Unpacking Masculinity

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At the core of Dr. Jeff Cohen's work on bullying and gender norms is this -- "These are human systems and definitions. They are not concrete. They can be changed."

Cohen on Global Learning

In addition to his role as an associate professor, Jeff Cohen also serves as Executive Director for the Office of Global Affairs. “It’s kind of a one-stop shop for global learning,” said Cohen. Housed within Global Affairs are a multitude of programs including study abroad, student fellowships and awards and international student and scholar services.

Cohen took over the role as executive director in 2017 from interim director Lisa Hoffman. “I’d been a faculty member at different institutions for over a decade and wanted a new challenge,” said Cohen. “I’d benefited both personally and professionally from my time abroad and wanted to help others have similar experiences.”

Global Affairs helps students make international connections whether that means staying on campus or traveling to a different country. “Some of our students can’t go abroad so we try to bring that experience to campus,” said Cohen. One way this happens is through the COIL Fellows Program. “We use technology to partner our students with students in universities around the world,” said Cohen. “They work together on collaborative projects.”

The Global Ambassadors program pairs international students with students from the US. “They meet on a regular basis throughout the year,” said Cohen. “They get a chance to get to know each other and learn about each person’s culture.” Global Affairs also has two student employees who teach language lessons — one in Arabic and one in Korean. “These lessons are free to the UW Tacoma community,” said Cohen.

If there is one thing UW Tacoma Associate Professor Jeff Cohen wants students to take away from his classes, it’s this: much of our world is socially constructed, so we can change the ways things are. This idea extends to concepts as well as physical structures. Take masculinity, for example. “Growing up, masculinity meant being strong and good at sports and chasing women,” said Cohen. “I felt pressured to be a certain way.”

Cohen spent his early years in New Jersey. He left to attend college at Indiana University of Pennsylvania where he planned to pursue a degree that would help him land a job in law enforcement. “I wanted to be an undercover narcotics officer for the FBI or DEA,” he said. “I got a month or two into the work and realized that’s not what I wanted to do long term”.

Until that point Cohen’s understanding of law enforcement came from television and movies. “I grew up watching Law & Order and shows like that,” he said. Cohen’s interest started to shift the further into his college career he got. “I became fascinated with the behavioral aspects and the social science parts of criminal justice and criminology more so than the mechanics of the system,” he said.

Cohen earned a bachelor’s in criminology. After graduation he worked as a counselor and case manager for a reentry- and transitional-housing program in New Jersey. “Most of the people I worked with were dual diagnosis, meaning they had both a mental health diagnosis and chemical dependency,” said Cohen. “It was worthwhile but also difficult and emotionally draining.”

Cohen returned to Indiana University of Pennsylvania where he pursued both a master’s and a Ph.D. in criminology. While still an undergraduate Cohen began challenging the established “norms” of what it meant to be a man. “I got introduced to mentors and faculty who were unpacking some of that work,” he said.

In graduate school Cohen helped establish and then served as an advisor for a men’s group on campus. “We were a bunch of guys who wanted to explore and challenge the dominant presentation of masculinity,” he said. Cohen also worked on a Violence Against Women Act grant-funded program. “I did these workshop for incoming freshman boys about healthy relationships, healthy sex and violence prevention,” he said.

Cohen moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2010. He taught at Seattle Central Community College and Portland State University before coming to UW Tacoma in 2012. Here Cohen teaches courses in the Social Work & Criminal Justice program. “Criminal justice is so deeply tied to everything in [our] culture,” he said. “It’s one of the largest industries in the United States and I want students to appreciate and understand how complex these systems are.”

Outside the classroom, Cohen’s research looks at how crime, criminality and criminal justice systems intersect with notions of gender and masculinity. In 2014 Cohen coauthored Confronting School Bullying: Kids, Culture, and the Making of a Social Problem. The book is a critical examination of how the media came to define bullying “We looked at coverage from the early 1990s to 2015,” said Cohen.

Cohen and coauthor Robert Brooks poured through thousands of pages of data. “What we found is that less serious behaviors like teasing or consensual rough housing were being categorized as bullying while simultaneously much more serious forms of violence were also being caught up in this notion of bullying,” said Cohen. Cohen cites the example of a Florida teenager who was doused in lighter fluid and set on fire by his peers. “The news media framed that as a form of bullying and not attempted murder,” he said.

Cohen and Brooks also documented a shift in who could potentially be a bully. “More and more types of people and characteristics were swept up to the point where a definition became meaningless,” said Cohen.  This broad categorization of bulling yielded unexpected consequences. “Our critique is that this led to the criminalization of youth and schools that disproportionately impacted marginalized or underrepresented groups,” he said. “Parents were rightfully freaked out because of the news coverage and that caused school administrators to take a more criminal-justice approach to discipline.”

An early impetus for the book involved a boy who committed suicide. “He was bullied around his perceived sexuality,” said Cohen. “Bullying functions as a form of social control in which young people tend to reproduce or replicate cultural norms particularly around gender and sexuality.” At the core of Cohen’s research is an understanding that nothing is inevitable. “These are human systems and definitions,” he said. “They’re not concrete. They can be changed.”

Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / October 18, 2018
Photos by: 
Ryan Moriarty
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu