Producing Outstanding Scholarship
Dr. John Singer is the Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion and Associate Professor of Sport Management in the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) at Texas A&M University (TAMU). We interviewed Dr. Singer about his book, Race, Sports, and Education: Improving Opportunities and Outcomes for Black Male College Athletes, which focuses on the myriad ways in which organized collegiate sport has both positively contributed to and negatively detracted from the educational experiences of Black male college athletes. He also discusses his Diversity Operations Committee participation.
What is the inspiration for your research?
The inspiration for my book, [Race, Sports, and Education: Improving Opportunities and Outcomes for Black Male College Athletes], was the three summers I spent as a graduate assistant in the late 1990s for a summer university bridge program at my alma mater, Michigan State University. I graduated from Michigan State in 1996 and a year later decided to go back and pursue a master's degree. I was fortunate to be hired on as a graduate assistant with the summer bridge program, SUPER, which was designed to help transition so-called “at-risk” students from high school into the university. The majority of the students were racial minorities, so Black and Brown students. A component of this program included several Black male football and basketball athletes. A large part of my caseload was working with this particular population. Through this experience, I began to ask critical questions, not only about what they were doing as individuals, but more so about the systems, the culture, the structures, and the processes and practices that were in place at the university, within the athletic department, and at the NCAA. This is what really got me moving towards this particular research topic. I then pursued a Ph.D. at The Ohio State University in Sport Management.
Tell me about your background and your life growing up.
I was born and raised in Southwestern Michigan, in the two small towns, Niles and Benton Harbor, Michigan. My parents, who were high school sweethearts, had me when they were 18 years old. I have three siblings: an older sister, a younger brother, and a younger sister. Like many young Black males, my baby brother and I grew up playing sports, particularly baseball and basketball. I had hoop dreams while growing up in the 1980s into the 1990s. As a summer job, I caddied at the local country club as a way to make money. I met Michael Jordan as a golf caddie. He came in the summer of 1991 right after he won his first championship with the Chicago Bulls, and I was fortunate to be one of the caddies who got to meet and caddy for him. That was quite a fascinating experience. After high school, my organized school sport days came to a close. Thankfully, through caddying I went to Michigan State on a full ride academic scholarship, The Evans Scholarship. It was based on my years caddying, my academic record in high school, and the potential they saw in me for leadership in my community. While at Michigan State, I still pursued hoop dreams as a basketball player, but ultimately fell short. I always tell the story, once I realized that GPA (grade point average) was more important than PPG (points per game), I gave up the hoop dream. I actually went on academic probation in my second year, and that kind of scared and woke me up.
How did you become interested in your area of expertise? Did you start off in the area?
My first foray into research was the McNair/SROP Scholars Program at Michigan State in the summer of 1995. At the time, I was an undergraduate and my major was communications. One of my communications professors, Mary Bresnahan, who studies intercultural communications, took me in as a mentee and I researched communication styles across different racial minority groups. I presented my research at a conference in Asheville, NC. This was my first official introduction to research, and this planted a seed in me that would soon germinate. My research today spans two interrelated areas: 1) Black male studies, and 2) diversity and social justice in and thru sport organizations. Within Black male studies, my focus has been on the experiences and outcomes of athletes, coaches, and administrators in sport organizations. Within the diversity and social justice focus, I’ve examined how leaders from historically underrepresented groups in these sport organizations think about and approach diversity in their organization. For example, I have been a part of a research grant through the NCAA that studies where we studied this phenomenon.
What were the most surprising things you learned from your research?
There were a lot of things I learned from the research I did for my book. I would say I was most intrigued by some of the powerful narratives that these athletes shared. I featured twelve athletes, with one of the chapters being a case study of three teammates in a highly visible football program and another was a collection of individual narrative vignettes of former Black male athletes across several different historically White institutions and athletic programs. For example, one of the young men in the book grew up with a learning disability, dyslexia. He wasn’t diagnosed with the disability until college, but it was football that helped him overcome his learning disability once he started playing in high school. A high school level football playbook has different level schemes. But once you get to the college level it can become even more complex with a lot of things you have to interpret and understand. I titled his narrative vignette “Walk on with a learning disability turned Ph.D. scholar athlete” because he was actually one of the few college athletes I've ever heard of to play big-time major college football while pursuing a Ph.D. He moved from being a student P-12 with a learning disability to being a Ph.D. scholar-athlete by the time I interviewed him. He shared how football helped him navigate the learning process in life off the field. In his words, “So in the high school context, I said that football saved me. In my collegiate experience I would say football made me. It made me who I am today because it gave me a process to decision-making. It gave me a framework of how to approach problems. It gave me a framework of how to prepare. It gave me a framework of how to interact in high-pressure situations, and how to adjust and adapt. How to quite frankly get punched in the mouth and get back up. All these things you can only learn in experience. You can’t read a book on resilience and all a sudden become resilient. You have to go through something.” Once he started engaging with the playbook it helped him organize his thoughts in a way that made sense to him in other contexts, like the classroom and beyond. I thought that was one of the more fascinating stories that the young men shared in my book.
