Keith Reader in his commentary on external examiners in the UK elucidates on his position that external examiners may be the way to go to avoid potential conflict of interest situations when a student to be graded is in a sexual relationship with the professor. Alan Clements in his article, “Strengths and Weaknesses of the External Examiner Mechanism” describes the process as operating in the following manner:
An external examiner is appointed to monitor a course. External examiners are normally senior academics who are paid a modest honorarium for their work during their fixed term appointment (usually 4 years). External examiners must be disinterested with no links with the university they are examining and with no conflicts of interest (e.g., a relative studying at the university they are examining). A typical university may employ 300 external examiners to cover all its courses.
The external examiner takes part in the development of a course as an advisor and is consulted whenever rules are changed. The external examiner’s principal role is in quality control and the monitoring of the exam procedure. A professor in the USA may create an exam paper on Monday, give it to the students on Tuesday, and grade it on Wednesday. In an English university, a teacher sets an exam with a marking scheme that provides sample answers together and an indication of how the marks are to be allocated. This exam is handed in to the secretary responsible for exams. The exam office sends the exam and its marking scheme to another member of the faculty for checking. This teacher returns the exam with corrections and suggestions and the person who set the exam creates a new version.
Having been checked internally, the exam paper is now sent to the external examiner who looks at the paper from the point of view of accuracy, conformity to the curriculum and quality. The external examiner would, for example, consider whether the assessment examines all parts of the unit and whether it is capable of discriminating between poor, good and very good students. The external examiner the returns the exam paper with comments and suggestions. These are passed to the unit leader who is expected to make the appropriate changes.
Clearly, such a long and involved process of setting an exam means that it is difficult to fine-tune an exam to a class because the exam is set months before it is taken. Equally, it is impossible to set several exams per unit because of the lead time and the bureaucratic overhead.
The role of the external examiner does not end with the checking of exams. After the students have taken the exam, the external examiner visits the university and attends the unit and progress boards. The external examiner has the right to comment on any aspect of the department’s work and assessment procedures. The external examiner scrutinizes work that has been graded (on a sampling basis) and may even interview students and staff. The external examiner signs final pass lists to validate them.
After the exam boards have met, the external examiner returns to his or her own university and writes a report. This report is sent to the other university’s registry as well as to the head of department. The department is expected to implement any suggestions made by the external examiner and to report back to them. Ignoring an external examiner’s comments is not an option.
Assuming that this system as it operates in the UK is successful in terms of abolishing potential conflict of interest impacting on course grading by insuring uniformity/standardization of course content and course grading, such would obviate any need to give special attention to student professor sexual relationships. Certainly the UK external examiner process would veto the call for banning student professor sexual relationships since conflict of interest is not a problem. However, as outlined by Reader, such is not the case since he indicates that the renouncing of these relationships is part of this UK process. But why? Why should they be renounced? Of course, such renouncing has occurred and will occur in the context of moral and sexual outrage or offense.
What disturbs the dankprofessor and I expect would disturb most American academics is that the UK process standardizes courses and exams and grading to such a degree that the professor almost becomes an irrelevancy. Ones course is no longer ones course but rather the university system’s course; the professor simply becomes a cog in the educational mechanism. For the dankprofessor, such represents dehumanization to the nth degree. And, of course, such can also be viewed as a steppingstone to the impersonal world of online education. This becomes an education with no teacher passion, no love of knowledge leading to the knowledge of love. How sad, how utterly pathetic that in order to eliminate the personal in education we might end up creating a Brave New World of Education.
But if this is to occur in America, it will not come about tomorrow. Students enrolled in one section of a course are unlikely to find that they are experiencing the same course that students are experiencing in another section. There will continue to be good courses and bad courses; good graders and bad graders. And there will continue to be classes in which what happens in class is important to the learning process. There will continue to be courses in which it would be impossible for an external grader to engage in fair grading unless the grader attended all sessions of the class. And there will continue to be courses in which students are graded on what happens in class-class participation, class presentation as well as being graded on term papers and special projects. Will the external examiner read all the 50 or so term papers to insure that there is fairness in grading? And, of course, in the UK, the US and Canada or any other country, the usage of external graders would be highly problematic in disciplines such as art and theatre arts and dance.
An expansion of the educational bureaucracy in order to eradicate student faculty romance should be considered to be out of order. The only persons who would end up profiting from such a process would be the bureaucrats and their allied entrepreneurs. In our age of moral entrepreneurship, it may be a pipedream to call for a laissez faire policy in higher education re matters of the heart. But such will continue to be the calling of the dankprofessor.
Ruth Padel was elected to the position of Oxford Professor Of Poetry after Derek Walcott withdrew as a candidate once allegations surfaced that Walcott had been involved in sexually harassing students. But now Padel has resigned from the professorship after serving for only 9 days. Such was the case after Padel admitted that she played a role in having the press cover Walcott’s sexual harassment history.
A number of the British literati were disturbed by the resignation.
Novelist Jeanette Winterson said: “It’s a pity she has been backed into a corner. What she has done is so much more trivial than her contribution to poetry. This feels malicious and nasty. We ought to be able to look beyond the woman to the poetry. This is a way of reducing women; it wouldn’t have happened to a man. But then Oxford is a sexist little dump.”
