Athletics, Academics and Liberal Arts Learning

Steve Volk, October 2, 2017

I left the discussion that Yago Colás organized on “Integrating Athletics and Academics” last Monday (the first of three) with much to think about (and many reasons to recommend the future gatherings). The conversation touched on a number of themes spurred by Yago’s initial questions: Do faculty think more positively of Conservatory students who practice their instruments many hours a week than of student athletes who spend an equal amount of time on the practice fields? Does team sports generate a toxic masculinity? Does the left-leaning culture at Oberlin make “team spirit” a source of suspicion or derision? Are individual competitors looked at critically for being, well, competitive?

These are great questions, and I found the discussion they generated both informative and challenging. But the theme that most caught my attention was the central organizing question around which these conversations are being framed: What can we do to better “integrate athletics and academics”?

On the way out of the meeting, I caught up with Nusha Martynuk from Dance, who also had attended. As a dancer, she didn’t have to be convinced of the importance of athletics and physicality to what we do at a liberal arts college. But she also gave me a brief history of dance at Oberlin, detailing how it migrated from Physical Education into “academics,” via the Theater Department. The conversation encouraged me to look into it a bit more.

While manual labor (more on “Learning and Labor” shortly) was all the physical activity most people needed in the early 19th century, the development of sports and gymnastics became a part of the extracurricular programs that sprang up in schools and colleges in the later part of the century. Dance itself, however, was viewed a bit more cautiously. Either it was “praised as conjoining the physical and the metaphysical, or damned as downright immoral,” according to Stephanie Woodard, an assistant professor of dance at Oberlin from 1979 to 1984.

“Interpretive dance pose,” Oberlin College’s Memorial Arch, 1917; Oberlin College Archives, papers of Delphine Hanna

Oberlin permitted dance on an informal basis until its status was elevated with the appointment of Delphine Hanna, a medical doctor with dance training, who had studied with teachers from Harvard’s physical education program. At Oberlin, she intended to “make the body responsive to the mind and a more delicate instrument of expression.” In the late 1890s, she set up one of the first four-year degree programs in physical education, later becoming the first female professor of physical education in the United States. Fast forward to 1970 when dance was more widely recognized as a performing art and Betty Lind moved it out of Phys Ed and, into the theater program, where it remained until it formed its own department in 2013-2014.* (In the 1960s, African American students associated with the Black Arts Movements, had organized their own dance collective.)

Well! I bet you didn’t expect a history of Dance at Oberlin! Yet a look into this history helped me better understand why the challenge of “integrating athletics and academics” could better be addressed when it is reconceived. Hanna’s quote provides a hint to the answer: dance, organized physical activity, would “make the body responsive to the mind…”

Let’s see if I can explain further.

Unhelpful Binaries

Many scholars challenge the binary oppositions that are central to how the West often organizes its subjects of inquiry. While the scholarship of gender and sexuality is critical in disclosing this, other binaries equally come to mind: body/mind, cognitive/affective, learning/ labor, and academics/athletics.

Without engaging the substantial work done in this area, I would only say that not only do binaries negate additional possibilities, but the polarities expressed in binaries discount the ways in which each pole is present or implicated in the other, the way that dying is a part of living, for example, or how emotions can shape cognition, and labor magnify learning. In the same sense, to frame the discussion as “academics” and “athletics” can get in the way of understanding how they have, and can continue to, supporting learning, not in separate domains but together.

My argument is not that “athletics” and “academics” are the same and interchangeable. Training for basketball is not the same as taking a class on race and the NBA.  This is why is why many colleges, including Oberlin, have edged away from giving “academic” credit for participation in team sports. This is true even if, for many students, the lessons learned on the soccer pitch or the baseball diamond may continue to shape their lives long after the facts they learned in a history class have drifted away.

Rather, I’m suggesting that we think beyond the binary when we pose questions of “athletics and academics.” There are certainly things we can do within our more traditional, binary, framework to better “integrate” the two: adding more courses on sports and society (a need that has only been magnified by the tweets pouring out of the White House in the last week), continuing discussions of gender and sexuality among our student-athletes, bringing elements of “north campus” athletics to the “south campus,” and visa versa.  All of these steps are important, but significant integration will remain marginal unless we actually confront the binary itself by focusing instead on the work of learning that defines us as a liberal arts college.

Women’s Gymnasium and Field Association, Oberlin College, early 20th century; Oberlin Archives

Our Work at Liberal Arts Colleges

Colleges and universities produce new knowledge, revise what we previously valued as knowledge, preserve and enhance cultures and cultural literacies, address difficult social problems, socialize 18-22 year olds, shape the nation’s citizenry, perpetuate or challenge inequalities, and much else. But there is one task that remains central to our existence as liberal arts colleges: we are here to enhance our students’ learning. Now, what that means has changed in the last few decades, and requires some unpacking.

If I were asked to selected only two contributions that have most influenced thinking about teaching and learning in higher education in the last many decades, I would point to “Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives” (first published in 1956, and later revised in 2001), which helped us distinguish between “lower-order” thinking (knowledge/remembering, understanding) and “higher-order” thinking (analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and, in the revised taxonomy, creation). The second contribution comes from Robert Barr and John Tagg, whose 1995 article in Change Magazine, “A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education,” observed that “A paradigm shift is taking hold in American higher education.” “In its briefest form,” the authors argued, “the paradigm that has governed our colleges is this: A college is an institution that exists to provide instruction. Subtly but profoundly we are shifting to a new paradigm: A college is an institution that exists to produce learning.” And, they add, “This shift changes everything. It is both needed and wanted.”

