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Chris Elliot, 2012 Dissertation of the Year

Clearinghouse is pleased to announce that C. W. Elliot has won the Jon C. Dalton Institute on College Student Values Dissertation Award. This award goes to the author of an outstanding doctoral dissertation relevant to the field of college student character and values development.


Director of Student Services

University of Virginia

Title of Dissertation: Authentic Masculinities:
A Dialogical Narrative Study of College Men Exploring
Gendered and Spiritual Identities

1. You “investigated gendered (masculine) and spiritual identity intersections among an interfaith group of college men.”  Why study just men?

In recent years, we have seen encouraging interest in the study of identity intersections in higher education (See Abes, Jones & McEwen’s 2007 Model of Multiple Dimensions of Identity).  Our literature is beginning to acknowledge what we have long suspected—that it is nearly impossible to extract one aspect of our many social identities and study it in isolation from others.  My interests in this topic of identity intersections for college men have been in working with young men around violence prevention programs, understanding and supporting a range of masculinities, and gender-aware leadership development and mentoring programs.  Through these programs, I have tried to work with college men to envision their world without violence or those restrictive gender role norms which lead to destructive or anti-social behavior patterns.  The conversation during these programs usually shifts to what we might be capable of accomplishing as men in particular, or as a people more broadly, if we are all living full and authentic lives.

Much of the literature supporting this masculine identity work focuses on the psychological conflicts men experience, or follows what I like to call the “boys in trouble” crowd, which spins a narrative of young men in certain peril. While the data are generally clear about fewer college men engaging in healthy, pro-social, and productive community roles in comparison to their female classmates, I wanted to understand the ways in which these college men developed their multiple identities with more nuance than a gender comparative analysis could have afforded.  I wanted to connect two bodies of literature—the gender and masculine identity literature and the spiritual or faith development literature—to identify commonalities and divergences with the intent to build a bridge between the two.

I fully, and rather naively, expected to build a model like a simple Venn diagram that explained which pieces of the young men’s experiences pertained to their masculine identity and which were perceived to be about their spirituality.  The two circles would overlap somewhere in the middle where the shared spiritual masculine space would reside.  I quickly realized once my study began that identity work is much more complicated than my simple Venn diagram hypothesis.  So began my journey into the lives of some remarkable young men.

2. One of the purposes of your research was to examine “that college men struggle with problems of authenticity.” What does this trend mean? How do you define “authenticity”?

Young men often find themselves wrestling with the dogma of traditional masculinity: be competitive, seek power and status, avoid all things remotely gay or feminine, be strong, restrict emotionality, and fight, fight, fight.  They learn (albeit subtly) that to be a man means to fit inside a narrow box of what our society dictates to be the social conventions of manhood.  The problem is that few (or no) men fit entirely inside this box, but many experience social consequences for their attempts to step outside of it.  These consequences (name-calling, bullying, intimidation, violence, marginalization, etc.) are the most notable hindrances to college men living authentically, forcing men to perform their gender as if they are living behind a mask. Keith Edwards (2007) describes this as “putting my man face on,” where college men put on a mask, comprised of what they presume to be their gender norms, before they enter public spaces.  Similar to the narrow box, few men fit behind this mask, and they find themselves wanting to peek around its edges and sneak a glimpse of the world without wearing it.  This is exactly what I mean by college men encountering authenticity problems—that the mask just does not fit, and they cannot squeeze themselves inside the narrow box.

Authenticity can simply mean that what you see is what you get.  To seek authenticity means to align what I believe with what I say and what I do.  It means that there is congruency along cognitive, narrative, and behavioral aspects of one’s life.  Boys and young men struggle regularly with this disconnection between what they believe about themselves and what the world tells them they should be, and they often have difficulty finding socially acceptable outlets to rehearse and enact those developing beliefs.

Michael Kimmel recently (2008) wrote Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men(Understanding the Critical Years Between 16 and 26), where he argues that the traditional markers for adulthood (education, marriage, parenthood, career, and residential independence) have become stretched out over more than a decade.  This has created some ambiguity in that late adolescence and emerging adulthood have become muddled, elongating a time which is typically characterized by experimentation and patterns, which tend to be more destructive, unhealthy, risky, or anti-social.  As one feature of this drawn-out phase, there is less pressure for young men to become adults quickly during this period, with all the rights and responsibilities therein.  Additionally, there is little impetus to actively pursue and commit to an authentic voice, especially if doing so results in social consequences once he steps from behind his mask.

3. Explain briefly (if you can!) your Transcendence Model of Identity Construction.

My feeble and failed attempt to find a neat Venn diagram to explain identity intersections forced me to reconsider the overall models I was using for identity development.  The intersections of complicated gendered and inspiring spiritual stories that emerged from these college men did not fit nicely into vectors, phases, or stages that dominated the Identity Development literature.  I realized that what I was trying to find was more of a proximal model describing where and how these college men clarified, negotiated, and socially constructed their multiple identities.

