Towards an Engaging & Empowering Sport History Classroom

By Matt Hodler

I am using today’s blogpost as a discussion of how I am teaching a Sport History course this semester. It is a new approach toward teaching (for me), and this post serves two purposes: (1) it is an attempt to share a different approach with fellow educators, and (2) it is an opportunity for me to learn more about (and further hone) this approach through having to explain it to a public audience.

This approach partially grew out of frustration and concern that came about at the end of last semester. Last semester I taught physical activity courses – which, for me, are courses on lap swimming. I enjoy teaching the courses because it is fun to teach students new skills and introduce them to new physical activities. The more informal atmosphere and embodied practices of the course offer opportunities not always available in the “regular” classroom, and the courses offer an interesting challenge for making my cultural studies approach toward sport and physical activity applicable to learning specific skills.

As much as I was going to miss teaching those courses, when December 2015 arrived, I was looking forward to getting back into a “dry” classroom by teaching one of our history courses. I am a member of an online chat group focusing on college level teaching. The group is a treasure trove of resources for assignments and in-class discussion materials, but at the end last semester an inordinate amount of folks used it as a site for venting their frustrations about teaching. Most of the venting is understandable, especially given the increasing precarious nature of teaching at the university and college levels here in the US, but some of the venting came across as denigrating students to a few of the community members. One community member shared an interesting article by sociologist Peter Kaufman.

In the article, Kaufman recalls hearing faculty members denigrating students as unengaged, disinterested, or apathetic. Fellow instructors also bemoaned the passivity of their students and their treatment of higher learning as simply a consumer transactional experience. While acknowledging the many difficulties of teaching in the higher educational environment, Kaufman challenges instructors to look at their own teaching, by reminding us that, “if we are truly concerned with the processes of teaching and learning, we much be willing to consider not just who the students are as learners but also who we are as teachers”[1]. Are students disengaged because we are un-engaging? Are they disinterested because we are uninteresting? Are they apathetic because we are pathetic?

I decided to attempt to take his challenge to heart this semester.

This semester, I am teaching a course called American Sport Since 1900. I had looked forward to teaching this class for a few years, and when it came time to plan the course I was excited. As a PhD student who is finishing up his dissertation, I used winter break to plan the course, and found it to be a nice diversion from my dissertation.

But here’s the thing: Since 1900 is a long time. 116 years to be exact. How can we cover 116 years of American sporting history in 15 weeks? We cannot cover 116 years of American sporting history in 15 weeks.

I consulted previous syllabi, I constructed my own syllabi, I surveyed friends, I made lists…but none of it was enough. I always seemed to be leaving something out.

So, what do I do? How do I choose? Or, to paraphrase Howard Zinn, how do I decide what to emphasize and what to omit from American Sport? This is a lot of power for an instructor. I get to decide what these students learn about and, what might be more important. I get to decide what these students do not learn about. In a class about America, a class whose purpose is to use sport to understand America, I get an enormous amount of power to define “America” and “sport” through deciding what to emphasize and what to omit. This decision, what to write about – and what not to write about – is arguably the most important decision a historian makes.

Should I really be the one to decide for them?

Long story short, I decided that the answer to this question is “no.” If things and events were going to be omitted from our history – and they have to be whenever we write our histories — I did not want to be the one doing it. So, I took it to my students. After all, what better way to learn about omitting and emphasizing than to do it your self?

As a scholar who takes a critical cultural studies approach to sport with a sociology background, my training in sport history is influenced by the cultural historians who teach here at Iowa or are alumni of our department. I based the course on an essay prompt from another one of our courses: “scholars have long argued that you can tell a lot about a society through studying its sport.” This is our guiding question in this course.

