The Northeast Modern Language Association (NeMLA) meets this weekend at Tufts University. I will present a paper on male-positive approaches to teaching at the undergraduate level. For a variety of reasons, males now have a bad reputation that precedes them before matriculating. Sadly, in too many classrooms negative, stereotypic generalizations about males are voiced by faculty and echoed perhaps reluctantly by some female students. Here I invoke what is today called misandry, a generalized contempt for men that has been documented in a series of three heavy volumes (so far) published by McGill-Queens University Press for Paul Nathanson and Katherine Young. In her book, "The War Against Boys," the philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers has spoken out on a related view of boys, who are now regularly depicted as defective girls, echoing the complementary psychoanalytic disparagement that for a century saw girls as defective boys, based on Freud’s view of femininity that in turn echoed a history of viewing females as inferior to males and minimizing their strengths. Happily, we have gotten past all that, but something comparable is now being experienced by boys and young men that girls and young women had to endure for an unconscionably long time.
Given their predisposition to be brief, their sensitivity to the assessment of young women, the negative reputation that precedes them, the onus placed on young males who are as verbal as most girls, and the experience of being less valued and sometimes disparaged in the classroom, boys have gone silent in great numbers in undergraduate classrooms. One statistical prediction suggests that the last bachelor’s degree awarded to a male will be handed over to him in 2025.
What should their professors do? What do I do? I will make some general recommendations, which will provide the background for a review of some of my own practices.
Like my wonderful grade-school teachers, we must recognize the differences between young males and young females in their ways of experiencing the world and expressing what they can of that experience. Second, we must vigorously refuse to sanction or commit acts of stereotyping boys just as we refused to do that regarding girls beginning in the 1970s. Third, we must take seriously the idea that, given some common tendencies, each boy is different. That will account for the fact that some boys are very talkative in class. (I was.) Fourth, we must counteract the felt experience of most boys that I have inferred based on their behavior, namely, that many now feel not especially welcome and perhaps intruders on campus, in the lecture hall, or seminar room. We must openly note their withdrawal (which has become patent), question it, and encourage boys to speak, not to the disadvantage of any girl’s offering a contribution to the discussion but as a corrective to the relative quiet of these seemingly autistic boys.
I will stress that being a male is relevant to these practices (both for the boys and for the girls, for different reasons and with different effects), but as in the examples of my own teachers as had as a young boy I could give, the fact that they were all women was not relevant. Nor should it be in today’s college classrooms. (Where I teach, our 100 full-time faculty are exactly 50 men and 50 women.) Only that my teachers as a boy were a certain kind of person who happened to be a woman was relevant. Similarly, a certain kind of male or female undergraduate professor is to be desired now, a person who is as unashamedly male-positive as he or she is female-positive.
I now do for the boys in my classes what I did with the girls in my classes in the 1970s and 1980s when they were entering the disquisitional fray of college life in greater numbers and were often shy, not yet sure if they were welcome. I often now favor the boys as I often favored the girls then. Just as I did not assume that the “co-eds” (as we called them) were less apt and articulate than the boys, I do not now assume that the boys are inept and can’t put together an utterance, although that is what, sadly, we have been told in recent years and what their behavior often intimates.
In short, I am male-positive at a time when boys are undervalued as I was female-positive when girls were not yet valued enough on campus. At the same time I remind myself that most boys tend to say less and am content with a brief communication from them. However, I often have to press them to speak, maybe urge them to say a bit more, and see what I can salvage of what the average sophomore conjures up. I occasionally convey to a class that intelligence is not gendered while hinting that ways of expressing oneself as a male or as a female are, both by disposition and as a result of socialization. I may then do a head count and point to the fewer number of boys in the class. A cursory indication of what is obvious is adequate, unless it has bearing on the topic we are considering (for example, in a psychology class where we might be talking about the play styles of male and female children or the “nature/nurture” debate).
I will offer an example of pro-male pedagogic practice from an imaginary undergraduate “Language and Rhetoric” class. I think it will work just as well in a seminar on Chaucer or Twentieth-century Women Poets.
Often enough, the Western canon is condemned as being bereft of contributions by women and therefore has been increasingly discarded even at liberal arts colleges. Everything from the pre-Platonics and early Greek dramatists to literature up to 1960 (when gender was invented) was androcentric. So goes the claim. I might respond when hearing this from a bright undergraduate by reminding my class that while the canon was authored mostly by males, these men did not write about most men’s experience but only about the behavior of that small group of males who were politically powerful as a result of lording it over women, children and most other men and boys, and, of course, writing the books about the munificence and magnificence of their own behavior. With few exceptions—found in the work of the poets—the experience of these men (again, I stress, most men) has not been explored. Male experience (including that of the chief honchos by the way) remains an unwritten text. There is everything to read about their behavior, but scarcely anything about their experience. And as for the experience of the blokes, it remains mostly a mystery.
I would then say to my class: “Most of you boys in this class will, like me, not gain any power over anyone, especially now when power is allocated more and more without regard to gender. Moreover, you should remember that the power enjoyed by heroes, kings and presidents, bureaucrats and senators did not necessarily imply power over their own lives. But that sort of power is the only real power, isn’t it? If you died in the line of duty as a hero, you were not a man with real power. Real power—power over one’s own life—has been denied to most men, as soldiers, as (until quite recently) the principal wage earners in a household, and as men who gave up much to the benefit of their partners, spouses and children. And, in view of this (to modify a title, the title of a novel by James Agee): Let us now praise most men—not famous men, but most men.” I think this might make the boys in that class feel better about themselves and make them more real to the girls who sit beside them and for the most part like them, after all is said and done.