Teaching Men: What Difference Does it Make? What Difference Can it Make?

Warren Rosenberg, Professor of English Emeritus, John P. Collett Chair in Rhetoric,Wabash College
Contact: rosenbew@wabash.edu

“Should outnumbered men feel uncomfortable on college campuses?” A recent Inside Higher Education article explores this question, prompted by the announcement by Raymund Paredes, Texas’s Commissioner of Higher Education, that this discomfort was reported at a number of Texas institutions. Critics responded immediately and strongly, as the article reports, questioning whether this is, in fact, a problem (shouldn’t we celebrate the ascendency of women in higher education?), and arguing that given the level of sexual abuse reported on campuses it is, rather, women who are likely to feel most uncomfortable. And isn’t discomfort itself, intellectually at least, some argued, a key factor in forming highly educated adults? In response, Paredes retreated, specifying that he really meant African American and Latino students, implicitly acknowledging the issue of privilege, as if the discomfort of all other male students was really not the problem at all.

We at GLCA colleges are certainly aware of the reality of “outnumbered” males—white and underrepresented–on our campuses. A journey through the very useful College Factual website reveals the statistics. We range from Hope’s 39% male/ 61% female and Oberlin’s 40%/60%, through six colleges with 44-46% males, to DePauw and Ohio Wesleyan with 47% and 48% respectively. Only Albion reaches a 50%-50% split. And then, of course, we have Wabash, 100% male, since 1832. Are many of our male students, in fact, “uncomfortable” on our campuses? Are our underrepresented male students (and College Factual is helpful with these comparative numbers as well) even more uncomfortable? In what ways do we think about our male students when we plan our curricula and pedagogy? These questions, I am reasonably sure, are being asked on our individual campuses. If they are not being discussed, I hope this essay might contribute to initiating that discussion, whether or not we perceive the lower number of men, or their comfort or discomfort, as a major problem.           

Studying Men at an All-Male College

Warren Rosenberg

I retired from teaching at Wabash in 2016, after 36 years in the English Department. As is typical of colleagues in our small liberal arts colleges, the experience completely transformed me. Academically, I morphed from a narrowly trained 19th century American literature specialist into an expanding universe of teaching and research interests—gender and women’s studies, Jewish studies, African American and Latino studies, film and cultural studies. When Wabash’s trustees decided to keep Wabash an all-male institution in 1992, after an almost two year study, most of my colleagues and I were extremely dismayed.

My response to the trustees’ decision was to shift my teaching focus to Men’s Studies, developing a freshman seminar, Men and Masculinities, which I taught almost twenty times, and revising courses in my discipline by adding texts and interpretive strategies that make gender visible. If we were going to remain all male, and a legitimate liberal arts college, I believed we needed to do so with extreme self-consciousness, and with the kind of study and critique that defines the education we promote in our mission statement. I modified my survey literature courses to more explicitly engage gender, taught a range of intermediate courses that examined the representation of women and men of varied class, race, and religious backgrounds in novels and film, and taught a senior majors seminar for many years on Gender Criticism.

Because in the freshman seminars instructors are often also advisers, I became even more aware (as we all do) of the wider lives of my students—in living units, on teams, as members of families, in relationships—and came to more fully appreciate the range of challenges college men face. My overall intention here, then, is to share some insights gleaned from teaching in this extremely rare higher educational environment. (There are only two other all-male, four-year undergraduate colleges still operating in the US, Morehouse in Atlanta, and Hampden-Sydney in Virginia.) While I know that everyone reading this has, of course, also taught men, there is, I believe, something unique in the experience of teaching only men. So it is my hope that I, and others from Wabash (especially female instructors and staff who face particular challenges in the all-male classroom), can begin the process of sharing our approaches to teaching men that might be helpful to you, our colleagues at other GLCA colleges.

We know that our students differ as individuals and as members of groups, and as we craft our pedagogy, we try to take these differences into account, particularly in the small college setting. While I remain wary of falling into essentialist views of complex gender dynamics, I find the evidence of at lease some societally determined gender differences affecting student learning difficult to ignore. If you have not observed this in your classes—and I welcome reports to the contrary—Pascarella and Terenzini’s comprehensive How College Affects Students (2005), concludes that gender does indeed have a significant differential effect on how students engage and learn. [For example, anti-date-rape workshops were shown in several studies to have significantly increased empathy for victims, but only among the women in the study and not the men (319)]. But as important as these learning differences might be, I believe it is critical to examine our own gendered attitudes towards our students. In what ways do our perhaps not fully conscious attitudes and stereotypes about men and women (identity and sexuality) affect our teaching?

