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First Lady Of Men's Studies Says Passion Is Key


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. In a few minutes, we will hear from the multitalented Debbie Allen. She's an actress, dancer, choreographer, director, producer. She will be here to tell us about her latest project and how she's trying to get more men and boys dancing with a project she's casting now.

But first, speaking of men and boys, if you've been on a university campus lately, you've probably heard about women's studies. But what about men's studies? It might surprise you to know that men's studies is an academic discipline that's been around since the early 1970s. But there is a sense among scholars that the field is not taken seriously.

The American Men's Studies Association is trying to change that. And you might be surprised by who is leading the charge. She is Daphne Watkins, the president of the American Men's Studies Association. She's the first woman and first person of color to lead the organization. We found out about that from the Chronicle of Higher Education. She's just presided over her first national conference, and she's with us now. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

DAPHNE WATKINS: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: You know, you can imagine the trouble that some people have just with the very idea. I mean, I think a lot of people think of women's studies and ethnic studies as a counterweight to traditional views of, you know, history and other disciplines that were in fact created by men. So what does men's studies add that scholarship needs?

WATKINS: Well, it's so funny that you ask that question because I think a lot of people believe that men's studies is in a crises. And it's not. I think what we're going through is a very common developmental stage that most innovative and nontraditional academic fields experience.

Earlier, you referred to African-American studies and women's studies. And I think what men's studies does essentially is it really allows, you know, several different scholars from different backgrounds - so the social sciences and medicine and law - and we get in the same room, Michel, and we talk about the issues. And we, you know, bring our strengths to the table. We also admit our weaknesses, and we're honest about what we can contribute to solving the problem. And I think that's the beauty of an interdisciplinary group like the American Men's Studies Association.

MARTIN: Why were you drawn to it?

WATKINS: Well, for me, I always teach my students that research is me search. It's me trying to search within myself and my past and trying to learn a little bit more about what makes me who I am. And I just remember growing up and seeing the very clear gender differences and gender roles within my own family, wondering why the men would behave a certain way and the women would behave in a totally different way.

And so for me, I just really wanted to understand why, as a society and even within my own family, did we hold ourselves and restrict ourselves to such tight gender roles and we didn't allow ourselves to sort of dance on those boundaries? And so for me, I really wanted to explore that a little bit further.

And so I became very interested in men's health and particularly black men's depression. And I said, wow, if anybody can look at this, it should be someone with passion, regardless of whether they're a man or woman.

MARTIN: You used the word problem a couple of times. And I know that in an earlier interview, you said people don't understand the benefits of holding the problem at the middle of the table and letting everybody attack the problem. Is masculinity a problem? Is it a problem being a man?

WATKINS: No, no. I'm definitely not saying that. I think that there is a very strong literature out that the talks about the benefits of masculinity in terms of survival and how men have been able to progress as well as they have over, you know, the centuries and decades because of their strengths.

But, you know, there's a really clear sense that while there are strengths, there are also some weaknesses, and weaknesses not in terms of what they're doing wrong, but also, from a scholarly perspective, how we're viewing what makes men men and how men themselves, when they don't abide by those gender rules and those gender standards, how they truly are suffering.

MARTIN: So it takes maleness out of the realm of being universal and makes it specific. Is that about right?

WATKINS: Exactly.

MARTIN: What's been the response to your selection as president of the American men's association?

WATKINS: Well, I think...

MARTIN: Men's studies. Forgive me. Men's Studies Association.

WATKINS: Oh, certainly. Certainly, that's OK. But, yeah, I think as an organization, folks are just thrilled to see that there is a woman in place to lead this group. When I speak with the past president, Robert Heasley, he is just so excited to see that, you know, a woman wants to stand up and actually do this kind of work.

And to use Robert's words, he said, I think it's time. I think it's time for us to really, you know, attack these issues and really lead the organization into, you know, the next few years. And I think a woman's perspective is going to really add to that discussion.

MARTIN: Well, you mean it kind of reinforces the notion that it's about what you care about and want to think about, as opposed to what you are.

WATKINS: Definitely. Definitely, because I think some people can see a disadvantage with a woman who's leading this national organization on men's studies. However, it's...

MARTIN: Well, can you see - I don't know that there are any men leading women's studies associations. I mean, I think some people might consider that kind of an unfairness and an imbalance there. Are there?

WATKINS: I'm not sure. I mean, I think passion sometimes can sometimes - can oftentimes be the driving force behind a lot of our efforts. And so I think that's what our membership believes, and I think that's what our board believes as well.

MARTIN: What's your next - what's the next issue you're going to undertake in your own capacity in studying this area? Very briefly, if you would.

WATKINS: As a...

MARTIN: As a...

WATKINS: ...Researcher?

MARTIN: ...A scholar of men's studies.

WATKINS: Definitely.

MARTIN: Yeah, what are you interested in right now?

WATKINS: No, that's a great question. I'm so happy you asked that question. So my work particularly focuses on black men's depression. And I've really been doing some work on online interventions and really trying to get a deeper understanding for, if we can't get men to walk into a clinic, if we can't get them to go see their primary care physicians and sort of physically go in and seek help, is there a way that we can use technology and social media to get them some of the resources that they need? So I am creating some online interventions now that we're currently pilot testing. And we're talking about masculinities and mental health and what about masculinities can be both an advantage or a disadvantage...

MARTIN: Well, keep us...

WATKINS: ...For your mental health outcomes.

MARTIN: Well, keep us posted. Daphne Watkins is the president of the American Men's Studies Association. She was kind enough to join us from member station WUOM, which is in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Daphne Watkins, thanks so much for joining us.

WATKINS: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.