Reflecting Upon Creating an Engaging & Empowering Sport History Classroom

This blog post is a personal reflection of how I approached my class, “American Sport Since 1900” described in a previous post.

For those of you unable (or unwilling!) to read the previous post, I will sum up. Our class was organized around the assertion that one can tell a lot about a society through studying its sport history. We endeavored to learn about America through studying its sporting history, while also considering how and which histories are told and untold. I attempted to introduce my students to the historian’s process of emphasizing and omitting while also helping them get some of the necessary content inherent to a history course. We approached this process primarily through the first assignment, which was having the students select six moments from American Sport since 1900.

We chose: the “Black Sox Scandal” of 1919, Jesse Owens & the 1936 Olympics, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, the “Era of the Politically Active Athlete,” the 1980 “Miracle on Ice,” and Michael Jordan, Nike & the Commodification of athletes. As I stated in my previous post, this was a solid list chosen by the students through a democratic one-week process — which students reported as “engaging,” “boring”, “empowering” and “frustrating”.

In general, the course proceeded as planned. We spent two weeks on each unit, and students had the same assignments every week due on Fridays. On the first Friday, students had to summarize and post two primary sources about the event onto our class website. On the second Friday, the had to turn in a short assignment about a required reading from the unit. This assignment is generally only allowed to be 150-225 words long. It’s something that I’ve done for most of my classes and is intended to help students practice reading comprehension skills and begin to make connections across course readings. It was made up of four components: (1) citation of the reading, (2) a brief (75-125 words) summary of the reading, (3) the thesis, (4) and a brief (50-75) explanation of how this work helps us to make sense of the class’s broader ideas.

The Final Assignment encouraged the students to use these weekly assignments in a final paper. This assignment was an essay based on the prompt, “…from American Sport Since 1900, America is…” inspired by the way that Susan Birrell used three moments discuss cultural meanings of Everest. The paper asked students to select three moments from our class and one moment of their own in order to give their own cultural meaning of America in 1750-3000 words. They had to use at least 3-4 course readings (many of the better papers smartly used Birrell’s piece for organization) and 8-10 primary courses (many of the better papers mined their classmates’ discussion posts from the bi-weekly assignments). I have found that these sorts of open-ended assignments that require students to be generative can be very tough for the students — but they can also be tough on instructors. I don’t know about anyone reading this post, but I oftentimes begin to read final papers with some trepidation, thinking

…maybe I didn’t do enough to help prepare these students for this assignment…


In general, though, I was pleasantly surprised with the students’ engagement with the final paper. Some were excited to get to choose another moment from outside of class, while others were excited to tell me what they thought of America. Most of the papers were solid, if predictable. But some students really shined in either their creative critical arguments, their use of course concepts, or both. One student linked the Black Sox scandal, Jesse Owens, and Billie Jean King’s “physical activism” to the 2016 USWNT wage dispute in order to argue that America is exploitative. Another student discussed what they saw as the paradoxical aspect of American society that celebrated both the Underdog and the “tearing down of heroes”; he used Jesse Owens, the media treatment of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1968 (while he was still known publicly as Lew Alcindor), the idea of national distaste for Duke men’s basketball players, and the Serena Williams (we read an article about her in the Jordan Unit). And, another used student Jesse Owens, the AAGPBL, Smith & Carlos, and the Wyoming 14 to argue that “America is the opportunity” to make positive social change through individual and collective action. Finally, a student really embraced the notion of history as a story told about the past from a specific perspective. He looked at how the stories of Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, the AAGPBL, and the Miracle on Ice were all “[historical] tools” used to make Americans feel good about America. Needless to say, I enjoyed reading the papers.