Our methodology for answering this question is influenced by the works of Dan Nathan and Jaime Schultz, where they examined different moments of re-telling the “Black Sox Scandal” or in women’s sport history, respectively, to understand how meanings are (re)produced over time. I assigned Susan Birrell’s “Approaching Mt. Everest.” In this article, Birrell describes how cultural meanings of Mount Everest are constructed through the recirculating re-tellings of the 1927 George Mallory climb, the 1953 summiting of Hillary and Norgay, and the 1996 disaster. Meanings of Everest are reproduced through re-tellings of each incident, demonstrating that “the past is never settled because meanings are never permanently fixed” and are always shaped by constructions of gender, race, class, and nation [2]. We use Birrell’s approach and made America our “text” to be read, similar to how she uses Everest. All we needed to do was to select our moments in order to read America.

Obviously, there were a few structural limitations. It is a MWF course and we meet over 16 weeks from late January to early May (with one week off in March for Spring Break). We miss the first Monday for MLK day, so we have 44 class meetings. And, fortunately, for my students and me, I am a unionized worker and have a relatively small classroom. There is a cap of 25 students, which is a good number for this type of class.

I wanted the students to have time to participate in the Omission and Emphasis process – to feel frustrated, annoyed, but also to have time to make arguments and do basic research on events – so I set aside the first 5 class meetings for introductions and selections. Because most of them want to work in or near industries involved with sport (as administrators, journalists, or coaches) I wanted to spend at least a week to get them to think about the Future of American Sport. I have always found it interesting that many popular films about sport in the future (e.g., The Running Man, FutureSport, The Hunger Games, Death Race 2000) often take place in a dystopia. How do these pessimistic depictions of our future fit into what they’ve learned about America’s history? What are the connections to make between these depictions of sport in our future and our understandings of sport in our past? So, I scheduled such a discussion revolving around a screening of Rollerball (1975) for our final week.

That left us with 12 weeks. Each Unit would be two weeks, so there were 6 Units. As a class, we would decide the 6 moments in American Sport Since 1900.

The first day of class was a survey of the students’ “favorite moments” in American Sport Since 1900. We listed them on the board. It was not much of a surprise that most of the moments were from men’s elite-level sport – mostly from regional or local professional or collegiate teams winning a big game. A few mentioned a performance of a local high school team, but never as participants. Also not surprisingly, their moments skewed heavily toward the 1990s and 21st century; the earliest moments were Ali-Foreman, the 1976 Yale women’s rowing team’s protest, and the 1980 “Miracle on Ice.” The Yale women’s protest was also one of only two moments involving women athletes, with the other moment being Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor’s third gold medal at London 2012.

Most surprising (at the time, but not really once I thought about it) was that all of their “favorite moments” positioned themselves as spectators or watchers of sport. We contemplated that privileging of “spectator” over “participant” for a bit – and they seemed surprised of this as well. We moved away from this as I distributed their first assignment: they had to come up with their own list of six moments from American Sport history. Here is how I set it up on the second week of class:


Dr. XXX completed their Sport History course last semester with the final essay prompt beginning with: “scholars have long argued that you can tell a lot about a society through studying its sport.”
In this course, we will be taking this assertion seriously. It will be our starting point, a point that organizes the entire course. What does our sport tell us about America? (This question itself raises questions with which we might need to engage: Who is included in “our”? Who is excluded? What is “sport”? What is “America”?)

We have 15 weeks and 44 class meetings to figure this out.

We will spend the first few class meetings discussing these ideas. These discussions will form the basis of our course.

Until we have this set, here is what I propose for our course: together, we will select six moments/events/incidents/people from the American sporting past, 1900-2015. We will select these six – only six – moments as a way to try to help us understand American society through sport. We will spend two weeks on each moment. In order to understand these moments and what they tell us about America, we will read academic articles and find primary and secondary sources about them and their contextual moments in which they occurred. Piecing together these six moments should give us inklings about the importance of sport in our world, and also an idea of the kind of work historians do. One of the most important things a historian does is choose a topic/event to study – and in choosing that topic, they are also choosing what not to study. This idea of “selection” is an important part of the historian’s process, which means it must be thought about when we think about a nation’s history and its past.

