Sports and the Battle of the Sexes in the Classroom

27 Aug

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?


10 Responses to “Sports and the Battle of the Sexes in the Classroom”

  1. ep August 27, 2010 at 3:55 am #

    I read “fun and provocative” for “fun and productive.” Oops. What exactly is the place of women’s sports in world culture? The only global female sports phenomenon I can think of is gymnastics. I’m sure with your work on the body you’ll be talking about how male and female bodies are driven to their extremes of masculinity and femininity–men with steroids and women with starvation and bulimia, among other things. Also, have you read Born Again Bodies?

  2. amanda5245 August 27, 2010 at 12:07 pm #

    I haven’t read “Born Again Bodies,” but it looks really interesting. I might give the lecture on “muscular Christianity” so that book would be really helpful.

    One of the things that we are going to talk about in class is the ways in which women have been marginalized from sport and the process by which that happened. When modern organized sport originally developed in the eighteenth century, both men and women participated. New spaces, like new religious movements, tend to be more egalitarian. It was only as sports developed that women were pushed out of them. As far as women’s sports internationally, the only other one I can think of is ice skating but then again, I was surprised to find out that the most popular sport globally wasn’t soccer but judo.

  3. ep August 27, 2010 at 2:49 pm #

    Sounds like I’ll have to take your class. And if I end up at Michigan, I can at least sit in. 🙂

    And, judo? Really?

  4. amanda5245 August 27, 2010 at 7:05 pm #

    Part of the reason is the way that such things are counted. We usually don’t think of the sports participation of five year olds as having much to do with the popularity of a particular sport, but if you think about it, a lot of kids participate in karate and judo. And, judo, karate, etc. are also quite popular in certain parts of the world among adults as well.

  5. Becca August 28, 2010 at 5:01 pm #

    When I started teaching labs for a required statistics course, I think a lot of the students had a prior preference for male TAs– on the first day of lab, half of my students didn’t show up and it turned out they’d all decided to attend session with the male TA just down the hall. It seemed that both both boys and girls in the class thought you could learn advanced stats and computer programming better from a man than from an underaged blonde girl. The students in my tiny lab section were loyal and enthusiastic but I always felt a little insecure about being so publicly slighted. The following semester ALL of the course TAs were female. Any misgivings that students had about us being female quickly took second place to their terror of failing the class: lab attendance was fantastic.

    In short, I think that people may discriminate between TAs based on sex if they’re given a choice. But if it’s just you, chances are that most serious students won’t really bat an eye at you being a girl.

    The topic sounds fantastic; I’d love to hear more about it! I remember reading that in 1969 a series of World Cup soccer matches triggered a four-day war between Honduras and El Salvador (resulting in around 3,000 casualties). That also reminds me that Elizabeth and I have been meaning to watch Lagaan.

  6. amanda5245 August 29, 2010 at 1:01 pm #

    Ugh! Becca, that sounds awful.

    For this course, there is another TA. He’s male and is absolutely in love with sports but not with the type of sports that we’ll be talking about in the course. The professor is also male and is quite masculine. It’ll be interesting to see how the gender dynamics of this course play out. Part of me is hoping that if I make it clear on the first day that this ISN’T a course on Michigan football, that everything will be fine.

    I looked up the movie on the internet. It looks really great. I’ll have to check it out before the semester begins.

  7. Christopher September 2, 2010 at 2:27 pm #

    I took a similar class at BYU as an undergrad (I think it was called “Sports and American Society”), and I remember that several students enrolled in the class were expecting a history of college and professional sports teams and players. The TA, I recall, was a male, though I believe females had TA’d for the course previously.

    I actually think the subject provides a particularly useful opportunity to teach the dynamics of sex and gender in U.S. history since the world of athletics has been and still is such a gendered (and for that matter, racialized) subculture. Matt B. has posted on the the intersections of religion and sport in Utah over at the Juvenile Instructor (see here), which is worth the read.

  8. amanda5245 September 3, 2010 at 10:47 pm #

    Chris — Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I am hoping that the subject matter will prove a particularly rich ground for exploring gender, race, imperialism, etc. One of the things that is exciting about the class is that it seeks to understand how play became sport and tries to force students to ask how games became so important. The syllabus also tries to destabilize their understanding of sport by taking them outside of the U.S. and forcing them to think about cricket, Australian rules football, and cockfighting as well as about the NFL and the NBA.

  9. Stephen M (ethesis) September 8, 2010 at 2:45 am #

    “And, judo? Really?” Most Judoka think the statistics are a bit inflated, just FYI, but it is a very popular international sport. Some excellent female American competitors over the years as well.

    Title 9 killed college wrestling, which is in its death throes as a result. Of course wrestling is a sport for short men, who are otherwise marginalized in many ways in a number of contexts.

    But for Judo, visit — world champion in Judo, famous ethics consultant, full professor in advanced statistics. All around wonder woman.


  1. Faith-Promoting Rumor » Scholaristas…Go Read It! - September 24, 2010

    […] Sports and the Battle of the Sexes in the Classroom […]

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