In two weeks, I’ll be entering the university classroom as a teaching assistant for the third time. To tell the truth, I’m a bit nervous. Instead of teaching U.S. History to 1865 or Modern European History, I’m teaching a course on sports.
In elementary school, I cringed when a ball came towards me during four square, whimpered when it was my turn during kick ball, and seized when asked to do a cartwheel. Middle and high school were no better. What worries me, however, is not necessarily my utter lack of coordination or my fear of being conked on the head by a stray ball but the fact that I am female. In the United States, sports have been constructed largely as a male space. Although Title 9 has attempted to provide women with equal opportunities within college athletics, male athletes continue to receive accolades and attention rarely lavished on their female counterparts. Likewise, the commercials ESPN plays tend to be oriented towards male consumers. When women appear in such commercials, they appear as sex objects – scantily clad and well toned.
The course that I am teaching tries to interrogate such narratives. We begin the semester by reading Clifford Geertz’s “Notes on a Balinese Cock Fight,” which is quickly followed by Norbert Elias and Foucault. Although the class description mentions that the course is really about the way that sports are implicated in colonialism, globalization, religion, and nationalism, I am willing to predict that at least some of the students are expecting a history of Michigan football rather than a serious interrogation of sports and their place within American and world culture.
Of course, I am not the first woman to teach a class focused on what has been as a male topic nor am I the first female TA for this course. The female TA who taught this course last year ended up having a lot of fun with it. The response to female professors teaching such courses, however, has not always been positive. Last semester, my university welcomed two university professors from California to campus to talk about their experiences teaching about masculinity and gender. Although their experiences had generally been positive, they had received comments on their evals that were downright aggressive and antagonistic. One person wrote that the university should “get rid of the women.” Although the context in which the statement was made suggested it was meant to refer to the content of the course, the professors couldn’t help but take it personally. I have also heard of female TAs whose students felt that it was appropriate to ask them out on dates or who commented on their outfits almost daily.
When I teach, I would obviously like to avoid such situations and to make the semester as fun and productive as possible. What strategies have you used classroom to create an affirming, positive space for their students to talk about masculinity and gender? I am also interested in people’s stories. Does anyone else have experience teaching a similar course? What was the experience like? How, in your experience, do students react differently to male and female TAs? Does it depend on the topic?