Now wasn’t this in essence what the defenders of Walcott had said- that we ought to look beyond the man to his poetry; that what he had done is so much more trivial than his contribution to poetry; that this would not have happened to a woman.
But when Winterson characterizes Oxford as “a sexist little dump” such goes beyond the poetic fringe. In the dankprofessor’s opinion, the Oxford debacle represents a form of poetic license, of poets running amok.
Poets have been making the headlines over the last couple of weeks, not in the USA, but in the UK. Ruth Padel is now Britain’s first female Oxford Professor of Poetry. Initially such was quite unexpected. Heavily favored to assume the Oxford Professor of Poetry was Caribbean Nobel laureate Derek Walcott. But Walcott dropped out of the race at the last moment, and a race it was, which made Padel the leading vote getter.
Walcott dropped out since he did not want to publicly engage in a controversy concerning his past sexual behavior. As reported by the Guardian’s Katy Evan’s Bush-
“…an anonymous “smear” campaign alerted between 50 and 200 academics to his history of sexual harassment, as recounted in a 1984 book called The Lecherous Professor. John Walsh (an “old friend” of Padel’s) tore strips off Walcott…Accusations and recriminations flew and Walcott withdrew, saying he had never commented on the matter and wasn’t about to. Padel was voted in with her detractors’ boots in her back.
…Walcott was disciplined by Harvard University in 1982 (after which the university updated its sexual harassment policy) and settled out of court with another student, Nicole Niemi (now Kelby), at Boston University in 1996. He justified himself on the first occasion saying his teaching style was “deliberately personal and intense”. In fact, it was so intense, according to the student who complained, that after she refused his advances, he refused to discuss her work and gave her a C, which the university later raised to a pass.”
Ms. Evan-Bush goes on to state-
Whether or not you think this should bar Walcott from the Oxford professorship, the lack of clarity around the terms of the debate is disturbing. The press refers to “smears” against Walcott. “Smears” means slanderous untruths; Walcott has admitted making some of the comments attributed to him, been disciplined, had his grade reviewed, and settled out of court.
It may have been settled out of court and Walcott demurs to engage in the court of public opinion and withdraws from the Oxford candidacy, but the “victim” of his 1996 sexual harassment, Nicole Kelby, finds the whole thing quite unsettling. She feels that Walcott should be the Oxford Professor of Poetry-
I am appalled and saddened by the anonymous smear campaign against my former mentor Derek Walcott. Everyone has a right to face his or her accusers. That’s why I sued Boston University. I wanted to discover if Professor Walcott was actually harassing me. At first, I thought he was joking. Anyone who knows him knows that it is his way to be sexual, to push the envelope of both decorum and good taste. I didn’t really want to think that this man whom I placed so much trust in, and had so much affection for, would actually be bartering sex for favours. It didn’t seem possible. But as events unfolded, I needed clarification.
Do I think that it’s appropriate for a professor to joke about sex with a student? No. I do not. Many years ago my daughter Hannah died, so I understand how dangerous the world can be. As a mother, I can not tolerate the idea of a young woman being harassed. Sexual harassment is not about lust, it is about asserting power over the powerless.
However, while I believe that it is not appropriate to be sexual towards students, I also realize that it happens. Writers, by nature, have reckless hearts. Poetry is a passionate art. That is why it is crucial that institutions have strict policies against sexual harassment and are not too embarrassed to allow concerns to be heard. It is impossible to legislate behaviour, but to allow a student an opportunity to question behaviour in a safe and open forum is within our grasp. I believe that Oxford is capable of dealing with any situation of this nature.
Derek Walcott is not an evil man. Like any man, he is flawed. But, like any great man, he is retrospect and understands that his flaws are universal. And from them, he creates art.
His role in this society is crucial. Art forces our minds to reinvent what we think and so we build impossible buildings, find improbable cures and make changes that could never have been dreamed of before. With every artistic moment the paradigm shifts and civilisation grows stronger for it.
I can only hope that Oxford decides to stop the election and allow everyone more time to reconsider what has just happened. Derek Walcott should not walk away from this post. He is the greatest living poet in our time and what he has to say is vital to all of us.
Well, Oxford didn’t stop the election and as a result of a 27 year old Harvard sexual harassment case and a 1996 Boston University sexual harassment case in which the so-called victim now engages in the bizarre, Walcott is out. In Kelby’s terms the paradigm shifts but the dankprofessor believes that civilisation has not grown stronger.
In fact the book in which the Walcott case was written up, THE LECHEROUS PROFESSOR, was a paradigm shifting book. It was this book by Billie Dziech and Linda Weiner which put forth a previously bizarre notion that differential power precludes consent, that there can never be a consensual relationship between a student and a professor. This idea galvanized the campus anti-sexual feminists at the time and ultimately led to the initiation of a campaign to ban all student professor sexual relationships. Or to put it another way, the Dziech argument conflated sexual harassment and consensual relationships. In terms of the Walcott case, if the student had protested that she had consented, no matter to Dziech, it is still sexual harassment. It also energized the dankprofessor who had always been wary of persons who wanted to take the right of sexual consent from others in the name of protecting them from themselves.
