Why We're Crazy About Sports

Duke professor Orin Starn's new Coursera class will explore the intersection of sports and American culture

In a new online Coursera course, anthropologist Orin Starn brings in noted journalists to discuss connections between sports and society.
In a new online Coursera course, anthropologist Orin Starn brings in noted journalists to discuss connections between sports and society.

As a cultural anthropologist, Orin Starn examines how sports weaves its way through so much of American culture. In a new, free course he'll teach online through using the Coursera web platform, Starn will explore the connections between sports and society and analyze why simple games make normal people go so crazy.

Here, Starn, the chair of Duke's cultural anthropology department, discusses the course, which begins April 30.

1. In your upcoming Coursera class, Sports and Society, you'll use Google Hangout to create conversations between your students and prominent sports analysts and journalists like ESPN's Doug Glanville and Selena Roberts, formerly of the New York Times and Sports Illustrated. How does this interactive format improve or change what you might be able to deliver in a traditional classroom?

STARN: The exciting part about a Google Hangout is that it allows students to become part of the conversation.  I'll be picking seven or eight students from around the world to join me and each of the guests, and they'll be able to ask questions and talk with the guests, a chance for the kind of interaction you'd normally only get in a small college seminar. 

2. What is it about sports and the sporting culture that makes for an intriguing academic exercise?

STARN: Sports are a gigantic part of our world now. We're a sports-crazy planet. And yet, most of us don't think much about the deeper cultural, political and economic issues that always surround sports. What I love about teaching this class is getting students to see beyond the latest scores and standings to understand how sports link up to questions of race and race relations, gender and sexuality, globalization and nationalism and a whole lot more.  This is also an exciting time to be teaching the course because there's a lot of terrific new work in anthropology, sociology, history and other fields about sports, which has traditionally been an understudied topic -- maybe, some have hypothesized, because we academics tend to the nerdy side.

 3. Coursera classes are available free to anyone with an Internet connection and utilize recorded lectures that students watch online. What do you anticipate will be the biggest challenge in teaching a massive, online open course via the Internet?

STARN: It's been very challenging for me to learn how to give lectures on camera. I've never really done video before, and it's a whole different experience from giving a live lecture, where you can see how students are responding in real time -- what they are finding interesting, what bores them, when to wrap up a topic, or when to go into more detail. The exciting part of the online course, obviously, is the chance to reach so many more people than in a traditional classroom, and from so many different parts of the world. I love it as well that the class is free, so it's open to everyone in a way that a normal university class is not. I'm really looking forward to the class actually starting and to interacting with students through discussion boards, Google Hangouts and their posts.