James Madison University

Professor Creates New Bonds with Students

By Hannah Austin
Posted: February 13, 2013

PHOTO:JMU STudents in Ireland

This fall, a walk through the campus of James Madison University resonates with the sounds of construction. The creaking of cranes, blasting drills, and shouting of workers has become commonplace, along with the sight of new and extensively renovated buildings. Lately, campus has been both a  construction site and a center for academia, but the reason behind the frenzy is simple. Although JMU consists of a sprawling 712 acres, it is hardly large enough for the 19,722 students currently enrolled, much less expected future growth.

When Dr. Marge Slattery began teaching in the Kinesiology department in 1998, there were 14,966 students at JMU, but as the college grew, so did her classroom. Her favorite aspect of teaching had always been building interpersonal relationships with students, but as this became increasingly difficult in class sizes averaging 50 -75 students, Slattery began searching for new ways to build connections. The full-blooded Irish professor had never visited her ancestral home, but remembered that several former colleagues had taken summer study abroad trips there in the past. To Slattery, leading a trip herself seemed too good an idea to be true, as she would be able to bond with students while simultaneously exploring her heritage.

In 2008, the idea became a reality, as Slattery embarked on the first of four trips. Each year, the University of Dublin provided accommodations that allowed students proximity to the city and academic resources, a prime location to enjoy local culture, attend numerous sporting events, and complete two required courses, Physical Activity Behavior Change and Special Studies. Since Dr. Slattery plans to retire in May 2013, the trip she took in the summer of 2012 was her last, and continuing the tradition will be up to future faculty members. Nevertheless, she and her student groups made several important observational discoveries over the four summers they spent in Ireland.

On each trip, Dr. Slattery’s Special Studies course centered on a comparison of American and Irish women athletes. Although women in both countries face similar struggles, such as being accepted and respected by men in the sports community, there is an unmistakable distinction in the physicality of the types of sports played. In Ireland, physical contact in women’s sports is much more common, a fact students were able to observe first hand at the “Gaelic Games,” a day they spent learning and competing in rounds of traditional Irish sports such as handball, Gaelic football, and camogie, a stick and ball game.

“Their games are definitely more aggressive than games women generally play in the U.S.,” shared Frankie DiValero, a Kinesiology senior who was on the 2012 trip. “Gaelic football is basically a mix between soccer and football, and camogie is a game played with a long wooden stick and a very hard ball. We tried both and it was painful being hit! It was definitely much more physical than you would think.”

This difference was easily observed, but there was another distinction off the playing field, lurking between the pages of magazines. By comparing numerous media sources in America and Ireland, students found that Irish women athletes are far less sexualized than Americans, a fact they tied to the heavy influence of the Catholic Church in Ireland. It seemed that religious politics had played a role in blocking the Irish media from publishing pictures focused on women's bodies rather than their talent.

“Their athletes are portrayed as strong, rough, and sweaty. They don't get decked out for a photo shoot like we do,” explained Slattery, pointing to a copy of The Irish Tattler for evidence. “Look at the cover of Newsweek with the American gymnast team – these girls are far more sexualized. It is so much a part of our culture here in the states, and it has become a part of our culture in sports. I would rather see the power and strength of a female athlete than her sexual qualities.”

Aside from these differences, Irish women also have fewer opportunities in general to play sports than Americans. Their system is community-based rather than collegiate like the U.S., and the types of sports offered in any given area are left up to investing interests of the region. Unlike Americans, the Irish do not promote competition at a young age, focusing instead on rules and sportsmanship.

“As they get older the training becomes more skill specific,” said Slattery. “But you are certainly not going to find kids training in camps or living away from home like [2012 Olympic gold medalist] Gabby Douglas did. In addition, Ireland is an island, only about the size of West Virginia. The opportunity to play sports doesn’t exist there like it does here.”

Students attended class and various campus events during the week, but were able to explore the city of Dublin in groups during the weekends. They experienced the culture in a variety of ways, from visiting a Guinness factory to seeing Riverdance live. Each Friday, Slattery paid for the group to take a field trip together, her most memorable being a visit to Powers Court Garden, a site that once used to be home to a medieval castle in the 13th century.

“If you have the chance to go abroad, take it!” DiValero advises students. “It is an experience you will never get again. Seeing and experiencing different cultures when you are young really does change your perspective of the lives we live as American college students. I hope that Dr. Slattery knows how many people she impacted in her time as a professor.”

Although teaching took up the majority of Slattery's time in Ireland, she was able to see places she had only heard about in her family's history. She recounts the best part as “getting to know my students better,” and with these students, she was able to create a clear dichotomy between Irish and American women athletes. With her various goals accomplished, Dr. Slattery looks forward to an enjoyable retirement in which she can take pride in a job well done.

View more photos from the trip