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Researching and Writing about Masculinities in HE English: A case study

Ben Knights

Professor Knights is Director of HEA's English Subject Centre

How to reference this page


As an example of discipline-based pedagogic research, this page aims both to exemplify and build upon the entry English in Higher Education: a case study. That article foresaw the potential for fruitful collaboration in pedagogic research between a text and language-based discipline and social science methodologies. Productive crossover may be possible in the borders where qualitative research and the study of discourse meet. In other words, a disciplinary propensity for narrative enquiry may be put to work in the scholarship of teaching and learning.

This entry assumes both that discourses have material consequences, and that academic disciplines may be ‘read' as themselves discourses which have perlocutionary force in inviting students and teachers to occupy and perform subject identities. On that basis learners and teachers enter into tacit or overt negotiation over the terms of entry into a disciplinary community of practice. (Terms which may of course be refused or subverted by actual students.) The specific topic here is the performance of masculinity within a particular discipline. The article charts dilemmas and conundrums emerging from a particular project (ed. Knights 2007) rather than offering clear-cut solutions.


We next briefly consider the question why English as a subject should be interested in masculinities. And thus implicitly another one concerning why anyone else should be interested in the case of English.

While it is relatively easy to collect broad-brush statistics on the gender make-up of HE disciplines, the significance of the resulting ratios within a disciplinary landscape – let alone within the larger culture - is notoriously harder to determine. English and Modern European Languages attract very many more women than men (72.1% and 66% respectively at undergraduate level), Physics and Engineering very many more men (79.5% and 85% respectively). Medicine has quite recently seen the emergence of a female majority. (See footnote 1). These phenomena have implications for widening participation initiatives, and are themselves apt to fuel public policy debate. Since English as a subject community is widely seen as in some sense the guardian of the language and of the literary heritage, the question of who studies it and how has implications beyond the subject itself. ‘Stakeholders' in English comprise varied and dispersed communities. While panic-stricken debates about boys and reading recur in the media, the gendering of reading and of English in primary and secondary education has been the subject of fairly extensive research (Mac An Ghaill 1994, Martino 1995, 2000, 2006, Millard 1997, Paechter 1998). There are suggestive grounds for thinking that how children and young people value reading and the nature of their engagement with the written word may be implicated not only in their wider success as learners, but in how, in Paechter's phrase, they ‘learn gender' (cf. Paechter

Despite the body of work on primary and secondary education, we know much less in any systematic way about the minority of males who study English in HE (for an exception, see Kim Thomas 1990). This article does not make the assumption that these men constitute a kind of oppressed minority. Rather, that the relatively small group of men who study the subject are widely experienced (by teachers and by fellow students) as exercising a disproportionate influence, and have (until comparatively recently) had much greater relative success in advancing through postgraduate work to academic positions. Even with anonymised marking, men typically gain a disproportionate number of the first class degrees awarded in the subject. One way of figuring the history of the subject in HE points to the establishment of a professionalised form of reading, one which historically aimed to supervise and regulate what had conventionally been seen as female cognitive styles (emotional empathy, identification, communicative nurture) and subject matters (subjectivity, relationships, the family) (Knights 2005). For all these reasons, then, there are questions that English as a subject needs to ask itself. In the case of a subject that studies narrative, symbolism, and subjective processes, those questions are likely to have implications beyond its own borders.

In inviting a number of colleagues in Britain and North America to collaborate in writing a joint book on ‘masculinities in text and teaching', I was pursuing a longer term project which spilled across the boundaries of literary and cultural criticism into the domain of teaching. This project investigates a disjunction within the disciplinary culture. While much excellent critical and historical work has been carried on within the discipline on the representation of masculinities in literature, language, and culture, the construction of masculinity within the pedagogic habits of the discipline itself has remained largely invisible. (See for example the special issue of Men and Masculinities 4.4. [2002] on ‘Literary Masculinities' (See footnote 2 )). Together, we were attempting to carry out, in relation to English, the programme of ‘making masculinity visible' embedded in Michael Kimmel's ‘Integrating Men into the Curriculum'

In doing so, we as a group found ourselves re-enacting the problems of ‘doing scholarship of teaching' within a discipline. Some of the implications of disciplinary assumptions in relation to the Humanities have been explored by Bass and Linkon (2008), and we shall return to these below. Inevitably the pre-occupations and design of such research projects are shaped by what are to some extent disciplinary assumptions about audience and objectives. Thus in this instance, we assumed that our prime object was to raise the tacit assumptions and procedures of HE teachers to the level of conscious awareness in order to bring about change in the teaching of the discipline. (Change which might well extend to the review of widening participation policies.) But in doing so, we made two perhaps very English-based assumptions. 1) that behaviours and classroom languages are themselves sign systems and can thus be ‘read' on the analogy of texts; 2) that the researcher / writer may raise awareness, but it is then up to the reader to decide what s/he actually does on the basis of their new or sharpened perceptions. So we took it for granted that we could apply our own analytical skills to teaching occasions, but equally that our role was not to make pedagogic or policy recommendations. Disciplinary beliefs about reading (either text or behaviours) and about the extremely oblique and contested relationship between reading and behaviour created (and may in some respects have limited) our horizon of possibility. In other words, the tacit epistemological assumptions of the discipline – in this case that heightened perception is a good in itself - are likely to affect the ways in which the discipline can itself be researched.

