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Men in women’s studies

A male student who sued his women’s studies professor for failing him for never attending class was the subject of what I thought (as a women’s studies professor) was an extraordinary report a few weeks ago. The story revealed that, as the only man in a room full of women, Wongene Daniel Kim felt unable to attend classes. While he completed his coursework, his absence from class meant he didn’t get it back and so remained unaware that his work did not meet the required standard. When he ultimately failed the course he took his professor to court on the grounds that she had discriminated against him.

In reflecting on this report I wondered about the extent to which Kim was a “chancer of note” as well as about the questions the story raises about contemporary teaching and learning practices. In these days of the “flipped classroom”, chat rooms, discussion forums and the internet-based learning management systems that universities employ, how necessary is the physical presence of students in the classroom?

My reflection elicited a response from psychologist Kopano Ratele.

Finding the story “rather sad” Ratele drew attention to questions of group identities and how we belong — and how we don’t:

“If you were to pause for a minute and think back about the group-related experiences you have had so far, you may recognise how it touches on some of your own well-concealed anxieties about gender and other social categorisations. Or maybe they are not concealed at all. ‘Others’ make us panic. And if you are the only self-identified ‘non-other’ in a room you perceive to be full of ‘others’, it can be terrifying.”

Ratele certainly has a point. I imagine we have all felt the odd one out at some point in our lives and it is not a comfortable space at all. And, as Ratele notes, in spaces run by men, heterosexuals, whites, able-bodied persons and other hegemonic groups it is women, lesbians, blacks, disabled persons and other minoritised groups who are generally positioned as “other”.

In considering this, and to get back to Kim, it seems important to also acknowledge that Kim apparently felt no shame in his non-attendance; his absence was apparently justifiable in his own mind. He seemingly lost no status among his peers for his absenteeism. In addition he was willing and able to employ the legal system to protect him from exposure to the ”others” in the class. The ”others” in question were women, and presumably, given the subject matter, at least some would be women with feminist sympathies.

By absenting himself from class Kim thus protected himself from potential challenges to his masculine world view. On the one hand then, his ability to draw on both social and legal resources to justify his nonattendance can be read as an expression of male privilege in a society in which men are dominant.

Would, for example, the only woman in an engineering class have had access to similar social and legal resources? At the same time his ability to call on this privilege, to feel justified in absenting himself from class, denied him the opportunity to engage with and learn from ”the other”. In taking advantage of the formal and informal resources available to secure his comfort zone Kim denied himself the opportunity for the intellectual and emotional growth that emerges out of interactions with those who see and experience the world a little differently. And that is indeed sad — both for Kim himself as well as those who imagine the university as a place to promote the development of graduates who are engaged and critical citizens committed to social justice.