Unfortunately, universities throughout North America bought into this gibberish and power was taken away from student professor couples and the power was given to Big Brother and Big Sister administrators. The damage was done and continues to be done, and is now being done in the UK.
And as for the successful moral campaign against Derek Walcott becoming the Oxford Professor of Poetry, it can be called many things, but one thing it cannot be called is poetic justice.
And one final question- What’s wrong with a poet/professor telling a joke about sex in front of a student???
I have posted and reposted and probably posted too much on the Mark Bourrie’s commentary on student professor sexual relationships. But just when the dankprofessor feels finished with Bourrie, something comes up. And what has come up is a commentary by Keith Reader on the Bourrie strand; here it is-
Keith Reader said…
UK policy – all but universally accepted and applied – is conflict-of-interest based and thus requires any faculty member involved in an intimate relationship to renounce *all* professional contact with the student concerned. The issue of favouritism in marking etc. seems to me paramount, and it may be worth noting that in UK universities all assessed work is seen by a second marker as well as in borderline cases by an external examiner. Work is also submitted anonymously (it bears the student’s matriculation number and not his/her name). All very labour-intensive, but worth it in my judgement to obviate allegations of malpractice. I certainly do not criticise such relationships en bloc and in principle (I know many people who are in long-term partnerships with their former students), but share Dr Bourrie’s concerns about their potential for abuse, and believe that a recusal/disclosure approach is the besy way of forestalling this. And I don’t post anonymously …
And here is the dankprofessor’s response-
Keith Reader states that he shares Dr. Bourrie’s concern about the potential for abuse in regards to student prof sexual relationships. I suggest that Reader reread Bourrie’s comments- for Bourrie there is something more than potential for abuse; Bourrie finds these relationships to be inherently damaging to the university and to be mind-boggling. In his terms and in the terms of most of those who vigorously advocate for the abolition of student professor sexual relationships, these relationships are not simply another example of conflict of interests; they are something more. They are condemned and
special policies are promoted because they are dealing with sexual matters and sexual outrage.
Mr. Reader feels that the UK way of handling these cases is good since
“UK policy – all but universally accepted and applied – is conflict-of-
interest based and thus requires any faculty member involved in an intimate relationship to renounce *all* professional contact with the student concerned.”
Renouncing professional contact with the student seems quite medieval to me since the student appears to end up being of the genre of leper. Is such renouncing public? If not, why not? Does the renounced have any grounds for appeal? If the renouncing is private/confidential, just another personnel matter, how does the university monitor both the student and the professor as to their adhering to the renouncing. And since the policy allows personal interaction, but not professional, how is it possible for the university to know that in the context of an intimate relationship professional matters are not discussed. In the dankprofessor’s opinion, the policy as outlined by Reader is patently absurd.
But then Reader goes on to state:
“The issue of favouritism in marking etc. seems to me paramount, and it may be worth noting that in UK universities all assessed work is seen by a second marker as well as in borderline cases by an external examiner.”
If favouritism in marking is the paramount issue, then it should be paramount in all cases of professors marking students. But the reality as described by Reader is that it only becomes paramount in borderline cases. Of course, Reader makes no attempt to differentiate borderline from non-borderline cases. If all cases were treated the same, all cases would have an external examiner, then the problem is solved. No one is treated differentially, no need for a sexual investigation, no need for a renouncing, etc. Problem solved! Uniformity and fairness in grading becomes affirmed.
But I really doubt that Reader and Bourrie would go for this. For Bourrie, no moral outrage, everything uniform, just doesn’t fit the Bourrie profile. I expect that Reader will elaborate on why having an external examiner for all would not be a good way to go.
Finally, the dankprofessor wishes to bring up the question as to who would occupy the position of external examiner, and what would be the qualifications of said examiners. Certainly said examiners would not be members of the faculty, too many prejudicial factors would then enter into the situation. And, of course, faculty do not like to have their grading judgments routinely questioned so said examiners may end up in rather tenuous situations. And presently, does one know who are the external examiners? Might Mr. Reader know? Might Mr. Reader be an external examiner? Might someone refer me to an external examiner so I can become more conversant as to the problems facing external examiners? Or is the reality that no one knows anything about external examiners, that no one knows any one who is or was an external examiner, that no ones knows how one can become an external examiner?
Deresiewicz is one of the very few academics who has directly opposed what has become a campus “truth” which is that female students never initiate anything sexual with a professor. Almost all campus fraternization policies say that such is the case. Female students are never seen as having any agency in this area. Female students are not seen as being attracted to male profs.
Deresiewicz puts it in in these terms:
Love is a flame, and the good teacher raises in students a burning desire for his or her approval and attention, his or her voice and presence, that is erotic in its urgency and intensity. The professor ignites these feelings just by standing in front of a classroom talking about Shakespeare or anthropology or physics, but the fruits of the mind are that sweet, and intellect has the power to call forth new forces in the soul. Students will sometimes mistake this earthquake for sexual attraction…
I think that Deresiewicz has it right in terms of professors igniting students, at least some of the students some of the time. Of course, there are many profs who never ignite students. I surmise that it is the non-igniting professors who are the profs who are likely to become involved in sexual harassment charges; their advances are hardly ever welcomed by students. On the other hand, the fully engaged and engaging professors are the ones likely to become involved in consensual sexual relationships with students since they are dealing with students who are ignited as a byproduct of their involvement in the class. Or to put it in what may be overly simplified terms, professors who love teaching their subject are likely to become the subject of student love. Of course, in the end Deresiewicz cops out- the students are mistaken, their “earthquake” has nothing to do with sexual attraction;
professors should help these jolted students avoid the excesses of campus love.
