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Masculinities in Higher Education: Theoretical and Practical Considerations

reviewed by Marcus Weaver-Hightower - August 24, 2012

coverTitle: Masculinities in Higher Education: Theoretical and Practical Considerations
Author(s): Jason A. Laker & Tracy Davis (eds.)
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415874645, Pages: 248, Year: 2011
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The collection Masculinities in Higher Education: Theoretical and Practical Considerations is an important and useful contribution to the nascent study of masculinity within higher education practice.  It arrives at a time of deep concern about males and their post-secondary education (e.g., Weaver-Hightower, 2010), but it avoids the panicky discourses often associated with the subject.  As its editors say, the collection seeks to “challeng[e] our notions of male students and their developmental needs.  Readers are invited to revisit their professional preparation and recast long-held assumptions about male students” (p. xiii).  They explicitly target a student affairs practitioner audience, with a focus on providing a more male-positive theoretical perspective and advice for creating men’s services on college campuses.

After a general introduction that lays out the common themes, the essays are divided into three major sections.  The first section provides “Theoretical and Historical Perspectives” on masculinities in higher education.  In Chapter One Kimmel and Davis build on Kimmel’s (2008) influential book on college-age men, Guyland, to build a conceptual basis for how men are socialized in North America, including describing the “guy code” and the structures that maintain it.  Chapter Two, by O’Neil and Crapser, is a standout contribution to the literature on college men, for it thoroughly reviews empirical studies that support the urgent need for men’s services on campuses.  It also builds a new model that fuses gender role conflict theory and Chickering & Reisser’s (1993) famous student developmental vectors.  In the third chapter, Harris and Barone detail the myths and misconceptions that staff and faculty often have about male students and about creating men’s services.  They advocate for a more positive approach to male students, building on exemplars of progressive masculinity as models for other students.  Chapter Four, by Laker, similarly challenges student affairs specialists to avoid “bad dog” approaches that shame and alienate men, replacing these instead with inviting and inspiring approaches.  Overall, the essays in section one admirably present nuanced theoretical lenses on masculinities and explore the challenges of developing campus programming for males.

The second section, “Identity Intersections with Masculinities,” explores intersectionalities—the idea that individuals hold multiple identities (race, sexuality, gender, religion, class, and so on) that complexly intertwine and take on differing priorities based on context.  The focus on intersectionalities is perhaps most holistically demonstrated in Chapter Five, by Harper, Wardell and McGuire, which presents a detailed case study of Tyson, an undergraduate who is gay, biracial, between two socioeconomic statuses, academically inclined, spiritual, and in a fraternity.  The authors show well how all of these identities cause their own complications as well as combine to create either ambiguity or dissonance for the student.  Beth Berila’s Chapter Six then focuses specifically on queer masculinities, exploring the difficulties and joys of college men who are developing their homosexual, bisexual, or transgender identities and relationships.  Chapter Seven, by Reed, then shifts the focus to socioeconomic status (SES), showing the ways in which class, particularly for white low-SES men, impacts not just enrolling in college but persisting once there.  Chapter Eight by Gerschick examines disabilities, one of the most under-researched topics of masculinities in education.  In addition to providing statistics about the presence and performance of men with disabilities in college, Gerschick provides valuable strategies for creating student life programs to assist these men.   Altogether, the second section’s essays provide compelling arguments for inclusive approaches that avoid programming that treats all men as if they were the same and were similarly privileged.

The final section of essays, “Effective Interventions with College Men,” takes an “overtly pragmatic view” (p. xiv) to explore and give suggestions on various facets of the student affairs portfolio.  Chapter Nine by Davis, LaPrad, and Dixon argues for working with men in groups—particularly utilizing shared activities such as outdoor education and service learning—to reinterpret masculinity with college men.  Berkowitz’s Chapter 10 further suggests working with men using a social norms approach, giving men insight into their misperceptions about other men.  If we can show men that their peers are not actually as supportive of sexual assault, violence, substance abuse, and homophobia as the men think, he contends, they will be less likely to do such behaviors themselves as a way to gain acceptance.  Chapter 11 by Courtenay presents a six-point best practices plan for health providers that seeks to improve men’s services at campus health centers; it is a gender-specific approach to both provider-patient interaction and marketing and outreach.  Next, Ludeman in Chapter 12 considers ways that universities’ judicial processes, instead of delegating emotional development to counseling services, can incorporate emotional learning into their disciplinary schemes.  In the final chapter, Wagner does the important work of considering the complications for women doing development work with men, a key consideration given that the majority of student affairs practitioners are women.  Her chapter provides rare, emotionally honest insight into the tensions of such work.  In all, the book’s third section raises key issues for practitioners to consider when creating men’s services on their campuses.