The Transcendence Model of Identity Construction describes how the college men in my study socially negotiated various aspects of their developing identities within the social contexts in which they were grounded.  The model is a sort of centricity diagram in that it plots where the students are centering their time, attention, and focus. For example, the inner circle, the Intrapersonal Dimension, is the inner self.  This can be a relatively narcissistic focus on the self, where some of our students do find themselves, but it can also signify an inward focus on one’s purpose, meaning, or direction.  The next space out is the Interpersonal Dimension, or the social self.  The focus of the student here is his direct relationships and immediate feelings of connectedness to individuals.  Between the Intra- and the Interpersonal Dimensions, I describe what I call the Congruency Channels (“C”).  I will describe these in more detail in just a moment, but they are those people or ideas which move us beyond our own immediate needs and allow us to engage meaningfully in rich relationships, opening doors between our inner self and our social self.

The next layer is the Extrapersonal Dimension, or the engaged self, where we find communities and commitments to ideas and beliefs.  Again, I am still describing the centricity or that within which the young men in this study found themselves centered.  We have not yet moved beyond the self.  The transition space between the social self and the engaged self is something I call the Transcendence Channels (“T”) because they are those things, people, places, or enduring beliefs which call, pull, or push us to center our gaze beyond our immediate self and our rich relationships.  In this engaged dimension, I also placed Identity Archetypes (“A”), or those people who modeled for the young men what it meant for them to be men, or to be spiritual.  In most case, these were real people who they knew (mothers, fathers, uncles, teachers, etc), but some also cited historical figures, fictional characters in books or films, or composites of any of these.  Finally, the Dimension of the Ultimate is the outermost space in the model.  This is an orienting dimension outside of the self, toward which a young man points himself as he begins to align his meanings, relationships, commitments, and enduring beliefs.  This alignment—toward an Ultimate or an archetypes or both—is the identity work that he does—whether that be clarifying his masculine identity or refining his spiritual identity or growing faith.  Toward the end of my time with these college men, during their debriefing interview, I showed them an early draft of this model and asked what they considered to be Ultimate in their lives.  Everyone had something which he considered to be animating or orienting in his life, from God to Goodness to an Essence that connects us, and the model includes just a few of those examples of how these young men described their Ultimate(s).

4. You coined the term congruency channels. What are they? How do they function? How do they relate to male authenticity?

I would venture to guess that we all have at least one of those good friends who seems to always know when we are trying to dodge a question—someone who holds the keys to the inner sanctum of our trusted secrets and deeply-held beliefs.  This person, and even those who approximate him/her, serve as congruency channels for us.  They encourage us to invest in meaningful relationships, but also hold up a mirror so that we can see how we are portraying ourselves to the world.  Thus, they help us to clarify and align our actions and beliefs, and develop into more congruent human beings.  For the college men in my study, these were good buddies, brothers or sisters, romantic partners, and sometimes parents or uncles or grandparents who took the time to listen, understand, and offer feedback to the young men.  In some cases, this feedback was as simple and powerful as “Is that really who you are, who you want to be, or what you’re about?” Or with some friends, the same question can be encapsulated in a glance or an eyebrow wiggle.  Sometimes these trusted others reinforce traditional masculine typologies, and other times they give us power to subvert them.  But the point is that the congruency channel is opened, and the young man is forced to reconcile who he is in relationships with who he believes himself to be.  This reconciliation is the (sometimes life-long) process of becoming authentic.

5. What makes dialogical narrative, which you use as one of your research methods, a unique type of research methodology?

As I was trying to determine my methodology, I kept returning to the idea that we socially construct our identities, and I wanted to make sure that my methodology captured a wide enough range of data collection points so as to represent both the individual, private reflections as well as the social dynamics of dialogue groups.  I called my method a “Dialogical Narrative” because it was important to me that the research focused on both private and collective storytelling. This was a combination of personal narrative analysis and a variation of action research, though I would presume that neither camp would prefer to claim this method entirely.  Whenever we conduct interviews or focus groups, we rely on participants to be able to tell their own stories based on our prompts.  In this study, I solicited survey responses, conducted pre- and post-interviews, and led a series of five dialogues with all participants where we discussed some of the nuances of our various forms of masculinities and faith backgrounds.  In these dialogue groups, I also collected a number of artifacts—life maps, reflective writings, personal credos, etc.  The analysis became an ongoing dialogue between myself, the participants, data collected, my characterization of those participants, the developing theory, and the data again.

6. You wrote that college men in your study indicated that they felt pressured to focus more time and energy to the social self at the expense of the interior self.  How can student affairs practitioners help college men in the interior dimension of self?

College men are accustomed to talking about their interior lives about as much as they are comfortable with the ways in which society has taught them to be men.  That is to say—they are NOT.  They are taught to live entirely externalized lives —to restrict emotionality, not talk about deeply-held beliefs, and  do not let other men know that they value their friendship.  That would be all too intimate of a glimpse into one’s more tender core.  But every once in a while, one of your friends breaks the rules and tells you that he is so glad to have you in his life—that your friendship means a lot to him.  Wait—has he been drinking?

