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.) So…it 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.