The book as a whole is both diverse in topics and consistent in quality and focus, an inherent challenge for edited collections.  The editors have done an exemplary job of bringing together accomplished scholars and practitioners, and the editors have assembled a collection that flows logically from chapter to chapter and that includes the most pressing topics.

Also noteworthy, many of the contributors press for positive, anti-deficit approaches to masculinity work.  Much like Harper’s work on positive images of African American males (e.g., Harper, 2006), this collection exemplifies a larger movement toward utilizing role models and positive aspects of masculinity to help men build from strength, an improvement, to my mind, from approaches that engender immediate resistance by chiding participants for the negative behaviors of men in general.  This positive approach is, of course, not without its theoretical and practical complications, for which the authors to varying degrees and with varying success try to account.  

The contributors also accomplish well one of the primary missions of the collection: making a case for pursuing men’s programming as a complement to rather than a detraction from women’s services.  Each essay lays out compelling problems that disproportionately affect men, and many argue well for reconceptualizing men’s services as a help to those oppressed by hegemonic masculinities rather than as a resource-draw within a zero-sum game.  Such reconceptualizing will prove crucial if men’s centers, groups, and interventions are to be created and to survive.

All the contributors ably use contemporary sociological and psychological studies of masculinities—particularly from the critical social justice tradition—to frame the collection.  One can perhaps, however, fault the contributors for neglecting a large body of literature that could have informed both their theoretical and practical intents: scholarship on masculinities in elementary and secondary schools.  While Laker’s chapter makes passing mention of this scholarship, the contributors have almost completely eschewed the deep existing knowledges about masculinity in educational contexts found in the pre-K-12 literature—as if there could be nothing extrapolated from it to men who are, in many cases, only a few years older.  

It would also have been helpful for the contributors to better account for the tremendous differences between types of higher education institutions that the audience for the book might be serving.  Smaller or rural institutions, especially, will find little help in adapting some of the ideas for practice presented in the collection.  

While the volume contains a great deal of fodder for productive and heated discussion, particularly controversial for some readers will be the general proposition across most of the essays that a focus on socialization and men’s roles should replace the focus on individual men.  As one among many illustrations, Harris and Barone in Chapter Three assert that

If we can address issues related to men and masculinities from a system level, we can help people understand that the problem is not men, it is the systems through which we are all socialized that contributes to oppressive forces serving to confine everyone’s creativity and common humanity. (p. 52)

Many of the authors are appropriately quick with caveats to avoid the impression that they are excusing individuals’ violent or oppressive behavior, but such statements about men as seemingly equally victimized by socialization always come across (to my ear, at least) as ignoring power and privilege asymmetries between males and females and as undervaluing the tremendous agency that individual men have to resist such socialization.  To be fair, it is a complicated and tense argument to attempt; the authors are trying to move people beyond seeing only individual fault at play in what is clearly a widely distributed masculinity regime that encourages violence, sexism, heterosexism, and risk-taking behavior like binge drinking.  The danger is that some might read this as saying that males are mainly victims of their socialization and simply in need of consciousness raising.

While such critiques are not insignificant, most can be blamed on the infancy of the field the collection is entering, and these critiques do not diminish the very real accomplishment the volume represents.  Masculinities in Higher Education makes a superb contribution to the literature on student affairs practice, and it is one of the most theoretically sophisticated books to date on masculinities for higher education practitioners.


Chickering, A. W., & Reisser, L. (1993). Education and identity (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Harper, S. R. (2006). Peer support for African American male college achievement: Beyond internalized racism and the burden of “acting White”. Journal of Men's Studies, 14(3), 337-358. doi: 10.3149/jms.1403.337

Kimmel, M. S. (2008). Guyland: The perilous world where boys become men. New York, NY: Harper.

Weaver-Hightower, M. B. (2010, May/June). Where the guys are: Males in higher education. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 29-35.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 24, 2012
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16855, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 8:50:51 AM

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About the Author
  • Marcus Weaver-Hightower
    University of North Dakota
    E-mail Author
    MARCUS B. WEAVER-HIGHTOWER is associate professor of Educational Foundations and Research at the University of North Dakota. His research focuses on gender and education debates internationally, masculinity studies, food politics, and the politics and sociology of education. He is a former high school English teacher and the author of The Politics of Policy in Boys’ Education: Getting Boys “Right” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) and co-editor, with Sarah Robert, of School Food Politics: The Complex Ecology of Hunger and Feeding in Schools Around the World (Peter Lang, 2011), and, with Wayne Martino and Michael Kehler, of The Problem with Boys’ Education: Beyond the Backlash (Routledge, 2009).
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