What Deresiewicz also fails to understand is that what he calls an earthquake experience is not unique to female students on campus. In traditional terms, such is called being swept away. The swept away feeling although applicable to both men and women, tends to be viewed as more often sought and experienced by women. It is also used as a rationale for having sex-
“he just swept me off my feet”- although the swept away feeling may be less often invoked for sex in todays hookup and binge drinking campus culture.
Now someone who understands the swept away experience is unlikely to state to the swept away, as Deresiewicz states, that ‘you are mistaken, you are not really attracted to the prof, you are just experiencing brain sex.’ The dankprofessor response to Deresiewicz and others giving this sort of counsel to the swept way is that the professor counselors know little or nothing about love and romance and sex in the real world. The fact that they often attempt to enforce their sexual biases as formal campus rules for sexual behavior is otherworldly. What we pedestrian students and professors are often left with are campus administrators who suffer from both puffery and buffoonery in their everyday campus sexual rule making and enforcing.
In a 2007 AMERICAN SCHOLAR essay on “Love on Campus” by William Deresiewicz, the author has some interesting observations on student professor relationships. He states:
…there is a reality behind the new, sexualized academic stereotype, only it is not what the larger society thinks. Nor is it one that society is equipped to understand. The relationship between professors and students can indeed be intensely intimate, as our culture nervously suspects, but its intimacy, when it occurs, is an intimacy of the mind. I would even go so far as to say that in many cases it is an intimacy of the soul. And so the professor-student relationship, at its best, raises two problems for the American imagination: it begins in the intellect, that suspect faculty, and it involves a form of love that is neither erotic nor familial, the only two forms our culture understands. Eros in the true sense is at the heart of the pedagogical relationship, but the professor isn’t the one who falls in love.
Love is a flame, and the good teacher raises in students a burning desire for his or her approval and attention, his or her voice and presence, that is erotic in its urgency and intensity. The professor ignites these feelings just by standing in front of a classroom talking about Shakespeare or anthropology or physics, but the fruits of the mind are that sweet, and intellect has the power to call forth new forces in the soul. Students will sometimes mistake this earthquake for sexual attraction, and the foolish or inexperienced or cynical instructor will exploit that confusion for his or her own gratification. But the great majority of professors understand that the art of teaching consists not only of arousing desire but of redirecting it toward its proper object, from the teacher to the thing taught.
Of course, Deresiewicz is right, but only partially right. He is right in the sense that the student and the professor often have a passion for the subject matter. And it is a passion that can facilitate an intense intimacy, and an intense desire by the student for approval and affirmation. Such is what the dankprofessor calls the love of knowledge. But what Deresiewicz fails to understand is that sometimes this intimacy can lead to the knowledge of love. He fails since he discards the knowledge of love as simply a mistake by a naïve student and a foolish or inexperienced or cynical instructor who will exploit the student for his or her own ends.
So Deresiewicz ends up playing the same old academic game when it comes to student professor sexual relationships. The student doesn’t know, the cynical professor exploits the naïve vulnerable student. But how does Deresiewicz know? He knows the same way that big sister and big brother know. They know the mind of the Other, know what motivates the Other and what is proper for the Other. And in Deresiewicz’s terms the proper professor will redirect desire toward its proper object, from the teacher to the thing taught.
So what the good professor wants is the proper professor and proper student never engaging in improprieties. Such, of course, is a form of pipe dreaming. And if there is a serious attempt to have the university not tolerate such improper relationships, such could very well transform university campuses into police states.
The author goes on to state-
Teaching, Yeats said, is lighting a fire, not filling a bucket, and this is how it gets lit. The professor becomes the student’s muse, the figure to whom the labors of the semester — the studying, the speaking in class, the writing — are consecrated. The alert student understands this. In talking to one of my teaching assistants about these matters, I asked her if she’d ever had a crush on an instructor when she was in college. Yes, she said, a young graduate student. “And did you want to have sex with him?” I asked. “No,” she said, “I wanted to have brain sex with him.”
Of course, he could have had a myriad of responses to his question, but for the author, one response is sufficient for him to make his case. But such is insufficient for the dankprofessor. For the dankprofessor knows that there are many alert female students who went on to graduate school and to become teaching assistants who did want to have sex with their professor and some had sex and some may have even ended up mating with a professor, maybe even mating with a professor who was a colleague of Deresiewicz.
But I also wish to make it clear that that the concept of “brain sex” as described in this essay, may very well be a viable concept. But what I refuse to accept is the implication that “brain sex” exists on some higher plane than “ordinary” student professor sex. Whether it is student professor brain sex or student professor sexual congress neither one per se is a mistake which needs redirection.
The major problem in regards to sex, whether it be on or off campus, are the zealots and the self-righteous in their attempts to redirect the sexuality of others to some pre-ordained mold. The love of knowledge will often lead to the knowledge of love, irrespective of what notions of propriety may be the calling of the day.
