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Journal of American History

2002 Syllabi
Teaching outside the Box

Editors' Introduction
Gary J. Kornblith & Carol Lasser

U.S. Women Activists
Catherine Badura
Syallbus: 1998, 2000 | Article

The Black Athlete
Amy Bass
Syllabus | Article

Recovering Detroit's Past for History & Theater
Charles Bright

American History Since 1865
A. Glenn Crothers
Syllabus | Article

Intro to American History
John J. Grabowski
Syllabus | Article

American History
Cecilia Aros Hunter & Leslie Gene Hunter
Syllabus | Article

In Search of America's Civil Rights Movement
Alyssa Picard & Joseph J. Gonzalez
Syllabus | Article

Out of Many: Histories of the U.S.
David A. Reichard
Syllabus | Article

Women & Social Movements
Kathryn Kish Sklar
Syllabus | Article

Law & Society in American History
John Wertheimer
Syllabus | Article

Colonial & Revolutionary History of the Southern Tidewater
James P. Whittenburg
Syllabus | Article

American National Character
Michael Zuckerman
Syllabus | Article

Exploring the Wide World of Sports: Taking a Class to the (Virtual) Olympics

Amy Bass

I teach cultural history at Plattsburgh State University, a regional public university located on Lake Champlain. The sixty-one hundred enrolled students are, without question, the faculty's top priority, so faculty constantly struggle to balance scholarship and teaching. When I was offered the opportunity to work as a research consultant for NBC Sports at the Olympics in Sydney, Australia, in fall 2000, I faced a formidable challenge: How could I, in only my second year at Plattsburgh, possibly obtain the time to travel "down under" for seven weeks at the beginning of the academic calendar? The answer I worked out, with help from my chair, my dean, and the Honors Program director, embraced the Olympic opportunity as a classroom experience that would benefit Plattsburgh students. The end result, a history honors seminar entitled "The Black Athlete," was a pedagogic innovation that combined distance and classroom learning by using contemporary and historical materials to enrich each other. Rather than a logistical nightmare, the course was an overwhelmingly positive academic experience for those involved and resulted in an impressive outpouring of original student research and writing on a variety of historical subjects. While all my courses deal with historical concepts of time and space, this unique learning experience required students to move constantly between figures and events of the past and those in the "real-time" present. With the Sydney Olympics as our focal point, we concentrated on historically grounded topics from my own scholarship: nationalism and internationalism, postwar mass media, alternative methods of civil rights struggles, and the varied and changing constructions of race and racism in American culture.

From a Distance: Designing a Course without a Professor

Since the students were going to be professor-less for the first weeks of the semester, I developed a plan to keep the course on track. At a meeting the semester before, I talked to students about what I wanted to accomplish. I recast my absence as an opportunity and emphasized how I hoped to bring them to Sydney virtually. I stressed their responsibility for making the seminar a success. Lastly, I conveyed the message that this was an experiment, and that it might not work at all.

That fall, a detailed reading schedule of scholarly historical articles greeted students. Their central task during the Games was what I designated the "Olympic Viewing Assignment." For the duration, students were to create personal, mixed-media journals based on multiple sources: NBC sports coverage, domestic and foreign news publications, the Internet, and (because of our close proximity to Montreal) Canadian print and television coverage. In addition, each student was to produce a written chronicle of the Olympics based on a set of common questions regarding media, celebrity, globalization, amateurism, commerce, spectacle, and, especially, identity. Specific questions included:

How are different sports represented?

How are identities--nation, race, class, gender, age, ethnicity--performed in Olympic rituals?

What is the role of the media in creating an athlete's identity?

Which nations seem to dominate the media coverage?

How is the culture of the host country represented?

Electronic Conversations: Using the Internet as a Classroom

In my absence students interacted with each other via the course Web page and its online discussion forum; they also corresponded with me via e-mail. As they shaped the dynamics of the online classroom, they used it to confer about readings, to set up times to watch Olympic events together, and to inform each other about relevant features in media organs. The students, who had yet to spend quality "face" time together, became a cohesive group, sharing ideas and insights. Drawing on the news sources available to them, they became skilled at identifying incidents and topics that corresponded to the central themes of the course. They discussed, for example, the Australian jumper Jai Taurima's boast that because of Sydney's cool temperatures, "You can pretty much knock out all the dark athletes." They pondered Canadian and American broadcasters' different styles of commentary and wondered how major league baseball broadcasts might affect the U.S. TV ratings for Olympic coverage. They debated amateurism, athlete drug use, and what one student termed "the business of the Olympics." They marveled at the Parade of Nations and at how North and South Korea, at least symbolically, marched as one. They heralded stars such as Marion Jones, Cathy Freeman, and Ian Thorpe; relished sports rarely seen on American television (table tennis!); and embraced underdogs such as Eric Moussambani of Equatorial Guinea, who swam slowly but to a standing ovation.