With that in mind, here is your assignment for our second week of class: what would be your six moments? If you could choose any six moments from the sporting past, what would they be?

Would you include the first Olympics on American soil (1904 St. Louis)? Or would you include Jack Johnson’s victory over Tommy Burns on December 26, 1908 in Australia, when he became the first black American to hold the heavyweight title? Maybe you’d be more interested in discussing Jim Thorpe? Or how about Gertrude Ederle’s record breaking swim across the English Channel in 1926? The popularity of Iowa girls’ high school basketball in the 1930s and 1940s? How about the organized baseball games played in Japanese American internment camps during WW2? What would your six be?

The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League? What about the rise of motorcycle and car racing in the post-WW2 era? Maybe we should discuss Jackie Robinson? How about Wilma Rudolph and the Tigerbelles? The Olympic Project for Human Rights and John Carlos and Tommie Smith? Kathrine Switzer using the name “K. V. Switzer” so she could become the first woman to run the Boston Marathon with a bib number? Or Ali refusing to fight in Vietnam War and giving up not only his heavyweight title, but also his boxing license during the height of his ability? Title IX? Would these be included in your six?

Rene Richards? Curt Flood and free agency in professional sports? Citizens of Denver voting against hosting the Olympics in the early 1970s? Billie Jean King and the creation of the Women’s Tennis Foundation? What about the AIAW? Or the fitness and muscle boom with Jane Fonda and Arnold Schwarzenegger? The US boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics and the Soviets’ boycott of 1984 LA games? 1980s Professional Wrestling? Would they make your list of six?

The 1984 Supreme Court case, NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, that, many argue, helped to open up television revenue for (some) college sports? Michael Jordan and Nike? Or Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan? How about the 1994-1995 MLB strike? The exploding popularity of triathlons as participatory sport? What about the rise of the US Women’s Soccer team? The Williams sisters dominating tennis? The explosion in popularity of fantasy sports? Would any of these make your six?

The stadium “booms” of 1990s-2000s? What about the WNBA and the ABL? Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France victories? The growth of so-called extreme sports? Pat Tillman and 9/11? The 2004 “Palace Brawl” in Detroit? Danny Almonte, Mo’ne Davis, and the commercialization of youth sport? Would these make your six?

These are 37 incidents/moments/events/people that I came up with – and I imagine, if we tried, we could come up with another 37. The point is: we have to choose, to select which six; we can’t study it all – it is impossible.

Who do we want to include in this course? But, we aren’t just selecting for inclusion into our class — we are also selecting to exclude. Who, or what, are we comfortable excluding from our course about sport in American society? Why?

After a week of deliberations and debating[3] in different small groups and as a class, we came up with our six: (1) the “Black Sox Scandal”; (2) Jesse Owens at the Nazi Olympics; (3) the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League; (4) the “era of politically active athletes” focusing on Ali and Billie Jean King; (5) the Miracle on Ice; and (6) Michael Jordan and Nike.

It is a good list. I made many of my friends give me their lists as a way to test out this process, and none of us listed more than two things that my class picked. My private list only included one of the six that our class came up with: Michael Jordan and Nike (mostly because I just finished writing about the commodification of Michael Phelps and once that topic made the final 9, I lobbied for it hard – especially after losing my argument for Jim Thorpe!).

Besides the selecting process, the students are learning to do historical work in other ways. Each week students have to find newspaper articles about the topic and/or its historical contexts. I base class lectures and discussions on what they find – and its early goings – but so far, they did a great job of finding articles on the Black Sox scandal (which is good because I know comparatively little about that moment). The students are engaged and committed to the project so far; in an anonymous feedback assignment a few said that they were “frustrated with the process [of selecting our topics] but were happy that they had a say in what they’d learn.” My favorite argument that a few students made for a few moments: “I just think we should study this because I am interested in learning about it. Sorry that I don’t really have a better argument.”

