Hoop Convos: Yago Colas

May 17, 2012 in Cover Story, Hoop Convos

Professor Yago Colas

There are few things better than getting philosophical about the game of basketball. In ‘Hoop Convos,’ BallinMichigan will do just that, engaging in (hopefully) meaningful, free-flowing conversations with compelling writers and thinkers who love the game as much as we do.

By Patrick Hayes

For three semesters, Yago Colas, Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan, has taught a course called The Cultures of Basketball. Basketball junkies who have heard of or are familiar with Colas’ work probably have the same reaction — Where was this class when I was in college?!

You can read his in-depth course diary here. He also frequently discusses the game on Twitter (if you’re on Twitter, go follow him!), his ‘Go Yago!’ blog and has discussed the course with various media outlets, including TrueHoop, AnnArbor.com, HoopSpeak and The Classical.

Below, Colas discusses the origins of his course, his own experiences in basketball and the reaction students have had to his class, among other topics. My questions are in bold, his responses are in the block-quotes.

How many times have you taught Cultures of Basketball course? How did it evolve or change each time? Did you see an increase in interest in the subject after your first term teaching it?

I’ve actually now taught the course three times, in consecutive semesters. The demand has been quite high pretty much from the beginning, though perhaps it has increased a bit from one semester to the next. But even in the first semester, before I’d ever taught the course, I turned away somewhere between 50 and 100 students. I have increased the enrollment cap on the course from 25 to 30 to 35. I’ve noticed that the percentage of athletes in the course has increased over the three semesters, but the percentage of those who play revenue sports has decreased. So, the first semester out of 24 students, I had 8 UM men’s basketball players, one women’s track runner and two men’s swimmers. But this last semester, out of 35 students total, probably between 25 and 30 were UM varsity athletes and, of those, I had three football players and three men’s basketball players.

I’ve also tinkered with the course reading and viewing materials and the course schedule, partly in response to what seems to work or not to work so well, and partly in response to my own developing knowledge not just of the game, but, especially, of academic work on the history, philosophy and sociology of sports and of basketball in particular. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it, but I was quite ignorant of how much specialized work there was already out there. Perhaps that ignorance helped me to forge something unique, but it also deprived me and my students of some valuable tools that in that first semester. So now, while FreeDarko Presents the Undisputed Guide to the History of Pro Basketball remains our central textbook and while its chronology still structures the course, I’ve added in other supplementary readings that approach some of the same topics from different angles or that broach new topics in relation to a given period in the game’s history. So, for example, this past semester, we structured our first unit around the invention of the game and its early evolution, which FreeDarko deals with in a couple of chapters. But I also had the students read some essays from a scholarly volume called Basketball and Philosophy, in which academic philosophers reflect on, say, the existential meanings of the rules of the game, or ways of construing the essence of the game of basketball and the respective virtues of different styles of play when these are compared to that supposed essence.

Lastly, this past semester I modified the writing assignments to make them somewhat more conventional in order to satisfy certain bureaucratic requirements at the University. I can’t tell yet if this change has been for the best or not, nor whether I will change it back.

In general terms, I would say the course has evolved in the direction of something less unconventional, and probably more academically substantive, at least from a traditional point of view. But the emotional energy level of the course — which I maintain is an important dimension of any learning experience — has probably grown more subdued since the first time I taught it. On balance, I’d say that’s probably a good thing, but I will always cherish the one of a kind experience of teaching the course the very first time, sharing that experiment and the vulnerability of it with the students and having them draw together to make a genuinely collective enterprise of it. I think subsequent students have learned more about the history and cultures of basketball and about innovative, critical ways to think about the game, but that first class — for lack of a better phrase — “shared an experience.”

As I move forward with it, I guess I’d like to improve my ability to preserve the informality and shared emotional energy of the first version of the course, while continuing to develop the academic substance and rigor of the more recent versions.

Some of the most interesting things about sports, particularly basketball, are not necessarily just the on-court aspect. Societal issues like race, style, class, etc., are all at play in sports. At the same time, a lot of sports fandom and coverage reflects the opposite — the old ‘don’t mix politics with my sports’ cliché. Have you run into any of that type of resistance? People who don’t necessarily want to think more deeply about the ‘non-sports’ aspects of sports, or at least don’t naturally do it? If so, how do you try to break down those walls?

