating something of their very own at the end of the term; and to interact with each other frequently while periodically joining the digital community off-campus. Even though I sacrifice a lot of the nuts-and-bolts that one might cover in a lecture about a specific sport or player, the broad array of avenues for inquiry that stay open to students in these courses means that, first, they really can direct the trajectory of the content; and second that I will rarely “teach” the same thing. Rather I can stay reflexive and together we can delve into the topics of interest either in one-on-one (virtual) discussions or as part of the class-wide conversation.
No, I do not get to act out a Virginia backcountry gouging match, pantomime Babe Didrikson and George Zaharias, rap like Ali, or perform the Super Bowl Shuffle (or Icky Shuffle, for that matter) in front of sixty eyes (give or take, depending on the intensity of the gouging demo). But I have the opportunity to take students of all ages and backgrounds across the nation behind the curtain to see what historians do, how we can use sports to unlock the past, and why it matters in the present. Today I enjoy a full-time on-campus position where I can teach sports-centered courses in-class, across disciplines, and oddly-enough an administrative role that requires me to schedule and staff the online offerings. Now my only fear is that juggling teaching, research, and administration might prevent me from accepting the next offer for an online sport history course—bless them, every one.
STAVE IV: The Last of the Spirits; or the Ghost of Online Teaching Yet to Come
The proliferation of online learning has given many professors, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, visions of their academic graves. But the future of higher education after the “Digital Turn” is rife with opportunity as well. The many entities now offering consultations for research, analytics, and marketing strategies (in some cases, all of the above) related to “capturing” the “market” of prospective college students confirm that nontraditional and remote student enrollment growth dwarfs that of traditional, on-campus students (See for example, Learning House & Aslanian Market Research Survey). Yet their data also suggests that many of these students do not want an exclusively online degree from a virtual campus. Recent negative press regarding for-profit institutions feeds into that as well.
Instead these educational-consumers shop for a school that meets their needs; surveys indicate that in many cases the “fit” of an academic program is actually a more significant factor in their decision than tuition costs, open-resource textbooks, or “free” tablets. To that end, institutions seek to meet the mandate of increased “student choice” in their curricula, in terms of not only courses offered but also delivery methods. Suddenly, more departments are competing for enrollments by running popular topics in flexible formats. Online sport history courses—and those of us prepared to teach them—can benefit from this trend. There is space in the cyber-frontier for many scholars who research sport, but predominantly teach foundations or survey courses in their home discipline, to offer something in their field of expertise online.
Student satisfaction is also crucial to this endeavor, as the competition for enrollment incentivizes responsiveness to feedback. Creating a supportive virtual learning environment, then, is perhaps the most important aspect of successfully teaching sport history online. It does not necessarily require overhauling a personal teaching philosophy designed for the on-campus experience, or mastering every new update to the LMS that governs the course. In fact, data suggests that even online students seeking a “hi-tech” education still prefer a “hi-touch” atmosphere with consistent student-faculty contact and a small class-size feel. Toward the latter, assigning interactive discussions with mandatory peer-responses, collaborative projects or wikis, and even peer review can be successful. With regard to the former, opportunities for synchronous learning and communication even in a fundamentally asynchronous setting are essential. Using the chat functions embedded in some LMS, video conference applications like Adobe Connect or Citrix, and even free video communication available via Skype or Facetime, will go a long way toward meeting individual student needs. And it feels more like a classroom.
Similarly, in a generally dehumanized learning platform leaving video or voice-recorded feedback on assignments exhibits the same “soft skills” for an online course that are often developed without as much thought in a face-to-face setting. Even the Tiny Tims of postsecondary education can thrive in a course that engages their interests, meets their needs, and supports their growth. Instructors whose past and present have been entirely rooted in brick-and-mortar institutions can translate many of the same skills and strategies to a future with some online components.
STAVE V: The End of It
For many of us, the end of the semester and beginning of Winter Break is a scene eerily similar to Scrooge after awaking from his final visit: exhausted, delirious, and tear-soaked.
But like Scrooge, we may recognize the potential as well: “Best and happiest of all, the Time before him was his own, to make amends in.” Planning, preparing, proposing—or just thinking about—the vast potential for sports-centered courses in online formats can be the gateway to integrating research and teaching interests; to do as Scrooge promises and “live in the Past, the Present, and the Future…. The Spirits of all three shall strive within me.”
Dr. Andrew R.M. Smith is Chair of the Undergraduate Adult Education Program, and Visiting Assistant Professor of Sport Management and History, at Nichols College. On campus he teaches the history of sport and sportswriting; online he leads sport history courses for the Indiana University and University of Wyoming systems. In some semesters he teaches sport history to more than 100 students across three time zones—and very few of them come back to haunt him.