Because of the time difference between Sydney and Plattsburgh, students who watched NBC's coverage carefully noted how the Olympics were packaged for a prime-time audience, often twenty or so hours after an event took place. Those who watched Canadian television (CBC), which aired live footage into the wee hours of the morning, gave "spoiler alerts" ("DON'T READ THIS IF YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW ABOUT. . . . ") to classmates who wanted to watch it for themselves. One student preferred CBC coverage because, as a Canadian citizen, he was "incredibly offended and annoyed by the NBC coverage," especially when commentators used the word "Canucks" to describe Canadian athletes. "I apologize if I'm being over-sensitive," the student posted online, "but the term 'Canuck' isn't exactly something Canadians relish being called."

I kept my own contributions to the forum to a minimum. Students became accountable for the quality of the discussion, understanding that it could be only as good as they made it. They appreciated that, in one student's words, the forum helped them "keep up with class reading and work." It became for another an "interesting, unusual, and fun way to conduct class." As one student recapped the experience, it "helped us all stay in contact with one another."

An added benefit of the electronic dialogue was the contact with celebrity guests who joined us. Throughout my work in Sydney, I urged colleagues and contacts to enlist in the forum. The lively discussions ran the gamut of topics. When several gymnasts fell, for example, because the vault was set at the wrong height, a group of students expressed concern that it might negatively affect one young American's overall performance. Michelle Dusserre-Farrell, who won a silver medal in gymnastics in 1984, responded: "You're absolutely right. No matter how good of a competitor you are, a fall like Elise Ray's can mentally make the difference between success and failure." When another student asked about the impact of the Olympics on Australia's racial relations, NBC's Bob Costas replied:

I believe the Olympics will have a positive effect on aboriginal relations here. We've already seen a display of important symbolism at the Opening Ceremony. Cathy Freeman lighting the torch is similar in ways to some of the important civil rights moments we have had. At the same time, the problems are complex, and goodwill alone won't solve them. It will require much more resolve than that--much more than just good feelings.1

The negative reactions of the international media to the newest installment of America's basketball "Dream Team" probably generated the most heated conversation. Evan Silverman, the director of Internet Services for the National Basketball Association (NBA), sparked an animated discussion when he wrote:

Working for the league, I have helped deal with an anti-NBA backlash for several years, but the disdain for this year's Olympic team really struck me as out of the ordinary. . . . Putting aside whether you thought their play was inspired or not, did they really deserve the derision they received? A few things to think about . . . : 1) Is a team comprised of 12 African-American NBA players too easily stereotyped by a largely non-African American media? 2) Does the world resent the Dream Team because they are some of the richest athletes at the Games? 3) Is the world's anti-U.S. sentiment simply re-directed to these well-known lightning rods? 4) Do people feel that the Dream Team does not genuinely care about winning a gold medal and is simply a product of the NBA marketing machine?2

Going Home: Merging Distance and Classroom Experiences

When I returned from Sydney, I found a group of students who were radically disappointed that the Olympics were over. However, we dived into the classroom portion of the course, beginning with individual meetings to discuss their Olympic journals, the size and quality of which were astounding. We began to study a series of common topics: the history of scientific racism, the Berlin Olympics in 1936, the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, the legacy of Jackie Robinson, Wilma Rudolph and the collision of race and gender, the racial politics of high school football, and Michael Jordan's global corporatism. As we worked through the readings, students recognized how our subject, the black athlete, implicated much broader societal issues. As one student remarked, "The concepts behind the content have many applications." Another concurred, surprised that she could "combine my major of biology with the course content of the black athlete."

For some, the academic journey became personal. Students continually challenged themselves to use the historical content of the course to rethink deeply embedded beliefs; one student displayed tears when admitting that she--like all of us--had fallen victim to accepting some racial stereotypes. "We dealt with issues that everyone has strong feelings about," another student remarked in his/her course evaluation. "We were headed in new directions where nobody knew what the answers were, so we all went along." Another student observed, "Social questions that transcended race were often brought up and showed me things by challenging my own feelings and conceptions of race, equality, racism, sports and general perceptions of life." Still another agreed: "The seminar assignments were key in getting me to ask myself questions of my own ideas and ingrained attitudes that I probably wouldn't have dealt with otherwise."

