Friday, June 27, 2008

Men in the WS Classroom, Part 2: The Guys' Views

So I’ve already explained why I welcome men taking my women’s and gender studies classes, and why I’m glad they’re no longer a teensy minority. But my more interesting contribution to the NWSA panel on men in the WS classroom came not from me, but from the guys themselves.

I’ll readily admit that this was probably the most unscientific survey ever. I asked a number of my former male students for their views on the opportunities and difficulties for men in women’s studies. I emailed a bunch of guys who did well in my classes because I wanted bright, thoughtful, informed opinions. They did well partly because they seemed to enjoy the class, and they enjoyed the class partly because they did well in it. So, in other words, I totally cherry-picked my sample.

The guys’ comments covered three main themes: experience, marginalization, and gender. Though they addressed the classroom situation, I think their responses are valuable to anyone interested in men’s relation to feminism (and not just in academia).

Experience is a central category for women’s studies. It’s the foundation for both the academic field and feminist activism. But experience is a vexed category for my male students. They believe they can’t enter into women’s lived experience, so they may feel shut out of the discussion or alienated from the course material. Some men react to personal essays on the syllabus as being less scientific than other academic material, and thus less convincing or authoritative. Many men are less comfortable than women when it comes to “body talk,” and this has broad ramifications for their classroom situation. One student in a mid-level class on “gendered bodies” with only about 20 percent men wrote:
I just felt awkward commenting on certain issues knowing that 75% of the class were women. Sometimes I would feel embarrassed, and others I felt like I might offend someone. For example, I just didn't feel comfortable commenting on male sexual insecurity knowing that most of the people listening are of the opposite sex. However, I know there's not really much you can do about that until more guys sign up for the class.
But encountering strange experiences can have a huge upside as well. Open-minded individuals can learn a lot from new and unfamiliar perspectives (and I assume that the women in my classes learn equally from the men). Best of all, exchanging experiences can spark empathy, which - as Patricia Hill Collins and others have argued - is the necessary basis for building alliances:
I felt this was a very useful class for learning future skills for how to be a better husband and parent and just a more considerate person to others. … It just makes guys think a little about what others feel, and it helped me, in particular, understand why women sometimes act the way they do in certain situations. (Here, I'm thinking about our discussions about walking on campus at night and related topics.) is very useful, and I think that it makes guys into better people to learn how the girls feel about things.
A discussion format, my students agreed, is essential to this process. I don’t lecture more than I absolutely have to, but even so, these guys reminded me that there are times when the instructor just needs to make room for the students’ dialogue:
I do not see any problems with men being in women studies courses, instead just the opposite. This is good for both women and men in the classroom because they offer each other the opposite sex’s opinions and thoughts where they wouldn’t receive anywhere else outside the classroom to gain a better understanding of each other.
One wrinkle in this, of course, is that the desire for discussion can collide with men’s sense of marginalization. If the men feel too alienated, it can shut down discussion even if they’re not hiding behind a trenchcoat or baseball cap. Typically, men enter the classroom on the first day feeling nervous that the women will pounce on them. I suspect it’s the men of good will who fret most about this:
I think the main problem for men is just a worry that it's going to be the stereotype that people try to put on it ... that all of the women will gang up on the guys, and they will be in a hostile environment where they don't feel like they can learn. I obviously can't speak for all Women's Studies classes, but it was clearly not the case in our class. I guess I was very careful about what I said, though, because I did not want to put myself in a situation where I was saying something that would unintentionally be seen as insulting to the majority of the class.
But a sense of marginalization can also be a valuable experience if someone has rarely been in that position; it too can create empathy. It can help relatively privileged individuals get a taste of what their world would be like, were they much less privileged. This is something I think I need to spend more time addressing explicitly in class.

So dealing with marginalization as tricking. Male students see the instructor’s stance as decisive in whether they will speak freely. But when does this go too far? I get compliments on not being a feminazi. But on the flip side, I think it’s also possible to be too conciliatory, watering down the material and failing to challenge my students.

Two keys to striking a balance seem to be respect and humor. At least, these are themes the guys mentioned repeatedly. One commented:
Both of you [me and a colleague of mine] were very inviting and non-judgmental, and I felt comfortable participating in most of the discussions. Also, neither of you were afraid to crack a joke, and laughter definitely helps alleviate some of the tension that comes with many of those topics. All in all, both of you made me feel like a valued part of the class rather than someone to be criticized.
Pardon me if I’m seemingly tooting my horn by quoting this; I’m sure I also have former students who’d beg to differ. But the point is that when the classroom dynamics work well, both respect and humor have to be part of the mix.