Doing the research

We shall next touch on the process of making the collection, and finish by briefly suggesting some of the ways in which this project could be developed and enriched. As noted, this project turned at one level into a case study in the opportunities and drawbacks of trying to carry out pedagogic research within a discipline. As editor, my intention was to explore the immersion of textuality in the group and gender dynamics of study. My assumption was that teachers need critical resources to process their own experience as much as they do to think about their scholarly subject matters. Pedagogic procedures (while they come to be taken for granted within disciplines) are never simply transparent vehicles for the exchange or transmission of a certain quantity of knowledge. Furthermore, they reflect and enact epistemological assumptions and traditions of enquiry within the discipline. For the English disciplines (and I suspect the principle can be extended to others) the pedagogic performance of the subject and its scholarly procedures are intimately if often obscurely linked. Thus the hypothesis of this particular study was that ‘English' is the scene of a largely covert process of gendering. In this light, the object of the study was to enable teachers (and potentially students) to gain understanding of the discipline as a site for the production of masculinities.

Clearly, one way of proceeding (but one that at the time I was ill-equipped to carry out) would have been empirical study based on the analysis of interviews of the kind carried out some years ago by Kim Thomas (Thomas 1990). And indeed, I hope that the collection might provide a foundation for such studies in the future. But what emerged was a programme that attempted to weave together critical writing (of the kind with which English academics are familiar) with experiential reflection on the teaching situation. The contributions all displayed in different (and suggestive) ways a tension between the conventional critical essay and reflection on teaching. This is a recurrent issue in English, even with studies purportedly about practice (for an earlier example, see Still and Worton 1993). But wherever the chapters ended up at different points on this spectrum, the reflections proceeded from the perspective of teachers. Many student voices can be ‘heard' in the ensuing volume, but on the whole they have been mediated through the memories and interpretations of their teachers. (One exception is Ruth Page's study of students writing for the web, which, interestingly, failed to confirm many ‘commonsense' stereotypes about masculine and feminine predilections in narrative.) This exception notwithstanding, the broad observation connects directly to the case articulated by Bass and Linkon (2008). Their argument is that while ‘English' can and should apply its strengths in ‘close reading' to the scholarship of teaching and learning, it does not actually go far enough. They analyse several instances from Pedagogy 7.3 to demonstrate that

… substantive use of student writing is unusual in the pages of Pedagogy . More commonly, we found that evidence of student thinking and learning plays an important role in the overall argument, but the way that it plays that role is rather hidden, in ways peculiar to the Humanities. (254)

Student learning is represented, in fact, by ‘diegesis' – recounted by a quasi-authoritative narrator, as something that takes place, so to speak, off stage. Reflective teachers thus seem to play the role of authors of fiction, creating plots and disposing characters in ways that substantiate their overall vision. This is not in the least to deny the potential richness of experiential reflection on the part of teachers. But it does suggest one direction to look if we want to introduce wider perspectives on the experience of learning. For while English (and I include myself in this observation) is hospitable to the ‘otherness' of the text, it seems to have more difficulty with the ‘otherness' of the student. More broadly, this might suggest that one area to look when thinking about pedagogic research in the disciplines is towards disciplinary conventions about the authorisation, so to speak, of research findings – how they are legitimised or gain authority will vary from one community to another.

Running through this study is the idea that academic disciplines are always in process, and that this process is one in which both students and teachers engage. In the case of English this is also a negotiation – even at times a struggle - for discursive power over the forms of authority embedded in culture. It thus became necessary to frame the study in such a way as to foreground these elements threaded through the separate chapters. Martino agreed to supply a chapter which – in focusing on the experience of men who have elected to train as English teachers – provided a crossover between his work on schools and the pedagogic fashioning of HE. (see Martino's two paper's Deconstructing Masculinity in the English Classroom: a site for reconstituting gendered subjectivity and Mucking Around in Class, Giving Crap, and Acting Cool: Adolescent Boys Enacting Masculinities at School) This chapter then provided a framework for thinking about the formation of gendered identities within a disciplinary culture. In this light, the ensuing sequence of short reflective chapters could be seen as examining the actual as well as potential dynamic interaction within learning spaces. The authors thus collectively gave examples of students and teachers engaged in negotiation over power within the subject - a covert (and on occasion overt) struggle for control of the subject and the learning space which can (see Dooley's chapter) shade into a struggle over preferred values for masculinity . That so much within the nature of the subject questions hegemonic masculinity (and stable gender identities more generally) makes it a space of anxiety and ambiguity. This in turn can lead academics and students to carry out elaborate rituals of defence in an attempt to regulate what is widely perceived as what Martino refers to as a ‘feminized learning area' (2007). Substance and forms of study operate in perpetual negotiation over dominant meanings. Policing activity may be carried on by students as well as by teachers, and in what I have heard referred to as a ‘sissy subject', much of this policing work seems to take place over definitions of ‘normal' masculinity. Tempting as it may sometimes be, we must nevertheless not stereotype (nor attribute simplistically to biological males and females) ‘masculine' or ‘feminine' attributes, or levels of articulateness and confidence (see Jocelyn et al. 2004).

