By Laura Sweeney
My journey with this question began when I accepted the Women’s Studies 160 teaching assistantship the summer of 2010. The program was addressing the shift in title to the ‘Women’s and Gender Studies Program’. I had witnessed men in my graduate Women’s Studies classes drop out like an epidemic, and was curious how the program would become more inclusive.
I became aware of the class in 2006, when I sought advice and resources from the Women’s Center about my harassment case. The director told me about the one-credit workshop she had designed. This seven-session, half-semester class was social justice intervention in a male-centric university privileging athletes, scientists, and engineers, while programs like the Women’s Center struggled to remain viable.
Fed up with the lip-service given to anti-discrimination practices related to my case, a co-ed interdisciplinary course that opened discussion on gender justice appealed to me.
I taught five classes over four semesters. To provide balance, I chose to co-teach with a male instructor. My female students included psychology or human development majors, some victims themselves. Most of my male students were ‘reluctant learners’- the engineer who needed to pick up writing skills, or the athlete who needed one credit to stay on the team.
Our weekly conversations included topics such as upstander/bystander behavior, gendered language, and the five faces of oppression. As a teaching artist, I added excerpts about Judy Chicago’s feminist art. As a social scientist, I added current affairs articles. As a survivor, I preached prevention, protection, prosecution.
I clearly reached many students. Some would start the course sitting in the back row, but, following the week I shared my survivor narrative, moved to the front row. Others were able to confess in their papers to being stalked, molested, or raped.
The major challenge I encountered was the male students who complained, “You don’t know a thing about men.” They felt stigmatized, particularly regarding their male privilege, even though I emphasized that this seminar was not about male-bashing. Those resisting included a body builder from St. Louis, who I could have flunked for hostility; two men from the Carolinas who listened to Rush Limbaugh; and a Kenyan runner who showed a celebration of female circumcision as his cultural artifact.
“The major challenge I encountered was the male students who complained, ‘You don’t know a thing about men.’ “My co-instructor reassured me their anger was misdirected; resistance was their defense. So, when the WS 160 group leader secured funding to support four delegates to attend the Second World Conference on Women’s Shelters, I prioritized learning male-friendly strategies.
The conference provided exposure to international educators and leaders, concerned about how to engage men’s motivations, empathy, and values to reduce violence against women worldwide. Sessions included the U.S. Violence Against Women Act, the Rwanda Polyclinic of Hope Model, and the use of feminist popular education to redefine peace in Brazil.
Afterwards, I shared with my class several examples of male involvement in the movement. In their own sphere of influence anti-sexist, pro-feminist initiatives could involve activities like pink ribbon campaigns or slut walks. One of my hecklers admitted that while consciousness about gay rights and transgender issues has increased, the male-female relationship continues to perplex. He might be willing to try on high heels for the cause.
The real turning point came when I supplemented the curriculum with materials offering multiple perspectives on men’s experiences. I found a research article titled Caring, Romantic American Boys. I reached back to a popular recording from my childhood titled Free to Be You and Me with vignettes about a boy playing with dolls, and a famous football player with a female name. I added Jimmy Santiago Baca’s ‘Crying Poem’ about cultural norms and men’s emotions. I included a YouTube clip about Zach Wahls, an adopted son of lesbian parents. We talked about male rape and the Penn State Case. When one of my dissenters suggested, “This class should be required for every student,” I felt like I’d hit a homerun.
I tell my students, “I have been helped as much by men as by women, I have been hurt as much by women as by men.” I believe in sharing my feminist journey as advocacy, but I’ve learned that a holistic gender justice education needs to engage men as part of the solution to ending discrimination and violence. We need spaces of empowerment for both genders. This isolated, underfunded, undervalued Gender Justice course is one such opportunity.
This piece originally appeared on The Good Men Project.
Laura Sweeney co-facilitates Writers for Life which offers grant-funded creative writing workshops to diverse populations throughout central Iowa. She represented the Iowa Arts Council at the First International Teaching Artist’s Conference in Oslo, Norway. Her recent and forthcoming publications include poems in The Daily Palette, Poetica, and Pilgrimage, and an essay in the anthology Farmscape: The changing rural environment.
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