But, this blog post is not intended to talk about how great this class was for me (and I did enjoy it). It is not intended to be a place for me to brag about how much my students loved me and/or the course (they did?). Nor is it a place for me to brag about how great they were (but, they were great). In these two posts about teaching, I wanted to take up Ryan King-White‘s call for critical sport scholars to share our teaching experiences, including our failures, in an effort to “improve classroom experiences as well as critical interventionist (public/border) pedagogies” (p. 386). With that in mind, I intend the remainder of this post to act as a place to ask questions about continuing to create an engaged and empowering classroom for our students.

As I mentioned earlier, this was the first time I had taught this — or any — course in this manner. In hopes of getting some constructive feedback, I created my own course evaluations sheet to go along with our departmental one. My evaluation/feedback sheet  essentially asked “what did I do right?”, “what did I do wrong?”, “what should I keep doing in the future?”, “what should I not do in the future?” through 12 questions, asked in multiple different ways.

If these evaluations can be taken at the word, the course was overall a success. Most of the students who responded to the specific question, stated that ability to choose course topics to be their favorite part of the course. I agree that this was my favorite part of the class. It was useful pedagogically because students were committed from the outset; they chose this topic so there was already something about it they found interesting and worth learning about. Others reported liking the repetitive structure of the course, that allowed them to continually practice the basic research skills of finding primary sources and making connections between them and course readings — as well as making connections across units. While others, while appreciating this structure, rightfully pointed out that we were only learning superficial research skills.

Despite my overall satisfaction with how this course went — and with the way the students worked with me and each other — I had one main issue with how I taught the course. I would sometimes over-lecture, and some students shared this on the evaluations. While I know that there is a place for the lecture in our pedagogical tool kits (it is often a useful and economical way to deliver content to students), it is often not the best way to create an engaging classroom. As I read the evaluations of the students who mentioned this, I reflected upon my lectures and tried to determine a pattern.

It seems that I was most likely to lecture without a complementary course activity or (un-)structured discussion in two scenarios: I felt that we were “behind” or I felt uninformed. Both of these scenarios are rooted in my needs and my feelings. They do not seem to take my students’ thoughts or needs into account, basically I am responding to my insecurities by lecturing. In what are these insecurities rooted? Are they rooted in my own valuation of what is “knowledge”? The university’s? Society’s? My students’? If our goal as instructors is to encourage students to be critically aware when making connections between their own personal histories and the histories within which they operate, does a lecture rooted in my own insecurities help? How do I (we?), for lack of a better term, get over myself and my insecurities when it comes to teaching?

Some answers to these (bigger) questions were found elsewhere in this class. Most of the time this involved my getting out of their way. Many of my students seemed to learn better from each other than from me, either by sharing what they found through their searches for primary sources or through directed in-class assignments intended to allow students to develop their own understandings of the contexts within which these moments occurred. This requires me spending more time developing creative in-class activities — and a community of students. For me, an engaging classroom needs to be rooted in accountability, flexibility, and communication, where students feel that they can talk with the instructor about course concepts and course practices. I need to be vigilant in centering my students’ needs when it comes to my pedagogical approach, and, to do so, we must to listen to our students and be accountable for that day/week/month’s lessons. When students tell us — explicitly or implicitly — that something is not working we need to be flexible and ready to make alterations in our approaches. While I acknowledge that this approach can accidentally slip into a consumerist approach (with the student as customer and “the customer is always right”), I conceptualize “needs” as different from “wants” and think that the university’s priority should be the development of a critically engaged citizenry.

I hope that reading about my reflections from my semester teaching American Sport Since 1900 is helpful to other instructors and students. In the comments below, I encourage students and/or instructors to share their responses, critiques, or questions. I also encourage more scholars to share their teaching experiences in any way they can, and as often as possible.

Matt Hodler recently graduated from the University of Iowa with his PhD in sport studies. He is currently preparing to teach a summer class, watching the US Olympic swimming trials on his computer, and hoping to figure out “what’s next?”.


One thought on “Reflecting Upon Creating an Engaging & Empowering Sport History Classroom

  1. Pingback: ICYMI: An Overview of Nearly Everything We Wrote in 2016 | Sport in American History

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