Getting Behind the “Masks of Masculinity”

I loved teaching at Wabash, and although conflicted about retirement, I was, for a number of reasons, ready. An anecdote can perhaps best illustrate this conflict, and, at the same time, introduce a key insight about successfully teaching men related to our own attitudes toward them. I now know only half as many students still on campus, and, frankly, when seeing groups of them heading for class, or to their dorms and fraternities, I do not feel favorably disposed. They for the most part look the same as they did in 1980, and very much the same as each other. Dressed in grey and black, with shorts (in January!), baseball hats, those hatless often having closely cropped hair. It feels like I’m observing extras heading for the set of Full Metal Jacket or 300. The vast majority walk silently, their faces stern and unsmiling, but also exuding a sense of confidence bordering on cockiness. Seeing them convinces me that I am simply tired of interacting with young men between the ages of 18-21 on a daily basis. 36 years was enough. I made the right decision.

Riley Lefever

But then I head for the gym. I get on my elliptical and find, next to me, Riley Lefever, a graduating senior who I had had in freshman comp, American lit survey, and in a final course in which I taught my three favorite novels and a film, among them, Moby Dick. Riley was, for four years, the top Division III wrestler in the country, undefeated for his entire career in the heavy weight class. I see Riley wants to talk: “How’s retirement treating you Doc?” “It’s a mixed bag,” I respond. Eventually, the conversation morphs. Since the previous spring he’s been mulling over Moby Dick, specifically the character Pip, the African American cabin boy who gets abandoned at sea and goes mad. Riley could not get over that tragic sense of isolation, and wondered what Melville was saying about race in America at that time by using this character in this way. Wrestling never came up.

I worked out beyond my usual time that day as we talked on and on, and afterward I experienced serious buyer’s remorse for walking away from this job. During our intense conversation I felt about Riley as I had felt about hundreds of my students over the years—the opposite of what I felt seeing those groups of anonymous young men—I felt love. Behind the “masks of masculinity,” as I well knew, our male students are fully and complicatedly human, a fact those masks are designed to make us forget.

So what might be a takeaway from my anecdote? Despite our critiques, often deserved, of their behavior and attitudes, our male students need us to model the same level of empathy and respect for them we expect of them. In an essay I have found extremely helpful (and use in new faculty orientation), “Inviting and Inspiring Men to Learn,” Jason Laker asks faculty and staff to “develop a foundation of reflection and awareness” (73). What stereotypical attitudes about our male students do we bring to the classroom? Laker talks about a tendency to label male students as “bad dogs,” in need of disciplinary action instead of educational transformation. He uses the example of students using “fag” or “gay” as negative epithets, and suggests ways of responding that do not shame the student we hear using them.

Clearly such homophobic terms, an unfortunately still common occurrence, are completely inappropriate, and that message needs to be delivered unambiguously. However, how we deliver it is critical if we want students to truly understand and change their behavior. At Wabash we have only one officially stated rule of conduct, and that is the Gentleman’s Rule. (“The student is expected to conduct himself at all times, on and off the campus, as a gentleman and as a responsible citizen.”) The use of the word “gentleman” in the 21st century is quaintly archaic, reeks of gender and class privilege, and is ambiguous to our students. Yet asking a student if using “gay” as a pejorative term is gentlemanly behavior has the advantage of encouraging him to think about what he has just said in relation to a norm he has already implicitly accepted as positive. He must immediately start a dialogue with himself over how this comment, that he thought was innocuous, may actually be offensive to someone else. This begins a process of opening and change, rather than one of defensive closure after being harshly told (and this is our instinctive response to injustice) that his comments are offensive. While The Gentleman’s rule is clearly unique to Wabash, the practice of supportive questioning rather than shaming should help lead to more productive outcomes when “difficult dialogues” occur.

Male Scripts

Another of Laker’s strategies is one I instinctively came to fairly early on in my Wabash career, but it should be transferable, with adjustment, to the co-ed teaching environment. He suggests we “Invoke, Invite, and Inspire Utilizing Masculine Script Narratives” (75). The idea that gender scripts can be worked with and modified—if made visible—can have many specific classroom applications. Here, however, the issue of the instructor’s gender emerges. Clearly male instructors have immediate, experiential connections to most of these scripts. As one of my female colleagues has remarked, “I really don’t have the same access to the whole ‘bro’ culture.” Yes, I can share my own struggles with these societal messages, and that builds trust and encourages their risk-taking and learning. But if the entire liberal arts enterprise is predicated on that fact that we can learn through reading and discussion to understand and empathize with the “other,” I trust that this experiential advantage, whether with men teaching men or women teaching women, can be made more widely applicable.

In the example I discuss below, I am linking another of Laker’s strategies, the need to use “gender-informed pedagogies.” These pedagogies, including choice of appropriate texts, are related to the scripts in that they assume certain cultural norms, for example, that males are more responsive to active rather than passive learning, or gravitate toward competition over cooperation. The key here, for me, is to use the scripts to engage students initially, but then, with their participation, begin to question the validity and desirability of those scripts. “Appropriate texts,” are those that in some ways relate directly to the male experience, and, can create, through analysis, a sense of dissonance and critique of that experience.

My freshmen in the Men and Masculinities classes are generally intrigued by the concept of male scripts, and ultimately find studying them liberating. The concept is of course linked to Judith Butler’s theorizing of gender as performative and constructed, as opposed to natural and innate, a view that a number of students challenge. However, as they become conscious of how limiting the narratives that have shaped their collective masculine identities can be, they begin to question these scripts. Must men always be the provider, the protector, the heroic loner? Must they use violence to prove their manhood? Fuller awareness of these often-oppressive scripts can lead to feelings of relief, at least initially, and to raising the question “does it have to be this way?” Significantly, I have found these scripts, with minor variations, cross national, racial, religious, and class lines. Students from China and India, African Americans from Mississippi, Latinos from Chicago, Texas, and California, and Hoosiers from every part of the state discover uncanny parallels in the larger narratives, as well as in micro-behaviors– how they are expected to walk, talk, carry their books, display emotion, dress. To unpack these expectations they keep journals (private and interactive), write short response papers, are asked to pay attention to their bodies and the bodies of their classmates (something that makes them giggle with discomfort)—and reflect on the costs of maintaining what they come to see as the very rigid limitations imposed on them as men.

Paul Monette, Becoming a Man (Open Road Media, 2014)

One way of moving them to answer their question “does it have to be this way?” with a “no,” or a “not necessarily,” is, ironically, to use traditional male scripts to undermine a script’s apparent power over us. The male prescription—that “real” men should be independent, self-reliant leaders, not followers—can be employed to undermine the very idea of following scripts—particularly toxic ones. I have found this playing out around the homophobic mindset, linking heterosexuality and masculinity, which most of my freshmen bring to campus. (This is often true even for gay students who have, of course, been socialized in the same intolerant culture.) To destabilize this second script I assign the powerful memoir Becoming a Man, by Paul Monette, a challenging text for 18 year olds, as it presents numerous explicit homosexual encounters. Most of the students have never read anything like it, especially as a school assignment, and I motivate them to stick with it as a kind of college rite of passage. (Utilizing another familiar male script.) I tell them, “If you can rush a fraternity, face a 250 pound DePauw lineman, and master Calculus, you can make yourself read this book!”

As a theoretical background to this issue I also assign Michael Kimmel’s ground-breaking essay “Masculinity as Homophobia,” but my students’ emotions are more fully engaged by the memoir. Monette writes so brilliantly and, with such searing honesty about his own struggles to accept his sexual identity that some students become angry with him for not more quickly accepting who he is. “Why is he being a homophobe to himself?” they inevitably ask. “Why doesn’t he man up?” Others are more empathetic to the staggering cultural forces ranged against homosexuals in the 1950’s and 60’s, but all who make it to the final chapters (and some have admitted in interviews done as part of a long-term SoTL study I am conducting of the class that they could not finish the reading) are relieved and, yes, happy that he finally fully accepts himself as a gay man. He has, in their eyes (and in Monette’s) truly become a man, because he accepts who he is.

The damaging belief that a gay man cannot be a real man has been revised through an act of empathetic reading and intense class discussion. On occasion, gay students in the class, even some who had not yet come out to their classmates, feel empowered by the text, and offer their own experiences growing up gay, enriching the discourse. Ultimately, the emerging critique of the homophobic script gains its force from my students’, first, having had to struggle with a very challenging text, and, second, from a shared acceptance of a stronger, if not fully nuanced, gendered script that men should always be true to themselves. In other texts and discussions we question the desirability of the “independence/self-reliance at all costs” prescription, but in this instance it has clearly served a positive purpose.

Reaching Out to Male Students

While I have many other suggestions of texts and classroom strategies that worked, I believe, in similarly transformative ways with my male students (see my essay on teaching Henry James’s “Daisy Miller,” for example), I anticipate further contributions from colleagues in different disciplines at Wabash and across the consortium in future posts. I would like to make a final suggestion that many of you may have already discovered in your teaching and advising experiences, the need to be, to some extent, even more proactive in reaching out to our male students, in the classroom and as advisers. One of my colleagues who had just spent two years teaching at an R-1 school noted that 95% of the students that availed themselves of her office hours were female. “The men just seemed to think that they were already supposed to know the material,” she concludes. My years of teaching at Wabash confirm this tendency; the vast majority of my students, especially what Laker calls “the middle 50,” do not come voluntarily to my office. Even in larger survey classes, then, I set up early, mandatory conferences, so they can find their way to me, at least initially.

