Q&A: Tsoukas to explore gender and sport in new class


Image via University of Pittsburgh

Senior lecturer Liann Tsoukas will teach the Women, Gender and Sport class that will be taught at Pitt for the first time this spring.

By John Riskis, Staff Writer

Is Serena Williams the greatest tennis player of all time? Is the U.S. soccer team the best in the world? Do your answers require gender qualifiers?

These are the questions raised in the class description for Women, Gender and Sport, which will be taught at Pitt for the first time this spring by senior lecturer Liann Tsoukas. Though the class is new, it’s been a long time coming for Tsoukas, who has spent the past 19 years at the University teaching classes focusing on American history, gender, race and popular culture.

The Pitt News sat down with Tsoukas to discuss her own background in sports, what the class will entail and how it all came about. The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and space.

TPN: Do you have a background in sports?

LT: No, and here’s the interesting thing — I grew up in New Jersey, an immigrant family. And because I grew up in New Jersey, there were many sport teams. The whole area didn’t follow one team. Then I went to a very small college — a Division III school where sport was an important part of life for the students but not beyond that. Then, I went to Indiana University for graduate school. While I was there, they won the NCAA Tournament and I got to see how sport coalesced unities in a different way which I never saw growing up.

And when I moved to Pittsburgh is when I really learned what sport can do, because I had never been in one place where everyone — no matter whether you were rich or poor, black or white, female or male — wanted the Steelers to win. I realized the whole City’s mood changed with sports and I realized the power of sport in a different way. And then I became a real fan. I had a lot of athletes in classes and spent a lot of time at football fields and basketball stadiums and that was it.

I also had a daughter who was a swimmer so I did that swim-mom thing. So I saw it from her perspective too. So in regards to the course, one thing we like to do when we teach history here is find areas of interest that give students more insight into themselves. And when I think of how hard all athletes work, I really wanted female athletes to have the opportunity to learn more about that narrative.

TPN: So, tell us how the class came to be and some topics of discussion.

LT: I realized there needed to be a course on gender and sport because we have a lot of courses that fit the narrative of how sports were built by men for men. As a male institution, women’s involvement in athletics was always sort of on the fringe and they had to work their way in and they didn’t take the same path as men. So, that area of sports studies has grown in terms of understanding the role of gender in sport, appreciation of women with athletic accomplishments and now at the current moment, looking at what is swirling around us to then give us the context from where it came from.

This moment is on fire in terms of women and gender and sport […] on The New York Times there was a new story about how female athletes are making these enormous contributions to their former schools for women’s facilities and to promote women’s sports and to grow that at their schools. We talk about women’s pay equity, we talk about Serena Williams, we talk about these top gymnasts, U.S. women’s soccer team. We see it all over the place. Women as symbols and how being an athletic woman bucks up against a lot of gender norms and expectations.

There was another great piece the other day about coaching women versus coaching men. How it’s really a different science, so figuring out what their bodies do and when. So, sport is an arena for human interaction and we learn a lot of what goes in it. It carries a lot of influence. It carries a lot of money. It carries a lot of power. And it’s entertainment, but it also gives us great insight in who we are and what we value. I’m looking forward to this class. I’m experimenting with how we’re gonna do it.

TPN: What inspired you to teach this course?

LT: I went to a small liberal arts college. Most of my closest female friends were athletes and that was on the heels of many years after Title IX legislation. And we learned that Title IX legislation completely changed the arena of women’s sports. So, right after me, girls grew up assuming they could play sports. I watched that transition of girls engaging in sports and grew up with sports figures like Billie Jean King, who recognized and made connections that what you learn playing sports translates into the real world in a lot of important ways. And that if girls don’t play sports, they don’t get that, they don’t learn those lessons.

So, recognizing those connections and how you can start at the bottom up and figure it out. And now we agree that we know the value of athleticism, teamwork, bonding. The difference between a team sport and an individual one. So, I’ve observed from a lot of angles — except I was not an athlete. Sometimes the worst players are the best coaches because they see it from a different angle. 

TPN: What excites you most about this course?

LT: What excites me most is that I’m recasting this history, recognizing what it took to be a competitive woman. That you were bucking up against a system that was not designed for you, but that’s what people who are not in the mainstream are always doing. That’s why we learn lessons from it. 

The other thing is we are going to do an oral history project where every student will have one subject that they interview and get to know, some of whom are former Pitt players,

administrators, coaches. The opportunity to talk to people who have been on the front lines of this and to put together their story — I don’t think we talk to each other enough. So, I think being able to talk to people who have a shared interest will be great.

So, I think it will be really cool to be in a community of likely student athletes who are learning about athletes, but about a part of the story that is rarely brought to the center. And to help them understand the sacrifices before them because athletic women took a big hit. 

TPN: How will you tackle the media and the reinforcement they and advertisements bring in respect to a male-dominated sports world?

LT: Absolutely, the Peloton advertisement is a great example of this and we are like ‘What is this ad getting at?’ So, we will be aware of images and of expectations, power dynamics, who’s bringing in money and how you determine what value really is. And does being the best in your arena mean that you will never be the best ever because you’re not a male athlete? How do we judge, measure, benchmark and determine role models? Why do we get so mad when Serena Williams pitches a fit? So we’re going to try to figure out how the media makes sense of these images and what it does.