Monday, October 28, 2013
College Men, Masculinities and Student Government
When you hear the saying, “just do it,” what comes to your mind? Is it a Nike commercial? A friend telling you to do something you are afraid to do? What about a slogan for an election campaign? What message do we see in the three simple words, just do it. It is commanding, authoritative and pressuring. A pressure to take charge and be the best.
Our families have a lot to do with the values, morals and feelings we hold on issues and topics. It is not until a young man leaves home that they can be a separate entity from their family. They can fully test external factors and decide on their own what values they want to uphold. Joining a club or organization is a way for men to explore who they are. This could be joining a sport, a fraternity or a service based organization. For some men, this is running for student government. Student government is an entity that works with administration, faculty and the students to better the campus community. What a great way to obtain power! Power is a masculine portrayed quality (Kimmel, 2010). Could this be why our college student government associations are male dominated? According to Patricia Vanderbilt (2012), student governments are male-dominated, out numbering woman by two-thirds. This mirrors male dominated positions of power in United States government (White House, 2012). Male students are running for positions with confidence that they will be elected or appointed, some even feeling entitled saying that it is a man’s realm (Kimmel, 2008).
So, why are our male students really running and joining student government? Capraro (2010) discuss Green’s institutions of adventure. Adventure can be associated with hunting, sports, fighting, or travel. Any type of adventure is considered masculine (Capraro, 2010). Taking a look at society today many things in the media are targeting men to explore and create their own adventures. Movies that appeal as adventurous to men are Indiana Jones, Spiderman or even The Hangover. It is thrilling going to Vegas for a weekend with your best friends and living by the motto, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” If men are not acting on adventure, they are seeking it in other forms. Men like to shop at outdoor adventure stores such as Cabela’s or Gander Mountain even if they do not use what they buy. Men still thrive off of the thought of going out into the woods on an adventure. Politics are also classified as an adventure. Men are allowed force to assert power and identity by society (Capraro, 2010). Adventure is daring, thrilling and can create a feeling of adrenaline. Men seek positions in student government so they can make a difference, change their institutions communities by trying new things and can be in charge.
At my previous institution, the men did not dominate student government. This university is a Catholic institution with 4,100 undergraduates with the majority of students being white and from out-of-state. The institution has a female-to-male ratio of 60-to-40. There are sixty-five student government positions in which men hold only seven of the positions. For the last four years, a female has held the student body president position. I had the opportunity to speak with the man who is currently the senior class president. For the purpose of confidentiality I will call him Ben. Ben, who is a straight, White male, joined student government his sophomore year by receiving encouragement from fellow male peers on the student government board who said, “just do it.” Ben was looking for a leadership position on campus and saw joining as an opportunity to build his identity. Ben stated, “I am able to make a difference.” He enjoys putting on programs for his classmates and seeing students enjoy them. Ben wants to “make college enjoyable for everyone.” Ben also likes that not only can student government affect the campus, but impact the community around them.
I asked Ben if he saw being part of student government as an adventure. He discussed how joining was certainly an adventure because he was not sure what to expect. The thought of uncertainly creates the feeling of adrenaline. He pointed out that each year is a new adventure. As a group, they try new things and go into different areas they are not use to. They become focused on different ideas as they change class years. Currently a senior, Ben is focusing on large scale programming and planning events such as Senior Pub Nights and Senior Week. He is also focusing on designing events to help seniors prepare and get ready for “the real world.” Targeting the men in college to prepare for the next stage in their life and to navigate out of Guyland is important (Kimmel, 2008). This requires them to transition and accept the real world while they are still in emerging adulthood. This is a very difficult task.
Ben makes the most out of being the only male on the Executive Board, which is something that other men struggle with. Ben mentioned it is nice because he has developed a friendship with everyone and he has the most experience, so others will seek advice from him. I asked Ben if he felt powerful holding the top position in student government. Ben said, “I have the power to change things, but that doesn’t make me feel powerful.” Reflecting on last year when the Executive Board was half males and half females, Ben said there is not a difference to the group dynamics and that it depends on how well the student body president facilitates the discussion. Ben stated, “It comes down to leadership styles.”
When we look at why Ben joined student government, he did not see it as a way to gain power but he did see it as a new territory to explore. He had encouragement from his parents to be active in the campus community and saw pressure from his friends to “just do it.” Ben was looking for a leadership position, a way to develop his identity and to be a part of something bigger than his self. Colleges need to support and help these men discover who they are, whether they are the majority or minority of the institution. We need to help them become better people and to make better decisions. Even if men are the majority engaging in student government, men still need support. Leadership positions such as student government are only a small fraction of the men on campus. What about the men in the middle that we never talk to? How do we engage these men? How do we help them find who they are? Sometime we need to ask our students or even ourselves, “Why just do it? Why do I want to do this?” Other times, we need to simply ask, “Why not?”
Capraro, R. L. (2010). Why college men drink. In Harper, S. R. & Harris, F., III (2010). College men and masculinities: Theory, research, and implications for practice (pp. 239-257). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Kimmel, M. (2008). Guyland: The perilous world where boys become men. New York, NY:
Kimmel, M. S. (2010). Masculinity as homophobia. In Harper, S. R. & Harris, F., III (2010). College men and masculinities: Theory, research, and implications for practice (pp. 23-31). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Vanderbilt, P. (2012). College student government: Where are the women?. Huffington Post. Retrieved September 25, 2013 from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/.
White House (2012). The Cabinet. Retrieved from http://www.whitehouse.gov/.
Erin Murphy is an Academic Support Coordinator in Residence Life at the University of Maine. Erin received a BA in Social Work from Sacred Heart University and is a current graduate student at The University of Maine enrolled in the Student Development in Higher Education Program.