May 6, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Here’s what I see when I walk into Cultures of Basketball on the first day. I’m not proud of this, nor am I proud of confessing it, but I’m saying it because I think it may be productive to acknowledge it frankly. I see a certain number of “basketball players” (this semester 5) and a certain number of “students” (this semester 23; mostly white, mostly male). Usually I already know the names of the “basketball players.” Usually I do not know the names of the “non-players.”
My primary goal as a humanities educator teaching this course is to work on fixing what’s wrong with my eyes that make me see 28 utterly unique human beings as relatively homogenous representatives of two categories.
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Two secondary objectives immediately follow from this: 1) to explicitly model for my students this effort to fix what’s wrong with my way of seeing and 2) to create conditions in which students themselves can practice fixing what might be wrong with their way of seeing.
Achieving the first objective means being as self-aware and as honest as I am capable of being in the classroom. It means showing them fucked up attitudes in myself and it means showing them me trying to understand and to change those attitudes. It means being candid about the varying degrees of success I have in the process and it means showing myself sometimes giving up for a bit and sometime doggedly going on, regardless of the success or failure of my efforts.
Achieving the second objective, in turn, entails some of the practices that most people probably think of as at least reasonably appropriate for a college classroom in the humanities (to the degree that anyone not directly involved in teaching humanities even remembers anymore what the humanities are and what distinguishes them from the other subjects of study that our government and our markets seem to have decided are worth teaching).
In other words, creating those conditions means informing my students through reading materials, lectures, and discussions about the history of the culture of basketball and the ways in which it has put lenses in front of my eyes (and theirs) that lead me to see what I see when I walk through the classroom door for the first time. It means offering them a menu of opportunities through discussion and their own creative assignments to begin to practice doing for themselves what they, hopefully, are noticing that I am modeling for them: the effort to take the lenses off, change them for others, or at least polish them up a bit.
I believe that probably nothing we do in Cultures of Basketball looks less academically rigorous or important than the intra-class 3 on 3 tournament. Yet it embodies, culminates and, eventually, supersedes all the “traditional looking” academic work that has come before. So that I’ve come to believe also that probably nothing I do as a teacher does more towards realizing my goals as a humanities professor.
If you’re curious about the details of how the tournament comes together and weaves itself into the course, please contact me and I’ll be happy to explain. For the sake of brevity, let me limit myself to summary: 1) the idea comes from the students and is not a course requirement; 2) the students organize the tournament entirely; 3) I play in the tournament; 4) the UM basketball players and other, especially large elite athletes who volunteer, are distributed as evenly as possible among the 3 member teams; 5) the tournament is played during our free time after the semester has ended.
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A philosopher friend who saw some pictures from the tournament asked me “You must get some not athletic students in there, yeah? What does this mean to them?” I gave him a quick answer: “in a phrase, it helps heal gym class traumas.” That’s right. But it’s misleading if you are thinking that the only people who suffer “gym class traumas” are the “non-athletes.” And it’s also misleading in that I’ve come to realize that in certain real and metaphorical senses: healing gym class traumas for everyone in the class is the highest achievement of Cultures of Basketball.
Let me go back for a moment to what I see when I walk into class on the first day: “basketball players” and “students.” Now imagine that the all the basketball players are wearing labels on their chests that say “basketball player” and all the “student” are wearing labels on theirs that say “student.” Better yet, imagine that all the basketball players are wearing their Michigan basketball uniforms in the classroom. And imagine that all the non basketball players are wearing their regular, informal going to class clothes: jeans, tee shirts, sweats, whatever it might be.
Imagine that situation and ask yourself, where does your heart go? Forget what you think your job is supposed to be, forget what you think your responsibilities are and just try to notice: where does your heart go? To whom does it reach out and why? If you get quiet and really pay attention you might notice that it goes in multiple directions, for various and perhaps even seemingly contradictory reasons. At any rate, that’s what I find. And so I try in the course of the semester to draw out from within the me that sees 5 basketball players and 23 non basketball player the me whose heart — whose tenderness, frustration, sympathetic joy; whose love — is shooting around the room like a shot from a blaster caroming crazily off the walls of Garbage Compactor 3263827 in Detention Block AA 23.
