Monday, February 17, 2014
Exploring College Men’s Relationship (or lack thereof) with Diversity Experiences
I have always been astounded by the impact diversity may have on students as they encounter these new and profound experiences, perspectives, and ideas. I know my personal experience as a college student was forever shaped by these opportunities college environments provide students. At the same time, the important learning and development opportunities diversity provides for college students is being challenged. Just last year, the Fisher v. University of Texas case argued affirmative action policies for public universities were unconstitutional to gain a diverse student body for educational purposes.
Specifically, I continue to observe and process how these experiences of diversity in higher education influence men’s gender identity development. Recent studies on college men’s gender identity development suggests diversity experiences in higher education may influence their gender identities in positive ways (Harris III, 2010; Edwards & Jones, 2009). Typically, these insights to how college men’s engagement with diversity in college settings are not the exact purpose of the research but are recognized as findings that should be explored further.
Relationships between college men and diversity experiences
Sax’s (2008) research on gender difference of college experience and performance found “diverse interactions and learning experiences as particularly eye-opening experiences for male students” (p. 132). Sax (2008) explained activities that included a diversity element alter college men’s worldviews and causes them to question their role in the world. This is consistent with founded research on diversity and college students. Interactional diversity, student interaction with people who are different, and classroom diversity, diversity-related experiences in the formal in-class curriculum, have continued to support student learning and development in college for all students (Gurin, Dey, Hurtado, & Gurin, 2002). Harris III (2010) and Edwards and Jones (2009) studied men’s gender identity development and suggested diversity experiences in higher education may influence positive and healthy gender identities.
Harris III’s (2010) research on how men make meaning of masculinity in college found diversity of campus culture to generate awareness of masculinity alternatives. Diverse campus cultures supported the cross-cultural interaction of men with different backgrounds yielding more complex ideas about masculinity gender norms and roles (Harris III, 2010). Harris III (2010) argued interactions through diversity challenged college men’s conceptualizations of pre-college gender socialized masculine identities. Interactions with male student peers from diverse backgrounds allowed for more acceptance of alternative masculine identities (Harris III, 2010). Harris III discussed his findings as support for Sax’s (2008) findings of diversity interactions being eye-opening experiences for college males. The more meaningful diverse interactional experiences with men from different backgrounds challenged prior gender socialization and encouraged new gender identity formations.
Edwards and Jones’s (2009) study of men’s gender identity development also found diverse experiences to be significant influencers that allowed for men to develop a more authentic gender identity opposed to the pre-college socialized identity. Men discovered a more positive masculine identity through personal influences, literary and historical influences, and alternative versions of masculinity, academic courses, and critical events in their lives (Edwards & Jones, 2009). Edwards and Jones (2009) suggest student affairs professionals expose men to historical and literary figures and other alternative versions of men who may provide different ways of being masculine that challenge traditional gender identities. These studies suggests diversity experiences promotes awareness of masculinity alternatives that may potentially promote development of a more authentic masculine identity.
How does masculinity identities actively promote or restrict diversity experiences?
I believe it is also important to understand how college men and their identities may restrict attitudes and behavior towards actively engaging in taking classes that focus on diversity or having serious conversations and relationships with people who are different from them. Due to the socially constructed norms college men navigate, they may not take classes that focus on diversity as they are not perceived as “manly”. For example, men tend to be more interested in engineering and computer science compared to gender studies, sociology, ethnic studies, or the humanities (Sax, 2008). College men who adhere to hegemonic masculinity ideals may demonstrate negative beliefs and behavior about others who are different than them, reducing in interactional diversity. How are our academic courses and co-curricular activities, workshops, or programs that incorporate diversity strategically marketed and promoted to college men?