Daphne Patai has written a powerful critique of university policies on student professor relationships and on sexual harassment policies in the context of writing a review essay on six novels dealing with university life. Following are excerpts from her essay focusing on Roth’s THE DYING ANIMAL which has been adapted as a movie under the title, ELEGY and Prose’s BLUE ANGEL. All six novels are listed at the end of the essay.
Excerpted from Daphne Patai, “Academic Affairs,” SEXUALITY AND CULTURE, vol. 6, No. 2, June 2002, pp.65-96.
The original publication of this review is located at
While academic bureaucrats busied themselves in the 1990s with a
quixotic but persistent attempt to regulate both speech and personal interactions on their campuses, a group of creative writers struck blows against such a narrowing of our lives by providing us with delicate and nuanced, or satirical and scathing, imaginings of the complexities of actual relationships between real (though fictional) persons who find themselves caught up in the new vigilantism.
Their novels demonstrate that the politically correct script of male/professorial power and female/student powerlessness is a pathetically thin distortion which negates the texture of human life and produces little but propaganda tracts ranting against a purported patriarchy and its hapless victims. In the hands of a spirited and talented writer, the resources of fictional narrative–its potential for shifting points of view, for negotiating huge jumps in time and sudden reversals, for interior monologues and musings, startling imagery and evocative turns of phrase—can at least attempt to do justice to the dense inner life and complex events that define human existence, in the academy and out of it.
The novels under discussion here take for granted a reality so simple
and obvious that it has somehow escaped the notice of many social
critics. People meet each other, and that is how relationshipsbegin.
Many of these encounters take place in schools and workplaces,
where people spend most of their waking hours. Given
thesecircumstances, it is likely that many of the ensuing interactions
will be tainted by one or another kind of “asymmetry,” since no two
humans are exactly alike or occupy precisely the same
positions.What makes the concept of asymmetrical relationships
resonate so negatively in the minds of those who would govern
personal interactions is, of course, the obsession with power.
Asymmetrical relations are bad–so this line of thinking goes–
because no romantic or sexual intimacy should exist where one
person has power over another. Such power imbalances are
inherently evil to those for whom a simplistic conception of
“equality” has become the standard of justifiable social relations.
This phenomenally narrow viewpoint ignores the obvious fact that
the “power” people act out in their relationships is of many and
varied types, and that one person’s predominance in one sphere is
often matched by the others in another sphere. Who has more
brains? More charm? Morebeauty? More vigor? Greater emotional
resources? Better health? Better taste? Not to mention more wealth,
status, and all the other material aspects of life? Might a professor’s
ability to give a bad grade not be countered by his student’s
opportunity to write him a
damaging evaluation? And is not virtually all professorial omnipotence
these days trumped by the threat that the “weaker” party (ostensibly
the student) might initiate a complaint against some
supposedly offensive word or gesture that may or may not have
actually occurred? A mere moment’s reflection reveals that the usual
critique of asymmetrical relations relies on a stunted and feeble
definition that is stacked–and of course is meant to be against
Sex is power, yes; but so are brains, charm, wealth, status, and,
as Philip Roth teaches us over and over again, health and youth.
But since it’s patently absurd to try to outlaw relationships defined
by all or any of these inequalities, the new academic vigilantes
go for the broadest possible category and thus simply target
all personal interactions. For who is there on campus who is not
hierarchically differentiated from some other individual one way
or another? The overly broad definitions of “sexual harassment”
that have ensued, which invariably include “verbal acts” that may
make someone uncomfortable, allow all other imbalances to be
covered, by implication. And the stigma resulting from a charge
of sexual or verbal harassment is so great (and the financial stakes
of potential law suits so high) that, these days, a charge of harassment–
a mere accusation, however flimsy, however transparently
fabricated–may well cost the accused his (for men are the primary
Unable to do away with “power” altogether (and without even
considering seriously whether it would be desirable, let alone remotely
possible, to do so), we scurry to regulate relationships. For
the Church fathers’ view of women as representing sexual danger,
capable of luring men from their higher concerns, we have substituted
an opposing view that now dominates our secular society: of
men as a threat to women, compromising, impeding, and exploiting
them at every turn. And since the pattern of young women
seeking out older and more accomplished men does not seem to be
retreating in the face of feminist critiques, what can we hope to do
but discourage those relationships as best we can by stigmatizing
flirtation, invitations, stares, touches, jokes (all of these explicitly
addressed by the latest sexual harassment policy of my own university)
even when they have nothing to do with sexual extortion
or coercion but are merely incidents of ordinary human interaction?
