I was recently perusing a friend’s Facebook album of engagement photographs—a common happening in the autumnal season of a mid-twenty-something. One of the photos, set in front of luxurious fall colors, included a blackboard held by the couple with the word “#committed” chalked into it. Perhaps it’s my training as an anthropologist or perhaps graduate school finally succeed in irreversibly altering my ways of thinking, but I found myself considering what creates commitment, particularly commitment to something like engaging in work related to men and masculinities. Engaging students in conversations and initiatives around masculinity is obviously dissimilar to the feelings of engagement I was vicariously experiencing through the photograph, yet both require something comparable: an ongoing commitment.
Noting this parallel opened a Pandora’s Box of considerations relating to working with college men, something that I’ve remained passionate about for a number of years. It’s challenging work. It’s often misunderstood work, and I think the reason it is such is that it is cultural work. Working to engage collegians—or, anyone for that matter—on the topic of healthy masculinity means dismantling years socialization around a culture of masculinity that is competitive, aggressive, and unemotional. This work is, by its nature, countercultural. Cultures and subcultures develop over time through interactions meaning how each person experiences a culture or subculture is unique to them and their cultural context (Hebdige, 1979; Charon, 2002).
What this means is that in order to engage students in work around masculinity, to get them to commit, they must do two things: recognize that a dominant culture exists and then chose to participate in countercultural thinking, two very tall orders for most collegians. Yet, being surrounded by a positive countercultural perspective on traditional masculinity makes that choice more clear. As student affairs professionals, we have the opportunity to shape collegiate environments to make them more conducive to developing healthy masculinity, but in order to do that, we must deeply engage and commit ourselves to the work first.
In my work around developing healthy masculinity, I’ve noticed that often there are fervent subcultures that promote positive masculinity, but they develop around only a few committed individuals, which offers a threat to the sustainability of the subculture’s presence on campus. Overtime, however subcultures can expand and evolve in relation to the dominant culture and do so in amorphous ways (Muggleton, 2000). To best promote a culture of committed engagement to work around masculinities, student affairs professionals doing the work must spread that culture through exposure and education. Bringing more professionals into the fold means a campus culture that better supports developing healthy masculinity, and, by extension, better reaches and encourages the students to commit to the same.
Many student affairs professionals have had the privilege of examining social identities like gender, yet there is always more to learn around these topics. Yet, just as creating a positive learning environment for students can be challenging, educating the educators requires a further commitment to improving practice (Baxter Magolda, 2014). Some of the following suggestions may prove beneficial in exposing and engaging faculty, staff, and students and encouraging their commitment to developing healthy masculinity:
1. Make initiatives relevant and timely
Devising educational outreach or programming around current topics situates individuals’ understanding of masculinity work within something that’s familiar, providing a basic understanding on which to grow. Recently there has been more than enough fuel for conversations, panels, protests, and debates such as the It’s on Us and He for She campaigns, as well as recent news within the NFL.
2. Include campus partners
Seeking out more connectivity within a campus community can be helpful in creating buy in from individuals who are new to thinking about healthy masculinity. Reaching out to faculty with relevant research interests within departments such as Sociology, Women and Gender Studies, or Psychology, and staff across divisions of the institution can help build a stakeholder community that has connectivity across campus and, by extension, more opportunities to engage more individuals in initial conversations around thinking critically about masculinity.
3. Balance exposure among viewpoints and identities
As with many justice and equity centered conversations, moving beyond exposure around the topic of healthy masculinity too quickly can easily be overwhelming and turn people off to further conversations, particularly for individuals who have not engaged in any dialogue or thinking around broader topics of gender. When presenting information, ensure that multiple perspectives are represented. For example, on a panel about being a man on campus, consider including men, women, people of color, people with non-heterosexual identities, and other social identities as possible.
As part of my final autumn as a graduate student, I’m putting into action these suggestions with the hope that more deeply engaging my colleagues will yield positive benefits for our campus climate around masculinity, our student engagement, and our shared commitment to this work. Puns on marriage aside, I believe that this work requires an ongoing commitment, thoughtful action, and care.
If you take this cause to be your ongoing and committed work, please say, I do.
Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2014). Enriching Educators’ Learning Experience. About Campus, 19(2), 2–9.
Charon, J. M. (2002). The meaning of sociology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Hebdige, D. (1979). Subculture: The meaning of style. London: Routledge.
Muggleton, D. (2000). Inside subculture: The postmodern meaning of style. New York, NY:Berg.