Certainly, I have run into resistance. Some of this comes from, as you say, fans who just aren’t used to it. This is a kind of passive resistance to critically examining any enjoyable experience that I’m already familiar with as a literature professor. And some of it is more active, in the sense that a student knows where we are trying to go and resists going there. As with teaching more traditional academic topics such as literature, the way I try to break down the walls is 1) by modeling the ways in which critical self-reflection can actually enhance rather than diminish our enjoyment of the things we love and 2) by nudging or leading students into situations in which, perhaps in spite of themselves, they engage in such critical self-reflection themselves and discover when they come out the other end that they still love sports and basketball and can still exercise the right to talk about sports like idiots. I haven’t taken away that right, I’ve just given them other options.

Talk a little bit about how this class came about. When did you think this could be a real course that a university would let you teach? For someone who has been a fan of the game as long as you have, how hard has it been to narrow down that rich history to fit into the framework of a course? How do you pick and choose the materials you use and topics you discuss?

The seeds for the class were sown in the summer of 2010. I was struggling to force myself to complete an academic research project within my nominal area of expertise (20th century Latin American literature) and finding no passion for it, no joy. At the same time, I had — seemingly by chance — picked up a used copy of Wilt, 1962 by Gary Pomerantz about Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point game. That book seems to have opened some sort of flood gate of memory and feeling for my childhood experiences with the game as a fan and player. I started playing pickup ball again and reading more basketball books. I think that the combination of doing those two things, of being middle-aged and at a particularly reflective time of my own life, of finding that the only thing that really moved me anymore about literature and literary studies was thinking about the way in which we use stories to shape our lives, and a very, very supportive partner led to the idea popping into my head to offer the course.

Institutionally, the context for this — I mean, the reason why it didn’t really even cross my mind that it would be a problem — is that 50 percent of my appointment at the University of Michigan is within a program called ‘Arts and Ideas in the Humanities’ at the experimental Residential College. The people at the Residential College are very enthusiastically committed to pedagogical experiments and they immediately loved the idea and have supported it whole-heartedly since then.

It’s very, very difficult to make basketball fit into a single class. And, inevitably, very important and interesting aspects of the history of the game and its cultures are left out. It would be more accurate for me to call the course, as I teach it, ‘Introduction to Men’s College and Professional Basketball in the United States.’ That is to say, we don’t deal almost at all with high school or AAU ball; we don’t deal almost at all with the women’s game; we don’t deal almost at all with basketball as it is played internationally. And I think all of these things are really important parts of the game – each could be a course, or several courses, in its own right.

I think the selection I made initially was driven by what I knew and loved best, which has always been the men’s pro game in the U.S. As I learn more about the game and its history, and as I discover the contributions of other scholars to our understanding of different aspects of the game, I hope to try to make the course more inclusive, or, if possible, to expand my repertoire of courses (more on that below). But even though I don’t think I’ve managed to make the course appropriately inclusive yet, I do try to approach the men’s pro and college game in a way that stresses critical reflection on what that game and our enjoyment of it tends to marginalize.

You mentioned that you’ve had several athletes in your classes. Do you think it’s hard or even possible for athletes who are actively competing to think about the game in a more philosophical way? Do you think studying the game and its cultural impact can help them on the court in any way?

Well, I certainly don’t think it’s a good idea for an athlete in any sport to be trying to compete actively in a contest and reflect philosophically or historically on the history of his or her sport at the same time. Obviously, when the athletes are playing they should just be playing. Not to say that athletes don’t think when they play, but just that the peculiar kind of self-reflective, deliberative thought that is appropriate and useful in the classroom does not lend itself well to the fast-paced, competitive environment of the athletic contest. That said, the athletes I’ve taught haven’t seemed to have a hard time committing and engaging fully to the historical and philosophical exploration of the game in the classroom and then going about their business on the court. I imagine that the studying the game and its cultural impact has little effect on the court. I can certainly imagine that taking my class can enhance their enjoyment of and appreciation of the game in general. I suppose it’s possible that the growing awareness of the shaping role of narratives in the culture of the game might lead some athletes to reflect on the ways in which they may have limited themselves, narratively, in their particular athletic self-image. And perhaps they are somewhat empowered to experiment with alternatives or at least to see that there are alternatives.