Do you have any suggestions to help others get published? If so, what are they?
Find your passion and something that really resonates with you. For me, it was my work with the Black athletes in the summer bridge program as well as my experiences as a second-year doctoral student at Ohio State University, where I was introduced to qualitative research. Prior to that, all I really knew about the research process was the traditional scientific method or quantitative approach to science. But once I was turned on to qualitative research and what that meant in telling the stories and representing the stories of others while writing myself into the research, that was my Ah ha moment, I’m on to something!
Be aware and explicit about your researcher positionality. Make a conscious decision to critically reflect on and share how your lived experiences, which can include your racial identity, cultural upbringing, educational experience, etc., might impact and inform the knowledge you generate and create through your research. I stress this a lot in the doctoral seminars I teach. I teach a qualitative seminar, and I push the students to be explicit, to be honest about how you as the researcher, influence the knowledge, the data that comes from the research process. This applies to quantitative, qualitative, and mixed method researchers. Social and behavioral science research will always have some subjectivity and the sooner you acknowledge and embrace that, the better the research will be from my perspective.
Get in the habit of reading, reading, reading, and reading some more. This was an area where I had fallen short in my doctoral studies, and even to this day. I used to try and cut corners, and it limited some of my scholarly productivity. Going forward I’m really striving to read more so that my writing can be better informed and sharper. Sometimes you read people’s work, and it becomes evident early on that they have done a lot more writing than they have reading.
Build a strong network of scholars. Don’t be afraid to reach out to the gatekeepers, whether it’s journal editors or editors of book series. Rich Milner, as an example, and I have a relationship that goes way back to our doctoral student days at Ohio State. He so happens to be the series editor on race and education for Harvard Education Press, which is where my book was published. That relationship with him certainly helped contribute to me getting this wonderful opportunity to publish my book with this wonderful publisher. Build those networks. It is important if you want to get your work published and out there and in front of the right people.
Do you hear from your readers? What kinds of things do they say?
I hear from random people and from people I know. The book has been out since November 2019, and one of the things people appreciate is learning more about my background and my approach to writing about this topic. I was very open about who I am and some people really appreciated that. People commented on the powerful narratives and how I (re)presented the stories of my participants. Although the book certainly is written from a scholarly and somewhat theoretical perspective, it is very accessible to lay people. That was intentional on my part. I tried to write the book in a way that it would resonate with people beyond the ivory tower and academia. My dad, who is not an academic, came to visit me right as the book was coming out, and I recall him being able to sit and read the entire thing from cover to cover in just a couple days.
How did you learn about the Diversity Operations Committee (DOC)? How has being a DOC member contributed to your success and/or publishing research?
I first learned about the DOC from my colleague in the College of Education and Human Development, Fred Nafukho. Prior to being hired in this new Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion role for the college, Fred was going to the DOC meetings until the end of 2018. He took me to one of the meetings and introduced me. Being a part of the committee has helped me to begin building a great social network here in the Texas A&M University community and system. During the Diversity Gallery Poster Session, I met folks from Galveston and the Law School. To see like-minded people doing this important work has been very beneficial. It has helped me begin thinking about creative and innovative outlets where I can publish the work I do in diversity issues in higher education. One of the things I talked to my Dean about when I took this role was to take my interest in diversity in the sports context and bring some of that scholarship into the broader higher education context and literature. Being on this committee certainly will help in that regard. I also really appreciated when Robin Means Coleman invited a group of us to the OpEd Project in the summer of 2019, and we worked with journalists from outside the university to learn how to write effectively for audiences outside of academic spaces. The DOC is a great space and there is the potential for a lot of synergy within this group.
What do you like to do when you are not writing?
Prior to COVID-19 I spent a lot of time officiating high school and college basketball. I’ve been invited to officiate several Texas high school boys basketball state championships. I officiate all levels below Division I in college. It has been a great opportunity to expand my network and unplug from the research, teaching, and service pillars of my faculty administrator life. I also like to golf when I can. I like to travel. I had been an avid runner, but aching knees have forced me to focus more on walking these days. But one of the things I really love to do that has been taken away with COVID-19 (at least for the time being) is live comedy. I love going to the comedy club. When I was still living in Cypress, I would regularly go to the Houston Improv to see different comedians perform live. I love to laugh; it is like inner jogging because it is good for the soul as the saying goes. D.L. Hughley is one of my all-time favorites. In fact, I got married in December 2014. It was a Saturday morning wedding, and the DJ at Houston Improv was the DJ for our wedding. It just so happened that D.L. was in town performing at the Improv during this time. So, the DJ arranged for a group of our family and friends to go to the comedy club that night after our wedding, and meet up with D.L. for a bit after the show.
Crystal S. Carter