Workshop at Whitworth Men’s Shed

It has taken me a while to write this post. Currently we are away in London and I am enjoying catching up with myself. There are no images to go along with the text and in many ways that reflects the experience of the workshop itself.

I first encountered a Men’s Shed last year when we went to Norfolk to visit John Lord. Karen hates paying for parking and so when we visited Norwich we walked in from the outskirts where we had parked to the centre where we were headed.

Norwich Men’s Shed is in an old industrial unit on the outskirts of the city. It looked interesting so I popped in. I found out that it is an organisation to promote social inclusion and wellbeing for older and economically disadvantaged men. This is facilitated through peer to peer practical skill sharing. Beautiful.

A few months later I found out that a friend of mine, Tony Sheppard, was running a Men’s Shed in Whitworth, just outside Rochdale. In the spirit of the project I offered to run an arrowhead making workshop for the men at the Whitworth project.

I had however an ulterior motive. I get a great deal from the making process and thought this may be an opportunity to measure a wellbeing outcome. A measured wellbeing outcome would be valuable for approaching funding bodies to develop future workshops. I (naively) thought this could be a win win. Tony was keen and so we arranged a date and I went to Whitworth.

The project comprised two organisers, about a dozen ‘men’ and a small industrial unit in the process of being refurbished by the men themselves. After a brief introduction from Tony I explained what I was about and passed around some flint and glass tools.

I propsed six weekly sessions with a wellbeing questionnaire at the beginning and the end. The wellbeing measure was something done for every activity and so really it was just the six weekly sessions that was new. The response was overwhelmingly negative.

The explanations as to why my proposal was not wanted could be debated, but that was not really for me to do. They did not need to explain to me why it was not attractive to them. Anyway, I was more interested in the overall feeling in the room.

It reminded me more than anything of being in a playground, with certain individuals making decisions and speaking for the group. Tony was frustrated because I was a guest. I was a guest and so had to take on board what was unfolding. It was really interesting.

Universities, museums and members of the public pay me money to teach them how to make stone tools. Here I couldn’t give it away.

I think the above is an accurate description of events. What follows is my conjecture as to the reasons why this interesting situation occurred, and it should be taken as conjecture.

Tony thought that we two were the only university graduates. I am 58 and almost all the men present were older than me. Some of them were skilled practitioners in their own fields, as  illustrated by the improvement work being done by them on the shed.

The same individuals who were recognised as skilled practitioners within the group seemed to also be the individuals that spoke up for the group. This suggested to me a relationship between recognised skill and leadership within the group.

Tony had not asked the men if they wanted a university person to come in and teach them a practice based skill. Both he and I had assumed making glass arrowheads would be of interest. It was a mistake to not include any of the men in that initial descision making process.

I think skilled older men with unofficial positions of authority within a group may resent not being consulted. Especially about a university person coming into their space and exercising ‘expertise’ upon them.

It made me think about how male identities and within-group status can be constructed through skilled practice. Conversely, how trying out a new practice and not being so skilled could be threatening to status and identity.

the nub of resistance coalesced around the commitment to doing six weeks of something they saw as having little value. I agreed to return the following week and do a taster session with a few of the men.

The following week I worked through the arrowhead process with five men, whilst another six or so observed from the sidelines whilst playing dominos. And it went well.

I want to work with Tony and in a wellbeing context in the future. However, the key here is how our assumptions were wrong, creating a context that was hostile, and suggesting interesting relationships between skilled practice and male status and identity. All that has been percolating for the past few months!