But the importance of having the athletes in class, for me, really lies elsewhere. First, it is in doing my best to take the athletes seriously as first and foremost students. That I’m teaching a subject about which they have a particular kind of prior experience might lead them to feel less insecure in the academic setting and that might lead them to take more chances intellectually in the classroom and, from there, to discover intellectual powers they hadn’t realized they had. And perhaps that gives them more confidence when they go on to the next class. Second, I’ve found it rewarding to break down some of the barriers between the student and the so-called ‘student-athlete.’ Especially at a sports powerhouse like Michigan, and especially where revenue sports are concerned, there seems to be a kind of segregation of student-athletes (especially basketball and football players) from the rest of the student population, if not a mutual suspicion or wariness. I think that’s bad for everyone. Everyone in my classroom is a young adult – what they have in common in terms of the phase in life through which they are traversing is much larger and more fundamental than what is different about them. I like to try to encourage them to relish those differences and learn from them within a context that emphasizes recognizing their shared situation as human beings in late adolescence.

This is why the experience of the intra-class 3-on-3 tournament the first time I taught the course was so moving and important to me. It was actually suggested by one of the UM players, and then everyone in the class, players and non-players, myself included, took the ball and ran with it. We came up with a way of picking fair teams (each of the 8 UM players was assigned to be a team ‘owner’ and then picked the rest of us out of a hat), got team names and nicknames, printed jerseys, made up a fair bracket and printed a program. Everyone showed up one evening outside of class, in the middle of finals week, and we played for about two hours. There was a tremendous sense of camaraderie. Everyone played hard, but in fun, everyone got the opportunity for their one shining moment. For the players, I think, it was fun just to be playing ball for the hell of it (this was about three weeks after their one point loss to Duke in the 2011 NCAA Tournament), and for the rest of us, it was fun to play competitively again, not to mention to test our mettle against Division I players. But the really important thing is that it seemed to dissolve the final barriers separating the athletes from the non-athletes, and to really cement the connections that had been formed in the class.

Talk about your own background in the game. Did you play competitively at any level?

I played competitively through high school, where I was a good, but not great point guard. I had opportunities to play ball in college (my best offer was from Dartmouth, most of the rest were DIII), but a number of factors conspired to keep me home for college at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

I think the more relevant fact about my relationship to the game is that, in complex ways that I’m just beginning to understand, from a very, very early age through to the present day, the simple act of holding a basketball in my hands, of dribbling it, of arcing a shot, even when there’s no basket around, puts me in touch with the sources of my most authentic self and it is as if that contact then ripples out into all my other non-basketball related activities and I become a better and more authentic teacher, and friend and partner and son and parent. So far the best way I’ve been able to put this is that basketball for me is simultaneously home and freedom. And if you think about the place of ‘home’ and of ‘freedom’ in human culture and myth, they are often experienced and portrayed as mutually exclusive. We leave home to express and develop our independence, or, conversely, we speak of free spirits who are also rootless. Of course, there are many instances of home and freedom going together perfectly well, but I think our prevailing narrative types set them against each other. Basketball for me is a place where they reinforce one another.

Pioneered by FreeDarko, a huge intellectual community of basketball writers has sprung up on the internet, writers who seem to think about the game in a more spiritual way than traditional sports writing. What is it about the game that lends itself to such philosophical writing?

I wouldn’t want to argue that basketball is unique among sports in lending itself to philosophical reflection and writing. Baseball has done that for a long time and continues to do that. The West Indian writer C. L. R. James constructed an entire autobiography and socio-political history of the West Indies around his relationship to cricket. So I think any sport is available to that if we want to go there. I think all that the more ‘philosophical’ writers on sports are doing is making manifest in language and then thinking a bit further along the lines that are part of everyone’s experience of a sporting event: our projection onto or identification with different protagonists in narratives that they supply or that we imagine are driving their performance; the vicarious experience of such elementary human situations as limitation, creativity, potential, competition, cooperation, effort, joy, pain, triumph, tragedy.