In a lectures first delivered in 1909, when basketball was really taking off, the American philosopher William James warned against what he called “vicious intellectualism” or “the abuse of naming,” which he defined as “the treating of a name as excluding from the fact named what the name’s definition fails positively to include.” In his example he said you might as well argue that “a person whom you have once called an ‘equestrian’ is thereby forever made unable to walk on his own feet.” You might as well argue that a person whom you have once seen as a ‘non basketball player’ is thereby forever made unable to shoot a ball at a hoop. Or you might as well argue that a person whom you have once seen as a basketball player is thereby forever made unable to write an academic paper or formulate an argument in a class discussion.
I think James nice captures the deforming impact of the way of seeing I begin class with. It basically strips away from all the students all the capacities and potentials that are not positively included in the labels I’ve placed on them. And so the change I need as a teacher to make in myself is a change I need to make also for them, one that entails getting my own deforming, reducing lenses off so that I can do all the other things I’m supposed to do as a humanities professor: get them to see that they have lenses too, get them to see where the lenses come from, get them to see the goodness that is obscured by those lenses, and then help them to cultivate and draw forth, through the fear, the inhibition, the shyness, all those abilities, capacities, potentials, and desires that the lenses kept me (and to various degrees each of them) from seeing.
A kind of philosophical teammate of James, John Dewey (who, incidentally, was teaching philosophy at Michigan around the time that James Naismith was inventing basketball), argued for the need to come up with a better way of modeling how we know things. The problem, as he saw it, was with what he called — so aptly for a course on the Cultures of Basketball — “the spectator notion of knowledge.” In that way of thinking about knowing, we (the would-be knowers) stand outside, passively observing the stuff we would like to know about. It becomes an object to us and we figure that by analyzing it deeply enough, perhaps by running it through some experiments to see how it behaves under different conditions, we will come to know it.
Go back to class for a second. I think Cultures of Basketball starts out this way, even for those who are not aware of it. Maybe every class starts out this way, but I’m pretty sure Cultures of Basketball starts out this way. Everyone an object for the other. Everyone a spectator passively standing outside waiting for the knowing to happen. And most of all, the “basketball players” objects for the “students” and the “students” (or “fans”) objects for the “basketball players.”
Why that is so has everything to do with history of the culture of basketball, and of intercollegiate athletics more generally, it has to do with television screens and fandom, with treating young athletes like animals bred for their physical capacities and nothing more and with treating fans as passive consumers of the realized desires of others.
And all of this I think suggests the perils, fantasies, fears, and tremendous possibilities available to be tapped for humanity when the TV screen is shattered, and the court boundaries are breached and a couple of dozen “basketball players” and “students” are stuck sitting next to each other in a small room twice a week for an hour and a half, talking — not about chemistry, or economics, or literature — but about the very culture that they are every single one of them in the process of embodying at the very moment they are talking about.
That’s when Dewey’s alternative to the spectator theory of knowledge gets activated and “the self becomes a knower. It becomes a mind in virtue of a distinctive way of partaking in the course of events. The significant distinction is no longer between the knower and the world; it is between different ways of being in and of the movement of things.” The significant distinction to be explored in Cultures of Basketball is between the 28 (29 counting me, and I very much count me) different ways of being in and of the movement of the culture of basketball as it unfolds in real time before our eyes.
That’s happening pretty much all the way through the semester and as it does the labels diminish in size and the humanity is enlarged. ”Basketball players” become students, challenged to reflect intellectually on what they do and to articulate their positions in discussion with classmates or in papers for me. Students, who are also fans, are challenged to accept the celebrity athlete in their midst as a peer, a student, a human being, vulnerable and in transition like themselves. We come to appreciate that everyone in the class contributions to make both valuable and limited because of the uniqueness of their past experiences, their present circumstances, and the fears and desires that have begun to shape their future.
