A lot of college professors have fairly linear careers where they excel in college, get into graduate school, and become professors at age 27 or 28—that was not Dr. Christopher Kilmartin’s path. Instead, he has been a college professor as well as an author, stand-up comedian, actor, playwright, consultant, and professional psychologist. Planning to retire at the end of the year, he uses the present interview to tell his story and provide many insights that he hopes will help readers along the way to anticipate their early careers and discover who they are.
|Some Manly Advice With Christopher Kilmartin, PhD
|Bradley Cannon, Psi Chi Writer
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In his own words, Dr. Kilmartin says that he was very much a late bloomer, finishing in the bottom half of his high school class. As he explains, “I did better in college, but I graduated during the worst economic recession in the United States in the last 50 years. I couldn’t find a job, so I decided to go to graduate school. I had never really thought about that as an undergraduate, so I became sort of an accidental graduate student. Then, I got a very lucky break when a local community college instructor abruptly resigned with two weeks to go before the beginning of the spring semester. Because of the short timeline, only a master’s degree was required for the position, and I had earned mine about three weeks earlier. Much to my surprise, I got the job and began my first day as a full-time instructor on my 24th birthday. I thought I had really arrived. But it turned out that I was wrong.”
He laughs before continuing. “Forty-five PhDs applied for my job at the end of the semester, so after that, I worked with inpatients in a mental health facility. I later applied to a PhD program and was very fortunate to get in at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). I was 27 when I started back at graduate school, and that was where I really hit my stride. A student further along in the graduate program teaching a psychology of women class said to me, ‘It seems like something ought to be said about the men. Chris, would you do some research and give a guest lecture in my class?’ ”
He agreed and went to the library to check out all of the gender-aware textbooks available on men at the time. He says, “The first amazing thing that really grabbed me was the fact that men were dying 7 years earlier than women on average. Now, that figure is 5 1/2 years, but it is actually 13 years in Russia. There are some physiological factors involved, but I was astounded to learn that a toxic part of the masculine behavioral role was quite literally killing us.”
Gender Education—Know Your Default Options
Are you aware of the influence of sex stereotypes in your life and how these stereotypes may affect your behaviors, health, relationships, and even your career opportunities? According to Dr. Kilmartin, “I have never been as enthralled with a subject as the psychology of men, and I decided in short order that this was going to be my specialty. It was also a good thing to specialize in because it was so new that I knew more about it than any of the faculty. That was quite an advantage.”
Since then, Dr. Kilmartin has gone on to encourage gender education and violence prevention in a number of ways. For example, he has recently been consulting and training with the military to make it a more egalitarian place for men and women. One of his primary messages is this: “Men are often raised where the worst insult you can give a boy is to suggest that he dances like, acts like, looks like, or throws like a girl. Thus, we get told from an early age to watch what girls and women do, and for God’s sake, don’t do it. This is a toxic message, which encourages us to disrespect girls and women and also to distance ourselves from some very adaptive behaviors like crying, speaking honestly to a friend, telling somebody you care about them, taking care of your health, or having vulnerable emotions.”
“What happens next,” Dr. Kilmartin explains, “is what Dr. Ronald Levant calls the masculine emotional funnel system where sad, unconfident, worried, or jealous emotions are all unacceptable to us, so we convert them into anger. That is part of what is behind the violence problem that we have, along with a lot of other things like child maltreatment and the influences of the media that provide a lot of violent role models for boys and men.”
In Dr. Kilmartin’s opinion, one of many solutions to much of this is simply to embrace additional gender education, especially for boys and men. He says, “We need to help boys and men understand that they are being manipulated by other men, boys, the culture, and girls and women too. We need to start talking to boys about what it means to be a man, and boys are really interested in this too. For example, The Men of Strength Clubs in Washington DC is an after-school program for boys to talk about what it means to be a man in the modern world. Boys are actually very hungry to talk about this stuff; every high school that the club has gone into has a waiting list.”
An analogy that Dr. Kilmartin likes to use is this: “If you want to change a default option on your computer, you need to know that it is a default, and then you need to be motivated to change it. For example, maybe you don’t like a feature, or maybe you do, so you just leave it alone. Then, you have to figure out how to do it, so gender education fulfills that first part by telling us what the default options are so that we can decide if we are motivated to resist them and undertake the process of learning how to do that.”
The Value of Humor
Possibly one of the most interesting aspects of Dr. Kilmartin’s personality and teaching technique is his unique use of humor, which he began to polish during the summer before he went to earn his PhD. He says, “I was in my hometown of Baltimore, and I had a friend who was a guitar player and had this big outdoor party every year where his band plays. He said to me, ‘Hey, you are pretty funny. Why don’t you get up between sets and tell some jokes?’ I said, ‘Well, sure,’ being a big show-off and of course forgetting at the moment that I didn’t have an act. I did what a lot of desperate comedians do: I stole some jokes from other comedians. I think I went over okay, but what I really remember is how much I liked the idea of standing up on a stage and trying to make people laugh.”
