Academic journal article Western Folklore

Jay Mechling, Margaret Mead, Masculinities, and Me

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Jay Mechling, Margaret Mead, Masculinities, and Me

Article excerpt

Although I was never a student of Jay Mechling, he mentored me in many ways, first as a reviewer of my book, and then as an author whose work contributes to every course I teach. In particular, his book, On My Honor (2001), has added a new dimension to my consideration of gender, both in research and in teaching. In this article, I discuss his influence on me, especially through my teaching of On My Honor, in the same class where I also assign my book, At Play in Belfast (2003), and Margaret Mead's Growing up in New Guinea ([1930] 2000). I am playing a bit with one of Mechling's favorite theoretical constructs, the frame (Bateson 1972).

Frames here are more of a rhetorical device than the subject of a deep theoretical exploration. My intent is to illuminate the process whereby teaching the research of others can lead to new perspectives on one's own work. I conducted my research on Belfast playgrounds in the late 1990s, and when I wrote my book on the experiences and folklore of children in Belfast (Landos 2003), I focused my chapter about gender issues on the experiences of girls and women. I wrote from that perspective at least in part because I felt more intuitively familiar with "girl" issues. In addition, the feminine and domestic spheres were explicit on the playground, present in the folklore texts, and in the spatial organization of the playground (Landos 2003:84-123). More than ten years now separates my initial research, and analysis of my findings, from now. I find in teaching my own research that I now focus almost exclusively on masculinity and boys within the overarching narrative of my course on Childhood. I credit teaching Mead and Mechling to my students with the opportunity to revisit my own work, and allowing me to re-interpret my approach to gender on the playground. I arrive at this analytical moment because I literally framed my work with that of Mead and Mechling.

Framing is also a metaphor for the process by which I try to contextualize my students' awareness of cultural constructs like childhood and masculinity. I challenge my students, over the course of the semester, to see that two things they may take for granted as natural and given, Childhood and Masculinity, are not consistent through time and space, and that they vary cross-culturally.

I bookend the course I teach with Mead's Growing up in Nexu Guinea and Mechling's On My Honor. I begin with Mead not just to give my students an opportunity to read the works of a classic anthropologist, but also because Growing up in New Guinea is fundamentally concerned with de-coupling culture, childhood, and gender roles from biological determinism. Her cultural constructivist approach is applied not just to her descriptions and analyses of the Mantis of New Guinea, but also to the contemporary culture of the United States. Mead uses our interest in The Other and the Exotic to draw us into growing up in New Guinea, only to turn it into a treatise on what is wrong with our own society, and how she thinks we might go about fixing it. Her mission to make the familiar exotic, and the exotic familiar, is also the goal I set for myself and for my students.

I end my course with Mechling, after taking students on a "tour" of childhoods in various parts of the world (depending on the semester, they "visit" parts of Africa, Northern Ireland, Central America, Bangladesh, and Iceland) , to end with what they might have considered to be familiar: the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), and American boyhood. Mechling's commitment to the rich description of the folklife of the scout troops, and the detailed history of the concept of masculinity not just in the BSA but in American society generally, requires his readers to expand our notions of what childhood and gender roles mean. Folklorists are familiar with the popular notion that folklore materials are "just games." But those games, jokes, and songs, as Mechling shows us, and as I try to demonstrate here, can be entries to important and potentially transformative ideas about gender and childhood. …

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