When Assistant Director of Student Engagement Sam Filkins first started Masculinity Meals, he found that people couldn’t define healthy masculinity.
“Something that was problematic was, when we first started this, we asked folks ‘What does healthy masculinity look like?’ People couldn’t really give us an answer,” Filkins said. “They could just tell us what it wasn’t.”
That’s why this last Tuesday, the program brought together 11 students who identify as men in the Newman Room of the Kenyon Inn to share a meal and discuss what masculinity means to them. Masculinity Meals is part of a larger group of programs across college campuses that aim to help students rethink their masculinity. A 2016 article from Inside Higher Ed reported the rise of “masculinity groups” at other colleges like Trinity College, University of Massachusetts Amherst and University of Missouri.
Kenyon’s version comes at a time when the College is both addressing the roles of other identities on campus and confronting its own history of handling reports of sexual misconduct on campus. Three weeks ago, Kenyon made national news for student and faculty backlash against James Michael Playwright-in-Residence and Professor of Drama Wendy MacLeod’s play The Good Samaritan, which coincided with the founding of a Whiteness Group. Similar to masculinity groups, Whiteness Group encourages students to grapple with how their identities might privilege them.
Filkins did not initially set out to start a masculinity group. He originally wanted to address the lack of male participants in his leadership programs, but when a colleague told him about masculinity programs at other colleges, he changed course.
Filkins and Office of Student Engagement Intern Kelsey Trulik ’18 spent several months researching how to implement an effective masculinity group at Kenyon. They studied similar groups at other colleges, read books on masculinity and held three focus groups with Kenyon students. The first focus group consisted of only Kenyon students who identified as men and the second consisted of only Kenyon students who did not identify as men. The last group was open to all students.
“People had said they didn’t have a space where these kinds of conversations happen,” Filkins said. “We wanted to create a space that was conversation driven.”
Last Tuesday, Filkins and Trulik tested out the result of their research. The event started out with introductions and a few ground rules — Filkins urged the participants to keep what was specifically said (but not what was talked about) in the room. But otherwise, conversation was fairly unmediated.
“Taking a moment for self-reflection only happens when other people aren’t telling you how to think,” Filkins said.
Filkins began the conversation with a speed-dating activity intended to open up the group to discussions of masculinity. Participants sat in rows of chairs facing each other and held brief conversations with each other before moving one chair to their right and starting another conversation with their new partner. Filkins used questions to spark each “date.”
He sent the list of questions to the group relating to masculinity over email in case they wanted to use them outside of the event. Some of these include, “When was the last time you had an honest/vulnerable conversation with another person?” and “I am most cognizant of being masculine when…”
Over the rest of the three-course meal, participants alternated between small talk and discussions on masculinity. They addressed both how it works in their own lives and at Kenyon in general. The group was split into two tables to make the conversations more intimate. As one table discussed the intersections of race and masculinity, the other discussed how all-male environments can breed negative behavior. Filkins and Trulik sat at a separate table and mostly kept to themselves, but at the end, they were pleased with how the event went.
“The success of this program is really down to the people that participate,” Filkins said. “I think that we had a really great group tonight.”
Filkins and Trulik are prepared to keep improving the formula. In the future, they want to broaden the conversation by allowing more people to participate.
“It’s baby steps, honestly,” Trulik said. “[Filkins and I] personally do a lot of reflection between the two of us, so we’ll probably talk for a really long time tomorrow about this and see where we want to go from there.”
Ronan Elliott contributed reporting.