Fortunately, the current preeminence of sexual harassment specialists
and other micromanagers of collegiate life is not without
challenge, as the novels under discussion here demonstrate. True,
these literary works (and others of similar tenor) are small in number-
nothing to compare to the thousands of sexual harassment
codes the vigilantes have composed and are attempting to enforce,
egged on by the federal government and fortified by some rulings
signed into law by, ironically, Bill Clinton. But long after sexual
harassment codes are gone, these novels will be read both as reflections
of American life in the late twentieth century and as examples
of the unique abilities of fiction to reveal the human condition
in all its subtle intricacies and embroilments…
The Human Stain is the third novel in what Roth (in a New York
Times interview conducted with Charles McGrath, May 7, 2000)
described as a “thematic trilogy, dealing with the historical moments
in postwar American life that have had the greatest impact
on my generation”–the McCarthy era, the Vietnam War, and the
impeachment of Bill Clinton each story told through the mediating
perspective of Nathan Zuckerman, whom Roth has referred to
as his “alter brain” The first work in the trilogy was American
Pastoral, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1997, followed a year later
by I Married a Communist. The Human Stain, in turn, was succeeded
by a short novel once again taking up a character-narrator
we have met before. The Dying Animal, Roth’s most recent novel,
ressurrects David Kepesh, first introduced in 1972 in a Kafkaesque
novel The Breast, and narrator as well of Roth’s controversial 1977
novel The Professor of Desire. Now 70 years of age, Kepesh, in
The Dying Animal, relates the story of his affair, eight years earlier,
with Consuela Castillo, a 24-year-old Cuban-American student of
his, possessed of enormous “erotic power” that is both “elemental
and elegant” (p. 98). Roth does not directly address the issue of
current attempts to regulate professor-student relations except
to ironically note Kepesh’s habit of avoiding involvement with
his students till the semester is over and grades are turned in, at
which time he typically invites them all for a party at his house and
notes which ones stay late. Who is pursuing whom in his various
relationships is never entirely clear. But some of these studentteacher
liaisons persist in the form of lasting friendships, as we
learn near the novel’s end.
Kepesh speaks in a monologue to an unidentified interlocutor
whose questions and comments are implicit in Kepesh’s answers,
but who only on the novel’s very last page (just as in Portnoy’s
Complaint) responds and, indeed, is given the last word. No longer
a professor in The Dying Animal, Kepesh is now a well-known
culture critic and media personality. In laborious detail, on an occasion
that is revealed only at the novel’s end, he tells the story of his
obsession with Consuela, whose voluptuous beauty–and especially
her gorgeous breasts–enraptured him. A year and a half into
their affair, she breaks it off in anger over his failure to put in an
appearance at her graduation party. Recalling this episode, Kepesh
The smartest thing I did was not to show up there. Because I had been
yielding and yielding in ways that I didn’t understand. The longing never
disappeared even while I had her. The primary emotion, as I’ve said, was
longing. It’s still longing. There’s no relief from the longing and my sense
of myself as a supplicant. There it is: you have it when you’re with her and
you have it when you’re without her. (pp. 94-95)
But Kepesh by his own account then spent three more years
longing for her, and a few years beyond that she suddenly re-enters
his life, bringing not joy but tragedy as she tells him she has breast
cancer and not great odds for survival. Kepesh is not particularly
admirable (nor does Roth attempt to make him so) as he confesses
his dismay at the thought of her soon-to-be “mutilated” body, which
undoes his sexual desire even as his heart breaks with tenderness
for her plight (p. 138). Why has she come back? Apparently to ask
Kepesh to photograph, before her surgery, the breasts he so adored.
In recounting his affair, Kepesh delineates his indefatigable efforts
to avoid emotional entanglement and to hang on to physical
lust as the wellspring of manly energy, always contrasted to the
death-in-life that he considers marriage to be. Roth even subjects
Kepesh to some scathing analyses by a disgruntled middle-aged
son (from a failed early marriage that he’d walked out of), telling it
as he sees it, and often quite on target about his father’s many faults
Seducing defenseless students, pursuing one’s sexual interests at the expense
of everyone else–that’s so very necessary, is it? No, necessity is
staying in a difficult marriage and raising a little child and meeting the
responsibilities of an adult. (p. 90)
But none of this sensible criticism detracts from the compelling
narrative Kepesh weaves, with its topsy-turvy version of who’s
really in control in this affair between an older man, who sees the
end in sight, and an exuberantly beautiful much younger woman
who shouldn’t have to face her mortality but does, out of season.
Time, Kepesh says, for the young is always made up of what is
past; but for Consuela, sick with breast cancer,
time is now how much future she has left, …Now she measures time counting
forward, counting time by the closeness of death …. her sense of time is
now the same as mine, speeded up and more forlorn even than mine. She,
in fact, has overtaken me. (p. 149)
It is Kepesh’s intimate friend, George O’Hearn, who, in analyzing
Kepesh’s predicament after the affair with Consuela ended,
evokes the earlier novel’s image of Kepesh as “the professor of
desire” (p. 99). Recognizing that Kepesh will “always be powerless
with this girl” (p. 98), O’Hearn urges him to avoid all contact
with her. Lust and life are one thing; love quite another, and O’Heam
worries that Kepesh is “failing in love” Far from restoring a Platonic
unity to the lovers, O’Hearn argues, love is a danger, because,
“love fractures you. You’re whole, and then you’re cracked
open” (p. 101).
But if it is Consuela’s “erotic power” that has kept Kepesh in
thrall to her, the only power he, by contrast, held over her, Kepesh
believes, was his pedagogy, his ability to instruct her in music and
literature (p. 101). Most importantly, orgasm, for Kepesh, meant a
momentary end to the sickness that is desire. It is in this context that
he cites Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” from which the novel takes
its melancholy title, alluding to the process of aging:
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is. (p. 103)
Even a dying animal, however, can retain some sense of propriety.
