In high school, my history teacher assigned us to read Miracle at Philadelphia. This was before SparkNotes, and I had recently changed my copy of The Great Gatsby to read “The Okay Gatsby” before refusing to read that book either.
I knew there was no chance I was reading this either. If I couldn’t make it through Gatsby, a book featuring drinking and murder, I knew there was no chance that one about signing a piece of paper was going to hold my interest.
At this time, however, I was also doing fairly poorly in school. I had scored in the sixties and seventies on my vocabulary tests. I had failed to read any of my previous summer reading books, so most of those tests didn’t go so well. I hadn’t done a single geometry homework assignment (sorry, Mom).
Because of this, I felt a tremendous amount of pressure. My older brother, in college, had breezed through high school. I wasn’t athletic enough or cool enough to not go to class and hangout at “The Ashtray” all day, smoking cigarettes.
I needed to do well, but at the same time, I wasn’t motivated, so I didn’t. A friend of mine in the same boat as me challenged me. I like competition, so I bought in. I was willing to read the book, if it meant beating him.
Except I fell behind. Tuesday came and he was already thirty pages in. By the end of the week, he was a third of the way through the book. So I started lying. Suddenly, I was “half way through” and then “at the conclusion.” We both finished the book in record time!
The only problem was that neither of us read the book. At all.
He thought I was reading it, so he made it up. I thought he was, so I made it up.
I have been looking for an example of a phenomenon known as “context-bound gendered social norms” that leads to male misbehavior in college (Harper, Harris & Mmeje, 2005), and it occurred to me there was one in my history.
Context-bound gendered social norms is a large-worded way of saying that we have misconceptions of what the normal behavior is versus our own behavior. Based on that perceived gap, we alter our behavior. This behavioral alteration leads to the idea of the gap being reinforced, which leads to students modifying their behaviors more, and moves the bar further.
In this rather innocuous case (except for my history grade), both my friend and I misperceived the world around us as more motivated and smarter than we were. The lying that we each exhibited not only increased our own shame, reinforcing our lack of motivation and school skills, but it also increased the perceived intelligence gap for the other student.
Because I felt I couldn’t compete with my friend, I just pretended that I could to him and assumed all was lost of the book as I considered it internally. Same for him. In college men, this can manifest itself in concerning ways as well.
Students who believe the perceived gap between their own coolness and that of others may lose hope, which spawns depression and suicidal thoughts. Alternatively, students may need to drastically alter their behavior into negative territories in a rabid attempt to finally make up that gap.
As with other elements that make up the socialization of college men, this one begins earlier than college.
I bring it up because when we work with men in college, as mentors and counselors, we have to look at their pre-college socialization and how those actions affected how they respond to situations in college. Little of poor decision making comes just from one instance, but instead is learned over time. It is up to educators to be able to help students understand that context and forge their own identities through it.
Harper, S., Harris, F. & Mmeje, K. C. (2005). A theoretical model to explain the overrepresentation of college men among campus judicial offenders. NASPA Journal, 42(4), 565-588. Retrieved from http://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1208&context=gse_pubs.
Ditching the Dunce Cap is a weekly Friday column from Aaron W. Voyles on the University of Texas-Austin. He welcomes your comments. This column is not affiliated with the university.
—Photo Juan Carlos Mejia/Flickr
—Edits by Nancy Lien
Also in Ditching the Dunce Cap:
Resolutions, Because of the Man Box
The Meaning of a Decanter
Can Tattoos Help Men Talk About Themselves?
Everybody Wants to Fit In. Everybody Wants to Stand Out.
That Time Snuggleupagus Made Me Uncool
The Space Between Lifts
Video Games as a Way to Connect with College Men
Broken Lantern Blues
My “Career” as a Rock Star
Do We Just Complain About College Men?
To Ditch the Dunce Cap
Can You Manage the College Male?
“Have at it, Boys” and College Men
Becoming a Beard Mentor
College Made Me Think I Hated Beer
An Ode to My College Roommate
When Will You Grab Your Saw?
If the Shoe Fits, Cheat