Last year, using area middle schools as his real-life classroom, Tappan set out to explore the role that cultural messages and stereotypes about masculinity play in the lives of boys and young men.
"Our goal was to begin a conversation about masculinity," Tappan said, "about what it means to be a 'real boy' or a 'real man,' and to begin to address both the pressures and the privileges that boys and men face in contemporary society."
Working with his students, Tappan linked with junior high schools in Winslow and Fairfield to provide a safe environment for boys to explore pervasive messages and stereotypes. Last spring, students in Tappan's course, Boys to Men, played host to a one-day conference on campus to address these issues in an interactive program. It was the first step in what Tappan knows will be a long and arduous process.
Tappan has collaborated with a Portland-based group, also called Boys to Men (www.boystomen.info), whose purpose is to educate young men on the dangers of gender stereotyping. Among its goals is promoting respect and reducing gender-related violence. Boys to Men board members include David Vaughan '77, a teacher at Waynflete School in Portland.
Keegan Albaugh 07J, left, with students at Winslow Junior High School. At right is Mark Tappan, professor of education, who is exploring issues relating to gender stereotypes for adolescent boys.
Photo by Fred Field
Photo by Fred Field
Tappan, his students, and organizations such as Boys to Men are addressing an area of longstanding concern in the United States"and for good reason. An estimated four million women each year are victims of serious violence perpetrated by an intimate domestic partner. One woman in three experiences at least one physical assault from a domestic partner during adulthood, according to the American Bar Association's Commission on Domestic Violence.
There is also a heightened concern about bullying and violence in U.S. schools. "Most of the bully-prevention curricula don't really address the gendered nature of bullying," Tappan said. "For boys, bullying is related to both the privileges and the pressures they experience as males in this culture. Boys often take those pressures out on others who are less powerful, and the nature of these expectations and pressures bear a relationship to how and why boys bully."
Keegan Albaugh '07J, who works closely with Tappan on the project and also works with boys at the Alfond Youth Center and the South End Teen Center in Waterville, says it's critical to provide kids with a venue to talk about important issues that don't really come up in school or at home. "The workshops provide an opportunity to take some of the issues and pressures and talk about them," Albaugh said.
Mike Pendleton, a student at Winslow Junior High School, said the boys in the group are beginning to communicate. "It's nice to talk about things like what's going on at home and know it is confidential," Pendleton said. "And it's also nice to hang out with friends and have the security of knowing that what you say won't be spread throughout the school."
And that is a start. "You have to start moving the wheel, and that's what we are doing right now," Albaugh said.
Boys encounter intense gender-related pressures earlier in their lives than girls, Tappan said. For that reason he's focusing his efforts on middle-school boys in hopes of engaging an audience that is still open to new ideas. With the support of Winslow Junior High School guidance counselor Penny Linn '73, Tappan and his students initiated a weekly discussion group for eighth-grade boys last fall. Some of the concepts would be lost on younger boys, Tappan said, but waiting until high school to introduce these topics may be too late. Male ideals of control and stoicism are introduced to boys at an early age and reinforced throughout adolescence, he said.
"Boys face these issues from early on and from a variety of cultural and environmental influences, but it is not until middle school that they are able to cognitively reflect upon them," Tappan said. "We want the boys to be aware and see where the pressures come from and help them develop some language and tools that allow them to deal with the culture as it comes their way."
Ultimately the goal is to challenge and resist traditional and conventional definitions of masculinity that are both limiting and constraining for many boys and that promote male privilege and power.
Until that happens, boys will continue to fight back tears in public, but through the efforts of Tappan and his students, more students will be able to overcome gender pressures defined by society.
"Will the boys practice what we are teaching right now? Probably not," said Linn, the guidance counselor. "Down the road, as they mature, they will be aware of the stereotypes and gender issues and hopefully make good choices and define roles according to their own beliefs."