“Ridiculousness” to Kepesh, is relinquishing one’s freedom
voluntarily (p. 104). While fully recognizing this, he had not been
able in his relationship with Consuela to avoid it and had experienced
emotions unbearable to him: jealousy and attachment: “No,
not even fucking can stay totally pure and protected, “Kepesh says
(p. 105), in lines similar to those spoken by Faunia Farley in The
Human Stain. What makes his suffering touch the reader is that
Kepesh doesn’t even know just what he’s longing for: “Her tits?
Her soul? Her youth? Her simple mind? Maybe it’s worse than
that–maybe now that I’m nearing death, I also long secretly not to
be free” (p. 106).
In a nasty review of The Dying Animal feebly entitled “Tedium
of the Gropes of Roth” (The limes [London], 27 June 2001), Elaine
Showalter dismisses the novel as “cowardly, sterile, and intellectually
shallow.” She can muster no sympathy for Kepesh’s insistence
on his “freedom” as being the fulfillment of American individualism.
Showalter considers the novel’s ending to be its protagonist’s
one shot at being a “mensch” a shot we’re not sure he’ll take. But
the novel’s focus on a man who uses sex as a weapon against his
mortality is no reason to despise it, unless we are prepared to judge
all works of art on the basis of whether their civic message is one
we wish to endorse. Showalter quotes with disdain Roth’s line about
the “astonishing fellators” found in this generation of young women
(~ la Lewinsky). Another reviewer, Anthony Quinn, refers to
Kepesh’s obsession with Consuela’s gorgeous breasts as “just a bit
creepy and objectifying” (“An Old Man’s Fancy,” The Times [London],
24 June 2001). It appears that critics are not very eager to
hear what Roth is really saying. We seem to want our aging men to
be heroes, mature and wise. We don’t like seeing them as vulnerable
individuals not yet finished with sexual desire, as Roth insists
on representing them.
To immerse oneself in Roth’s bold and erotic prose is to confront,
however unwillingly, the habitual denigration of eroticism in
American society, which celebrates the marriage-and-commitment
narrative despite its notorious failures in our time. Roth’s Kepesh
wants never to pay any price for his sexual indulgences and egocentric
behavior. But his protest against age and infirmity, his insistence
that desire continues, that sex can be an affirmation of life
against the inevitability of decay and loss–all these are worth hearing,
even coming from a character as complicatedly unsympathetic
as David Kepesh…
Starting with his first novel, Goodbye, Columbus, and ending
with The Dying Animal, his latest one, Philip Roth has, over a 40
year period, lavished an unflagging energy on the effort to dissect
the sexual and emotional lives of male protagonists who often resemble
himself (Jewish author/professors with little talent for marriage
and a great taste for self-analysis). What is at times referred to
by critics as his “misogyny” is, it seems to me, rather a willingness
to probe the heart of the egocentricity and lust that drive his male
characters. It takes courage to do this in Roth’s unabashed way, to
celebrate–as he does in The Dying Animal–”the charm of the
surreptitious” and to make such provocative statements as: “Marriage
at its best is a sure-fire stimulant to the thrills of licentious
subterfuge” (p. 110). Roth does not allow us to see his narrators
and protagonists as unproblematic or admirable exemplars. Nor
does he–like critics such as Bell Hooks and Jane Gallop defend
“asymmetrical” relationships on the self-congratulatory grounds that
brilliant professors and their best students are naturally attracted to
one another and that these associations are crucial to the intellec
tual and creative development of both. He insists that such relationships
need no academic defense. He makes no pretense that there
is a cerebral or pedagogic value to them. Life and lust are their own
justification. Nor does he, on the other hand, idealize the ensuing
relationships. Far from it, he exposes their seaminess and comic
aspects, but also the passion and vulnerabilities from which they
spring, above all the vulnerability of older men confronting their
fear of aging and death, susceptible to female sexual power in a
manner that is presented poignantly and, I suspect, realistically…
Quite a different emphasis governs Francine Prose’s latest novel,
Blue Angel, a darkly comic story of a besotted 47-year-old writing
professor and the talented and ambitious 19-year-old student who
causes his downfall. In a witty and biting third-person narrative
confined strictly to the point of view of her protagonist, Ted
Swenson, Prose exposes the smelly little orthodoxies (as Orwell
put it, in quite another context) of the contemporary academic scene.
Because this novel of a professor ruined by sexual harassment
charges is of particular relevance to the travesties of justice actually
being played out on many university campuses today, it is worth
considering it in some detail.
Ted Swenson, a writer-in-residence at Eust,on College in northern
Vermont, has been married for twenty-one years and is still in
love with his wife, Sherrie, and capable of, as she puts it, “leering”
at her. As a professor in contemporary America, however, he knows
the rules, and the narrative gives us his thoughts about them:
Such are the pleasures of intimacy: he can look [at Sherrie] as long as he
wants. Given the current political climate, you’d better be having consensual
matrimonial sex with a woman before you risk this stare. (p. 16)
At his college’s obligatory meeting to review the sexual harassment
policy, Swenson thinks heretical thoughts:
What if someone rose to say what so many of them are thinking, that
there’s something erotic about the act of teaching, all that information
streaming back and forth like some…bodily fluid. Doesn’t Genesis trace
sex to that first bite of apple, not the fruit from just any tree, but the Tree of
Knowledge? (p. 22, italics in original)
Devoted to his wife and daughter, Swenson acknowledges that
“teacher-student attraction is an occupational hazard” and has therefore
avoided entanglements with his students, though over the years
several have made overtures to him. And he’s well aware, too, of a
case at the State university (where his daughter Ruby studies), involving
a professor who, while showing a classical Greek sculpture
of a female nude, had commented “Yum” Accusing him of
“leering” his students charged that he’d made them uncomfortable.