Bloom (and the revisions to his taxonomy) foregrounds the importance of helping students become higher-order – critical – thinkers. Barr and Tagg argue that we do this by shifting from teacher-centric (“sage on the stage”) to student-centric approaches. The work of the college, then, is to promote and advance student learning everywhere we encounter an opportunity: in classrooms and laboratories, practice rooms, concert halls, and studios, in libraries and museums, residential halls and coffee shops, and in the gym, locker rooms and on the courts and athletic fields. As the Higher Education Commission (the independent corporation that oversees accreditation in the North Central region) has recently specified, “A focus on student learning encompasses every aspect of students’ experience at an institution: … how well they are informed and guided before and through their work at the institution; the breadth, depth, currency and relevance of the learning they are offered; their education through cocurricular offerings; the effectiveness of their programs; and what happens to them after they leave the institution.”

When we foreground the “learning proposition” underpinning liberal arts colleges, we will better challenge and then reconfigure the binaries that have put much of what we do in different, and often oppositional, domains. For example, between cognitive and affective: research has shown that the emotions can have a profound impact on how we learn and how much we retain of what we have learned; between the body and the mind (think back to Hanna and dance): research has shown how learning is embodied, how physical well-being can boost learning; and between learning and “labor”: we probably know from our own courses that assignments that are “real-world” oriented, geared around real-world problems, produced for a “real-world” audience, or carried out in actual communities, will produce more student engagement and, more often than not, more significant student learning outcomes than assignments whose audience is limited to a single professor.

Academics and athletics must be integrated at the level of learning. What students are learning via physical activity, team sports, or individual competition not only impacts their learning in other domains, but the dispositions they can develop via athletics will increase their chances for success when they graduate: resilience, self-awareness, communication, collaboration, empathy, discipline, self-control.

These lessons seem to be well understood by student-athletes. As just one case among many, we can point to Kate Frost ’15, currently enrolled in Vanderbilt’s med school. Frost, a double major in biology and neuroscience with a minor in chemistry, was a dual-sport athlete: soccer and lacrosse. She says she often talks with other student-athletes in her med school classes about how the lessons learned in sports have “been extremely helpful in transitioning into medical school… A lot of medicine these days is collaborative,” she observed recently, “working in groups with others of different backgrounds and skill sets, and I think my experiences in both athletics and academics helped me to become an effective team member and leader.”

If our student-athletes understand this, perhaps what is still needed is a more purposeful approach to the fundamental integration of academics and athletics on the part of instructors. The Dean’s office has recently requested that College faculty specify their courses’ learning goals in their Spring ’18 syllabi. We could usefully ask coaches to engage in a similar exercise. Then faculty and coaches, working together and based on specified outcomes, could concretely plan for the ways that the skills and dispositions gained in the classrooms, and those acquired on the athletic fields and courts, might be more purposefully leveraged for student learning. This doesn’t mean giving “academic” credit to team sports, but rather that both coaches and classroom teachers need to consider for themselves and discuss with their students the learning goals that scaffold their instructional designs. For a math teacher, these might include both the knowledge needed to solve differential equations and the patience, perseverance, and planning needed to get there. For a soccer coach, it might be corner-kick techniques, but also the importance of team members being able to encourage their peers to work cohesively on the pitch. Those involved in “mind” skills and “body” skills need to talk to one another about helping students adapt and transfer the skills learned in one area to other domains.

Learning and Labor at Oberlin

In conclusion, I want to return to one of the binaries that defined Oberlin at its founding, learning and labor, but was gradually ignored. (Berea College, strongly influenced by Oberlin, retains this orientation to this day.) What I find so interesting about this foundational “binary,” is that it truly showed the way that the two elements were constitutive of each other, supported each other’s work, in a way that we can imagine “athletics and academics” working together today.

The implementation of “manual labor principles” at Oberlin’s 1833 founding are fascinating. [See Paul Goodman, “The Manual Labor Movement and the Origins of Abolitionism,” Journal of the Early Republic 13:3 (Autumn 1993): 355-388. Thanks to Gary Kornblith and Carol Lasser for pointing me to it.]  Oberlin, according to Goodman, illustrated “the link between manual labor and a critical attitude towards conventional hierarchies of race, class, and gender… In upholding the nobility of all forms of toil, manual laborism rejected both class hubris and caste prejudice, North and South. And by arguing, as at Oberlin, that manual labor ennobled women, too, manual laborites challenged the conservative tendencies inherent in the ideology of separate spheres that sought to sustain patriarchy through the creation of a bourgeois ideal of womanhood that sheltered ‘respectable’ women from manual labor and the market” (p. 362-63). At Oberlin, Goodman continues, “manual laborism nurtured a matrix of ideas and experiences that helped” foster abolitionism (364). Learning and labor, conceived together and as a part of an educational and social project, were seen as essential elements in the formation of students who would “devote[…] themselves to the common good, submerging individual aspiration in millennial enterprise and invest work with a higher purpose than advancing personal fortunes” (380).

There’s no need to adopt the utopian fervor that marked Oberlin’s founding to make the point – although exceptional fervor might be welcome in this moment of national buffeting. What’s needed is a determined effort to reframe our conversations about “athletics” and “academics” by advancing a discussion of how we can reach our goal of supporting student learning by taking advantage of the lessons that take place in all parts of the campus and community. And that means a serious discussion on all parts of campus about what we are doing to help students take ownership over their learning and reflect on what they are learning, how they are learning, and where that learning takes place. We would all benefit from a reexamination of what is the best “matrix of ideas and experiences” that can spur learning.

*Updated Oct. 10, 2017

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