Finally, male students appreciate a broad focus on gender and not just on women. I’m convinced this is good for everyone. You can’t hope to understand femininity as a social construct unless you devote roughly equal time to masculinity. This is something I’m already committed to, but it’s good to be reminded:
It really seems like there are three types of guys that take Women's Studies. The first type is a guy that thinks maybe he'll learn something new and understand people better after it, the second is a guy that thinks the class will be funny and controversial and wants to see if there are any crazy women to make fun of, and the third is someone who just fit it into their schedule. So ... I guess you can't do much about that second group, and the first group just needs to find a couple worthwhile things to make them think the class is worth it. The third group seems like the one that should be a focus. If somehow you can figure out a way to make them feel the class was worthwhile, then more guys will recommend it to others and it will grow. How do you do that? It's tough to tell. I feel Women's Studies is on the right path, though. For a class that was probably started by focusing on the female struggle, there really is a strong focus on men's problem, such as gender, stereotypes and parenting.
Agreed, that WS instructors and feminists in general shouldn’t just be preaching to the choir. And yet, I’m actually really interested in that first group, too: the guys that start off open-minded. I think they bring the most to the classroom, and they stand to gain the most from the course.

I have a feeling that all the men who generously responded to my informal little survey fell into that first group from day one, and I’m grateful for their feedback, advice, criticism, and appreciation. (So thanks, guys!) They are proof positive that the opportunities opened by including men in the classroom far outweigh the greater complexity in guiding classroom dynamics. For them, taking a course women’s studies is rapidly becoming a totally “normal” thing to do. And so I’ll let one of the guys have the final word (but I happen to agree with him completely):
Women[‘s] studies is just like another school subject such as history or math and broadening anyone’s knowledge in this area is a good thing.


John Pine said...

That sounds very subtle and laudable. What usually makes me uncomfortable about women's studies is what I perceive as the focus on money and power - something I don't like in either sex because it drowns out what I see as the more valuable things in life. We've come through national rivalry, trans-national allignment with 'class' in Marxism, and now regrouping under the gender umbrella - every time there is a reclassification followed by new resentments. It is the same old struggle for money and power each time wearing a different hat. I can't help relating women's studies with gender warfare (will the battle of the sexes never end?) and an explosion in the nuclear family ripping apart the ultimate social unit - wives seeing their husbands as rivals or oppressors and children poisoned in the struggle. The word for father in most languages contains or echoes the root 'pa' meaning 'protect'. That is a loving notion far removed from the foul battle now raging.

John Pine said...

alignment - I can spell; it just looks as though I can't.

Sungold said...

John, you're welcome to make typos here any day. (Or should I say: mek tipos hear anzday?)

I think you're pursuing some false dichotomies here yourself. Women's studies isn't any one single thing. In Great Britain it's definitely been influenced by Marxism much more than here in the United States. I spend exactly 5% of my intro class on a day devoted solely to money and social class. These issues crop up repeatedly thereafter, but they are not by any means the sole focus. One can treat money and class as serious issues without being reductive about it.

Similarly, I discuss power as a recurrent theme throughout the course, BUT I don't see it as mere "gender warfare." I actually view greater equality as the precondition for bringing the two sexes closer together.

Don't you think that money and power can only seem irrelevant if you have enough of each? I worry that some of my female students find money so boring - or place so much of their hopes in finding a partner who will provide for them - that they could end up very vulnerable to poverty if their marriages (or other relationship) end unexpectedly. Again, this isn't a matter of a "battle of the sexes," but rather a pragmatic problem of life being unpredictable. Of course men are hurt, too, by divorce or death of a spouse, but many fewer of them end up broke and without job skills when they unexpectedly become single.

John Pine said...

I think most men who pursued money and power did it in order to create safe havens for their wives and families. Otherwise we wouldn't bother with it: it is much more fun just roaming around, say, on a motorbike, and sleeping in barns. For women to say "We'll protect ourselves, thank you, and mainly from YOU!" is like a custard pie placed firmly in the middle of the face.

Sungold said...

Agreed, many men take the breadwinner role very seriously. I don't have a problem with that - though I think it can become an issue for the men themselves when earning becomes an end in itself, e.g., the corporate executive who is virtually married to his job and rarely sees the children for whom he's providing. The research shows that men increase their hours at work (on average) upon birth of a first baby, which is both understandable in terms of fulfilling the breadwinner role and sad in terms of actually *knowing* that new little person.

There's a difference, however, between a man prizing the breadwinner role and his expecting his wife to be dependent. Women *do* need to be able to protect themselves, because they won't always have a man to do it for them.

