Raised by a single mom, Caitlin Hawley grew up without a steady father figure in her life, so when she heard about a class at the University of Arizona that focuses specifically on the role of dads, she was intrigued.
"I wanted to get a perspective on the role of fatherhood," said the UA sophomore.
Hawley, an honors student majoring in psychology and anthropology, is one of about 150 undergraduate students to complete "Men, Fatherhood and Families: A Biocultural Perspective," a new UA general education course that was offered for the first time in the fall.
Offered through the John & Doris Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences, the course is part of the school's Fathers, Parenting and Families Initiative, a research and education effort within the Frances McClelland Institute for Children, Youth, and Families.
The class – which examines the role of fathers across cultures, species and time, through biological, social and evolutionary lenses – was the vision of school benefactor John Norton.
"Part of the wish of John Norton was to be able to have young men at the University of Arizona learn something about being fathers and fatherhood – about what kind of fathering helps and what kind of fathering hurts," said Bruce Ellis, John & Doris Norton Endowed Chair in Fathers, Parenting, and Families.
"It's about the influence of fathers – when fathers invest, how they invest, when it makes a difference, when it doesn't make a difference – and trying to understand comparative perspectives on fatherhood, not just in humans but other species as well; trying to understand the larger patterns of fathering and trying to understand the evolutionary basis of fatherhood," said Ellis, who helped develop the curriculum for the class.
The course is co-taught by renowned primate researchers Dieter and Netzin Steklis, a husband-and-wife team with 20 years of experience studying mountain gorillas. They sometimes draw from their field observations when talking to their students about the role of fathers.
"One thing we noticed that always touched us is how these big, huge, male silverback gorillas would play with the little guys, and it was remarkable how rambunctious yet gentle they were," Netzin Steklis said. "We know that human fathers also do a lot of rough and tumble play with their kids."
In exploring fathers' roles, the Steklises look at fatherhood across a variety of species and cultures and throughout different periods of history. They also examine the stages leading up to fatherhood, beginning with the "mating game."
"We're not advocating that every woman get married and have a 'traditional' nuclear family, because society is diverse and people have different attitudes, but if you understand the functionality of fatherhood, you can find a way to fill that role," Dieter Steklis said.
It's uncommon for a university to offer an undergraduate general education course devoted entirely to fatherhood, Ellis said. More often, classes on the topic are offered only to upper-division or graduate-level students in family studies-related programs.
The UA hopes to change this by becoming a model for universities across the nation. The Steklises, who have three children of their own, are currently working on a general education fathering textbook they hope can be used by other schools.
"We're trying to make it so that it's really easy for another university to offer a fathers course," Netzin Steklis said. "This is for everybody, and everybody should be taking it. I certainly would require it for our own kids."
The course has quickly become a favorite among UA undergraduates, and plans are in the works to develop an online version of the class to help meet student demand, Ellis said.
Dominic Zamora, a psychology major who is taking the class this semester, said he enrolled because he hopes to one day become a dad.
"I have an interest in becoming a father someday, and after reading the description of the class, I thought it could teach me some valuable lessons," said the UA senior.
Julie Nguyen, a junior majoring in family studies and human development, took the course last semester and said it opened her eyes to an evolutionary perspective on fatherhood.
"The types of fathering we have as humans is very unique," she said. "We often hear negative things about fathers not being around, but compared to other species, we have very involved fathers."