Today’s college men, as a group, are not doing so well — in comparison with today’s college women and with college men of the past. Many men are simply not attending college at all; and of those who matriculate, they are not graduating in large numbers, again, as compared to women and to previous generations of men. Coming out of high school, they are not as well prepared for college. They are reading less than girls and less than boys of older generations. In fact, if college admissions were gender-blind, the vast majority of students at our most selective colleges would be women.
While at college, men are less engaged in their studies and in student life, and they receive lower grades and fewer honors. (Men in STEM courses, i.e., science, technology, engineering, and math, are the exception.) On campus, they exhibit higher rates of alcohol and substance abuse and commit more social conduct violations. College men use fewer student services and are more reluctant to seek help and attend support programs. In short, men are getting less out of their college experience, and they are not taking it upon themselves to do something about it.
All that may strike us as odd, or it used to. Now it seems to be on everyone’s mind, especially parents of boys. Even a recent issue of Scouting magazine (May/June 2013) ran a cover story on how to promote literacy among boys. Historically, though, we have tended to think of men in general as powerful and privileged, and it would be reasonable to expect college men to be higher-achieving. In a society that values education and where education is often the pathway to success for the middle class, it would make sense for men to be doing better, especially with the awareness that most of our older and more prestigious colleges — the very models of higher education — were established with men in mind.
What is stranger still is that, unlike the performance of other groups, we often struggle for an explanation of college men’s experience, their lack of success. Back in 2004, I expressed it this way in an article: “When the problem of the success of college women was first articulated, we quickly developed an explanation — sexism. And when the problem of the success of college persons of color was addressed, we readily found a similar explanation — racism. But when it comes getting at the underlying cause of the lack of success of college men, we seem to be at a loss.” When feminist, critical race, and other explanatory systems were developed, they relied, in part, on differences in power to explain the experience of women, persons of color, and other oppressed groups — in other words, the relatively powerless, and not the obviously powerful. That is where men’s studies can help: both in understanding why college men may be struggling and what we can do about it.
Men’s studies is an emerging field of knowledge concerned primarily with men’s experience, identity, and development throughout the life course. In so far as it focuses on what men are (social reality); what we think men are (stereotypes); and what we would like men to be (gender ideal); men’s studies could be described as the study of masculinities. Fundamentally, it studies men as men, and not as generic human beings. In his classic essay, “The Case for Men’s Studies,” Harry Brod said it best: Men’s studies is “the study of masculinity as a specific male experience, rather than a universal paradigm for human experience.”
Following from Brod, I wrote that a “men’s studies of college men would be a study of college as a specific male experience rather than a universal human experience.” In other words, instead of talking about students we should be talking about male students, female students, etc.
At bottom, what men’s studies teaches us, and where it can play a role in improving the lives of college men, is the fundamental insight that the totality of men’s experience cannot be explained by men’s power alone. True, objectively speaking, men as a group may still have power over women as a group; however, subjectively, individual men do not necessarily feel powerful, or behave as if they were in control. That is because many men engage in harmful, self-destructive behaviors linked to messages about manhood, or feel they do not measure up to the gender ideal, or are burdened by harmful stereotypes of what it means to be a man.
They are also socialized not to express their feelings, report symptoms, reveal their vulnerability, or otherwise deal in healthy ways with their emotions. And when it comes to learning, they learn at an early age that “school is for girls.” Masculinity leaves men feeling shamed and disempowered, suffering the negative consequences of their own notions of manhood and their own aversion to female identified values and attributes.
Worse yet, after steering men in the wrong direction, masculinity — insidiously and tragically — interferes with help-seeking behavior. No wonder so many men struggle in college. On campus, college women more likely to be sober and involved and men are drinking more — and more often — and are more distracted. College women in distress are more likely to seek out counseling centers or are referred by a friend, while college men become silent or act out. Informed by men’s studies, we can better design programs and services for college men, with men in mind. Hobart College, a men’s college where I am a dean and faculty member, offers a program for first-year men, Men’s Lives, which includes four mandated workshops on sexual assault prevention, men’s health and wellness, career and family, and diversity from a men’s perspective. We believe it has made a difference in the retention and success of our college men.
In closing, nothing I have said here invalidates or is inconsistent with feminist or social justice perspectives. On the contrary, most men’s studies work is “pro-feminist,” geared toward men, but compatible with best practices for college women. Men’s studies does not bash college men or re-privilege them, but, in the words of Victor Seidler, simply asks college men to take responsibility for their actions and make the right choices for college success. To modify a phrase coined by Adrienne Rich, the role of men’s studies is to exhort us to “take men students seriously.”
Submitted by Dan Butin on September 4, 2014 - 3:00am
With the start of the academic year upon us, it may be surreal to suggest that the college course is going the way of the dinosaur. Twenty million postsecondary students are streaming back onto college campuses, filing into lecture halls, and bracing for yet another semester of study. Sure, a fair portion of them will be doing this on their laptops. But even then, they’ll still have a professor and all the trappings (a syllabus, an overarching theme, a grade that gets put on their transcript) of a traditional semester-long course.