Outside of class, on the quad, at faculty dinners, on the sidelines at ball games, in the lobby during intermission at plays—I employ the “three question” rule. “How’s it going?” “Fine,” is the inevitable first response. “How it going?” I ask again. “Hey, I really can’t complain.” “Oh, really, why not? How is it really going?” And here, after making a nuisance of myself, I fairly often get an authentic response, and some specifics, and can move on from there, providing a sympathetic ear, offering some advice, or a making a referral to the counseling or academic support office. This has been called “Intrusive Advising,” or, as Wabash’s dean has recently termed it, more fittingly for this institution, “muscular advising.” However one labels it, making this extra effort has proven a way to penetrate the mask of masculinity.

In my last five years of teaching at Wabash, and since my retirement, I have been gratified to see so many of my colleagues teaching courses that directly engage masculinity and gender, and are thus, more actively and self-consciously than in the college’s past, fulfilling what to me is the only justification for a college for men in the 21st century. The college’s mission is to educate young men “to think critically, act responsibly, lead effectively, and live humanely.” In short, to become the best men (and people) they can be. A range of courses now contribute to that mission: “Fatherhood” (Eric Olofson, Psychology); “Sports, War, and Masculinity,” (Sabrina Thomas, History); “Family, Gender, and Politics” (Lorraine McCrary, Political Science); “Queer Theory: Textualities and Sexualities,” (Crystal Benedicks, English), and a number of others. Wabash also now offers a Gender Studies Minor. Finally, and this is an exciting development, Enduring Questions, a common humanities course required of all second-semester freshmen, includes a two-week unit on masculinity, so every Wabash student will be exposed to some formal study in the field early in his college career.

If Wabash’s experience is any indication, young men are hungry for the opportunity to study their gender identities, and that study does make a difference in their lives. However, it is true that in co-educational environments they may be more reluctant to formally study their gendered selves. In a 1998 article on single-sex education and the men’s movement, Peter Bankart, argues that “because for the first time in their memories they do not feel forced to compete with their friends and peers for the attention of women,” Wabash men feel freer to explore a wider range of behaviors, which includes, today more than ever, thinking critically about their masculine identities. This raises the question, how can men on co-educational campuses be encouraged to look critically at their roles as men, and at their interactions with other men and women, in non-defensive ways, especially at this critical “me too” moment in our society?

And even as we ask that question, we need to think about how we can attract more men to our colleges, so that the wider culture can benefit from their efforts to learn to be better men, by reimagining what it means to be a man today and in the future. I believe that our best strategy for doing so is to lead with our strength—as Greg Wegner pointed out in his eloquent essay “The Liberal Arts in Currents of Change”—that a liberal arts education is transformative to students in multiple ways and can be “a compelling force of societal good.” That transformation will not always make them comfortable, and part of our message needs to be that a supported discomfort is essential to meaningful learning. But the junior and senior year of high school is too late to make that case. We need to think about how our consortium can work toward earlier interventions in our communities—at the elementary and middle school level—to educate more students and parents of young men to the life-changing benefits our colleges offer.

I would like to thank Julia Rosenberg for her invaluable help with this article. As the director of Support Services at Wabash for over thirty years she worked closely with countless students, understood their strengths and vulnerabilities, and, as so many have attested, made a critical contribution to their success as students and as young men.


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Baxter Magolda, Marcia B. Knowing and Reasoning in College: Gender-Related Patterns in Students’ Intellectual Development. Jossey-Bass, 1992.

Cohen, Theodore F. Ed. Men and Masculinity: A Text Reader. Stamford, CT: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2001.

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Harper, Shaun R. and J. Luke Wood. Advancing Black Male Student Success. Stylus, 2015.

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Kimmel, Michael. “Masculinity and Homophobia: Fear, Shame, and Silence in the Construction of Gender Identity.” In Theodore Cohen, ed., Men and Masculinity: A Text Reader. Wadsworth, 2001, (29-41).

_____ and Michael A. Messner, eds. Men’s Live.s New York: MacMillan, 1992.

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Rosenberg, Warren. “Making Masculinity Visible: Teaching James’s “Daisy Miller” at an All-male College.”      Approaches to Teaching Henry James. Eds. Kimberly Reed and Peter Beidler. NY, MLA, 2005, p. 151-156.

______ “Reading Men: Can Gender Scripts Be Revised?” Reader: Essays in Reader-Oriented Theory, Criticism and Pedagogy. No. 61, Spring, 2011, p. 7-32.

Wegner, Greg. “The Liberal Arts in Currents of Change: Report of the GLCA Consortial Colloquy.” GLCA Consortium for Teaching and Learning. Jan. 15, 2018.

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