Taking Charge of the Future of Sport History by Anticipating, Adapting and Advocating

By Douglas Brown

Thanks to all of the authors who have already shared their views on this topic. You have articulated very clearly, and very eloquently, the challenges that confront the field of sport history in post secondary educational institutions. I agree with these explanations of the current state of affairs and don’t feel that I have much more to add in terms of an insightful explanation. In the following paragraphs, I propose a few practical strategies and tactics that I have found effective at promoting and sustaining the history of sport in the curriculum of kinesiology faculties at Canadian universities.

My perspective has been formed over a period of 20 years in the field at three different Canadian universities. During my career, I have served in a number of leadership roles including a short stint as the director of an interdisciplinary performance studies graduate program at the University of Calgary. For three years I served as an associate dean for undergraduate education in Kinesiology. I am currently the Dean of the Faculty of Kinesiology and Recreation Management at the University of Manitoba. Most of my comments reflect insights that I have gained through these various leadership roles.

I like to think of kinesiology faculties as mini-liberal arts universities where all academic curiosity is sparked by the phenomenon of human movement. As such, human movement can be studied from a humanist perspective, a social science perspective, a natural science perspective, an applied research perspective and a curiosity-based research perspective. These different perspectives are reflected in the educational and research enterprises of kinesiology faculties. This mini-liberal arts university analogy is very inclusive; it accommodates the quest for knowledge about human movement as it relates to health, exercise, physical education, and sport and dance among other things. It is an inclusive analogy that also aligns well with the emergence of inter- disciplinary and trans-disciplinary paradigms.

From here on I am going to refer to academics in kinesiology units who identify as sport historians simply as historians. The following list of strategies and tactics is intended for these historians who hope to take charge of the future of sport history. I do, however, acknowledge that the responsibility for the future health of this discipline should not lay solely with these faculty members who identify as sport historians.

Actively participate in curriculum reviews. In some cases, historians should spearhead these reviews. Curriculum reviews are easy to defer because they are arduous and time-consuming exercises. Ignoring curriculum reviews can lead to “curricular drift” that in turn can result in some curricular areas being perceived as more valuable than other curricular areas.

Historians of sport should reinforce the fact that historical knowledge as an essential facet of critical thinking. More and more, universities are stressing the importance of cultivating graduates with the “attribute” of a critical thinker. I would defy any logical person to try and suggest that historical awareness is not essential to critical thinking. I can’t think of a university strategic plan in recent history that hasn’t defined critical thinking as a key attribute of its graduates.

As more and more kinesiology units are clustering with larger health science units, deans are trying to find ways to reduce redundancies in curricular offerings. Introductory course on the history of sport may need to yield to introductory core history courses that address the broader field of health. Historians of sport should opt into supporting or leading these new core courses. Courses on sport history can be valuable upper level electives. Be prepared to teach the history of other areas that relate to human movement. In particular, faculties of kinesiology could greatly benefit from courses on the history of public health policy.

Build relationship with other academic units on campus. History departments are the obvious choice but depending on the orientation of the particular history department it can be challenging. Colleagues who study and teach the history of medicine are often very collaborative. If there is a Humanities Institute on campus ensure that you develop a relationship with it. These are ways of validating the history of sport beyond your own academic unit.

Make an effort to get the history of sport, the history of health policy, or the history of exercise science courses cross-listed with other academic units. Be open to eliminating redundant pre-requisites for upper year history of sport electives. This may increase class size but it also allows non-kinesiology students with the opportunity to study in this field.

Canadian universities are striving to provide more opportunities for students to obtain international experiences before graduating. Consider ways of delivery history of sport curriculum through international travel experiences. When I was at Calgary, a colleague in the Classics Department and I developed a three-week travel course in Europe.

Contribute to the development of a regional network of scholars that share common disciplinary or topical interests. Southern Ontario has a network of academics from neighboring universities that meet once a year for a one-day roundtable event. When I moved to the University of Calgary, I introduced a similar forum that I called the Alberta Socio-cultural Roundtable for Sport Studies. At the time, I was the only historian and only socio-cultural scholar in the Faculty. To my Dean, at the time, my leadership role in the roundtable provided evidence that the field was strong in spite of Calgary’s limited investment in the field.

Be the department or faculty expert on the topic of knowledge creation in the university context. Familiarize yourself with the history of all the disciplines that constitute undergraduate curriculum in kinesiology. Champion the role of each discipline represented in the curriculum. Prepare yourself to be eloquent and precise when explaining the differences between disciplines, multi-disciplinary initiatives and inter-disciplinary initiatives. Become the faculty expert on the evolution of physical education into kinesiology. Most historians I know have a great capacity to provide nuanced explanations of disciplinary knowledge creation at modern universities and its evolution over time. This capacity allows us to be more reflexive about our own positions within the academy. It also gives us the tools to defend the role of disciplines like history in our multi-disciplinary faculties. Most physiologists and biomechanicists that I have encountered over my career have demonstrated virtually no curiosity about what their socio-cultural colleagues contribute to the undergraduate curriculum. Nor do they demonstrate the capacity to defend the role of history, sociology or philosophy in the curriculum that they contribute to as members of kinesiology faculties. As a consequence, they are not very effective at promoting or defending the multi-disciplinary undergraduate programs to which they contribute.

Finally, historians need to pursue administrative leadership roles at their institutions. Academic administrators have the capacity to shape and prioritize curricular and research goals and objectives. In multi-disciplinary faculties, it is important that academic leadership changes on a consistent cycle and that Deans empower faculty members from all disciplinary backgrounds to consider these appointments. This insures that faculty leadership reflects the diversity of disciplinary perspectives.

Douglas Brown is a Dean, Faculty of Kinesiology & Recreation Management at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, MB.

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