The tournament takes what we’ve been doing in the classroom all semester and shows students (whether they know it or not) that this same thing can happen on a basketball court, with fewer words. In that sense, it is, as I sometimes jokingly call it, the laboratory or workshop component of the course. But that’s not really right. It’s really just an extension of the classroom: we sit at desks, we read books, we write and talk with words, we set picks, we catch bounce passes, we shoot jumpers, and we talk with dunks. And then it becomes a celebration of humanity, growth, connection, and friendship, and everyone’s heart can go in all the directions it likes.
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Let me try to convey this with a few pictures and brief words to accompany them.
I walked into the Central Campus Recreation Building gym with my teammate, Jam, also known as Jimmy King, member of the famed University of Michigan freshman class of 1991 known as the Fab Five. Jimmy shook his head and said something along the lines, of “Damn! I haven’t been in here like twenty years! We used to have some great games in here.” The banners Jimmy’s teams won, as anyone who reads this blog knows, remain tucked away. The two teams Jimmy played on that reached the Final Four have received from the University no official acknowledgement or recognition for their achievements. On the contrary, the University’s official position, insofar as that is articulated by its top adminsitrative official President Mary Sue Coleman, is that those teams were part of a shameful period in Michigan’s history.
Here’s Jimmy signing one of I don’t know how many autographs he was asked to sign by current UM students, parents, staff members who recognized him instantly.
Our team, Old Skool Ballers (Gil aka G-Baby Naamani, and fourth man and Cultures of Basketball Ron The Professor Beach joined Jimmy and I), made a solid run. We went into the semi-finals having won our first three games. In the semi’s we faced WTF Are You Ewing? also undefeated, consisting of Lauren Brandt, Mitch McGary, and Evan King. But we were stiff, tired and really our bodies just couldn’t keep it up.
At a certain point, Mitch McGary, a freshman on the UM team whose breakout performance during the NCAA tournament put him in a position to make a decision about whether to turn pro or not during our last week of classes, inbounded the ball to Lauren Brandt, whom I was guarding. Mitch, guarded by Jimmy, cut around Lauren, who dropped off a little bounce pass to him as he passed her. Jimmy followed Mitch, but was partially screened by Lauren. I remained rooted by age and infirmity to my spot on the floor, thus failing to provide help defense. Mitch saw that he gained a step on Jimmy along the baseline went under the basket and then up for a reverse dunk.
Mitch loves Jimmy. One day I came into class and he proudly pointed to his phone: ”Jimmy King’s following me on Twitter!” He admires the Fab Five (he was one of several Michigan players to shave his hair Fab Five style to honor them on a day when Michigan would honor other past basketball alumni but not the Fab Five). What did it feel like for Mitch to dunk sort-of-on Jimmy King?
I didn’t get a chance to ask. But I asked Jimmy how it felt and he said laughed broadly and he said something to the effect that it wouldn’t have been right to take that as a challenge and to come back at Mitch, that it was Mitch’s time now. A torch was passed. Fab Five to Fresh Five.
But it wasn’t just Mitch’s time. One of his teammates, Lauren, also known as Sweet n LoLo, wrote me that she’s always loved basketball but for most of her life she’s been a spectator and when she does get to play it’s shooting games like horse or around the world. Here is Mitch placing the Championship medal around her neck:
What did that mean to her? In her words, it was “redeeming.” She went on to explain in an e-mail:
I loved that I didn’t feel like I was letting anyone down in this tournament. I could shoot and miss and that was okay. I tried. We were in it together. The last game, Mitch told me I was “clutch”. That’s right! He also kept saying that it was the team and not him (which I am not so sure that is true…like at all, but he really made me at least feel like the three of us did it together).
April 16, 2013 § 2 Comments
I approach teaching Cultures of Basketball with the hope I can make the course and each class meeting more than just a forum for the kind of discussion a fan might have in a dorm room or sports bar with Bill Simmons. On the one hand, I want the passionate energy that kind of discussion contains and, after all, I am a fan too. But then I also want that kind of discussion to be something that students can step out of, and look at with a critical eye; I want them to come to see what sort of broader cultural purposes – often collective and unconscious — are served by particular positions in that discussion and even by the topic itself. Because this is when actual learning, self-understanding, and growth occur.
