Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Paradox of Men in Women’s Studies

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.


Sally said...

I was a Women's Studies major and there were always a lot of men (mostly in sports) in the intro-level classes. Apparently this is because men find Women's Studies are a great place to meet women.

Once you got to the higher-level, there was hardly a man in sight. The few who remained either really got into the subject from the intro courses (which is great!) or were, as you noted, trying to find their way and understand their sexuality.

The ones who took it seriously were awesome to have in class though because they really did bring something to the discussion and were able to greatly benefit from the classes.

Sungold said...

Yeah, beyond the intro courses (for us, the first two) the men thin out radically. And it's a pity, as you say.

My colleagues and I have speculated on why we get so many men when they have other options for "getting diversified," as one of my male students put it. We think they may find gender a less threatening category of analysis than race, and so they gravitate toward WS and away from, say, African-American studies. Of course, we talk about race in WS too, so no one's off the hook. :-)

And yes, some of them just see an opportunity to "meet chicks." I had a classroom romance unfold last year and I thought it was quite sweet. They weren't obnoxious about it, and they actually didn't get together until after the class ended, though the sparks were flying.