I certainly can see that basketball, uniquely among the major sports, offers a kind of intimate proximity to the players. Some of this is an illusion of course (as David Shields has said in Black Planet, reminding himself that the players inhabit another world: “it’s not your camaraderie”). But some of it is real and based on the small number of players, the small size of the court, the bareness of the uniforms. You can see and hear all the extemporaneous forms of expression that the participants are engaged in and that aids us in conjecturing about them as individuals. Once they are individuals, with feelings, we can begin to invent stories about them. But this is probably true, perhaps in slightly different ways, of tennis or golf as well.

I do think, to take your question in a slightly different direction, that there are some factors that have made this generation of fans more apt to take its philosophical reflection public. The first is just the ease of doing so. Anybody with access to the internet can start a blog and connect to a community of readers. But I wonder too if there isn’t something about basketball being — as has been said many times — the urban game par excellence, and about the growth in popularity of urban culture beyond its original zones of production that has something to do with it. So many of the basketball writers I think you’re referring to maintain interests that are at least as strong and well informed in other originally urban cultural forms like hip-hop.

So another way to think about the question would be what is it that has prompted a particular generation of mostly college-educated white men to invest emotionally in these forms of contemporary (post-Reagan) urban African-American culture and then to want to try to think through that investment publicly? Perhaps the answer to that is obvious, but it isn’t to me.

Ultimately, what do you hope your students are able to take away from your class? Have you had students who weren’t big fans of the sport itself but were able to connect because of the deeper cultural aspects conveyed through basketball?

I want students to know more facts about the history of the game and I want them to exercise their capacity to think historically, period, regardless of what they are thinking about. I want them to see that everything that is present in their world today has a past and that their relationship to that thing in the present will be enriched if they understand more about its past. That’s easy for a kid to understand say, about a beloved grandparent, but perhaps a little harder to get into when it comes to certain forms of entertainment, like basketball.

I want students to develop the habit of seeing, in a basketball game, not just a form of entertainment and not just an exhibition of athletic ability, but a form of artistic expression, a nexus for social and political forces and struggles (especially concerning race, but also class, gender and globalization), an interconnected series of micro-encounters with human limitations as well as an unending flow of inventions aimed to circumvent or exploit those limitations.

I want students to understand that metaphor and narrative are intrinsic parts of their relationship to the game; that it is through these tools that they — the students — actually shape and create the players, events, epochs, etc. that they come into the class believing just sit there waiting for them in some preexistent form. As they grow more aware of their own creative role in shaping the game through language, I want them to develop their abilities to shape the game mindfully and constructively. And I’d like them to see that what is true of basketball is true of everything else.

I think one of the most rewarding student evaluations I’ve had was from a young woman who was not an athlete, and not a big fan, and who reported that as a result of the course she had developed a closer relationship with her father, who was a fan. Whatever the subject I am teaching, I see myself as a professor of the humanities — as one who guides students in the exploration of what human beings have said, thought, done, and made. Of course, one of my aims is always to add to the students’ knowledge base in the area of instruction. But the aim to which I am most attached as a humanities professor is to help students connect to materials that can help them live better, richer, fuller and more connected lives. So if any course I teach can aid a student in forging a richer connection to the world I feel that I’ve fulfilled my most important function as a teacher.

Do you ever see the class expanding even more — maybe even into separate classes focused on different eras of the game?

I often imagine this and would love to see it. The challenge here would be to find the institutional home and resources for it. I would love nothing more than to offer my course — and to develop others touching other aspects of basketball, or of the experience of athletics as an aesthetic and social phenomenon — in the context of an integrated, interdisciplinary academic program in sports studies. Just as an English professor teaching a senior level course for majors on, say, James Joyce’s Ulysses, can benefit from knowing that his students have already secured, in other prerequisites and requirements for the major, a certain foundation of knowledge that is useful in approaching Joyce, I’d love to be able to teach these courses in sports studies within a more systematic context that would include coordinated contributions from other faculty in different disciplines (e.g. sociology, kinesiology, physical education, economics, management, anthropology, etc.).

A photo of students in the first Cultures of Basketball course Colas taught at the University of Michigan.