This presents us with one of the most striking conflicts surrounding contemporary American masculinity.  Men are supposed to be impervious to . . .  just about everything (with the rare exception of meteor rocks).  But they also pride themselves on “being real.”  As much as I dislike using the “Real Men do/say/think X. . . ” language to mobilize groups of men, I will say that the idea of “being real” with one another is one that has a great deal of power.

When invited to honest dialogue, under safe conditions, I would suggest that it is quite rare for men to resist the opportunity to talk about their histories, role models, commitments, and those enduring beliefs which animate them.  Again, this is not a conversation that happens often for most young men before they enter college, so most will be cautious to enter, but eager to share.  Start safe and easy—try Superheroes or scar stories.  Excavating the childhood puts distance between the memories and the tough guise he may be struggling to take off.  That can lead nicely into a discussion about vulnerability.  What did we learn about it?  How are we taught to embrace it or avoid it?

The elephant in the room will always be the one hegemonic masculine archetype—and most young men will know He is there.  So we might as well say hello to him, and find a way to release men from his grip.  Without doing so, our conversations will never be as rich as they could be, and our communities of college men will always be beholden to him.  I would further suggest that this is also the key to college men developing their own meanings and purposes, free from the social pressures telling them how they need to “man-up” [and drink beer].

7. In what ways would having a mentor be crucial for the college men you studied? Why might mentorship be sometimes difficult for many college men to accept?

Mentorship is faux-pas for many young men by the time they arrive on our hallowed collegiate grounds—unless, of course, they are the ones offering their time and service as mentors.  Lamentably, the masculine dogma seems to indicate that one should never ask for help.  With that said, however, most young men would benefit tremendously by having a role model and confidant with whom they can wax aspirational.  In my study, only one of the young men used the word ‘mentor’ to describe someone in his life.  This was one of the reasons why I elected to use the Archetype language, which could be a mentor, a coach, a role model, an inspirational historical figure, a parent, or anyone who embodies what, whom, or how that young man would like to see himself.

So I would suggest that identifying a mentor is certainly a plus when young men are able to do so, and I would absolutely encourage them to connect substantively with more experienced and trusted others.  However, the more subtle framing of this person as “who is someone you look up to or admire?” might be an easier starting point.  I would venture a guess that he has never told that person how much he appreciates her or him, which could be the next step to build his emotional and relational dossier.  So perhaps a significant mentoring relationship could be formed over time, but we don’t want him proposing on the first date if he can’t even find the restaurant—and refuses to stop for directions.

8. How has being a winner of the 2012 Dalton Institute Dissertation of the Year Award influenced your professional and academic experience?  Where do you go from here with your research?

I was so humbled and honored to receive this Award at the 2012 Dalton Institute.  This was my first Institute, and I was so very impressed by the overall program and how it has become an annual talent magnet for professionals committed to developing and refining college student values.  I especially appreciated how the dynamics in the sessions led to conversations across so many different types of schools—public, private, religiously-affiliated, large, small, business schools, liberal arts programs, seminaries, etc.  And of course, meeting Jon Dalton was just a treat, as he is such an important thinker in our field.  His book, Encouraging Authenticity and Spirituality in Higher Education, with Art Chickering and Liesa Stamm, unequivocally inspired my work and prodded me to believe that there is a place here for my voice as a scholar and practitioner.  I hope to continue working with both Dr. Dalton and Dr. Pam Crosby while following the good work of the Journal of College & Character.

After finishing the dissertation last year, I honestly went through what my partner called my PDL—or Post-Dissertation Lethargy.  This Award, and the opportunity to present the research in Tallahassee, gave me the perfect impetus to pull this research down from the shelf, dust it off, and re-immerse myself in the findings.  I have begun writing again, and am very enthusiastic about finding opportunities to publish this work, collaborate with others doing related work, and to envision what might be next.  I have enjoyed doing some guest lectures and consulting lately with campuses who are intending to set up programs thoughtfully targeting college men.  For the last several years, I have been involved with ACPA’s Standing Committee on Men, and now with NASPA’s Men & Masculinities Knowledge Community, which have been good opportunities to discuss and understand the field in higher ed/student affairs where pro-feminist men and women can work together to build programs and design (co-)curricular initiatives to engage college men around the challenging issues discussed earlier.


Chickering, A.W., Dalton, J.C., Stamm, L. (2006). Encouraging authenticity & spirituality in higher education. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Edwards, K. (2007). “Putting my man face on”: A grounded theory of college men’s gender identity development, Doctoral Dissertation. University of Maryland.

Kimmel, M.S. (2008). Guyland: The perilous world where boys become men. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Jones, S.R., & McEwen, M.K. (2000). A conceptual model of multiple dimensions of identity.Journal of College Student Development41(4), 405-414.