Also, I've known men who really loved roaming around on a motorcycle but after about age 25 most of them, too, started slowly settling down. Sleeping with a loving partner is usually more fun than sleeping alone in a barn. :-)

John Pine said...

That's a very matronly reprimand, Sungold, and I expect you can see me climbing sulkily off my Harley-Davidson, spitting resentfully in the gutter and putting on a tie.
But don't forget that when women invented patriarchy they did it for a very good reason: it stops men being tiresomely free and nomadic, makes them want to be important, do something useful and contribute to the family - and incidentally love their wives and their children. What women are creating now is a feral recidivist body of men who are almost giving up caring (you can't force men to care, they have to feel it). And what is more, your own sons may become part of this setup. So please be careful what you pray for.

Sungold said...

Not a reprimand, John, just an observation. But maybe most men own lesser motorcycles than yours?

Seriously, patriarchy is mostly about property and control of property - not love. I wrote a post several weeks ago about the origins of patriarchy and why the term is inaccurate to describe our present social arrangements. You might look at this if you're interested. History makes abundantly clear that patriarchy is not about loving protection, it's about property rights, with slaves, children, and wives subsumed under the category of property.

As for my sons, of course I'm acutely aware of how they're growing up. So far they're become less feral, not more. I realize this can change during the teen years! :-) But one thing I hope they're learning is the distinction between love based in respect, on the one hand, and protection rooted in control, on the other. Love and control are not the same thing, and I'd venture to say they're actually opposites.

John Pine said...

Yes I think I too have been guilty of the selective use of history to make a political point. Mesopotamia! That's pretty deep in the compost.

Cleopatra of course had thousands of male slaves which were her property to do what she wished with. Mary Tudor had the whole realm for her real estate and considered hundreds of men (and about thirty children) her property to burn to death as she pleased. Salome no doubt considered the head of John the Baptist to be her property when it was delivered to her on a platter.

What about the millions of men who died trying to protect their wives and children in the world wars? Are all the love stories in our literature planted there by vicious authors trying to twist reality and distract us from the real truth which is property rights?

When a wife tries to punish her husband for what her father did (I've experienced this) she is frankly off target. Her husband and her father are two separate people. Nor is it right to try to bring the men of today to their knees for what happened in ancient Mesopotamia. Slavery was an appalling misuse of power which took many different forms. Overt slavery was not ended by a woman: it was ended by a man - who was moved after reading a Christian book by a certain Dr Dodridge to fight against powerful and dangerous vested interests (William Wilberforce).

I think your boys benefit from the presence of their father as well as you: they won't eventually rebel against femininity as so often happens with those who are brought up without a father. If you have no father, when adolescence comes you grope around in the dark for some notion of masculinity to identify with, and all that comes to mind is the crime and violence of, for example, video games and movies - THAT'S what's cool.

That's why 46% of the children of single mothers in the study by Hathaway and Monachesi showed some form of delinquency - and why the cross-cultural study by Bacon, Child and Barry showed inflated crime and violence in societies where fathers were excluded.

The war of the sexes is definitely being fought: it is the worst and most damaging battle ever to enter history.

Sungold said...

John, you should know that I - as an avid though often incompetent gardener - LOVE compost.

There have been lots of bloodthirsty women in history. You will never find me arguing that women are naturally kinder and gentler than men.

The issue here, though, is a *system* set up to generally protect male property rights. My point is that patriarchy is moribund - not that it's with us today in unaltered form!

I have the feeling we're sliding into your own unresolved issues with your personal history; I invite you to use your own blog to explore those if you feel so inclined. I'm not willing to go into either my children's psychological well-being or your unfortunate divorce.

Let's just say I'm not your ex - and leave it at that.

If others want to enter the fray, great; but I think I've said all I have to say on these matters.

John Pine said...

OK Sungold - of course I love you but we'll have to leave it on that very sulky ending.

Jake Young said...

Thanks for sending me the link! It looks like you really got things together, and definitely agree with your final product. Guys do want to be an active part of this class. They just have to find a way to feel like what they say can be 1. important and 2. not offensive to others. And I think that's just going to come with time.

Sungold said...

Hi Jake! Thanks so much for reading this - and for your approval, which means a lot. You're absolutely right that this will come with time. In fact, much has changed with time already.

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn wrote that scientific paradigms change basically when older generations die out. Otherwise, we'd still believe that the world is flat or the universe revolves around the earth. :-) I think something is true for social change, as well, including classroom dynamics.

Thanks again for your input!