Aaron W. Voyles considers the concept of being an expert on the experiences of college men.
Last year, in giving a presentation at the annual conference for the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) on the topic of men’s issues, I referred to myself as not an expert. In fact, it was part of my opening statement for what would be a session based in dialogue.
NASPA encourages the use of social media during their conferences, and I discovered later that an individual recommended a #protip for me in presenting, which was that I shouldn’t ever say I’m not expert and that I should “own my content.”
I respect the position of this individual. I see value in having confidence in your material and in being able to share that with others. But I also disagree in this case. I suppose I could assume the disposition of an expert because of my involvement in various organizations and even in writing this column. Because I’ve been given a pulpit, perhaps I have something expert to say. I am weary to take such a position though.
Dictionary.com states that an expert is “a person who has special skill or knowledge in some particular field.” It’s important to note that if that’s what you are looking for, there are plenty of people (many of them writers here) who have much vaster experience than I do. Additionally, if you believe that gender is socially constructed in many ways, as I do, then each individual’s lived experience has validity in that argument. We all have a role to play in the discussion of what gender means in society and of what it means to be a man. I have no special knowledge of anyone else’s experience.
Though I think there are people who have studied more broadly or more fully particular topics—Frank Harris and Shaun Harper come to mind for men and masculinities in college—I continue to resist the idea of calling them out as experts. I appreciate their experiences, but setting up one person as an expert has the potential to devalue the experiences of others. It also potentially opens a door to just look at what others are saying or feeling about a situation, without having to be introspective.
I also recognize that I am using a distinct understanding of “expert” here. Yes, there will always be varying levels of experience and technical knowledge within a field. But I choose this distinction on purpose because of how critical I think collective experiences are to our social construction of masculinities. My intent is to highlight the collective, not to demean those who have lots of experience in a particular field.
How we each think and feel about a situation is critical to our success in solving societal issues. Though those opinions and ideas about gender may shift with new knowledge or through dialogue, they coalesce into our societal understanding and our construction of how we define gender roles. I appreciate when scholars like Harris or Harper can draw away the veils to let us see more deeply into what we are looking at, but each of our experiences is still critical to how gender functions in society.
There are many times when expert knowledge is extremely useful. If you want to know particular statistics, an expert could tell you. If you want to know how to solve a problem for which there exists some sort of standard operating procedure, then again, an expert will help out. When pipes in my house burst, I don’t employ dialogue; I look for an expert.
But in positions where we have adaptive, collective challenges, I call on the power of group wisdom. Scott Page, in The Difference, tells us that diverse crowds always predict more accurately than the average person in the crowd. Because of the wide range of viewpoints and experiences, a collective answer typically results in less error. Diversity of experiences and understandings helps decision making and the pathway forward.
Ideas of gender live in the collective, because none of us live in a vacuum. It can be quite invigorating to make identity decisions for yourself, and I still believe that it is critical to do so. I also believe, however, that from a societal standpoint we need an investment from the collective. Solutions as to how we treat each other and how we interact come from the collective, and I believe we rely on each other’s lived experiences to help guide that process.
I can’t call myself an expert on men’s issues, because I don’t believe any one person holds the key to what we should do to make the world socially just. I write this column because I’m interested in that conversation. I think there are a lot of people out there with a lot of good ideas. Through dialogue, we can approach these problems and solutions as a collective.
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 Aaolto Creative Sustainability/Flickr
—Edits by Nancy Lien
Also in Ditching the Dunce Cap:
Commitments that Compete
Broken Lantern Blues
Speaking with the Language of Responsibility
My “Career” as a Rock Star
Do We Just Complain About College Men?
I Can’t Write About Football
To Ditch the Dunce Cap
Can You Manage the College Male?
“Have at it, Boys” and College Men
The Challenge of Male Mentorship
Becoming a Beard Mentor
College Made Me Think I Hated Beer
An Ode to My College Roommate
Examining the Axe Effect
When Will You Grab Your Saw?
Do You Know the Mega-Dump?
If the Shoe Fits, Cheat