Friday, May 25, 2012

Blog CXVIII (118): Eight Questions: Sports History

The next essay in the Eight Questions series comes from Maureen Smith, a professor of Kinesiology and Health Science at California State University Sacramento.  She earned her Ph.D. from The Ohio State University.  Her teaching and research interests focus topically on the Olympics and physical education, and thematical on race and gender issues.  She is the author of Wilma Rudolph: A Biography (2006).  She was president of the North American Society for Sport History in 2010. Smith also served as secretary and then later as the president of the Western Society for Physical Education of College Women.  Smith was also the co-editor of the International Society for the History of Physical Education and Sport Bulletin.  She currently serves on the executive committee of that organization.

What is the greatest strength of your field? In the history profession?
One of the greatest strengths in the field of sport history is the diversity of topics. Scholars focus on time periods, themes, countries, specific sports, etc. Within sport history, we have Olympic historians, baseball historians, historians of women in sport, etc. I think this is similar to the broader field of history, that scholars choose their era, subject, focal point, etc. I am always amazed by the range of subjects presented at conferences and articles published in sport history journals. Sport and history are the two umbrellas under which we all reside, but our individual interests and pursuits make our field a diverse and engaging subject for academic study. I’d also include the methods of approaching and analyzing our topics--from traditional descriptive history to postmodern theoretical approaches--which make for interesting reading and dialogues among colleagues.
What is the biggest issue facing your field? The history profession?
For sport historians, the biggest issue facing us at this point in time is academic positions and availability or lack thereof. Kinesiology departments, including sport management programs, hire sport historians to teach classes in sport history, as well as other coursework in the social sciences and humanities pertaining to sport. Fewer history departments hire sport historians; rather, they hire a historian who has an interest in sport and then designs a course in sport history. There are several graduate programs in sport history in the United States and Canada, located within kinesiology departments. Many are finding jobs that provide them with the opportunity to teach a class or two in sport history, with the remainder of their teaching load covering other programmatic needs.
What is the most interesting work being done in your field? Why?
This is really, I think, an individual and personal preference. For me, I am partial to the issues and topics related to diversity, specifically the sporting experiences of African Americans, during the period of post-World War II America. The line of inquiry has encouraged other scholars to examine Asian American sport experiences, as well as other ethnic groups that are often marginalized in sport (and society). There have been some great articles detailing the integration processes at a number of universities. I am also very interested in the work being done by scholars on material culture, whether it be photographs, postage stamps, statues, or other tangible objects that serve both as artifacts and as the subject of inquiry. To answer the question more broadly, there are a number of journals publishing quality sport history research and while I am not always personally interested in the topic or time period, sometimes the methodologies and approaches are more than enough reason to continue reading.
How valuable is teaching in the professional development of a career?
The value of teaching in the professional development of a career largely depends on the type of university one works. At a university where teaching comprises the major portion of one’s responsibilities, and your tenure and promotion are determined by your teaching materials and evaluations, teaching is of the utmost importance. In the California State University system, faculty routinely teach four courses a semester and their teaching performance is the area which is valued the most in their tenure and promotion process. Faculty at research universities have a much different teaching load, with a greater emphasis on research. I don’t think this means they value teaching any less, but their teaching is valued less in the process of awarding tenure and promotion.
What direction or type of publishing would you advise a new Ph.D. to conduct?
As a mentioned above, there are a number of journals, many unrelated to sport, that publish sport history research. Some scholars will write an article with a specific journal in mind, others will have a ranked order of journals to send their article. Depending on one’s department, non-traditional means of publications may be considered in their tenure review, such as blogs or other forms of social media platforms. As to direction, I would encourage the new Ph.D. to focus on what interests them. They’ve just finished a dissertation and if they are like many of us, ready to explore some new materials.
What issues affect most the development of a career: family, school resources, popularity of field, reputation of alma mater, etc.?
Again, I think this is a question that relies largely on the individual and how central their career is to their identity, and how these various factors influence that career. We know that some fields are not only more popular, but well-funded. Sport historians are best not to fall into the natural trap of social comparison. The sciences will almost always enjoy a greater public celebration and value. However, no matter the type of academic institute one lands, the individual can really shape their career into whatever they want it to be. Perhaps your institution doesn’t value your work the way you’d like, but--your professional organizations do value it. Maybe your colleagues don’t even know what sport history entails and you’re the only one on your campus in the field--but you have colleagues around the country who are in similar positions. Your passion and commitment to the field is conveyed to your students and others in the field who value the work and ideas you share. One thing that sport historians may run into is the popular misconception that what we do is sport trivia as opposed to sport history. Sometimes, despite the popularity of sport, many people do not value the academic study of sport, believing it to be not serious or scholarly enough. Because it is fun for people to watch and participate in sport, studying it, which can also be fun, seems to not be taken seriously as an academic discipline. This is unfortunate. With the rise of ESPN and other mediated outlets for sport, more people really believe they know much more than they do. This is a fun challenge for us in many ways, to think about how to make our work more accessible to the public, without compromising our desire for footnotes.
What advice would you give to an undergrad interested in working on a Ph.D. in history?
If a student is in a graduate program in history and they are interested in focusing on sport history, I think the student is already on a path that will be helpful for an academic job. It is much easier for a history PhD to land a job in a history department than for a kinesiology PhD. Of course, the history PhD would most likely have to teach other topics in history, so sport would be an interest area that might not be initially open to them. The student should think about what department they’d eventually like to work in, and what courses they’d like to teach. If their focus is sport, then perhaps it is better to enter a kinesiology program and take coursework in history. They might also consider American Studies programs, which offer a range of coursework from multiple departments and disciplines.
What advice would you give to a new Ph.D. unable to find employment in a history department?
For someone interested in teaching sport history, you might consider departments of American studies, kinesiology, and sport management. I think some non-history departments would be reluctant to hire a historian to teach sport history, largely because they would need you to be able to teach in other areas of kinesiology, but it’s possible depending on the size of the program and the graduate degrees offered.

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