Taking Charge Begins at Home

By Daniel A. Nathan

Reading and re-reading the contributions to this NASSH President’s Forum has been illuminating and, to be candid, sometimes disheartening. I have learned a great deal from the previous five commentaries. And so I commend NASSH President Kevin Wamsley for initiating this dialogue and for asking people from different backgrounds and national identities to share their thoughts on “Taking Charge of the Future of Sport History at Academic Institutions.”

I want to begin by noting that Jaime Schultz has confirmed something that I have long known and keenly felt: that institutionally speaking, I am something of a sport history outlier. For close to thirty years, American Studies has been my intellectual and institutional home (first at the University of Iowa as a graduate student, then at Miami University, and for the last fifteen years at Skidmore College). Schultz notes that scholars of my ilk-unabashedly and unashamedly multi- and interdisciplinary students of American culture-comprise only 8 percent of the NASSH membership. (It’s probably less, since she also notes that “Canadian Studies” scholars are part of that 8 percent.) Granted, not everyone with an American Studies background who writes about sport is a NASSH member. More’s the pity. There are more of us than the NASSH membership roll indicates. Nonetheless, one can usually count the American Studies folks at the NASSH annual conference on two hands.

I mention this in the name of positionality. Unlike most of the forum contributors, I have almost no firsthand experience with kinesiology as a discipline. Based on what has been written here and my conversations with many NASSH members in kinesiology departments over the years, I consider myself fortunate. Kinesiology sounds like a tough place for someone interested in sport history to make a go of it. This is unfortunate, frustrating, and at the same time is understandable considering the many ways in which science has transformed the study of human movement and physical education. Clearly, the complex institutional and political issues that Maureen Smith, Jaime Schultz, Tony Collins (to a lesser extent, since De Montfort’s International Centre for Sports History and Culture is a stand-alone center, I think), Malcolm MacLean, and Murray Phillips have experienced and outlined are different than the institutional and political issues that most American Studies scholars have had to grapple with for many years.

There are, however, similarities. For nearly fifty years, American Studies departments and programs, faculty and students, have struggled to survive. Especially since the tumultuous late 1960s and early 1970s, they have often had difficulty explaining their distinctiveness and value to budget-conscious, silo-centric administrators. Describing an eclectic discipline as interdisciplinary usually does not help matters, even though its professional organization, the American Studies Association (ASA), was founded in 1951. Since well before my time, many American Studies departments and programs have felt squeezed by various institutional pressures. Living in the interstices and on the margins is often hard. It is that much more difficult living as we all do during the “vocational turn,” as MacLean and Phillips aptly note. So I can relate to some of the professional anxiety that is expressed in many of the previous contributions to this forum. Obviously it isn’t easy doing good sport history work (scholarship and pedagogy) when you’re stressed about the current state and future of your discipline and perhaps your livelihood.

And yet despite the dire and discouraging neoliberal imperatives that are transforming higher education around the world, all is not lost. Schultz and MacLean are right: sport historians need to play the game smarter, tactically and strategically (or we need to help change the rules, which is no small task); and we all “need to be institutionally savvy and politically sharp.” The Diablo is in the details, the specifics, which are often rooted in local contexts. So, what does it mean “to be institutionally savvy and politically sharp” where you work, at your academic institution?

Again, my positionality matters. I work at a small, private liberal arts college in upstate New York, where teaching undergraduates is our raison d’être. The nature of my institution strikes me as quite different than most NASSH members, academic sport historians, and all of the contributors to this forum. The chart below helps with the latter, I think.

Type of SchoolNumber of Students
Maureen SmithCSU Sacramentopublic30,284
Jaime SchultzPenn State Universitypublic44,800
Tony CollinsDe Montfort Universitypublic19,650
Malcolm MacLeanUniversity of Gloucestershirepublic7,855
Murray PhillipsUniversity of Queenslandpublic36,394
Daniel NathanSkidmore Collegeprivate2,450

I’m also fortunate to have superb departmental colleagues: Beck Krefting, Greg Pfitzer, and Amber Wiley. They are all smart, hard working, respectful, and kind people who understand, appreciate, and nurture my sport history work. I also have supportive, generous colleagues around campus (Jeff Segrave in Health and Exercise Sciences, Peter Von Allmen in Economics, Kate Berheide and Andrew Lindner in Sociology, among many others), including administrators who think it is important that faculty members work on projects that excite and sustain them. This support has often taken the form of small but valuable faculty development and ad hoc grants. Some of the local support my work has garnered is because Skidmore is Skidmore, that is, a small place where faculty are encouraged to follow their intellectual bliss, with the understanding that scholarship takes many forms and can be about an infinite array of subjects.

At the same time, some of the local support many of us receive is the result of being “institutionally savvy and politically sharp.” A couple of things come to mind.

First, when a colleague in a different discipline asks you to do her a favor-guest speaking to her class, being on an evening discussion panel, introducing a visiting speaker, serving as an external member of a search committee-do it, and do it well. Give it the time and attention it deserves. People seem to remember and appreciate it when one lends a helping hand. Sometimes, the residual effect of that generosity is greater attention to and respect for your work. It pays to be a good campus citizen. Plus, you’ll probably learn something in the process.

Second, form a group (and be inclusive). Here at Skidmore, we have something called Faculty Interest Groups (FIGs). When they started, those of us interested in sport as a scholarly subject formed the Sport & Society FIG. It is an informal group, but we try to get together a few times a year to have lunch and to talk about our courses, writing projects, and to see if there might be productive synergies among us. With the support of Skidmore’s Center for Leadership, Teaching, and Learning, we have a small budget to program events, like the lecture on campus that Olympic gold medalist and law professor Nancy Hogshead-Makar gave a few years ago. Membership in our Sport & Society FIG is fluid and there is no commitment. Yet finding some likeminded people on campus is always comforting and often helpful, sometimes in ways that one cannot quantify or anticipate.

Third, make sure that your chair and dean (or deans) know that your sport history work is taken seriously by your colleagues, on and off campus, that you are not alone, that there are vast networks of scholars nationwide and worldwide who are also doing this kind of work. I’m thinking about NASSH, of course, and the BSSH, ISHPES, and ASSH, but also the relatively new ASA Sports Studies Caucus. Thanks in large part to Noah Cohan’s dogged organizational efforts and the participation of many ASA members-senior, mid-career, and up-and-coming-the ASA now provides a space (in the form of dedicated ASA conference sessions) for sports studies scholars (some of whom root their work in history) to share ideas, to debate, and to network. People on our campuses- especially administrators and even members of the Board of Trustees-need to know that studying and teaching sport is not some idiosyncratic, self-indulgent, trivial endeavor. On the contrary, they need to know (that is, in some cases they need to be taught) that what we do is valuable, respected, and relevant-all the more so given the long history and prominent place of sport in American culture.

Taking charge of the future of anything is difficult, if not impossible. We have limited agency. And transnational socio-economic and political currents are hard to resist. Still, we can do some things on our home campuses to make them more hospitable and rewarding places to work, to do sport history. Doing good work is one place to start, of course. I am convinced that some vestiges of meritocracy exist. (You call me naïve if you wish.) But good work by itself is rarely enough. “Sports, like politics, is local,” notes writer S. L. Price in Far Afield: A Sportswriting Odyssey (2007). Making sure that sport history has a place in our academic institutions is also a local matter. This means that we need to do what we can to ensure that our colleagues-in our departments, in related and allied disciplines, and all over campus-understand what it is we do and why it matters.

Daniel A. Nathan is a Professor and the Chair of the Department of American Studies at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY.