Dankprofessor’s Weblog

A weblog examining sexual politics in higher education and beyond.

A passionate defense of student professor consensual sexual relationships

One of the very best and also the most passionate defenses of student professor sexual relationships has been by
Cristina Nehring, “The Higher Yearning; Bringing eros back to academe,” HARPER’S MAGAZINE, September 1, 2001.
Unfortunately, there is no full text copy available of this article online. It merits reading by all persons seriously interested
in issues relating to student professor fraternization. This is a lengthy article, and following is what I consider to be the
key excerpts from this article. Do get the full text copy of this article. And do savor the forthcoming excerpts. Do keep in mind that this writing is writing that the advocates of banning student professor sexual relationships do not want you to read. It is NEVER cited by these advocates. I will comment on aspects of this article in upcoming posts.Following are the article excerpts-

…Teacher-student chemistry is what sparks much of the best work that goes on at universities, today as always. It need not be reckless; it need not be realized. It need not even be articulated, or mutual. In most cases, in fact, it is none of these. In most cases, academic eros works from behind the scenes. It lingers behind the curtain and ensures that the production onstage is strong. It ensures that the work in the classroom is charged, ambitious, and vigorous. In most cases, it would be counterproductive for it to emerge, itself, into the limelight. That said, it occasionally does. And when it does, it must not be criminalized. For the university campus on which the erotic impulse between teachers and students is criminalized is the campus on which the pedagogical enterprise is deflated. It is the campus on which pedagogy is gutted and gored. This, unfortunately, is the scenario that confronts us today.

My own success would have been perfect had I elected in the last few years to sue my fiance, a professor at the university where I am completing a doctorate, for our relationship. In fact, the suit was very nearly made on my behalf, and against my will. When his superiors learned of our relationship, the wheels of justice and punishment began, immediately, to turn. No matter that I had never taken a class with him, or that I worked in a different department; no matter that we had met off-campus, or, most importantly, that I did not feel in any shape or form harassed by him. Nobody cared. My view of the matter was declared “irrelevant.” As a graduate student, I was presumably too “disempowered” to judge of my own abuse. Deans wrote letters; chairs made calls; hiring committees were warned of the “seriousness of the offense”; jobs were threatened–and I went unconsulted.

…In our enlightened contemporary university, men walk on eggshells and women run from shadows. Every gesture is suspect: if a colleague compliments you on your dress, it smacks of sexism; if a professor is friendly, he is readying you for future sexual abuse. There is no kindness so innocent that women educated in the “patterns” of harassment cannot recognize it as an instance of the newly identified activity experts refer to as “grooming” the victim for the kill. Academic encouragement, easy jesting, an affectionate epithet–all of what used to be the currency of good fellowship as well as teaching–have become cause for vigilance, fodder for complaint, the stuff of suits.

Were the rhetoric of the sexual-harassment authorities pursued with any consistency, it would deepen the rift between classes and between races just as fast as it has, in effect, restored the rift between the sexes. For what is the main trope of university harassment discourse? “Power differential.” Under no circumstances, we hear with metronomic regularity, may we countenance a “power differential” in intimate relationships. A teaching assistant not only should not but cannot give consent to a union with an assistant professor, suggests Billie Dziech, speaking for the consensus of harassment experts in the Duke Journal of Gender Law and Policy (1999)…

The crackdown on power differentials in student-professor (or senior colleague-junior colleague) relationships presupposes a power-balance in non-pedagogic relationships that is completely fictitious. Where, one might ask, are the symmetrical relationships? If a student falls in love with a lawyer, is that more symmetrical? Should we outlaw relationships between students and nonstudents too? What about between good students and bad students? Rich students and poor students? Were we honest about our disdain for power imbalance we would have to legislate as emphatically against discrepancies in cultural, economic, and racial clout (to give a few examples) as against those in professional clout. It would be well-nigh impossible because of the endless and conflicting ways in which power manifests itself once we relinquish a simplistic model. (If there is “power” in academic rank, for instance, there is power in youth too–in physical attractiveness, in energy. There is power, even, in yet-to-be-fulfilled promise–power in time.) To the extent that such legislation succeeded, it would be a disaster–a reactionary dystopia, a hierarchical hell to which the way had been paved with liberal intentions.

One of the astonishing strengths of love and sex is that it can make boundaries between people so easy to break. It can glide, smiling, around social, vocational, and linguistic roadblocks; it can disarm difference, banish history, slice through power divides. It can ease the passage into another culture, mind, generation, or world. As was discovered by Jane Gallop–who seduced her professors as a student and her students as a professor (for which she was accused of sexual harassment in 1992 with far more reason than most)–sex is a great “leveler.” As suspect as Gallop may be in her egotism and promiscuity, in this she is right. Sex is a great leveler, and not just in the bedroom. The most surprising thing you learn when you fall in love with a sage or a student, a prince or a pauper, is not that you can sleep with him but that you can talk with him. This is something understood–unexpectedly, perhaps–by Philip Roth. The highly cultured hero of his new campus novel, The Dying Animal, may have been “inaccessible to [his student lover] in every other arena” but the sexual when they first met–so he says, and, given his general misanthropy, this is probably true. But for all the ways in which their liaison is compromised, what the mannerly Cuban coed and the transgressive Jewish pundit discover is that they can actually talk to each other. The same is true of the cleaning woman in Roth’s previous novel, The Human Stain, who discovers that she can arouse the college dean mentally as much as physically. He can confide in her more than he ever could in his yuppie kids and bookish colleagues. She finds in the privileged, overeducated septuagenarian her first playmate, the first person she can tease and trust.

Legend has it that love is blind. And lust is blind. Just sometimes, though, they are clairvoyant. They take the glaze from our eyes. They prompt us to look through the odd, unfamiliar exterior of our neighbors and detect a familiar soul, a soul with which, to our surprise, we can communicate. Indifference and industry have made more men blind than eros. If Cupid wears a blindfold now and then, Mammon wears a hood.

One of the least disputed objections to classroom erotics is that they constitute, in the words of harassment author Leslie Pickering Francis, a “distraction from teaching, learning, and research.” Nothing could be further from the truth. To say that chemistry between a student and a teacher distracts from learning is like saying that color distracts from seeing. It does not distract; it enlivens, enhances, intensifies: it fixes the gaze. It gives teeth to the eyes, a digestive tract to the brain.

I will go out on a limb and admit that if crushes between students and teachers could have been prevented when I was in college, I would never have made it through. The fact that I graduated summa cum laude is testimony to the number of crushes that sustained me, that kept me edgy, and eager, and engaged. At the beginnings of quarters I shopped around for teachers to have a crush on, and it was a sad term, a long term, when I found none. I tried. I fanned the flame of minor lights–knowing full well that if I could not generate at least a little heat my mind would freeze.

I do not advocate making a habit of sleeping with professors, but then I would not advocate making a habit of sleeping with plumbers, or realtors, or artists either. I do advocate the exception. If a professor and student fall in love mutually–and let us admit that there are more occasions for this to occur than exist for a professor and a plumber–then there should not be a law or code or set of mores to stop them from giving that love an opportunity to succeed. It may not: as the new campus moralists observe, “the vast majority of students who enter into affairs with their lecturers … do not subsequently report that they were glad to have had the experience. Quite the contrary.” Most relationships don’t succeed–most non-faculty-student relationships don’t succeed, if by success we mean that they go on forever. And when people come out of them, they unfortunately do not often “report that they were glad to have had the experience” either–at least not right afterward. Divorce courts are full of people who say the opposite. We do not, therefore, outlaw marriage.

I learned about more than Renaissance literature from the man I loved as a freshman. Contrary to popular opinion, the relationship did not reinforce my student sense of inferiority; it eliminated it. As much as I admired my teacher, I also found I could talk with him; I had something to offer him that had nothing to do with the old cliches of youth and beauty. Or if it had to do with them, then long live mixed motives, for they certainly were not the most important or lasting cause of our understanding–an understanding that has grown over the last decade and sparked a vivid and voluble literary correspondence. The relationship enfranchised me intellectually; it gave me a voice, and faith in it. And it did this even though, at the outset, it also drew me into the goofiest excesses of adolescent adoration. It drew me to abandon my slot at a top university in order to trek across the country to an obscure one, at which my teaching assistant had just accepted his first professorship. It prompted me to fake an interest in that school’s religious affiliations while working a job as a live lingerie model in a shady local bar to pay my increased private-school dues. It also led me to flee the lightest coffee invitation from my idol. It was not until I returned home (my funds ran out; my talents as a model were limited) that our conversations really began. But even this–the experience of following my heart, however on the surface, vainly–was good for me. It made the love poems I was reading real, immediate, and practical. It was the laboratory component of the Amorous Theory I was assimilating.

All is fair in love and war; people must take their chances, and students are no exception. University students are not children, and women are not children, though to hear harassment officers talk one would think so. They are also not desireless deadwood; they do not drift about aimlessly until angled by a “Lecherous Professor.” They are perfectly capable of finding a professor themselves and seducing him–in fact, I would guess, on the basis of admittedly anecdotal evidence, that this happens far more frequently than the reverse.

Harassment specialists seem unable to believe that female students have the desire or enterprise of an Alcibiades. They do. And the position that they do not–albeit held, as it often is, by bedrock feminists–seems strangely sexist. Why should Greek men have initiative and eros, and American women none? Why should contemporary coeds emerge from a romantic encounter with a teacher–even, as a textbook on the subject tells us, “the most `consensual’ appearing”–with “devastation … real and intense” and “self-esteem” so shattered it demands “years of therapy and reconstructing,” when nobody thinks for one moment that young men like Alcibiades or Agathon sustain incurable wounds? It is only women’s experience that is assumed to be traumatic beyond comprehension or repair. It is only women who are taken to be as frail and faltering as they are devoid of lust and luster. Sexism can be paternalistic as well as aggressive (historically, it more often was), and this is sexism writ large, no matter who’s spreading it.

And it is bad for pedagogy. It’s one thing to disarm a certain type of old-school professor who thought that his students’ bodies (as well as their research and briefcase-toting services) were his birthright. It’s one thing to discourage gross sexist speech and to counsel caution in the initiation of student-teacher relationships. But it is another to stamp out playful and affectionate discourse just because it carries a sexual innuendo and may even, on occasion, make us “uncomfortable.” It is quite another, also, to try to ban professor-student relationships altogether. Knowledge is unremittingly personal: the best students fall in love with teachers; the most engaged teachers respond strongly–and variously–to students. The campus on which the chance of sexual harassment–of sexual “impropriety” between teachers and students–is eliminated is the campus on which pedagogy is eviscerated. It is the campus on which pedagogy is dead.

It is a part of our safety-obsessed culture that we try. In a country where we give children crash helmets with their tricycles (and kneepads with their strollers), perhaps it is no wonder that we give them The Lecherous Professor with their college admissions. Perhaps it is no surprise that we lament, with Leslie Pickering Francis, the possibility that they may not prove “rational consumers of romantic relationships in the way they might be rational consumers of products”; and that we consequently forbid them any romance with a teacher in which they are, to quote David Archard, another expert, “unlikely to be able to determine, for instance, how long it lasts”–as though one were ever able to “determine” how long a relationship lasts; as though lovers were supposed to be “rational consumers.” Love is not commerce; a relationship is not a safety-tested Tonka toy–and any attempt to make it such is bound to be catastrophic. It leads, among other things, to the bizarre situation of our contemporary American society, in which we are in principle forbidden to have relationships not merely with our students (if we are teachers) and our teachers (if we are students) but also with our doctors, lawyers, counselors, therapists, deans, co-workers, clients, employees, or employers–virtually anyone, in fact, with whom we might come into natural contact in the course of everyday life. The result? We find ourselves driven in numbers to dating services and singles clubs, where we spend large amounts of money to meet normal people in abnormal and usually highly stressful contexts. We join volunteer organizations that feel like meat markets, as a majority of members look out more vigilantly for the available bachelor than for the nominal cause of the day. Artificial contexts provoke artificial behavior: we make ill-informed and hasty choices–dating, after all, is such a chore this way–and end up in marriages from which we soon ache to escape. If this is an overstatement, it is less of one than those we hear regularly from the sexual-harassment police.

Should we have forbidden Camille Claudel and Rodin? Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger? Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud? Allan Bloom and his student lovers? Professor bell hooks and her student boyfriend? Heloise and Abelard? To be sure, not one of these relationships, each initially pedagogic, was perfect (which is?), but all were spectacularly productive, revelatory, heated, and formative for both parties–in several cases, formative for Western culture and philosophy. The most beautiful and authentic and complex love poems I know were written by a teacher to his student. They were written by John Donne, in the early seventeenth century, to his employer’s niece, with whom he eloped, and for whom he suffered loss of reputation, money, and career for the next quarter century. Not long after Donne penned these poems, John Milton–whose marriage sustained no similar power differential–drafted “The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce.”

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If you wish, you can write to me directly at dankprofessor@msn.com
Guest commentaries should also be submitted for consideration to the same email address.

Barry M. Dank aka the dankprofessorTM
© Copyright 2008

January 16, 2008 Posted by | consensual relationships, ethics, feminism, fraternization, higher education, love, secrecy, sex, sexual harassment, sexual policing, sexual politics, sexual rights, student professor dating | 55 Comments

   

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