Monday, April 21, 2014

Dave’s Story: College Men’s Identity Exploration through Participation in Qualitative Research

Several years ago I was involved in my dissertation research project.  My qualitative study explored the perceptions a group of first-year male students had about interacting with faculty outside of class.  Talk about exploding one’s research scope; not only were my participants first-year men, but they were also White, and first in their family to potentially graduate from college.  So, I had a veritable smorgasbord of identities to deal with as I set up the study.  

Each participant sat for three individual interviews, each of which lasted between 45 minutes and 2 hours. One of my participants – let’s call him Dave – was one of my favorites (I wasn’t supposed to have those but it happened).  He was funny, open-minded, smart, expressive, vulnerable, confident, and inquisitive.  His story was one of hardship and success, misunderstandings and friendship, and family love and strife.  “Breaking Away” emerged as the central theme from Dave’s three interviews.  He was from a small town and he perceived its people to be racist, homophobic, and intolerant of most non-Christian religions.  All he wanted growing up was go to college away from home, beat the odds most believed he couldn’t, and be successful in college and in life.  He visited the campus by himself over the summer, registered for classes, and when it came time to move into his residence hall, he did so by himself as well.  I was entirely enthralled by his story.  Months later I could still hear his voice and see his smile as I combed through the transcripts working on a publication.
Long story short, I completed the interviews, finished the dissertation, and ended up moving to another state with my family.  I friended some of my research participants on Facebook later that year, Dave among them.  I suppose we stayed in loose contact over the years.  He graduated and moved far away from his home state.  Every once in a while I “liked” one of his posts or he one of mine, but no substantive messages were ever exchanged.  That changed a little over a year ago when Dave Facebooked me indicating how much he had been thinking about the interviews (more than half a decade ago after they took place), how he wondered what he had said then, and how he wished he would have known then what he knew now.  I was elated about him reaching out and inquired more about his motivation to contact me.  He shared more of how much the interviews meant to him, and how I was the first person with whom he wanted to share more of his identity at the time because I was open to listening, because I wasn’t judging him, and because I wouldn’t share anything with anyone.  He trusted me as a researcher - and perfect stranger really - with some of his secrets. This exchange of messages was eye-opening to me and reaffirmed what we as educators hope for whenever we connect with a student: that we can make a difference, perhaps not noticed in the moment, but over time.  

Since reconnecting, I have interviewed Dave twice on the phone and am interviewing him once more in person in a few weeks when I am in his city.  The focus of the manuscript I will write for publication will rest on self-authorship and identity development of college men through participating in qualitative research.  

I have also since talked with others who conducted similar research with college men.  One good colleague mentioned that during a follow-up study with participants two summers ago, most of the men said the original interviews were among the most powerful experiences they had during their undergraduate careers.  One of the most powerful?!  It is telling that research participation can mean so much to students, specifically to college men.  College men are often at odds with the way they perceive to be socialized by families, schools, and society and how they may conceive of themselves.  The resulting conflict can lead to a host of concerns, chief among them the fear to show emotion or vulnerability.  Yet, the need to explore and reflect on these feelings exists and remains in men.  

Dave’s story, and those of so many other college men who participate in a variety of interpersonal, communicative, or expressive activities paint an image of positive identity development through prolonged individual or small group conversation and engagement.  Not all college educators are trained counselors or may have time to engage in qualitative research with young men.  But the rapport qualitative researchers build with participants is near synonymous with the rapport student affairs professionals or faculty must create to reach, guide, counsel, advise, teach, and mentor students.  Finding ways to engage men in deep conversation or reflection is necessary in coursework, during educational programs, during conduct or advising sessions, on alternative spring break trips or study abroad sojourns, during service learning experiences, or simply in everyday face-to-face conversation.  Research has suggested for years that critical conversation and reflection in one-on-one or small group settings may do wonders for men’s positive identity development.  Over time this kind of engagement may lead college men away from attitudes and behaviors associated with performing masculinity and becoming more self-actualized and authentic individuals.  Finally, men who have been encouraged to engage in this personal exploration and reflection may more easily commit to acting in solidarity with marginalized students on campus and members of society.  So, whether you conduct a research study with college men or sit across from them during a regular one-on-one meeting, don’t underestimate the potential influence a conversation will have on them.

Jörg Vianden is Assistant Professor of Student Affairs Administration at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.  His scholarship focuses mainly on college men and masculinities.  Please consider following him on twitter at @jvianden.


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