Hawhee proposed this course last summer, as the Penn State scandal escalated with the release of the Freeh Report. She saw an urgent need for better ethical decision-making at our institution, and she acted swiftly to address this need. Hawhee's course has provided Penn State students with an opportunity to think carefully about the ethical dilemmas they will face not only in sports, but also in life.
Hawhee has had ample opportunities to think through the nature of American sports culture, as a professor at Penn State and a former NCAA athlete for the University of Tennessee's women's basketball team.
Each Tuesday and Thursday afternoon in 316 Wagner, just a few minutes' walk from Beaver Stadium, Hawhee and her 46 students examine the cultural values that sports reflect. Using literature and dialogue as their main tools, students learn to critically examine these values and question their own belief systems.
On Thursday, February 21, Hawhee and her students wrapped up their unit on Basketball, Ethics, and Literature. They had completed their baseball unit, and they will be moving on to football this week.
Hawhee engaged her class in a discussion of "donkey basketball," a sport popular in many pockets of rural America in which players shoot hoops while riding donkeys. This peculiar activity served as the subject of the day's reading, the short story "Basic Training" by American Indian writer and filmmaker Sherman Alexie.
As Hawhee helped her students understand, Alexie's story is about much more than donkey basketball. "If we read donkey basketball as some sort of grand metaphor," Hawhee asked her class, "how would this play out?"
Hawhee and her students spent the majority of class wrestling with this question as they read and analyzed key passages from the piece. One student drew a connection between the demise of the donkey basketball empire in the story and the decline of the NBA in the 1990s. Hawhee applauded the student for pointing out this "brilliant layer" of the story.
Over the course of the discussion, Hawhee and her students identified additional themes at work in Alexie's story--themes of honor, duty, tradition, and nobility. Hawhee explained that "Basic Training" explores the question of where nobility comes from. Does it stem from following one's individual desires, or from fidelity to one's tribe or family? By the end of class, students may not have had an answer to this question, but they did have an important ethical question with which to grapple.
This is precisely her goal as an instructor, as she explained it: to encourage students to think through ethical dilemmas in advance of real-world conflicts. She expressed her belief that literature offers a valuable tool for doing so. Over the course of the semester, Hawhee and her students have addressed a number of challenging ethical questions, including the gender politics of the tee shirt that reads, "Ann Arbor is a Whore," a slogan popular among Michigan's rival schools; and Lance Armstrong's use of performance-enhancing drugs. The course encourages students to think through ethical dilemmas with greater care.
While Hawhee has occasionally brought this discussion closer to home, she has yet to delve fully into the Penn State scandal. The course's football unit will begin this week, and it remains to be seen where the discussions will lead.
At the end of the day, though, the course's content may be less important than the skills students are acquiring. If English 297A is about sports, ethics, and literature, Hawhee implied that ethics take center stage. "The issues are larger than sports and larger than literature," she said, "which often makes this class hard...and fun."