Monday, June 17, 2013

Knuckleheads in Nepantla: College Male Masculinity at the Crossroads

          In terms of the number of conduct code violations committed in a given year at my institution, males typically outnumber females two to one.  In conversations with fellow conduct administrators across the country, this is also anecdotally true at the vast majority of campuses.  Without excusing the conduct, a former supervisor categorized male behavior in terms of the “truly dangerous” and that which was “typical, male, knucklehead behavior.”  An avid hunter, he likened the behavior to what he saw in the field amongst male deer that had an overabundance of hormones but no clue as to how to act in most settings.
            Many of the men I see in my office appear to have committed violations of the conduct code out of a need to conform to a heteronormative and stereotyped vision of masculinity.  This is evidenced by some of the reasons given for violating policy; “I wanted to be one of the guys,” “I thought people would think I was a pussy if I didn’t drink as much as them,” “I hit him because walking away would make me less of a man.”  This also plays out in many instances of male on male harassment and hazing as victims are made to feel marginalized by being called “fag” or told to “man up and take what’s coming”.
            Men I encounter in the course of my position also have the ability to verbalize that they did not necessarily want to act in the way they did but feel that their male peers with whom they are attempting to form bonds or females they are attempting to impress expect it of them.  I would not go as far as saying that, “society is to blame,” but do think that socially constructed ideals of masculinity play a large role in the behavior of many traditional aged college men.  In an attempt to deconstruct those ideals I have become enamored by a theory that at first may seem oddly placed in its use with masculinity.
            While her writings focus mainly on Chicana cultural theory I am quite taken by the writing of Gloria Anzaldúa, particularly the concept of nepantilism she introduces.  Nepantla, a Nahuan (Aztec) word meaning “torn between ways”, when applied to men who violate university policy as a result of attempting to live up to a socially constructed ideal of masculinity gives name to the imbalance these men feel between who they are and who they attempt to be.  James Maffie describes nepantla as, “in the middling, oscillating tension betwixt and between order and disorder…because of this, it is unstable, fragile, treacherous, and fraught with peril.” Anzaldúa and Maffie also both speak of the concept using the term “crossroads”.  The men I see are clearly at a crossroads, struggling between the internally and externally influenced selves.
            In her work Gender Trouble, Judith Butler defines gender as, “a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame.”   She further states that, “Heterosexuality is naturalized by the performative repetition of normative gender identities.”   Many of the men I encounter because of conduct violations appear to be “performing” in the sense that they are likely not aware of acting out in ways that are stereotypically masculine.  They are performing a gender type without awareness of either the act or the consequences it can bring, particularly in the realm of student conduct violations.
            In addition to aiding in the oppression of men who identify as gay, a heteronormative masculine concept can marginalize straight men who do not meet that idealized, socially constructed standard.  Many of the men with whom I meet state that they are acting out in ways that play against what they view as their true self.  This is a representation of the “mask” theory espoused by Edwards and Jones.  The theory echoes the aspects of embedded expectations in that many of the men in the study stated that, “they had been aware of these expectations throughout their entire memory of consciousness.”  Edwards and Jones speak of the masks men put on to conform to those socially constructed expectations.
            The authors comment directly on the overrepresentation of men in university student conduct systems citing, “college men’s partying behaviors, such as drinking; doing drugs; competitive, demeaning, or degrading sexual activities; lack of academic effort; and general disregard for institutional policies and procedures”.  Much of this behavior is an attempt to conform to what men feel is expected of them by other men and society in general.
            It is largely this theory that guides my thoughts moving forward from theory to practice.  Edwards and Jones offer implications for student affairs professionals, stating that, “rather than seeing men who party as ignoring social norms or irreverent to authority, instead student affairs educators may understand them, in part, as men who feel trapped by social norms as they understand them and confined by the authority of society’s expectations”. This again points to the struggle occurring within men that must be recognized within the student conduct process.  The authors also caution against the use of penalties or tactics that seek to demean or embarrass men into changing their behavior since they may run counter to the desired effect and cause further negative actions.  They add that helping men leave the performance behind and be comfortable with their own, real identity is a key to intervening with these men.
            A large part of the student conduct process at many campuses is somewhat fixed because of the need to satisfy elements of due process and other legalities.  It is sometimes difficult to truly feel educational within that somewhat constrained process.  Opportunities that we have as student conduct administrator/educators typically come in the area of sanctioning involving the use of reflective papers and the use of follow up meetings with students to discuss their path away from the violation and toward more responsibility and maturity.
            While the majority of conduct offices perform those functions daily I believe it is possible to move beyond them and alter the experience in a way that aids men in moving past the struggle of the crossroads.  Reflective paper assignments can be tailored to encourage men to explore identity and expectations both internally and externally.  Many of the men provide clues to the struggle they face in the context of a hearing when they speak about the desire to fit in as being part of the reason they acted out.  It is important that educators seize these opportunities and put them to use in the sanctioning process. 
A recent example involved a student who spent a great deal of the hearing referencing his time as a member of the Boy Scouts and believed he had learned from the Scouts attitudes and beliefs that ran counter to his behavior.  As a sanction we agreed that he would write a letter to an imaginary scout discussing his behavior during the violation and explaining to the scout how to avoid such behavior.  I fully expected and the student confirmed that this made more of an impact on him than any of the other sanctions he received.
I have had equally good experiences meeting with men in follow up or “probation” meetings after the hearing process concludes.  While these meetings are required they have, for the most part, become sessions that the student states that he looks forward to and I look forward to as well.  They follow a path of reflection over time on how their life has changed since the incident, particularly regarding the choices they make about their behavior.  I think it would be worthwhile to add more focus to these meetings in the context of discussing male identity.  It would also be possible and desirable to find a set of short, accessible readings on male identity, which could guide the discussion.  While these meetings are often individual, it may be useful to combine the meetings into a group format where men could share their thoughts on the changes they have gone through.
While I refer jestingly to “knuckleheads”, it is clear to me that there are very serious struggles going on with college males regarding the management of their identities, both internal and external.  I see this play out in my office on a daily basis and believe that my office and other conduct offices can make changes to work with the population we see the most.

