Patrick Bigsby is an alumnus, former employee, and lifelong wrestling fan of the University of Iowa. Sometimes, he tweets.
Our lives as graduate students are spent serving many masters: advisors demanding new drafts, nervous freshmen emailing us questions before their first college exam, thick stacks of IRB regulations with which to comply, and, of course, our own academic aspirations. It might be tempting to reminisce about our experiences as undergraduates, selectively forgetting all-nighters and dorm bathrooms in favor of memories of exploring majors and Frisbee games on the quad, and to grow jealous of our younger counterparts. But the truth is that undergrads’ lives aren’t as carefree as our romanticized memories lead us to believe and many of our students serve as many masters as we do. This is especially true of student-athletes.
Just as the R-1 designation lures many budding academics into graduate programs at prestigious universities, the D-1 (as in Division I) designation draws athletically gifted students to many of the same universities. For graduate student teaching assistants at those schools, and even at many smaller schools, having student-athletes in your classroom is practically inevitable. Despite student-athletes’ ubiquity, many college instructors, from senior faculty to first-year TAs are unfamiliar with the unique set of demands placed on these students which can result in a lot of frustration and confusion between the parties. My six years of college teaching were spent at two universities where sports aren’t just big business, but dynastic. In that span, I was extremely fortunate to have students from nearly every team on campus and observed how my teaching could better serve that segment of students.
First, unless you’re teaching at Riverdale High, get rid of the ‘dumb jock’ stereotype. My colleague DeWitt Scott, a former D-I basketball player, has written about how college athletes are primed to succeed in the classroom as well - and I agree. To have reached the collegiate level of competition, student-athletes must be masters of time management, self-criticism, and attention to detail, to say nothing of the work ethic required to develop their athletic skill. The jocks, like any college student, might be sleep-deprived and anxious, but they’re certainly not dumb. In my experience, student-athletes are typically very engaged and proactive class participants.
Once you realize that student-athletes are a lot like any other student, put down your foam finger. I’ve written before about my fandom, but student-athletes are in your classroom for an education and they rightfully expect and deserve your best effort as a teacher, not a fawning fanboy. Some of my former students have gone on to decorated professional careers and, though their talent conferred a certain level of celebrity on campus, what they seemed to crave most in my classroom was anonymity. Student-athletes already have to deal with creepy social media recruitniks, hypercritical fans and media, and the pressures of coaches and scouts and don’t need you (or your other students, so be mindful of that possibility) asking why the team went with man-to-man defense for the last eight minutes or inquiring after the prognosis for their ACL.
That said, don’t be clueless. Even if you’re not a sports fan, a quick flip through the headlines is enough to tell you basic facts like when the season for a given sport starts, whether the home team is coming off a heartbreaking loss, or who has the hot hand this week. This information will better inform your interactions with your student-athletes and allow you to better prepare for days you know your student-athletes will be absent or other instances where their athletic lives and scholastic lives will overlap.
Schedule big dates in advance. All of your students will appreciate advance of due dates, exams, and the like, but student-athletes depend on a clear schedule because much of their time is micromanaged by athletic department activities like mandatory study halls, training tables, film sessions, travel time, etc. In the event of a schedule conflict, you and your student-athlete can work it out well in advance.
Don’t coddle, coach. With the ‘dumb jock’ myth debunked, some teachers might be unsure what approach to take with student-athletes. As my colleague Anne pointed out, good teachers adapt to their students throughout the semester in order to maximize the learning taking place and improve their own effectiveness. In this regard, student-athletes are a teacher’s dream: they’ve been getting constant, sometimes severe, feedback for their entire career and thus are conditioned to direct coaching and criticism. When a student-athlete asks “How can I improve this paper?” don’t be afraid to say “Do this: _________________.”
Flexibility is an important component of physical fitness and flexibility should factor into your approach with student-athletes, too. Flexibility shouldn’t be interpreted to mean leniency or any kind of special treatment for student-athletes - I am merely suggesting your approach be realistic. Due to the rigors of travel, some components of your class may be physically impossible for your student-athletes to be present for. There’s no need to take it personally - they’re not the ones scheduling flights - but there is a need to work around those obstacles. There will be instances when student-athletes might need to take an exam at an alternate time, or turn in a paper online instead of a hard copy in class. There will be instances when your course’s assignments might need to be adapted so that they can be completed via Skype or in an airport. For example, a student-athlete in my multimedia class needed to assemble a video news story of a local event for class. Because his assigned event occurred while he was competing at a national tournament, he and I met and figured out a way he could satisfy the requirements by covering some of the tournament competition where he wasn’t participating. When the equipment checkout office balked at letting him take the camera out of state, I stepped in to get that policy waived, citing the need for flexibility.
Finally, communicate regularly with your school’s athletic department. A large university athletic department is every bit as densely layered a bureaucracy as your home academic department - and probably much more so. Since May of this year, I’ve worked directly for a D-I athletic department as a tutor in the academic services office - a huge operation with multiple individuals devoted to coordinating retention efforts and monitoring each student-athlete’s progress. Being on the other side of the curtain has given me new perspective that student-athletes’ teachers should know: someone else cares just as much, if not more, about your student-athletes’ learning. To that end, I encourage teachers to respond promptly to inquiries from the athletic department, alert the tutoring center if you have a student-athlete who is struggling, and turn in timely and detailed progress reports when asked, and. Despite any notorious reputation, the academic coordinators in the athletic department aren’t grade-scrubbing cronies but, like you, are committed to helping students learn and achieve their potential. Britney Wagner of Last Chance U is closer to the rule than the exception; academic coordinators know the student-athletes as individuals, not merely jersey numbers, and do things like memorize student-athletes’ class schedules and work late nights and weekends to in service to student success. That should resonate with our mission as teachers.
Do you teach a lot of student-athletes? What are some of the ways you’ve adapted your teaching to serve this population? Let us know in the comments!
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