Professor Heather Mydosh teaches English at Independence Community College, the school featured on season four of Netflix's Last Chance U. Heather graduated from the Master of Letters program in Comparative Literature and Thought, Centre for Modern Thought, University of Aberdeen, Scotland and has a Bachelor of Arts with Honors in English Language and Literature, from Lake Superior State University.
We at the Journal of Emerging Sport Studies thank Professor Mydosh for her time and thoughts.
1. What are the most significant barriers that student athletes, and more specifically college football players, face when attempting to receive a collegiate education?
There are enormous barriers to students attempting college, even general students, and I would hate to generalize too broadly as every individual educational career faces its own challenges. I have students who are balancing their studies and working full time on the night shift. I have students who have just become parents. I have students who are full time caretakers for family members both older and younger than themselves. The student who can focus wholly on their studies is a rare bird in these parts. That said, college athletes have the additional burden of the demands of their sport, which is functionally a full-time job for the hours they are required to invest in it. This commitment means that they don’t have time to seek employment to subsidize their living expenses, which adds additional strain. And they’re all perpetually exhausted.
My football players are up at 4:30 am to lift weights and practice, and so it’s no wonder they’re bleary-eyed by the time they arrive in my 3 pm class. Compounding the physical exhaustion is the emotional strain of performance culture where they’re always looking over their shoulder at who else is hot in practice this week. The constant shifting of starting rosters may keep players hungry, but the insecurity takes a mental toll on students. This is all spread thickly on a base attribute of being far from home. Many of my students come from tightly knit communities, and to be so remote from the comforts of their homes, many for the first time, is a particular heartache that we do not always address. I have students who leave newborns to come chase this dream and rely on Skype or facetime to be a presence in their child’s life, and that is hard. It’s just hard.
Many of my students are also first-generation college students, and so are unable to turn to a parent for guidance on navigating the convoluted world of financial aid and eligibility. Our Financial Aid office does everything it can to make these regulations and obligations clear to students, but one’s head swims after a while. I know mine did when discussing loan options and federal aid. Not being able to call home and hash out the daily grind of college life with someone who has first hand experience lowers the threshold against packing it in a dropping out when the semester hits the skids, and dropout rates nationally bear this out. This isn’t an ICC problem, it’s a higher ed problem.
While not the case at ICC, there is the danger of student athletes being offered a second-class academic experience in academic paths tailored specifically to their sport and travel schedule. “US History I for Football” may have the same learning outcomes listed on the syllabus, but we decided some time ago in this country that separate is not equal. The path of least resistance may not provide the full measure of a college education, and students may feel that they are being cut a deal when they are, in fact, being cheated out of the supposed compensation for which they are bartering their bodies.
2. At one point during your in-depth interviews conducted for this season of Last Chance U, you observed that “The students wager their bodies and sound minds against the costs of an education.” Do you believe that student athletes, particularly football players, understand the risks of this “wager”?
Does anyone in their late teens understand the full weight and import of their choices? Does anyone who has never had a knee go out on them understand the hesitancy of committing their full weight to a limb? Can you know what it feels like to fall if you’ve never fallen? While I do believe that our students are generally aware of the risks to their person, the great folly of youth is to believe that such harm will never come to your door. None of them really believe that it’s their ACL that will snap or their skull that will fracture, and how could they step onto that field if they did? The invincibility of the young is not a new thing, and larger armies than a football team have relied upon it. Even if you sat every single one of them down and forced them to review slides of ruined brains and broken bodies, many would still choose to play because the reward is so great, even if it is only for the few. I believe it would take enormous, systemic changes to the economic systems of our nation and a tectonic shift in access and opportunity to overcome the disadvantages and marginalization that football provides the illusion of solving or overcoming. Until then, this is the door that they think is the only one open to them, and their body is the price of admission.
3. As an educator, how do you balance the need to assist student athletes against the needs of the larger student population?
The needs aren’t really that different. As I mentioned in regards to your first question, it’s a very rare day indeed that I don’t have a student who has some kind of non-cognitive barrier to their success in my class. I encourage parents to bring their children in arms to class with them when the babysitter calls to cancel rather than not coming at all. I have lectured bouncing a fussy baby in my arms so their parent can take notes or work on a draft. I keep crayons and scrap paper in my office for older kids. I have toddler-friendly snacks. At this point in my career, I think the “normal” student is a myth.
The balancing act that I attempt anew each semester is to reach as many of my students as possible, which means trying to Venn diagram their multitudinous schedules to find that time of greatest overlap to host an open lab before the paper is due. A large team (like a football team) does mean that there’s a voting block who have similar time commitments and evening availability, but that’s about as far as it goes. We do the same thing with fine arts students during a production. It’s not just student athletes who don’t have access to their own computer or who can’t afford a current prescription for their glasses.
4. Was there an aspect of student athletics that surprised you when you arrived at Independence Community College? Was it similar or different to your own experiences on collegiate campuses both in the United States and abroad?
I’m not sure if surprised is the right word to describe my learning curve in my first years teaching here at ICC. I was consistently impressed with my students’ drive and work ethic, their resiliency, and their humor. My students are very, very funny. They’re insightful. They’re capable of breathtaking candor and frankness. I wasn’t necessarily prepared for how they were going to come blazing into my classroom like so many comets and then flash back out again.
Drawing on my own experience as a student, I knew players on the men’s hockey team at Lake Superior State University (go, Lakers!) but nearly all of them were there for a full four years. There wasn’t the mobility that I see here amongst our students to transfer from one program to another. Living abroad, I didn’t interact as closely with as many student athletes, but the University of Aberdeen is a giant in size compared to ICC, so I suppose that’s not that surprising.
5. Given your specific expertise in English studies and creative writing, how do you work to balance the students’ completion requirements with your own passion and interest in the subject matter?
It’s an active balancing act, I freely admit. I rely on departmental standards and clearly articulated learning outcomes to make sure that I am holding the line of expectation evenly for every student, and rubrics to make sure that my grading isn’t swayed too far one way or the other by a student’s choice of topic. Office work dealing with the same subject matter every day would bore me to tears, and that I have a job where every semester is different, and every class has its own personality—that’s what keeps me coming back. I learn something new nearly every time I sit down to read a student’s work because I allow them to pick their own topics, and that helps.
They teach me about the content of what they write while I teach them about the skill of writing. They challenge me while I challenge them. Also, I don’t view failing my class as a moral judgement against the student. Some need more than one semester to get through Comp II, and that’s okay. It’s as though they expect me to hate them for failing or to be personally offended and I’m not. I will be back in this same classroom next semester, and the beauty of community college is that they can be, too. Each semester is a new semester.
6. Throughout the season of Last Chance U that you were interviewed for, the role of athletics on the college campus was questioned by many in the Independence community. This led to a lively debate about the future of the athletics program at your institution and the associated costs with running a football program. What do you believe is the appropriate place for athletics on a college campus?
Generally, I would say that this kind of question is well above my pay-grade. I’m just an English teacher, and I don’t pretend to either be privy to or understand the operational and strategic plans of the college as a whole. That said, I will venture this much: if athletics is what brings a student to campus, it is my sacred duty as an educator to make sure that the journey is worthwhile and that they leave with more than they came. Our campus would be a much less diverse place were it not for our student athletes, and a less diverse campus would erode the richness of our classroom discourse and the student experience overall.
College should be a time of growth and the challenging of previously held ideas based on exposure to new information, and our student athletes bring a wealth of lived experience with them that is radically different from that brought by our local students, and we are all the better for it.