Anzaldua, G. (1997). La concienda de la mestiza. In A. M. Garcia (Ed).,Chicana feminist
thought: The basic historical writings (pp. 270-274). New York, NY: Routledge.

Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York, NY:

Edwards, K. E., & Jones, S. R. (2009). “Putting my man face on”: A grounded theory of college
men’sgender identity development. Journal of College Student Development, 50,

Maffie, J.  The Centrality of Nepantla in Conquest-Era Nahua Philosophy.  Retrieved from

Chris Taylor is the Associate Director of Ethics & Student Conflict Resolution at Miami University.  He has been in Student Affairs for over 22 years in a variety of positions in residence life and student conduct. He is currently a third year PhD student in Student Affairs in Higher Education at Miami whose research focuses on men and masculinities. He also serves as the co-chair of Miami's Masculinities Committee.  You can connect with Chris on Twitter through @MU_Masculinity.


Kevin Valliere said...

Great piece. It seems to me that conduct is far and away the best outlet for masculinities development that we have right now, across the board. Residence Life certainly is up there, but we might as well go where the gentlemen are.

Pete said...

"The authors also caution against the use of penalties or tactics that seek to demean or embarrass men into changing their behavior since they may run counter to the desired effect and cause further negative actions. They add that helping men leave the performance behind and be comfortable with their own, real identity is a key to intervening with these men."

This was an interesting point to ponder for a few moments.

On a different note, it surprising to see that the author, while placing a justified emphasis on gender norming and sexuality, doesn't mention confidence anywhere in the article. In my experience working with young men in higher education, I've witnessed repeatedly how a lack of confidence (or internal fragility) acts as a spark to the mound of firewood that is a collection of potentially poor decisions.

I would like to explore even more what recent literature has to say about trends in confidence amongst young men 16-21. My assumption is that, in conjunction with the skyrocketing rate of divorce amongst parents, as well as other major factors such as society-driven gender blueprinting, it's more difficult to grow up in a comfortable setting now than it may have been 10-20 years ago.

Even more than social norming and gender blueprinting, I'd venture the guess that family/household status and consistency at home (parenting) play a gigantic role in this lack of confidence I'm seeing in my 17-18 year old first-year students...