Many college men may feel internally insecure or face external pressures that restrict diversity experiences with other students, staff, and faculty. When the “Mask of Masculinity” is worn, college men are going to be more likely to retreat from engaging in diversity experiences. They will seek out comfort and safety by adhering to those traditional masculinity norms that gain acceptance by their peers. College men that adhere to hegemonic masculinity are likely to also struggle with the emotional expressions, complex relationships, and new found challenges that diversity experiences may provoke. I find a lot of young college men new to universities who also haven’t arrived from multicultural communities are overwhelmed by the challenges diversity experiences provide. They are still learning the skills needed to successfully reflect, process, and learn from this engagement. Sax (2008) found college men’s engagement with diversity activities are also accompanied by heightened feelings of discomfort. I fear higher education and student affairs professionals do not do enough to support these men in their unique challenges produced by gendered norms during these important experiences with diversity.
So what does this mean to me as someone who cares about college men’s student success?
I believe well documented positive learning and development from student diversity experiences and insights to diversity experiences influence on men’s gender identity development is a unique and powerful educational tool that higher education and student affairs professionals can foster for college men. Meaningful diversity experiences with which a man may engage might be an opportunity to explore alternative paths of masculinity for healthy identity development. Diversity experiences may create reflective opportunities to evaluate one’s own gender identity, experiment with other masculine identities, and challenge preconceived expectations of what a man should be to accept a more authentic masculine identity, one that does not construct gender role conflict. For example, a college man who takes a course focused on gender equality or race and ethnicities may foster more authentic masculine identity development. A college man who has serious discussions with a student from another country and/or whose political opinions are very different may also create an opportunity for healthy masculine identity development.
The college years are an intentional time to help students explore who they are personally and in relation to the broader world (Settersten & Ray, 2010). Settersten and Ray (2010) stated, “This makes college a prime setting in which young people can explore or wrestle with diverse perspectives and issues” (p. 164). Laird (2005) argued students are best off with opportunities to experiment with different roles and ideas before making commitments into adulthood. Without diversity, students may not have time to explore different options which leaves only a few pre-college ideas to select from (Laird, 2005). What learning and development is being missed out when college men do not engage in diversity experiences?
Considering the significance to learning and development diversity experiences have on college men and their gender identity development, it is critical to understand in more detail diversity experiences’ relationship to college men. We should be not only promoting college men’s engagement with diversity in and out of the classroom, but also ensuring we follow up with those college men to support them through the challenges these experiences can produce. I question how college men’s gender identity may influence their engagement with diversity experiences? We need additional research on how diversity experiences through course work or interactional diversity experiences influences college men’s masculinity identity development. I believe there can be a very highly impactful outcome between college men’s gender identity and diversity experiences, I continue to explore what these positive outcomes are and how I can best support them as a student affairs practitioner.
Lucas Schalewski is an Assistant Residence Manager of McNutt Residence Center in Residential Life at Indiana University-Bloomington. Bachelor of Science in Sociology from University of Wisconson-Whitewater and Masters of Science in College Student Services Administration from Oregon State University. You can contact him via email at Lucas.Schalewski@gmail.com or Twitter @Luke_ski.
Sax, L. J. (2008). The gender gap in college: Maximizing the developmental potential of women and men. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Harris III, F. (2010). College men’s meanings of masculinities and contextual influences: Toward a conceptual model. Journal of College Student Development, 51, 297-318.
Edwards, K. E., & Jones, S. R. (2009). “Putting my man face on”: A grounded theory of college men’s gender identity development. Journal of College Student Development, 50(2), 210-228.
Gurin, P., Dey, E. L., Hurtado, S., and Gurin, G. (2002). Diversity and higher education: Theory and impact on educational outcomes. Harvard Educational Review 72(3), 330–365
Laird, T. F. N. (2005). College students' experiences with diversity and their effects on academic self-confidence, social agency, and disposition toward critical thinking. Research in Higher Education, 46(4), 365-387.
Settersten, R, & Ray, B. E. (2010) Not quite adults: Why 20-somethings are choosing a slower path to adulthood, and why it’s good for everyone. New York, NY: Bantam Books.