Dankprofessor’s Weblog

A weblog examining sexual politics in higher education and beyond.

Student professor relationships as awkward fantasies?

The Washington University of St. Louis student newspaper, STUDENT LIFE, published a pre-Valentines Day article, “Professor Student Couplings Remain Awkward Fantasies”.

In the dankprofessor’s opinion the major awkwardness regarding the article is that no student interviewed had ever had a romantic relationship with a professor, and no professor interviewed had ever had a romantic relationship with a student.  This goes beyond awkwardness.  I call it shoddy journalism. 

The article did state that professor student dating is rare.  But rare or infrequent dating is not the same as non-existent dating.  If the article writer had simply asked around, the probability is overwhelming that either a student or professor could have been found.   Such ruminations remind me of the Iranian president’s statement at Columbia University that there are no homosexuals in Iran.

There was one interview with a professor.  Interviewed was Dean Jami Ake, professor of English and women and gender studies, who serves as a co-chair of the Committee on Sexual Assault.

Wow! In an article on student professor consensual relationships, the student newspaper decides that the one professorial interview should be with a person who serves as co-chair of the Committee on Sexual Assaults.  The choice of a sexual assault specialist says it all.  If the paper was doing an article on marriage, would they have selected a specialist on rape to be interviewed?  If doing an article on gay marriage would they have selected a specialist on child molestation? 

But Dean Ake was not all that bad, she

“agreed that there is a potential connection between academic and romantic interest.  Even the vocabularies overlap. ‘I want you to be passionate about something. I want you to be inspired by it,'” Ake said. “It’s easy to see how that kind of intense interest in somebody and everything they stand for can translate more in terms of passion.”

Ake said that navigating the boundaries between close and too-close relationships is difficult, in part because of the worry that the student will feel uncomfortable or harassed.

Dean Ake certainly got it right when she imparts the understanding that in essence love of knowledge can lead to knowledge of love.  However, she does end up on a patronizing note when she states that things may end up being difficult and worrisome and this could lead to the student feeling uncomfortable or harassed. Such is patronizing since she ignores the potentiality of the professor also feeling uncomfortable or harassed. Or, of course, in more general terms the potentiality of both the professor and student ending up in a state of love and happiness is ignored.

However the news reporter did ask Ack if a student could have a healthy relationship with a teacher.  Note the questioner did not bother to ask if the professor could have a healthy relationship with a student.  Her response was “I would say the odds are against you, but anything’s possible.”  Anything is possible, I guess her response would be similar to believing that in Sarah Palin’s terms it is possible that President Obama could end up paling around with terrorists.  And in the dankprofessor’s opinion it becomes a fool’s game to attempt to characterize almost any romantic relationship as healthy or unhealthy.

But all was not for naught in this article.  There was one interviewee who appeared to be quite knowledgeable on issues related to student professor relationships.

Senior Emma Cohen is writing her senior humanities thesis on the discourse of sexual harassment and consensual relationship policies in universities, and its implications for pedagogy. She argues that fear of student-teacher relationships is based on the incorrect assumption that students are powerless in those situations. According to Cohen’s thesis, intimacy on certain levels can be productive in an academic relationship.

“While policies are rightly concerned about preventing exploitation of students, they tend to sort of shut down tendencies for personal intimacy without sex,” Cohen said.

Yes, Cohen’s bottom line is of critical importance.  The fear and stigma that is occurring in regards to student professor relationships has led to all close relationships between students and professors becoming suspect.  Too many profs fear that a close relationship with a student will lead to the imputation by others of a sexual component.  Such leads to too many professors having an open door policy; open door policies simply do not facilitate closeness or intimacy.  What it does facilitate is impersonality.

What this article fails to note is that student professor intimate relationships may very well lead to the discarding of the student professor labels.  True intimacy undermines the power of such labels.  In Martin Buber’s terms, an I-it relationship is replaced by an I-thou relationship.  In this framework, it does not become surprising that the powers that be who are committed to preserving the ongoning hierarchy, almost always attempt to control love, love and marriage, and romance.  The freedom to choose who to love and how to love simply has no place in authoritarian organizations.  In such frameworks, love that crosses boundaries becomes the societal enemy par excellence.

February 14, 2009 - Posted by | consensual relationships, ethics, fraternization, higher education, love, passion, sex, sexual harassment, sexual politics, sexual rights, student professor dating, Washington University

1 Comment »

  1. Sorry it took me so long to read this article. Of course, many professors, and also students will worry about what others might think, if they get too close. This paranoia is directly related to the draconian “policies” being instituted at many American Colleges. These “policies” assume the student to be an infant, who needs paternal protection from them (the college). These colleges have forgotten that:
    1) Students are young adults, past the age of consent.
    2) These “policies” are a violation of the students’ & professors’ Civil Rights of privacy & free association.
    3) If the college is a public institution, the U.S. & State Constitutions can also be brought into play.
    4) In the zeal to protect students from sexual harassment, respect should also be given to the individual rights of both professors & students.
    When will it end? Probably with a huge lawsuit filed by a fired professor, whose student lover/s testify in his/her defense that they were willing participants, and were not “harassed”, or “exploited”!

    Comment by Donald Visconti | July 10, 2010 | Reply


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