Yesterday was “LeBron Day” in class and it generated a great opportunity for this sort of thing. For, inevitably, within minutes the topic was raised: Is LeBron James the Greatest of All Time (the common acronym for non-hoops-nerds is GOAT). This question quickly narrowed to a single comparison: “LeBron vs Michael” (as in Jordan), which is when things got really animated.
“You can’t say LeBron is better than Jordan because Jordan won more championships.” “Jordan was more competitive.” “Jordan was more clutch.” “Jordan stayed with his team and built it.” (For the record, the majority of students who expressed an opinion “voted” for Jordan over LeBron). Hands were shooting up all around the room faster than I can keep track. Sometimes, when a student would finish making a point, the group discussion would fragment into micro debate as his or her classmates in the immediate vicinity would follow up on that point, disregarding, or unaware, that another student, across the room, had been called on and was trying to address the whole class.
So in some ways it felt pretty chaotic to me as a teacher. This feeling intensified when the dance history instructor who teaches in the classroom after me poked her head in to tell the players how great she thought they were and, basically, how much Gene Kelly would have loved to have seen them play. It can be hard for me to let go of the feeling that I ought to be in control, anticipating the course of a discussion, forestalling dead ends, seizing every opportunity, and leading the students to the pedagogical promised land of collective truth and wisdom, or at least greater understanding. And yesterday I frequently felt as if I were failing.
However, even as the chaotic point counter-point rolled on implacably, a number of students did my work for me by reflecting critically on the very terms of the question. “How can you use championships won in a team sport to compare individual players?” “How can you compare players from different eras?” “How can you compare a career in progress with a complete career?” Some, even as they argued that Jordan was the greater player, suggested that their own perceptions were shaped by the fact that Jordan came first and that their opinions were shaped by a powerful, inherited consensus in hoops culture that Jordan is the GOAT (a consensus forged in part by media, marketing, and celebrity).
And then, at a certain point fairly early in the discussion as I recall it, it seemed to emerge quite clearly (at least to me) that this was not the sort of question that could be answered conclusively. Looking back on the day, that for me was the really critical teaching opportunity. And, I guess, to be honest, I knew that going in and should have prepared a teacherly intervention for that moment. It would be the moment to have reflected this back to them explicitly and to have pushed them to wonder, given that we won’t come to a conclusion, why we are so energetically invested in continuing the discussion; and then, to have firmly kept them on that task. It’s a bit blurry in my memory, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t do that.
I think I got as far as attempting to impose on them the idea that the consensus for Jordan expressed a deep-seated desire for a permanent, abiding standard that anchors us in a sea of change. I tried to paraphrase what that unconscious voice might say: “LeBron can’t be the GOAT ‘cause we can’t be changing that shit up every ten years.” Or something like that. I was not very articulate, and when I encountered resistance, I was not very articulate in response. Nevertheless, I think I was on the right track if not specifically about the Jordan consensus, then at least about the topic overall.
After all, it is called the Greatest of ALL TIME. In literary criticism, similar debates occur among scholars who wrangle on the pages of academic journals over the relative merits of various authors and works, arguing over who should or shouldn’t be in something called the “canon,” who is the literary GOAT. In that context, however, most of us today recognize that any such assertions are always inseparable from the particular values of a critic’s time and place and usually express a desire on the part of the critic to transcend that limitation and establish a fixed, permanent standard against which all others might be measured.
The problem with the GOAT discussion, probably in any domain, is that ALL TIME is a dream; ALL TIME never comes to pass and so when we declare an author, a player, a film, the greatest of all time we are saying (in addition to whatever specific things we are saying about that particular figure and his or her domain of human achievement): “I want there to be a human figure or work that embodies a definition of greatness that stands outside of all time, a standard that endures forever.”
We can want that. It’s an understandable wish in a world that changes so rapidly and at the whim of forces beyond our control; a particularly understandable wish during periods of transition in life (like, say, adolescence), or at those moments, whatever our age, when we become especially aware that our whole life is really a transition; when we feel the tough reality of mortality and impermanence. So we can want there to be a GOAT. But I don’t really think there can be one. Sorry.
