Professor Leola Johnson’s course, Critical Studies of Sports in Media

“It’s been eye-opening to analyze the place I’m from.” —Jack Acomb ’22

In their first semester of college, all first-year students enroll in a seminar-style course designed to introduce them to both college and academic life at Mac.

These first-year courses (FYC) are kept small, allowing for close relationships to form among students and with the professor. Topics covered in courses range from computer science to linguistics, and for some FYCs, students even live together on the same floor of a residential hall.

As part of our ongoing series highlighting these courses, below are three vignettes from last fall’s FYCs.


Critical Studies of Sports in Media

If you’re thinking about sports in the media, you’re likely thinking about memories of watching your favorite professional leagues and the halftime entertainment that accompanies their games.

Sports are about more than skill and entertainment, though. In professor Leola Johnson’s course, Critical Studies of Sports in Media, students analyze the complex racial, class, and gender politics that have always been intertwined with sports.

The recent coverage of “taking a knee,” where athletes such as Colin Kaepernick kneel during the U.S. national anthem in solidarity with black victims of police brutality, has helped to bring all of these to the forefront of people’s minds.

This is one of the reasons Hannah Conner ’22 (Madison, Wis.) decided to take the course. “The most important thing I’ve learned is that sports are inherently political,” she says. “In many ways sport exemplifies society. Issues such as hypermasculinity and racism are prevalent in sports and in many ways more overt in the sports rhetorics. This class teaches us how to recognize and address these rhetorics and -isms.”

In class, students analyze media coverage of sports and watch documentaries—such as Unforgivable Blackness, The People’s Champ, and Venus and Serena—and they write their own weekly blog posts. In doing so, Johnson helps them think about how the media functions as an institution, one that is able to leverage and influence public opinion and public policy. One day in class, the discussion focuses on the masculinization of women’s sports. The media perpetuates this masculinization, Johnson says, through its tendency to focus on the most dramatic and action-filled aspects of sports, such as slam dunks and offensive attacks.

“I was most surprised by the relationship between the media and sports. The media affects sports by giving publicity—and thus encouraging—certain aspects of the games (attack is emphasized more than defense). American football is a prime example of this relationship,” Conner says.


Professor John Cannon explains the cosmos.

The Cosmos

“Stars are just astounding, aren’t they?” asks Professor John Cannon, as he paces back and forth at the front of a classroom.

The dozen or so students in his course, The Cosmos, listen attentively as he fields questions about the physics of the universe: Why are some stars brighter than others? Why does light contain energy? Is there any evidence in space of past solar systems that were consumed by their suns?

“We yearn to understand these things,” Cannon tells the class, one of a few catchphrases that he repeats throughout, although he’s far from alone in his enthusiasm:

“I love space so much,” says Olivia Forshee ’22 (Grafton, Wis.). “This class was definitely top of the list for me.”

Partway through the semester, the class had wrapped up introductory lessons on physics concepts such as gravity and electromagnetic radiation, and was delving into headier topics including how stars and galaxies form. That material can be challenging, but since the students are all grouped on the same floor of a residence hall, they soon bonded through late-night study sessions.

“It’s really nice to be together,” Forshee says. “You can just go next door and be like, ‘Hey, did you understand this?’”

As the students got their feet under them and adjusted to college life, they were already looking ahead to their first final papers of college. “I was surprised by the writing component, which isn’t just specific to this course,” says Andrew Pauly ’22 (Cambridge, Minn.). “The expectation is that you’re in college, and you need to write at a college level regardless of your first-year course or major. I’m learning a lot as we do this. My writing is already improving dramatically.”

But meanwhile, back in class that day, Cannon turns everyone’s attention to the most important star we know of: the sun. He tosses out facts and figures illustrating the absurd scale of the sun’s heat and power. Those depend, however, on the quantum principles behind nuclear fusion, the process by which the sun sustains itself. “The physics of the quantum is driving the physics of the macroscopic,” he says. “This gives me chills. This is the physics of our universe.”


Students in Professor Smiths course discuss the days topic.

Regional Geography of the U.S. and Canada

At 10:50 a.m. on the dot one Monday, professor Laura Smith kicks off class by sharing her enthusiasm for the day’s lesson: growth eras, transportation, and immigration trends in the U.S. and Canada during the last few decades.

A Powerpoint filled with maps and graphs helps illustrate these trends, as she explains how regional geography is much more than simply knowing where places are. “It combines physical and human geography, examining how physical geography influences culture, religion, economy, and demographics,” says Smith. “And vice versa; it’s also an exploration of how human activities in a place affect the physical landscape.”

The course introduces students to some of the broader contexts of regional geography before diving into thematic explorations of every region of the U.S. and Canada. Regional themes include water usage in the West, culture in the South, and language in French Canada.

In class that morning, a map displays immigration patterns to the U.S. in the 2000s. Students note how immigrants tend to cluster at the coasts, and Smith suggests that the traditional gateways for immigrants—New York, Los Angeles, and Miami—could explain this clustering pattern. Another map, showing recent movement of domestic migration in the U.S., reveals that there has also been tremendous growth in the Southeast, in places such as Nashville and Atlanta, and also cities such as Las Vegas, Denver, and Salt Lake City.

Besides migration, this course also focuses on Native American issues in the U.S. and Canada, such as population patterns, land ownership issues, and current economic development strategies. As part of this unit, the class took an overnight field study to northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. They stayed at a casino hotel, which is part of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa’s reservation, one of the seven Ojibwe tribes in Minnesota. Students also got the chance to visit the tribal heritage center and talk with a band member.

“On our field trip to northern Minnesota, I learned new things about these places that I’ve lived near my entire life. I’ve learned about the effects of economic conditions on people in northern Minnesota and how different that is from the Twin Cities,” says Jack Acomb ’22 (Minnetonka, Minn.). “It’s been eye-opening to analyze the place I’m from.”

Livvie Avrick ’19 contributed to this story.

January 11 2019

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