Tuesday, 18 August 2009

My Ph.D

I am a year into my Ph.D. The words I'd use to explain what I'm studying change day to day! Today, the key words are embodied subjectivities and empowering physicalities. I'm based in the Sport Pedagogy and Physical Education group in the Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences department at Loughborough University, UK. Although my research intends to further the steps taken towards equity and inclusion in physical education in UK secondary schools, in order to offer opportunities and participation for all young people, my interests focus on those things I mentioned in the last post, and seeking empowerment, being yourself. This is especially valid for young people, who are constantly developing their identities to fit who they are, want to be, or should be. I would hope that physical education - just that, education about the physical – is able to provide young people with empowering ways to use their bodies and feel good about them.

Should this involve physical activity? This is where I struggle. In my life physical activity has never played much of a part, certainly not something that contributes to my identity. All the thoughts I have about needing to exercise, shift a bit of flab now I’m two years from 30, I ignore them because they stem from media and consumerism that have a vested interest in making us feel bad about our bodies. I do play a competitive sport – Tenpin Bowling – that’s not particularly physical and doesn’t require a great body shape and fitness in order to succeed. But I haven’t failed in life because I stopped going to the gym or haven’t played a sweaty team game since my last disappointing netball games age 15 (why they were disappointing is another post).

I think it is not my place to say that young people should exercise – they get enough messages like that from their schools and government, who are monitoring the apparently declining health of the nation without having some university researcher come and make them feel bad too. Yet in my department, I am surrounded by researchers who have a history as a PE teacher – they all take for granted that exercise and sport are great and we must find ways to increase participation. Of course, this isn’t straightforward and the department tries to ensure equity and inclusion are central to pedagogical and curriculum developments. The basic premise is that current PE structures based on competitive sport are a left over from traditional school systems designed with middle/upper class boys – gentlemen in the making – in mind. Disciplining the body in order to prepare the mind for learning is also central to school ethos. The widely held belief now is that there is a crisis in PE, as young people dislike it, drop out, and are not lifelong active. Girls, reportedly, are the worst for participating, so Something Must Be Done.

But my memories of PE and sport colour my opinions on this. Health? Great – but don’t pressure young people into activity if it means nothing to them. But I do think that when young people do physical activity whether in or out of school, it should be in activities they want to do, in clothing they want to wear, with people, at times and in locations that are comfortable to them. This makes my Ph.D have an existential crisis. The things I want to learn from schools when I start data collection, and the things I want to think about improving, are unclear. Where I think I stand is that physical activity can have a place among other aspects of facilitating a happy and empowering attitude to the body. Healthy thoughts about the body, not straightforwardly healthy bodies through exercise. There is excellent feminist activist work by Dr. Kim Oliver who works with young women to critique and deconstruct the ideas they learn from media and cultural images about ideal bodies and controlling one’s own body. I’m currently looking towards incorporating some of the ideas she has on the place of activist work in PE.

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