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Literature, basketball and physical chemistry

Mauri Ditzler
02/24/2012
 There are some writers whose works I invariably pick up when their new releases appear in the bookstore. These aren’t necessarily my favorite authors, nor is it always clear to me why I am attracted to them. Inevitably, however, I find myself purchasing anything they write and usually reading it within a few days. One of those irresistible—if not exactly favorite—authors is Pat Conroy.

I recommend Conroy’s "The Water is Wide" to anyone planning a career in secondary education. It not only has much to say about pedagogical theory, but also about the inspirational and pivotal role a teacher can play in society. For those of us who work at the postsecondary level, "Lords of Discipline"—perhaps Conroy’s signature work—provides a commentary on the residential college experience carried to extremes. In his more recent book, "My Losing Season," the tie to educational theory is less obvious, but for me it is his most intriguing work.

Conroy’s memoir about playing on an unsuccessful college basketball team explores the various ways that losing can affect a student-athlete. He speculates whether that experience, as painful as it felt at the time, was actually a worthwhile learning opportunity. While championship teams regularly have reunions and revisit their character-building victories, unsuccessful teams rarely come together to reflect on the impact of losing. Conroy leads the reader on his journey to find and interview players from the college team he captained to more losses than wins.

I must admit that it took me nearly a year to work my way through the book. It seemed to present an endless progression of chapters, each describing a valiant effort that fell a few points short. As I valiantly slogged through, I wondered if this drudgery was Conroy’s way of making the reader experience what it’s like to try to stay focused through a long losing streak. Eventually, since Conroy’s writing has an irresistible (if unexplainable) attraction for me, I found my way to the last chapter. And there, in the last few pages, was a powerful and entirely unexpected conclusion that made my countless hours of reading Conroy seem worthwhile. It won’t spoil the surprise ending to reveal that none of Conroy’s teammates agreed with his hypothesis that losing so many games had built lifelong character.

I reflected on Conroy’s question about losing seasons this weekend as I watched our men’s basketball team play its season finale against perennial rival Knox. Regardless of the outcome of the always-ballyhooed contest, our team was going to end the season with more losses than wins. I have never bought into the argument that beating an arch rival makes any season a winning one. I like to watch our student athletes compete, and when I do, I expect to see them striving for excellence. I don’t believe that it is appropriate to ask students to pursue excellence in some college activities and accept mediocrity in others.

Sometimes there is an imbalance between curricular and co-curricular activities. Sometimes the imbalance is between courses in the major and the general education curriculum (I cringe when students say “if it’s G.E., take the C”). Most of us can’t achieve excellence in everything we do. In fact, some of us rarely achieve excellence in anything we do. But a great college will develop a culture in which students regularly strive for excellence.

Striving for excellence doesn’t necessarily mean achieving it, but it does demonstrate that working harder and smarter than anyone expects will, from time to time, produce an exceptional outcome. A two-semester sequence in Physical Chemistry proved that to me, as I was forced to struggle with the rigor of those two courses and overcome their seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Despite the fact that I have rarely applied the content of Physical Chemistry I and II over the succeeding decades, I often identify those courses as the defining portion of my educational experience. Clearly, I used elements of those courses when I taught General Chemistry and Analytical Chemistry, but these concepts were at a level well below the sophistication of the junior-level course that had such an impact. In the end, it wasn’t the content that made the course special; it was instead the relentless intellectual and physical challenge of trying to wrap my mind around the relationship between physical reality and the equations that represent our attempts to describe that reality. I think Conroy got it right in speculating that the trials of enduring a grueling basketball season build character. I can at least attest to that being the case with physical chemistry.

While staying focused as a member of a winning team certainly has value, what lessons can be learned from playing on a losing team? That depends, I suppose, on the character of the team leaders and the coach. Pursuing and then achieving excellence—even if for only a few moments—when failure is probable may provide a greater opportunity for building character and resiliency than excelling when success is certain. Moreover, momentary excellence can lead to sustained excellence just as excellence in one area of the college experience can promote broad-based excellence.

The Fighting Scots wrapped up their season with a two-game winning streak and a total of seven victories. In a 23-game schedule, that isn’t a lot of wins and it could be considered a losing season. Yet it was also an opportunity for building character. This was to be a building year for the team with a new coach and after winning only a single conference game in the previous season. Throughout the recently completed season there would be spurts of success that produced excitement, but time and again those moments of promise would be dashed by injuries to key players. With a half dozen games to go and four promising players out for the year, I couldn’t find reason to even hope for a strong finish.

Still, with the season winding down, the team held on for a hard-fought victory over Illinois College and headed into the final game—the rivalry game—with a bit of momentum. The first half of that final game was the closest the team had been to excellence all year; the 52 points and 20-point lead at intermission was a thing of beauty. Despite the challenges and adversity, all the hard work and dedication was finally paying off and the season was coming to a rewarding close. Then, as so often happens in sports, the wheels inexplicably started to fall off. The second half was past the midpoint before we scored another point. The 20-point lead evaporated in a flash, and the list of Scots with four fouls was as long as the scoring drought.

It appeared that the season, which only minutes earlier seemed to be closing on a high note, was going to culminate in yet another unlucky turn. But, as the final minutes of the game and season began to tick off, the team showed that the string of challenges had built character. Zero field goals for the half of the second period suddenly turned into four buckets, and the string of missed free throws gave way to perfection at the line. The season ended on a two-game winning streak. The fans, including the president, went home happy. The team went home with an appreciation for what it could accomplish individually and collectively.

Having grown up in Indiana, one of my biggest disappointments was an inability to hit a jump shot or box out for a rebound. I had to take my lessons on staying focused and confident and the rewards of hard work from the chemistry lab. Our basketball team learned those same lessons on the court, in what some would incorrectly describe as a losing season.