When Dr. Kilmartin went to VCU for his PhD, he also started writing his own material and visiting the Richmond Comedy Club every week to do his “10 minutes” at their open mic nights. “I eventually won a couple amateur contests and started getting paid, so it became one of the many part-time jobs I held through graduate school.”
However, Dr. Kilmartin never made the connection at the time that this would actually turn out to be an important part of his professional training, which he believes has been invaluable in his career. Looking back, he says, “It is always helpful to make people laugh in the classroom. If nothing else, it keeps them paying attention. If it is really done well, it can provoke an insight or kind of hit you in a different part of the brain.” More specifically, his performance background helped him compose a stage show called Crimes Against Natures about masculinity, which he has performed more than 200 times at over 100 campuses. For him, this highly biographical piece was very satisfying because it represented “a real integration of a lot of different roles: the performer and the researcher, as well as the person and the scholar.
He has also written and is currently touring with a lecture/storytelling/multimedia hybrid called Guy Fi: The Fictions that Shape Men’s Lives. He says, “The idea of Guy Fi is to name the social pressure that we call masculinity so that, once people are aware of it, they can be in a position to resist conforming to it when a person hurts them or it conflicts with another life goal or value. I think that part of masculinity exists in the culture and also in the marketplace. People are selling masculinity to men and manipulating us. If we become aware of these manipulations, we are in a better position to choose things from an informed point of view rather than just going along with ‘the program.’ ”
What Men Don’t Know About Other Men
In Dr. Kilmartin’s empirical research, he has found this: “When you see a gender-based violent crime, women hating is usually not far behind. However, most men like women and are friends with women.” In addition, he says, “Most college men don’t like it when other men tell sexist jokes or refer to women by the names of their genitals or by animals names and so forth. The problem is that they overestimate other men’s acceptance of those kinds of attitudes. This is comparable to laughing at a joke that you don’t think is funny. If I watched you laugh, I would think that you thought it was funny. So what we are trying to do is to help men understand that they are not alone if they like and want to be allied with women.”
“A lot of men feel the same way,” he says, “so we are trying to amplify the healthy voices, which are in the majority even though they are very closeted. One of the things we did to test this was to bring men into a lab and ask them to fill out surveys that measure sexism and rape-supportive attitudes. Then, we gave them the same survey and asked them how they thought the average guy in the room filled it out to compare the real norm versus the perceived norm. As it turns out, the men all thought that their peers were more sexist than they actually were. If you are an egalitarian-minded man, you are in the majority. Hopefully, that knowledge will help free you to speak up when you hear sexist attitudes.”
Another study involved getting men to behave in the direction of the attitude by telling them, “Here’s a sexist statement that offends you. Challenge it.” Dr. Kilmartin says, “We didn’t ask them if they were offended by it; we just said that they are offended by it. In this brief intervention, we actually got a measurable change in the participants’ own sexism. This is because, once you behave in the direction of an attitude, it can change you internally. After all, everybody knows that people look to their own attitudes to shape their behaviors, but what is less obvious is that people observe their own behavior, which can affect their attitudes too.”
Mentorship Comes In Different Packages
Dr. Kilmartin also credits multiple mentorship experiences for shaping him into the man and the researcher he is today. “First, I had a great undergraduate mentor, Dr. Kenneth Stewart, who actually told me about that first really lucky break where I became a professor. Ken is probably close to 80 now, and we just published a paper together. I have known him forever, and I remember that he gave me some ‘tough love’ that really woke me up when I was kind of underperforming in graduate school the first time. Actually, that story is in his memoir.”
Dr. Kilmartin’s graduate school mentor at VCU was Dr. Stanley Strong, the most cited living author in counseling psychology at the time. In particular, Dr. Kilmartin remembers going over some data together while he was a graduate student when he suggested, “Maybe it means this.”
Dr. Strong stopped and said, “I never thought of that.”
The response to this single suggestion caused Dr. Kilmartin to experience a silent revelation. He says, “I had this moment where I thought, ‘Wait. You never thought of that? Wow! Maybe the difference between me and him is not one of quality. Maybe it is just one of quantity. Maybe it is just because he has been at it longer, and maybe I can kind of take my place and dream big.’ ”
According to Dr. Kilmartin, “I think that is a lesson we have to live. It can be taught to us, and that might help, but we have to have those kinds of experiences in person. I think people can tell it to you, but we all came out of high school thinking, “Oh, I fooled people into thinking I am pretty smart in high school, and now I am going to be exposed for the fraud that I am in college.” The same thing happens with graduate school and so forth because those voices don’t go away as long as we are challenging ourselves. Thus, I think one of the values of mentoring is for us to learn to identify with the mentor and feel like we deserve a place on the stage where they are.”