Those discoveries translated well into their research endeavors, which produced highly original and thoughtful papers of substantial quality. Students, such as one math major, seemed exceptionally excited about their work: "I feel as though this is the most important paper I've ever had to write." Many used their Olympic journals as the basis for more extensive inquiry, attaching the historical themes they had found in course readings to their observations about the Sydney Games. Some maintained the contacts they had established during the Olympics. One student, after watching the documentary about Muhammad Ali that NBC aired during the Games, interviewed two NBC writers who had worked on Ali, Joe Gesue and Brian Brown. The end result was a wonderful paper on documentary images of the boxing legend entitled "Making Muhammad: The Cinematic Legacy of the Boxer Who Shook Up the World."

Others, interested in the racial politics of Australia's "stolen generation," struck up an online relationship with the aboriginal rights activist Geoff Moore. Because aboriginal culture had played such a large role in the Opening Ceremony, many opted to write about the aboriginal runner Cathy Freeman, inarguably the star of the Sydney Games. One student deconstructed the aboriginal content of the Opening Ceremony, during which Freeman lit the Olympic flame, in a paper entitled "The Sydney Games: Aboriginal Representations and Symbolisms of an Athlete." Another student put together a complex historiographical overview of the course readings in conjunction with her Olympic journal to explore the question: "Is Cathy Freeman a 'Black' Athlete?" Expanding W. E. B. Du Bois's famous concept of "double consciousness," another probed the conflicts of race and gender via Freeman, Rudolph, and the African running legend Tegla Loroupe in a paper entitled "Overcoming 'Triple' Consciousness to Become One Great Runner." Indeed, after students watched women dominate much of the competition, gender identity became a popular subject. One student wrote a biography of the indomitable Marion Jones, while another won the campus Inez Milholland Boissevain Writing Prize in Women's Studies for her paper, "Passing the Torch: The Significance of the Torch Relay in Celebrating Women in the Olympics."

In their research, students continually challenged themselves to use the historical content of the course in conjunction with the Olympic spectacle in front of them to rethink expansive historical concerns. They granted authority to their own observations, connecting moments in the past with those being created. Students defined their own "texts," whether by exploring such newspapers as the Zimbabwe Independent and the Bahrain Tribune or by contacting people not usually associated with a history class. Thus they redefined sources of knowledge and expertise to include a range of academic and nonacademic people, including themselves.

Best of all, they collaborated to make the course succeed, and its impact continues. One student has used her "Australian experience" as the basis for her senior thesis project, which explores Jesse Owens and Cathy Freeman to compare the societal meaning of segregation with that of assimilation. Another, after completing papers on representations of black athletes in film and on the assimilation policies of the "stolen generation," will embark on a thesis project about the diplomatic politics of the Olympics. Her inspiration has been her virtual association with Wayne Wilson of the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles, whom she "met" during the Sydney Games. This same student conveyed the impact the course had on her when she told me that she still read the Sydney Morning Herald online almost every day. "I just can't seem to leave Sydney," she said, perhaps not realizing that she had never actually left Plattsburgh.

Teaching this course also had a profound impact on me. The relationship I established with these students was the strongest in my teaching experience. It broadened my ideas on how students can best capitalize on the multitude of primary and secondary sources available to them, forcing me to innovate on the more traditional pedagogical methods of lectures, note taking, and discussions. It also demonstrated that Plattsburgh's Honors Program allows for unusual flexibility and creativity, engendering a student community strong enough to survive for several weeks without a professor. The next step, then, is to stretch such opportunities to students in the general curriculum, perhaps through the learning communities that have been successful on so many campuses. While doing so would necessitate administrative support and the shattering of rigid registrar schedules, I hope in the future to introduce other courses "outside the box" to a variety of students on a variety of levels, as the rewards are many.

Amy Bass is an assistant professor of history at Plattsburgh State University.

Readers may contact Bass at <>.

1 Michelle Dusserre-Farrell, online posting, Sept. 22, 2000, Honors Seminar 129A discussion forum <> (Jan. 23, 2002); Bob Costas, online posting, Sept. 20, 2000, ibid. (Feb. 16, 2001).

2 Evan Silverman, online posting, Oct. 1, 2000, ibid. (Feb. 16, 2001).