Now, that makes it sound like I think it’s useless or delusional to participate in such discussions. I don’t. At least, I don’t so long as we exercise our capacity for ironic self-awareness of what we are doing when we do participate. When we can do that, then the debates slide past the strident back and forth of pseudo-certainty – what educational philosopher Kieran Egan calls “philosophic understanding” — and becomes the more subtly strengthening process of rhetorical exercise.
Put it this way: you can know that your playground pickup game really has no transcendent stakes, still try really hard, have fun, and even improve your existing game and grow new powers in the process. But you don’t want to be that guy who is treating the playground pickup game like it was his own private NBA finals. You don’t have to be cynically cool, but, you know, be cool.
Putting forth arguments in a classroom discussion like the one we had on Monday requires a similar mental balance between acting like it’s possible to arrive at the single, definitive, right answer and knowing that it’s not and that the whole thing is really just about how inventive you can be in the creative process of making arguments. In that setting, no less than on the playground, there is a genuine joy that arises simply from exercising our existing skills and experimenting with new powers; the transferable and enduring joy of learning that makes the illusory satisfaction of appearing to have been right seem pale, hollow and bitter by comparison.
Of course, I could be wrong.
April 9, 2013 § 13 Comments
Early on in Hoops Culture class, my students read an essay by an established philosopher of sport, Professor R. Scott Kretchmar. He begins an essay on the moral qualities of different styles of basketball with a distinction between two kinds of basketball: one that he calls “purist” and one that he calls “modernist.” He draws up a table with two columns indicating the contrasting features of each style, touching on everything from the kind of offense and defense, individual skills, and even the pace that he believes characterize each one.
In the end, he argues for the superior moral virtue of what he calls “a modified purism” but along the way he acknowledges that he believes “purist basketball, generally speaking, is better than modernist basketball.” I don’t think it’s a particularly convincing essay and moreover the distinctions he draws are subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) racialized. This is important and something I’ve written about extensively elsewhere, and something we talk about in class. But it’s not really what I want to emphasize here. What I want to focus on here is his claim that “purist” basketball is “centered on team capability” while “modernist” basketball is “centered on individual capability.”
It’s a commonplace in basketball culture, really in all of sports culture, to say that “there is no ‘I’ in ‘Team.’” And Kretchmar’s two column table begins more or less as a dressed up version of that cliche. But I disagree and want to challenge that truism. Among the things that stirred me so and inspired me in this year’s Michigan team was that they demonstrated very obviously, in my opinion, that there is an “I” in “team”, indeed that there must be an “I” in “team” and, in fact, that there must be and more than one “I” in “team.” « Read the rest of this entry »
April 9, 2013 § 6 Comments
Today is Tuesday. But it doesn’t feel like any Tuesday. I’ve been through something, though I’m not yet sure what it is. I’ve been through it with my wife and family and friends, with my students and colleagues, and — through this blog and social media — thousands of strangers. « Read the rest of this entry »
April 3, 2013 § 135 Comments
Dear Mr. Webber,
You don’t know me. And I don’t know you, though I know some of your close friends. So let me first introduce myself. In 1993, when your heart was broken in front of a national television audience, I was 27 years old and near the end of my first year as a professor at the University of Michigan. « Read the rest of this entry »
April 2, 2013 § 2 Comments
When Jimmy King visited class last week, one of the things he advised the students was to treat negative publicity ”like alphabet soup.” I won’t directly reproduce his salty metaphor, but the gist of it was that you take the negativity, digest it as fuel, eliminate the waste product, and move on. He’s really, really, really good at that. I don’t know how many times some outrageous, negative thing has been said about Jimmy or his teammates or about some of the current Michigan players that I’ve taught over the past two years, and I begin to blow my stack about it and Jimmy always comes back to calm me down with some version of “alphabet soup. It’s not that I don’t understand it. I do. And if I were the target of the negativity I think I would find it easier to follow Jimmy’s advice.
But when my friends or my students are targeted by the negativity, I’m unable to tolerate it. « Read the rest of this entry »