And making them part of the process has other benefits. The idea of omission and emphasis has already been fruitful. For instance, when we read about how early 20th century baseball was written about as an ideal site for “Americanization,” students were able to note that the “baseball creed’s” focus on boys and men not only omits women from baseball but also omits them from the American nation. When those inevitable tough days occur, I can also always challenge them: Hey, you all picked this topic. Why? What is it about it that caught your interest?

Although we’re in the first few weeks of the semester, I can already tell there will be challenges to this approach. For instance, only four of these topics are related to my present research, so I have to do more “catch-up” on the readings. This makes lesson-planning take a little longer than usual. I will have to make continuous efforts of checking in with the students in regards to making the connections between the moments or I have to make the connections for them in the classroom. Also, if my assistantship required me to teach more than this course this semester – the semester that I finish and defend my dissertation as well as am on the job market – I do not think I’d be able to take this sort of approach.

But, the benefit so far has been an engaged classroom where the students and I are learning about these moments right alongside each other. This sort of co-learning community building is challenging and fun. And, I think hope that it is also empowering.

Matt Hodler is a PhD candidate in Sport Studies at the University of Iowa. He is finishing his dissertation this semester, and he has a two-week unit on “Jim Thorpe and early American nation building through sport” ready to go, just waiting for anyone who asks!


[1] Peter Kaufman, “The Zero Sum Game of Denigrating Students,” Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice 23:1 (2010): 8.

[2] Susan Birrell, “Approaching Mt. Everest: On Intertextuality and the Past as Narrative.” Journal of Sport History 34:1 (2007): 1-22.

[3] The deliberations are difficult to explain, and I think that if I take a similar approach in the future, I’ll need to spend more time thinking about how this should work. But, here’s how it went this semester: Each student had to turn in their list of six to me as an assignment at the beginning of the second week of classes, which was deliberations week. On day 1 of deliberations, they came up with a list of six in small groups that they chose. On day 2, I presented every student’s choices from their individual lists and then ranked the top 12 based on how often they were stated. I then put them in different groups and asked them to come up with another six in those groups. We then discussed gaps in our lists, i.e., where we omitting women? Were we privileging elite sports over participatory sports? Is there too much baseball? Why are there big gaps in our timeline?  After they considered those questions, each group had to develop and submit a list of six. I compiled them and shared them with the students through our university-provided website. They had essentially picked three of the six moments and reduced the other three moments to two choices. The third and final day of deliberations consisted of “open” debate where I allowed any person to speak for or against any of the moments. It was a fun and fruitful day with many students making compelling arguments for the different moments, and one surprise submission of Babe Didrikson that almost knocked Jesse Owens – a favorite since the first week — out of the top six. I also lost my case of Jim Thorpe when a student made a very compelling and well-received case for discussing the Black Sox!