Implications for further research

The implication is not that we should abandon this kind of study as too ‘teacher-centred', or too empirically uninformed. English as a subject is committed both to what one might think of as judicious subjectivity and to interpretative speculation, and such speculations invite testing by individuals against their own experience. But ‘judicious subjectivity' and the ability of English teachers to ‘read' their circumstances need to be supplemented and enhanced. Such approaches sometimes need a ‘reality check' through juxtaposition with other forms of evidence-gathering and analysis. One source would be the systematic filming / recording and analysis of teaching situations of the kind being carried out in the English Subject Centre ‘Production of University English' project at the University of Keele and see Bruce, Jones and McLean 2007). Another would be to carry out surveys and interviews with students and teachers in a variety of different institutional settings in order to access the fine grain of the experience of male learners and of those on whom they impact.

Footnote 1 : UK students. HESA figures 06-07. I am grateful to Jane Gawthrope for helping me access the figures.

Footnote 2 : It is noteworthy that articles about education in Men and Masculinities are rare. The journal gives more attention to health and to sport than it does to education.


Bass, Randall and Sherry Lee Linkon ‘On the Evidence of Theory: Close Reading as a Disciplinary Model for Writing about Teaching and Learning'. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 7.3 2008. 245-61.

Beynon, John. Masculinities and Culture . Buckingham: Open University Press. 2002.

Bruce, Susan, with Ken Jones and Monica McLean. ‘Some Notes on a Project: Democracy and Authority in the Production of a Discipline.' Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture . 7.3: 481 – 500. 2007.

Connell, Robert W. Masculinities . Cambridge : Polity Press. 1995.

_______________ The Men and the Boys . Cambridge : Polity Press. 2000.

Davies, Bronwyn. ‘Constructing and Deconstructing Masculinities Through Critical Literacy'. Gender and Education . 9.1. 1997: 9 – 30.

Kauko, Miriam, with Sylvia Mieszkowski and Alexandra Tischel (eds.). Gendered Academia: Wissenschaft und Geschlechterdifferenz 1890 – 1945 . Göttingen: Wallstein. 2005.

Kimmel, Michael. ‘Masculinity as Homophobia: Fear, Shame, and Silence in the Construction of Gender Identity'. In Whitehead and Barrett. 2001.

Knights, Ben. ‘ Reading as a Man: Women and the Rise of English Studies in England '. In (eds.) Kauko and Mieszkowski. 2005.

__________ (ed.) Masculinities in Text and Teaching . Basingstoke : Palgrave. 2007.

Mac An Ghaill, Mairtin. The Making of Men: Masculinities, Sexualities and Schooling . Buckingham: Open University. 1994.

______________ (ed.) Understanding Masculinities: Social Relations and Cultural Arenas . Buckingham: Open University Press. 1996.

Martino, Wayne. ‘Deconstructing Masculinity in the English Classroom: a Site for Reconstituting Gendered Subjectivity'. Gender and Education 7.2. 205 – 220.1995.

____________ ‘Mucking Around in Class, Giving Crap, and Acting Cool: Adolescent Boys Enacting Masculinity in School'. Canadian Journal of Education 25.2. 102 – 112. 2000.

Martino, Wayne, and Frank Blye. ‘The Tyranny of Surveillance: Male teachers and the Policing of English in a Single Sex School '. Gender and Education . 18.1. 2006: 17 – 33.

Millard, Elaine. Differently Literate: Boys, Girls and the Schooling of Literacy . London : Routledge. 1997

Paechter, Carrie. Educating the Other: Gender, Power and Schooling . London : Falmer. 1998.

Robson, Jocelyn, Becky Francis and Barbara Read. ‘Gender, Student Confidence and Communicative Styles at University'. Studies in Higher Education. 29.1. 2004: 7 – 23

Still, Judith and Michael Worton (eds.). Textuality and Sexuality: Reading Theories and Practices . Manchester : Manchester University Press. 1993.

Thomas, Kim. Gender and Subject in Higher Education . Buckingham: Open University Press. 1990.

Whitehead, Stephen M. and Frank J. Barrett. The Masculinities Reader . Cambridge : Polity. 2001.

How to reference this page: Knights, B. (2007) Researching and writing about masculinities in HE English: A case study, London: TLRP. Online at (accessed )

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