physics equations

On feminist pedagogy, physics, and basketball

Ed. note: This post was originally published on the Community site.

There’s a ton of discussion these days about diversifying science, technology, engineering and math fields, but not all STEM pipelines are as in need of drastic improvement as others. Biology, for example, has a much larger percentage of women than, say, physics. 

Why is that? Since there seems to be something particularly hostile to equality in the field of physics, it’s worth knowing the causes and solution because it can shine the light on other realms. In particular, I’m interested in how these lessons can be applied in the sports world. Yes, y’all — I’m gonna bring it back around to basketball, back to violence, and back to what it means to be an anti-racist, feminist sports fan.

Dr. Diane Crenshaw loves physics (like, loves, y’all — she loves it), taught physics, and got her PhD by defining Feminist Physics. So here’s the skinny on what that means: In her college-level physics classes, Dr. Crenshaw saw a familiar pattern emerge. White male students, who were the minority in the classroom, often positioned themselves on the “winning” side of binaries that abound in popular understandings of physics. For example, physics is understood to be rational not emotional, theoretical not practical, elite not common. By referring to themselves as the most experienced, the best, they experts, the most rational, the most logical, the male students were able to create an environment where they were understood to be the best. They quickly assumed they were experts and acted like it.

Dr. Crenshaw intervened to make physics more personal, more practical, and something community centered. She’s clear to note that she did this not because women are more practical or more emotional than men but because women are stereotyped to be more practical or emotional than men. And by providing a different framework for physics, she could impact the way in which her students positioned themselves as able to succeed in physics. Feminist pedagogy in this case called for expanding how physics could be done, thereby expanding the definition of who it could be done by. Dr. Crenshaw also threw in some community-building strategies and had students follow specific collaborative protocols called Kagan Strategies. These strategies demand the participation of all students and provide strict guidelines about how groups communicate in order to facilitate equity.

As a result of her interventions, Dr. Crenshaw saw pretty drastic shifts in how her female students saw themselves in relationship to their studies. Journal entries from female students were filled with comments like, “Everywhere I look I see physics — it’s part of my life.” Several female students also reflected that they’d go on to study physics because they felt like physics was part of their family.

So can you throw feminist pedagogy at anything? More specifically, what happens if you try to make a thing called feminist basketball? I’d argue that basketball is well on it’s way there. There’s already many, many aspects of the game that center on small strong communities and collaboration — after all, you can’t win a basketball game if you don’t pass the ball. This has the practical impact of making teams out of individuals — and teams are like families that can bring people together across lines of difference. This is why it came as no surprise to me that of all the men’s professional team sports, basketball was the first to have a player come out as gay, that NBA teams protested against racist immigration policies, and that white ball players wear #blacklivesmatter warm-up attire. It’s also probably worth noting that the NBA does way better than the NFL on domestic violence.

If changing how we talk about physics can impact outcomes for female students and work towards diversifying the field, why can’t changing how we play sports impact the ways in which athletes and fans treat each other and, in particular, treat women? It’s worth diving in and figuring out what can we learn from basketball and from feminist physics that can help us make sure that all sports are a force for good — or, at least, consistently improving.

Header image via.

Adrienne is a sports writer, educational justice activist. She does not now nor ever have time for Kobe Bryant. Read more of her sports writing here

Read more about Adrienne

Join the Conversation