And yet, “The very notion of a ‘class’ may be outdated.” So suggest the authors of a just-released Massachusetts Institute of Technology report. MIT has spent over a year investigating the question of the future of residential education and has begun to systematically explore, among other things, the “modularization” of the curriculum into smaller Lego-like units that can be taken apart and put together in a myriad of ways.
"This,” the report argues, “in many ways mirrors the preferences of students on campus. The unbundling of classes also reflects a larger trend in society — a number of other media offerings have become available in modules, whether it is a song from an album, an article in a newspaper, or a chapter from a textbook. Modularity also enables 'just-in-time' delivery of instruction, further enabling project-based learning on campus and for students worldwide.”
For MIT and other institutions who have come to similar conclusions (see, for example, the University of Wisconsin at Madison and Harvard University), the push comes from both the successes and challenges of digital learning technologies (such as MOOCs) that have proliferated in the last few years. But even more than that, they are well aware of what’s on the horizon.
“Might the Online Skills Academy,” muses Paul LeBlnac in a recent op-ed about the U.S. Department of Education’s “experimental sites” initiative, “be a first step to creating a new alternative pathway to a degree, one that actually creates a new higher education ecosystem that can sit beside and maybe improve our existing system?” For LeBlanc and many others, competency-based education offers a credible alternative to today’s “deeply flawed” system. “I am instead thinking about a nationally offered, extremely low-cost, competency-based model degree program that includes stackable, industry-embraced credentials.”
This, dear reader, is the beginning of the end for the college course. Not everywhere. Not for everyone. Not immediately. But for much of our current postsecondary system, much of what we do in our “chalk-and-talk” educational model can be automated and replaced by cheaper and more efficient systems. And I, for one, can’t wait to see it happen. Because, I suggest, it will allow us and force us to develop a system that sees the college course as not just the transmission of academic knowledge but as its use and transformation.
For the competency-based education (CBE) crowd, this will be about demonstrating proficiency – through portfolios, exams, or other standardized means where “time is irrelevant and mastery non-negotiable” – that shatters the monopoly of the credit hour. It suggests that the product matters, not the process. It is a one-for-one swap: forget the four years on campus; just show us that you have learned.
For the MIT crowd, this will be about finding the sweet spot of deep learning – through a blended mix of online and on-site modules, projects and courses curated by faculty and informed by the learning sciences and data analytics – that shatters the monopoly of an “is it on the exam?” student mentality (yes, it happens at MIT as well). It suggests that we must fundamentally revise the process if we are to change the product. It is backward design approach: the four years on campus are useless if you don’t come out transformed.
But in either case, the traditional course is dead.
I am not simply talking about the fact that, as the saying goes, “online education starts in the seventh row.” Sure, there is nothing to be gained from sitting in a lecture hall when you can watch the archived lecture online while pulling up a tutorial or a peer’s comments about the lecture as you go through it. I am talking about the realization that CBE and digital learning technologies give us the unique opportunity to rethink and revise our models of teaching and learning from the ground up.
I, of course, have to voice some caveats and concerns.
CBE, for all its emphasis on “mastery as non-negotiable,” has no theory of learning. CBE advocates avoid talking about how students will actually learn to demonstrate mastery. This has troubling implications for who supposedly can and can’t learn and the structural impediments to and stratification of academic success.
Similarly, MIT’s model confuses the way we learn with the way we teach. A single module is actually not like a single song, book chapter or newspaper article. A song can stand on its own, as it has a self-contained narrative arc and structure. But to see a module as a “mini-course” – kind of like a highlight reel of best lecture quotes – is to cater to a style of teaching rather than to a way of learning.
If I could mix and match these two perspectives, I might suggest that we view the MIT module in exactly the way that CBE proponents view their competencies: as transmitting information to gain highly bounded skills and knowledge that are linked explicitly to specific learning outcomes.
Think of modules more like a football player training certain fundamental skills and moves that he can then deploy automatically and fluidly and improvisationally in a game depending on the situation. Such skills and knowledge are crucial – as they form the foundation for the habits of mind and repertoires of action that we think of in experts – but they are in and of themselves almost irrelevant if they do not get used in practice. In this vision, a “course” becomes a set of mastered units of knowledge (modules) that are integrated into a project- or practice-based outcome. Put otherwise, the transmission of academic knowledge is a necessary but not sufficient condition to count as a course, which must be able to apply and transform such academic knowledge.
In either case, though, when both Southern New Hampshire University and MIT are grappling with the future of the college course – which has served as the basic unit and building block for all of higher education – we are seeing a system truly shattering. The question for all of us is what will be built up instead.
Dan Butin is dean and associate professor in the School of Education and Social Policy and executive director of the Center for Engaged Democracy at Merrimack College.