Now that I’m done conferencing (though still on the road), you can expect a few posts on my mental fallout from the National Women’s Studies Association annual meeting. The presentations I enjoyed at the Berks were stronger, on the whole, but the NWSA still got me thinking.
My own panel at the NWSA addressed the question of men in the classroom. I was part of this discussion because my university has relatively robust enrollments of men in our women’s and gender studies classes, thanks to a business school requirement that funnels lots of male undergrads in our direction.
Let me just say I really like having men in the classroom. I think it adds a dimension to the discussion that wouldn’t otherwise be present. I recognize that there’s a trade-off: in an all-female space, women will talk more freely about certain issues than with men present. But all it takes is one male to completely change the dynamic - without, however, much immediate gain.
So here’s the paradox: If a classroom is going to be mixed-gender, you’re much better off teaching a bunch of men, not just a token or two.
In my own student days, WS classes tended to be all-female, and any man who ventured to join us was probably on a quest to understand his own non-normative sexuality. He was likely gay or bi or questioning. By the time I taught my first WS in 2002, this was starting to change. I had two male students, both evidently heterosexual, neither quite sure why he was there. One was bright but hid behind his baseball cap, too shy to speak. The other wore a trenchcoat and expressed a certain sympathy for the Columbine shooters.
By now my colleagues and I commonly have 30 to 40 percent men in our courses. This is terrific in that men no longer feel like they’re mere tokens; they’re much more likely to speak up. It’s a great opportunity to broaden the discussion, in my view, and to widen people’s horizons. By this I don’t mean that I get to indoctrinate the guys; try that, and you’ve lost them on day one. The same is just as true for the women, by the way. But I do believe that good ideas will tend to win people over at the end of the day.
Above 35 to 40 percent, the men can actually start to dominate the conversation, so this can be a mixed blessing, as one of my fellow panelists observed. At his university, however, the WS classes are bristling with football players! I have to admit I’m grateful that I don’t get classes where a full third of the students play on the same team, sit in the same corner, and disrupt the conversation. Yikes! I’m glad I’m not dealing with big blocs of jocks. But another presenter who spoke about this sees it as an opportunity to reach the macho guys and maybe help reduce sexual violence, and so she deals with the discipline issues by working with the coaches.
So the emerging women’s studies classroom is a far cry from the all-female environments that early feminists nurtured and Mary Daly famously decreed. Myself, I’ll gladly deal with the difficulty of balancing male and female participation in exchange for change to discuss not just women but men – and thus gender as a relational system.
Not least, when men reach a certain critical mass, they challenge each other, they take the class more seriously, and they turn in better work. A few years ago, I still saw some serious slackerdom among the men; now, they're performing just as well as the gals. And that makes my job a whole lot more fun.