15 thoughts on “Towards an Engaging & Empowering Sport History Classroom

  1. Matt,
    Thank you for the post. As someone who teaches a sport history class and works to (hopes to) engage students, I find your approach interesting. I really like the idea of having the students assume some responsibility–perhaps even accountability–over the learning process. I also appreciate how you frame the inclusion/exclusion conversation; I would think this is necessary to avoid spending 16 weeks on elite men’s sport.
    One question, how do you account for what students do not know? I’m always shocked by how little my students know of the AIAW. Presumably, if I were to ask them about moments, this would not make the list. Is there a way to reconcile the known and the unknown?
    Thanks for posting this! It’s given me a lot to think about when framing my class.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Lindsay,
      Thanks for the kind comments. First, as per your example of the AIAW: Iowa professors/administrators from our department had a strong presence in the AIAW and many of our students are introduced to it our classes through that lens. In general, I have found that our students — especially in more upper-level courses like this one — are more amenable to learning about non-elite male sports because of the work that many of my colleagues do. And, also because they have no other choices.
      But, to answer your bigger question about unknowns. That was the most challenging part of the first 2 weeks. I hope we did a lot of that work in the classroom. For instance, one of the early class lists had no moment before 1968. We mathematically deduced that that was 68 years after 1900(!) and decided that that was too much time to ignore.
      In order to flesh these earlier years out, I told a few stories about my favorite moments from those earlier years (Jack Johnson, Sybil Bauer, Gertrude Ederle, Wilma Rudolph, Babe Didrikson, Joe Louis, etc.) to encourage them to look them up on their own. We also embraced the fact that clearly we don’t know that much about the first half of the century and discussed some reasons why that might be the case, such as Who might benefit from the exclusion of these histories? Why might they benefit? Why do things gets ignored? I am not sure it the discussions stuck, but they did encourage the students to look for earlier moments.
      In the end though I had to draw a line and say something like, “We will not have this course with no discussion of anything before 1968 and I assume y’all would rather make that decision with me than have me do it for you.” So, a few went to wikipedia and talked with each other about what they were interested in talking about. I also continually framed their lists in the notion of “Are we comfortable excluding [these other options] from the history of American Sport?” I found the re-framing of it in terms of comfort and exclusion to be helpful.
      I’ve gone on too long! Anyway, I hope this helped answer your question.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Matt,
        Thanks for clarifying. That makes a lot of sense and I like that you put it back on the students to find pre-1968 events/people. It sounds like you managed to get your students to to willingly research sport history. I like it.
        I am going to give this a lot of thought and possibly pilot it in my sport and gender class in the fall. Any chance you’ll be writing a followup piece at the end of the semester?

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks for this great post. As I mentioned on Twitter, we often get stuck in the lecture/survey model that is taught to us as TAs. Few grad programs focus on teacher training, and when they do, it is still very survey-lecture geared (for example, my dept has a grad course on teaching the survey). Teaching upper-level courses and survey course is much different and something we have to learn-on-the-fly.

    For me, upper-levels present a lot of challenges, such as thinking through coverage and depth as well as scale. Both at Purdue and Nevada we had larger 300-level surveys with 100+ students, where “Sports in America” was taught. More specialized courses, like my “Black Athlete” course are less common (at least at the places I’ve been). So I’m curious if you think your approach is scalable to those larger courses where discussion is rare (unless done in a separate section)? I think a lot of students disengage merely because of the size of the class.

    Also, building off of Lindsay’s question, I’m curious about the background of your students. You mentioned in your answer that most were aware of some info from previous classes. Does your course have a requisite? In my ‘Black Athlete’ class I have almost no majors or minors, and often a handful of students who aren’t even that interested in sports. The class has no pre-req and counts as diversity credit and fulfills a Kinesiology requirement (even though they are in a different college than Af-Am Studies). Basically, what I am saying and what I learned last fall was that quite a few of my students are blank-slates without much of sports, history, or even liberal arts background. This complicates and has changed my approach to the course. Yet, in my dream scenario, we would have a set 100 or 200-level sports history survey (with broad coverage) and then more specialized or thematic courses on race, gender, etc. in sport where we could dig into specific events/people/issues driven by student interests. It’s really interesting to think through! I think you’re getting at some really good points though, and you’re making me rethink my own (and probably my disciplines) privileging of information and coverage over depth and understanding. Thanks again for pushing us to rethink our teaching!


    • Thanks for these good questions, Andrew. I’ve already really appreciated the discussion that you two have helped create!

      When not taught by a graduate employee, past sections of this course have generally had an enrollment of 45-60, which makes it still comparatively small to the courses you’re talking about. Our major also offers a variety of sport history courses, such as American Sport before 1900 and Sport in the Western World — but also courses focusing on historical aspects of race, gender, and nationalism. These different course offerings often mean that our students gain a decent level of content competency while keeping the course numbers somewhat reasonable. A friend taught this course with about 45 people and he had a lot of luck keeping students engaged by using small group projects and guided small group discussions in class.

