On March 3 of this year, I posted a response to Caitlin Flanagan’s “The Dark Power of Fraternities” to the ACPA Men & Masculinities blog. The post briefly addresses a common occurrence when discussing fraternity life in the American higher education system. Media and commentators frequently highlight troubling statistics and pervasive attitudes that exist within Greek Life; a means to devalue the positive and developmental qualities we claim are espoused by fraternities. This often loud and critical perspective on Greek life creates a need for self-preservation. In the Winter 2014 issue of Perspectives, a publication of the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors, Editor Heather Kirk writes:
When the media picks up an incident that seams sensational or shocking, we swing into reaction mode. ‘How could this happen,’ we ask. ‘What were they thinking?’ ‘Not again.’ Just as often, we say ‘But this is a small population; most of the students do the right thing.’ Or, ‘But fraternities also provide leadership and growth experiences.’ And of course, ‘The media is just trying to sell copies” (pp. 3).
Kirk adequately describes the current state of affairs within conversations regarding the future of fraternity life in higher education. While we listen to external critics with little knowledge of fraternal structure and transformative experience call for an end to American Greek Life, we develop a “protect our house” defensive mentality that does not serve a productive purpose. In my previous post to the ACPA blog, I state:
Let’s stop debating the pros and cons of fraternity life. We cannot sit down with the statistics of philanthropy dollars raised and the number of sexual violence reports and decide on which overshadows the other. Placing a quantifiable value on each positive and negative action to prove our stance is not only impossible, but [also] harmful to the overall discussion.
While I continue to believe that we spend too much time defending the future of fraternity life, I am inclined to clarify my perspective. The often-hostile back-and-forth that exists between various campus and community partners adds little to the conversation. The time has come to adopt a new perspective on our college men. We must recognize that there are men inside (and out of) fraternities who are exhibiting dangerous behavior and attitudes. While not disguising this fact, it is important to affirm that most men are not responsible for such actions, and many college men add positive value and advance the mission of higher education.
In “Affirming the Strengths in Men: A Positive Masculinity Approach to Assisting Male Clients,” Matt Englar-Carlson and Mark S. Kiselica (2013) note that existing research on masculinity is problem-focused, emphasizing the “deficits of and the difficulties created by men” (pp. 399). When discussing the culture of fraternity men in “Beyond Bad Behaving Brothers,” Harper and Harris (2014) perfectly highlight this deficit-based approach to masculinity, summarizing the popular perspective on college men as follows:
They are drunken, promiscuous, academically disengaged lovers of pornography, sports, and video games who rape women, physically assault each other, vandalize buildings on campus, and dangerously risk their lives pledging sexist, radically exclusive, homophobic fraternities (pp. 703).
When addressing men and masculinities, research and scholars often develop a foundation within the deficit model described by these previous authors. During the 2011-2012 academic year, I was a senior Sociology & Gender Studies major at Washington & Jefferson College. Through the senior capstone experience, I was able to foster a basic understanding of and interest in the area of men and masculinities. While fortunate enough to present my findings, titled Eliminating the Gender Gap: Research into Past and Present Achievement Levels Between Students of Washington and Jefferson College, at the 2012 North Central Student Sociology Conference, the entire focus operated on a deficit model. The paper cited decreasing percentages of males in higher education as well as persistence to graduation, lower participation in campus activities and leadership positions, and extrinsic factors as the motivating force to higher education. While the idea of assigning negative characteristics to masculine identity provides a foundation to the study of college men, we must remember that there are those achieving healthy masculinities and engaging campus opportunities (Harper & Harris, 2014, pp. 704).
Englar-Carlson and Kiselica (2013) assert that our fixation on viewing men as defective has been culturally fostered through historical notions of success and expectations of gender performance. We assigned positive traits to women, inhibiting the productive conversations we have with our male college students. Through socialization, men are bombarded with biases that reinforce a preconceived lack of healthy and adaptive behavior (pp. 401). In essence, we continue to allow the extreme incidents of a few men to blind us from the empowering and productive experiences of others.
How can we foster the healthy masculinities that exist and promotes cultural competency? Englar Carlson and Kiselica (2013) cite a shift in dialogue to allow all men to understand the standards of which they can achieve. Examples of this shift may include the “protector” role. A historical deconstruction of this image reflects power, dominance over women, and physical strength; however, reframing this to illustrate new understandings of traditional masculinity can mean loyalty, responsibility, and courage (pp. 401-402). Using positive psychology, college men counter stigmatizing language with specifics of where and how healthy masculinity has been enacted. When we change discourse from “bad-dogging,” as Jason Laker would describe it, to conversations on what positive masculinity looks like in a community context, men are not felt to be inherently flawed by birth.
It is important to develop an understanding of a positive masculinity approach to college men before applying this theory to segments of the campus population; however, the same concept noted here can be implemented when fostering development in our fraternal organizations. Just as men are not biologically damaged, fraternities are not organizationally harmful. It is the culture of masculinity that has infiltrated these societies and been allowed to persist over time that must be changed. The foundation of fraternities is to bring together men to share in a common bond while advancing unique values. In theory, fraternities provide a prime space to initiate and test the positive masculinity approach. Refocusing the conversation to how our fraternity men have upheld these immutable principles provide a context to the expectations we require while reinforcing praise when healthy masculinities are achieved.
Englar-Carlson, M. & Kiselica, M. S. (2013, October). Affirming the strengths in men: A positive Masculinity approach to assisting male clients. Journal of Counseling & Development. Vol. 91, 399-409
Harris III, F. & Harper, S. R. (2014). Beyond bad behaving brothers: Productive performances of masculinities among college fraternity men. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education. Vol. 27, No. 6., pp. 703-723.
Kirk, H. M. (2014). Editor’s Note. Perspectives. Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors. Winter. pp 3.
About the Author
Mike Prinkey serves as the Area Coordinator for Student Conduct under Residential Life & Student Activities at Champlain College. While studying Higher Education Administration at Northeastern University, Mike was the Program Assistant for the Office of Fraternities, Sororities & Independent Living Groups at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as the Graduate Assistant to the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs & GLBTQ Resources at Emerson College. Mike is a proud alum of the Alpha Tau Omega Fraternity from Washington & Jefferson College.
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