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Throwing Smoke: Baseball, Bull Durham and the Classroom

My classes have come to a close for another year while professional baseball is finding its summer stride. I have come to see that my classes over the span of a semester are a lot like a baseball season. There is an ebb and flow. Some days I win, some days I lose and some days it snows.

June marks the twentieth anniversary of the greatest baseball film ever made, Bull Durham. Americans have long looked to baseball for metaphors for life, so it should not surprise us that our best baseball movie offers lessons for life too. As a teacher I have often found myself stuck in the classroom caught in a Bull Durham moment.

Lessons gleaned from the minor leagues and learned from Bull Durham, have helped me make a major league impact in the classroom. I was college student when the film appeared, more Nuke LaLoosh than Crash Davis, but what became important to me was how, as a manager (or in my case, a college professor), I found myself in situations conjuring up the laconic manager of the Durham Bulls. Here are the things baseball, through this classic film, can teach professors.

Lessons gleaned from the minor leagues and learned from Bull Durham, have helped me make a major league impact in the classroom.

“This is the part of the job I hate.”

The Bulls’ world-weary manager would begin every firing or trade notice to a player with that same banal opening. He has used this line so many times, the viewer realizes, that it is clearly a defense against the disappointment or anger that is about to erupt. He does hate axing his players, but he has only found one way of getting through the experience.

As I find myself writing grades on exams and papers that are bound to disappoint students, I try to channel that empathy – minus the tight pants and stirrup socks. When I fail a student, or even more painfully, assign the earned B to someone aching to get into medical school, I always want to tell them this is the part of the job I hate too. Likewise, when giving unwanted news I try for that elusive mix of distance and warmth: “Harry, you’re a good student, but this class didn’t work out for you.”

“Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes...it rains.”

During a long road trip the team gets in a funk from the grind of daily games and life on the road. Crash Davis, the Bulls’ old-hand, reminds everyone to understand baseball in the simplest terms. It is hard to let go of a class period, but sometimes, fatigue and routine set in and a rain-out, or more likely for me, a snow-out or flu-out, gives a precious day off and everyone comes back refreshed. Crash turns on sprinklers at a ball park to force a rain-out. That’s not a trick I can pull, but I never worry about a lost day in the term, because my students always seem the better for it. Ironically, the closest I’ve come to creating my own rain-out is to have a sun-out. When spring comes students love to have a class outside. Usually they don’t concentrate as well when I hold a class outdoors (“Look, a squirrel!”) and we don’t get through the same amount of material covered, but the change helps them recover.

“Lollygaggers!”

Even though it is a risk, even though it breaks the code of being a nice, nurturing teacher...sometimes a class has to have a throw-the-bats-in-the-shower moment. Like the skipper in Bull Durham, you can only do this once per class. But it can work.

In the film, this scene comes as the team hits the doldrums of mid-season, underperforming for some inscrutable reason. He tries to be a door's-always-open kind of skipper, most teachers work the same way today, but sometimes that isn't enough. It can even be counterproductive because his squad doesn’t feel the pressure of high expectations or consequence for failure. So, with my own voice raised I have called my classes out: “You aren’t reading carefully, you aren’t thinking critically, you aren’t writing and you aren’t learning with any passion – that makes you lollygaggers!”

“I believe…”

Early in the film the apparently cynical Crash Davis is challenged to explain what, if anything, he believes in and I have thought about giving a similar speech for my students.

I believe in the books, the chalk and the essay, the elegant thesis, the counter-intuitive argument and problem sets.
I believe the data doesn’t lie.
I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment protecting academic freedom and banning college rankings.
I believe in good clear jargon-free writing that dares to communicate arguments that intelligent people would want to read. And I believe in slow, deep learning that lasts for a whole semester.
Oh, and high fiber and good scotch are cool too.

Teaching, I find is a lot like Susan Sarandon’s Anne Savoy describes baseball. It “may be a religion full of magic, cosmic truth, and the fundamental ontological riddles of our time, but it's also a job.”

James Tuten is Assistant Provost and Assistant Professor of History at Juniata College.