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Lessons Learned While Teaching a Men and Masculinities Course at a Public Four Year Institution

Men and Masculinities
March 6, 2017 Matt Zalman Appalachian State University

I can’t believe it, it’s over.  In December I finished my third, and final year, teaching a first year seminar course about Men and Masculinities in America.  This has been a unique venture for me as just five years prior, understanding and working with students regarding Masculinity in America was not even a synapse connection that existed.  A conversation five years ago with colleague led me to check out an on-campus organization, called Men @ Nebraska at the University of Nebraska - Lincoln, a new organization that I thought especially strange, an idea where the name spelled out the acronym, M@N (MAN).  Masculinity was something that I had never thought about before or, better communicated, never had to think about before.  Talk about privilege, as a cis-gender, white, Christian, heterosexual male, I breathed privilege and I didn’t even know it.  I was wary of joining my colleague as I had seen “men’s groups” on television and in the media as men getting back to their primal selves and regaining the manliness or masculinity that has been taken away from them.  I, not wanting to partake in this, voiced my concerns to my colleague, but they were immediately moved aside.  My colleague clarified that the group focused on more of a feminist viewpoint and aimed to promote healthy masculinity.  Intrigued, I agreed to go.  In the first few meetings, I grew to entertain and understand concepts that were foreign to me: privilege, patriarchy, hegemonic vs. healthy (and then eventually positive) masculinity, gender construction, identity, power in all its forms (commodity vs. networks), and started to interrogate this further.  This group, run by a doctoral student in the counseling department and sponsored by the Women’s Center, ended up altering my thinking and how I began to see the world.  I was 29 at the time, and the feeling that attached to my thinking was, “Why didn’t I learn about this sooner?”  At the time, my simple answer was that there wasn’t room in the curriculum, now, of course that answer is laden with cognitive connections, with power and the maintenance of that power, and anti-disruption of the patriarchal power networks, but that’s another blog for another day.  My semi-activist mind was curious about a creation of a class on the subject and in consultation with the Women’s Center Director, I found out she had already created a class, but it was for graduate students.  I, at the time was not one, but thought why does it have to be graduate students, how powerful and illuminating could this topic be if it was part of the curriculum as an undergraduate student, heck, what if this was the first class that you take as a freshman, first-year student?  I held this idea as a dream and transitioned from the University of Nebraska - Lincoln to Appalachian State University as the person the works with residential learning communities.  In a meeting, women who all had higher positions than I, were discussing the direction of a well-known residential learning community on campus: the Ultimate Man.  In this meeting, the validity of this RLC was discussed and how they would prefer that this community went away.  In seeing an opportunity, I asked if there were a class associate with it, could they see it continuing at least for one more year.  They agreed but were unaware of what the class would look like.  Immediately, I reached out the Director of the Women’s Center at UNL and she graciously sent me her syllabus for her grad course in order for me to begin the process of converting it to a First-Year Seminar, a requirement for all first year students to take.  I spent a month on the course objectives and a syllabus focusing on the feminist perspective of gender and masculinities associated with this construct.  Two months later it was approved for the following year.  Holy crap, I was going to teach a course that I only had first known one year prior.  I solicited the help of a colleague who was part of the Men and Masculinities Knowledge Community (MMKC) through NASPA and we hit the ground running in planning out the first year.  Suddenly it was the next year and now finally its last year.  In this process, I have learned a few lessons along the way and wanted to pass this on.  Remember these are my lessons, while I think they are great (biased), I encourage you to think of your own.

Even though I subscribe to a specific gender, as a teacher you have to understand the concept of gender as a whole.

  • Challenge anything you think is right/wrong or all/none.  These (binaries) do not exist.
  • Begin a class that speaks to the feminist way of learning about gender by specifically stating how it is feminist, what it means to be feminist in your thinking and what type of masculinities you are coming from.
  • Explain how you identify and how that may be perceived by others and the effect that has on others to get the conversations started about identity.  Don’t shy away in your own class.
  • Be clear in the class description and on the first days of class reiterate what you are going to talk about.  Encourage those who are wary to stick it through, it adds to the conversation.
  • At the same time, be okay with letting students go.  They will at the very least google why they hate the class so much and possibly learn something.
  • You, as the teacher, are not there to change, you are there to challenge and support.
  • Discussion is key so from day one set up parameters for a brave space and explain what a brave space is.
  • Your experience is not everyone’s experience, meaning I have lived one version of masculinity, your students are all living multiple truths.
  • Socialization is key to understanding gender.  But still challenge it, challenge everything by asking, “Who benefits this?"
  • Focus on the what, so what, now what mentality.  To me this starts real change.
  • Encourage the students to challenge even you as the instructor.
  • You will have people that already get it, that will get it because of the class, and never will get it.  The key is just to move everyone forward even just a little bit.
  • Other social institutions play a larger role in the construction of gender than you think.  Religion, Military, sports teams…remind folks that it is all around you, if you have the right lens to see it.

The hard part about writing this is that teaching this subject takes a toll.  Each year it is difficult for me, one not wanting to be a teacher of gender but feels the need to continue this work, to start at square one again, is difficult.  Also, being a doctoral student now and not having the ability to teach during the day due to the Fair Labor Standards Act’s overtime rule (FLSA), I will not get to continue this work.  What troubles me is that I think that this work needs to continue and update and change to the needs of men and women taking the course in the future.  In asking others if they would like to take the reins and take over the course, I get the normal, “no thank you’s” and the “I don’t have time’s” but if not us then who, if not now, then when. Take the time consider a class on your campus, or even starting your own group so that these conversations continue.  Take that one nugget you’ve learned and run with it, you never know where it will take you.