Can You Major in Masculinity?

Lisa Beebe
March 2, 2018

Can You Major in Masculinity?

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In 2019, Stony Brook University in Long Island, NY will become the first school to offer a Master of Arts degree in Masculinity Studies. If you’re tempted to crack a joke about the program being useless, since most college classes—from history to literature—already focus on men, that’s the whole point. The new program takes a feminist perspective and emphasizes gender equality.

“We’re sharing our stories, listening to other perspectives, and hopefully challenging the current notions that we have.”

Michael Kimmel, PhD, a professor of sociology and gender studies, and one of the world’s leading experts on masculinity, launched Stony Brook’s Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities in 2013. Kimmel has authored a stack of books on masculinity, and his latest, Healing from Hate: How Young Men Get Into—And Out Of—Violent Extremism, was just published by the University of California Press.  He’s also the mastermind behind the new master’s degree program, which will be offered exclusively online.

Masculinity in Higher Education

It remains to be seen whether other colleges will follow Stony Brook’s lead and start offering degrees in masculinity. However, many schools around the country have begun holding classes and workshops on the topic. At the University of Redlands in California, a traveling men’s center called D.U.D.E.S. (an acronym for “Dudes Understanding Diversity and Ending Stereotypes”) guides students in addressing and reforming stereotypes around men and masculinity. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the UNC Men’s Project offers a ten-week program of facilitated discussions around gender equity and violence prevention.

Northwestern University launched its NÜ Men program in 2016. On a quarterly basis, a small group of six to ten students join two facilitators for a six-week “dialogue experience” that challenges them to examine and deconstruct masculinity. What exactly does that involve? Robert Brown, Northwestern’s director of social justice education, says, “We’re sharing our stories, listening to other perspectives, hopefully challenging our current ways of being and current notions that we have, and reaching deeper places of understanding, compassion, and empathy for each other and our communities.”

How to Teach Masculinity

Each of the six workshops is about two hours long, and starts with a check-in. Brown says the deep discussions prompted by the NÜ Men program can be a rare opportunity for participants. “Some of our student’s primary friend circles are with other men, and they don’t tend to have these conversations in those communities. Part of the design is just checking in authentically based on what’s been up for us that week personally. What did we notice? What were we paying attention to around gender, sexism, cis sexism, and rape culture, that might’ve been related to the previous week’s content?”

During each session, facilitators address a particular concept. Brown says, “Each week has a focus in terms of topic related to masculinity, whether it’s issues of emotional regulation and vulnerability, issues related to pop culture and media and how we learn and take in messages about masculinity, or topics related to violence—more specifically, sexual violence.”

“Overall, the program’s focus is to get participants looking at the world in a new way.”

The session ends with a homework assignment or call to action related to the topic. Brown offers the following example: “We have a week that’s on male privilege, or just power and privilege generally. The he homework is to pay attention to ways that they see patriarchy, male privilege, or misogyny in our campus community. That could be, ‘I noticed men speaking over women in my classes,’ or ‘the majority of my faculty are men.” It can also be ‘when I hang out with my friends, our conversations tend to center around women, sports, and partying.’ Then we talk about what you noticed.”

Overall, the program’s focus is to get participants looking at the world in a new way. And Brown says it’s been effective. “Once students get that lens, they can’t really turn it off, which is kind of the goal.”

The Future of “Toxic Masculinity”

Reaction to the workshops from Northwestern University students have been positive. Brown says, “Students are usually hooked after the first week. The large majority have maybe had these conversations in pockets, but never intentionally. And definitely not in a group with other men. That alone tends to spark this really vibrant curiosity that keeps them coming back. It’s not a credit bearing program, so students don’t have to come. It’s completely voluntarily—I mean, we feed them, but that’s pretty much it.”

“They’ve had these conversations in pockets, but not really ever intentionally, and definitely not in a group with other men.”

The phrase “toxic masculinity” often comes up in this context, but Brown prefers to avoid that wording. People tend to take it the wrong way, which distracts from the real issues. Instead, he uses language like the “social construction of gender” and “hegemonic masculinity” to address the same topic.

Some outsiders have criticized the NÜ Men program and others like it, for feminizing men or saying masculinity is bad or wrong. Brown shrugs off the attacks. “It just kind of comes with the territory of doing this work. If we’re not making someone angry, we’re probably not talking about the right issues. I take it all in stride.”

Geek Out: More Resources About Masculinity in Education

Learn more about masculinity in education at universities around the country:

Lisa Beebe is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She’s written for everyone from Nickelodeon to Playboy.

Lisa Beebe

Lisa Beebe is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She's written for everyone from Nickelodeon to Playboy.

All stories by:Lisa Beebe

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Lisa Beebe

Lisa Beebe is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She's written for everyone from Nickelodeon to Playboy.

All stories by:Lisa Beebe