      But, to address one of your specific questions: the course I am teaching has no prerequisite, so there are a few less experienced students who might not have the “facts” that I may want them to have. It might be an issue in the future, but so far it has only presented itself as an opportunity. For instance, many of my students knew (maybe it’d be better to say “remembered”) little about the early 1900s from their high school classes. So, we talked a bit about the Temperance movements, the reform movements, anti-alien acts, the Red Scare, women’s suffrage, labor movements, Great Migration, urbanization, etc. occurring before and after the 1919 World Series. It served as a moment to highlight the importance of Context while also (I hope) encouraging them to be aware of what they don’t know. I also try (and I intend to improve upon this) to remind them that they know things that I don’t know; that I am not the only person in the room with knowledge. I do this by trying to encourage them to think about how instances from the past might play out in contemporary America (for instance, Lance Armstrong’s a “cheater” and so were the Black Sox; let’s compare and contrast how they were treated in the media as “warm-up”).

      I love learning about our sporting past academically and for fun — as a kid I literally organized my understanding about US history around who won the world series that year — but I am still not entirely comfortable calling myself a sport historian. In a way, that discomfort helps to push me to think about methodology and historiography in a way that I hope will always make me a better teacher and scholar.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Lindsay, I think I’d be willing to give an update at the end of the semester — I’d also be willing to discuss this with you at NASSH. I think this approach could be really useful in a sport & gender course; I’ve always been fascinated with the fits and stops of women sport in this country (in terms of participation, focus, governance, etc.). I think that an approach like this could be an interesting way to get the students away from the dominant “we’ve come along way, baby (thanks to Title IX)” narrative that so many of them hear too often by allowing for seeing both discontinuities and continuities over time.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for this great post Matt! I am a student at Nichols college and I am taking a sports history class similar to the one you teach. I was very interested in the fact that you let your class ultimately decide what they wanted to learn. To me, I believe that when it comes to history I am much more interested and engaged in the class when it is a topic that I my self would like to learn about. I really liked how you and your class ended up enjoying the learning that both parties had chosen to learn about. I believe that is the best learning environment to be in, when both the teacher and the students are learning together. I am interested on how the rest of the semester went, please contact me so I can maybe pass this approach of teaching on to the professors at my school. Thank you!


    • Stephen, thanks for the kind comments. As my colleague, Jorge Moraga demonstrated in his interesting post about the Super Bowl (, there are many ways to foster an engaged classroom. While instructors can do a lot of this, students can also be a part of this by being active and engaged in whatever ways provided to them — or make their own space.

      If you think that the approach I discuss here would be beneficial to your classroom, share this post with your classmates and instructors. If nothing else, I hope it would provide a good source for discussions about class objectives and expectations. And, yes, I do plan on sharing a “de-briefing type” post at the end of this semester. Thanks for reading and good luck the rest of this semester.


  5. Matthew,
    I am also an adjunct teacher at a university. I like your approach and this was an interesting read. I am always thinking of different ways to teach a similar course, but my course begins with American history starting with the Puritans. So, I have a little more material to cover and my class is one night a week for 21/2 hours. I understand your concern for lack of time (not material) and the importance that this places on student learning. It was nice to hear that I am not the only one struggling with what information to keep and what information that makes the excluded list. If you still have the material on “Jim Thorpe and early American nation building through sport” I would be very interested.

    Thank you in advance.

    Mark Shriver

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey, Mark. Thanks for the comment. Sorry I didn’t reply sooner, but I was swamped with some deadlines. Unfortunately I don’t really have solid lesson plan for Jim Thorpe — at least one that is shareable or understandable to other people. (It was mostly a joke because I was disappointed to “lose” that argument with my students!)

      I will tell you though that there are a lot of good articles about Thorpe, the Carlisle School, and/or Haskins Institute in the Journal of Sport History that you should check out at the LA 84 Foundation digital library search. Any of those articles would be a great way to start a lecture and/or a classroom discussion about what it means to be American and who gets to decide those meanings.

      Good luck!


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