“Mentorship is an interesting thing,” he adds. “On the one hand, you tend to ally yourself with mentors who you think you want to be like. Then, after a while, you realize, maybe you don’t want to be quite like them.” He chuckles at that before becoming serious again. “You kind of have to forge your own path, and there is research on this that mentorships often result in some kind of conflict with the mentor—sort of like you have with your parents, I guess—that kind of teaches you something.”
Among Dr. Kilmartin’s mentorship experiences, some of them have been accidental such as a conversation with an old roommate when Dr. Kilmartin said that he hated his job. However, when the roommate asked why Dr. Kilmartin didn’t go get a PhD in order to become a college instructor like he wanted, Dr. Kilmartin’s response was that “You have to be really smart.”
Dr. Kilmartin says that he had different versions of this conversation with the roommate five or six times before he realized that maybe he had been selling himself short. He says, “You get a little nugget from people who come in and out of your life that is really valuable.”
Understanding Who You Are
Just as you have to live the lesson that mentorship will teach you about your true potential, Dr. Kilmartin says you also have to take a kind of inward journey to understand whether you are following certain sex stereotypes because of societal pressure. To anyone hearing these ideas for the first time or wondering to what degree society has influenced them, he suggests that “talking to other men about it can be a really important step.”
He also provides the following advice, “People are adapted to criticizing messages that come to us in plain language. For example, if antipornography activist Dr. Gail Dines (Wheelock College, MA) showed you a sign that says, ‘Women are worthless. Throw them away. They are disposable,’ you would think, ‘Oh, that is a horrible thing.’ In text, you can understand this right away. However, that is exactly what porn culture teaches boys and men, that women have no past, future, personality, or desires. Thus, we have to help people learn how to be critical of images that they are receiving as well. That doesn’t come as naturally as criticizing something that you hear in plain language. After all, consider those Axe Body Spray® commercials—they are way over the top, and even 14-year old boys know intellectually that a million women aren’t going to come running if they use this product. However, the message still bleeds into their psyches, so we need help people become more media literate too.”
What You Can Do
Whether referring to gender education or his winding career journey, Dr. Kilmartin’s message to encourage others to look inside themselves and see their full potential is clear. As far as violence prevention, he says, “We need lots of young people—and lots of young men—to do this work on the gender-based side. I hope that some of my work will help inspire younger men and women to try to take on some of this work because it is obviously a really serious social problem that we are facing.”
To advise students interested in this area of psychology, he says, “I think you need to have a good grounding in basic psychology. I also think that the psychological paradigms are inadequate for handling complex phenomena such as gender and violence prevention. For instance, my students also read some biology, history, economics, and journalism because I think you have to be a broad scholar. The solutions to violence are multifaceted. Some are psychological, behavioral, educational, legislative, and involve law enforcement; you have to come at multifaceted problems from a lot of directions.”
Dr. Kilmartin believes that perceptions about sex stereotypes and violence prevention are “heading in the right direction.” He doesn’t expect sexism to be over in this lifetime, but he does believe that the social structural conductions that shaped gender stereotypes in the first place are slowly eroding. “There is very little work that men do that women can’t do now. Families are shrinking. Most families need two incomes, so we are seeing men and women doing a lot of the same things as opposed to the 1950s stereotypes where men and women didn’t have a lot of common ground. I think that is unmistakable, and what that means is this: Young men who think they can use their father’s and grandfather’s formulas to get along in the world are going to find this increasingly difficult. It is not their fathers’ and grandfathers’ worlds anymore.”
Christopher Kilmartin, PhD, (University of Mary Washington, VA) is a college professor, author, stand-up comedian, actor, playwright, consultant, and professional psychologist. He holds a PhD in counseling psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and is a licensed clinical psychologist with a great deal of experience consulting with businesses, college students, human services workers, athletic departments, the military, and counselors.
Having coauthored multiple books, Dr. Kilmartin’s major scholarly work is The Masculine Self (5th edition Sloan, 2015, now coauthored by Andrew Smiler), which has also been translated into Korean. Dr. Kilmartin delivered the Keynote address at the NCAA Violence Prevention Summit in 2011 and has also consulted with the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Army and Air Force, and the international group, Democratic Control of the Armed Forces. He served as a consultant for 3 years with the U.S. Naval Academy on a revision of sexual assault and harassment prevention curriculum. He was a scriptwriter for an Army training film on the same topic.
Dr. Kilmartin was the Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at the U.S. Air Force Academy for the 2013–14 academic year. In 2007, he was the Fulbright Distinguished Chair in Gender Studies at the University of Klagenfurt, Austria. He was elected to fellow status in APA in 2008 and is a past-president of APA’s Division 51. In 2015, the University of Mary Washington granted him its Professional Achievement Award.
Copyright 2016 (Volume 20, Issue 2) by Psi Chi, the
International Honor Society in Psychology
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