Higher Education and Working-class Men and Masculinities

Since the 1990s there appears to have developed an increased anxiety in the global north about the position of boys and young men. These concerns have centred on a range of issues including boys’ supposed educational ‘underachievement’ (when compared to girls), high rates of suicide, and poor mental health among young men, and boys’ involvement in offending and anti-social behaviour. The supposed lack of male role models has also been highlighted as a growing concern for educators, politicians, policy makers and those in the media. These problems have been framed as outcomes of a ‘war’ on boys or a ‘crisis’ of masculinity. However, as others have pointed out, this discourse is far from novel and has a much longer history than the current ‘crisis’ suggests. Also as feminist and pro-feminist researchers have argued, boys and young men still learn to enact power in these times of ‘crisis’. Therefore, although the generic category ‘boys’ is often used in policy and cultural commentaries, in reality it is young men from working-class backgrounds who are most often associated with this ‘crisis’ anxiety and with public fears of disorder, disrespect and delinquency around their performances of masculinity.

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These fears also seem to cross ethnic and racial boundaries. Consequently, while has been a significant debate around boys’ educational ‘underachievement’ across the global north and the difficulties young men face in the post-industrial era very little work has been conducted around the difficulties and challenges facing white and BME young men from working-class backgrounds who display alternative performances of masculinity through academic success and become ‘achieving boys’ and enter higher educational institutions.

So given this background (and some of my previous work on marginalized young men) through some contacts at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, I set up my current project to look at these issues further. In order to recruit participants for the study I have sent emails out and attended lectures to talk to students at the university about the project. I have specifically advertised for young men [or those who identity as men] who come from low-income backgrounds, or those who are the first in their family to attend university or those who are in receipt of the Canada Student Grant, which is given to those from low-income backgrounds.

So far I have been pleasantly surprised with the amount of young men who have come forward and want to speak to me. In the 3 weeks that I first advertised for participants, I have interviewed 9 participants with more lined up for the coming weeks. I have found some of these interviews challenging and as an educator, quite upsetting at times due to some of the issues disclosed in terms of educational experiences.

A key theme which seems to be developing and one that is perhaps unsurprisingly, is the financial worries the respondents are under to combine studying and part-time paid work. What I have found interesting is that all seem to acknowledge that the undergraduate degree alone is not enough. All the participants have talked about further qualifications and the need to gain at least a masters degree, which of course will incur more debt without the guarantee of a job at the end of it. What is also emerging from these interviews in terms of masculinity at university is that for many young men, the university experience offers the opportunity to perform masculinity in a different way to that of their home communities through academic labour. But this more studious performance of masculinity does not fit easily with their home communities, which are often situated in less affluent areas or with other men in their families who are in more traditional low-income ‘male’ occupations. But what is also surprising, is that the ‘bro’ culture or ‘party’ imagine of student life, for these young men at this university at least, is not engaged with. It would appear that they simply don’t have the time for it, financially or culturally.

Next week I want to dive back into writing about the world around me and I will write about one aspect of life here in Vancouver that I find difficult to deal with, homelessness.

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