Suspended without pay, the professor had taken his case to
court. Swenson is wary of a similar climate at his own college, and
of the increasing power of the “Faculty-Student Women’s Alliance”
waiting to pounce on any male word or gesture. And he is suspicious
of a colleague who is head of the Alliance and is also the
English Department’s “expert in the feminist misreading of literature?’
For reasons he can’t fathom (but guesses it’s a “testosterone
allergy”), she seems to want him dead.
How, then, after so many years of sound judgment, does it happen
that he falls into the role of Professor Rath to his student’s Lola
Lola (as in the classic film The Blue Angel, from which the novel
takes its title)? Prose’s autopsy of Swenson’s fall is a bracing work,
funny and sly and politically incorrect at every turn, right up until
the end when Swenson realizes that the movie he should have been
watching was not The Blue Angel but All About Eve.
Can a talent for writing be a seducer? In the case of Ted Swenson,
decades of teaching “creative writing” to mediocre students (whose
stories, often involving bestiality, we get to sample), along with ten
frustrating years of never quite getting around to working on his
long-awaited third novel, have left him fatally vulnerable to talent,
no matter how unlikely its source.
Angela Argo is far from the best looking young woman in
Swenson’s class at Euston College. In fact, she has sat for weeks
squirming and sighing instead of speaking, calling attention to herself
primarily by means of her abundant face piercing, the orange
and green streaks in her hair, and the black leather motorcycle jacket
with theme-related accouterments that covers her skinny body.
But poor Swenson has few defenses against the spark of talent
that Angela reveals to him after seeking a meeting in his office.
And his first reaction to her work is the very thing that today gets
professors in trouble: differential treatment. Wanting to protect her
talent from the ritual hazing that his class has turned into as students
savage one another’s writing week after week, he agrees to
read and comment on Angela’s work in private. Thus begins the
special relationship–initiated by Angela at each successive stage–
that will eventually cost him his reputation, his job, and his marriage.
Interwoven into this realistic tale of a contemporary campus liaison
is a sympathetic portrait of the plight of writing teachers and of
writers, especially those stuck in a dry season that can last a decade.
The novel captures perfectly Swenson’s enraptured response
to the discovery of Angela’s talent. It is a generous, tender response.
Swenson is alert to the students’ ambiguous attitude toward him:
“He’s the teacher, they’re the students: a distinction they like to
blur, then make again, as needed” (p. 10). But this sensibility and
foreknowledge won’t save him from enthusiastically gravitating
toward the genuinely talented. And as Angela feeds him chapter
after chapter of her novel, Swenson falls into the very mistake he
constantly warns his students against: taking the story as autobiography.
Thus, he begins to imagine that he himself is the teacher Angela’s
protagonist is enamoured of, and that her first-person narrative is really
a confession, made to him privately, of her troubled life.
It doesn’t help matters much when a colleague who teaches poetry
tells him about the graphic sexual poems Angela had written
for that class. Soon the sexual content of Angela’s writing and her
intense anticipation of Swenson’s reactions week by week lead
him to sexual fantasies about her. When she says that she thinks all
the time about his reactions to her writing, what he hears is that
“she thinks about him all the rime” (p. 158). So they lurch from one
encounter to the next, each less clear than the last. Everything in
their relationship initially revolves around her writing–her eagerness
for his reaction; her computer’s collapse, which leads her to
ask him to take her shopping for a new one, and in turn leads to his
presence in her dorm room whose door (he finds out later) she’d
locked as soon as they had entered.
Francine Prose explores with great subtlety Swenson’s seduction
and betrayal. She does not present him as a total innocent. As
a man in mid-life, he is aware of his mortality and the appeal of
glowing youth all around him. “Age and death–the unfairness of
it, the daily humiliation of watching your power vanish just when
you figure out how to use it” (p. 145). But Angela’s rapid transformarion
after their brief escapade is no joke; she begins demanding
more of his attention to her writing, berating him when he doesn’t
provide it quickly enough. “What happened to the worshipful student
who hung on his every word” Swenson wonders. “Now that
she’s let Swenson sleep with her she doesn’t respect him anymore”
(p. 187). Prose shows the reversal of all the traditional rules and
values, as Angela quickly moves in for what turns out to be her real
goal: getting him to show her novel to his agent. But still Swenson
argues with himself about her motives:
Does Angela–did she ever–have a crush on him, or is she just using him
for his professional connections? Is Angela blackmailing him, or simply
asking a favor? What does a favor mean when you have the power to wreck
someone’s life? (p. 190)
By coincidence, a woman colleague also wants the same favor:
“This is really too much. Two women in twenty minutes cozying
up to Swenson as a way of getting next to his editor” (p. 191). And
to make matter worse, he must face the open resentment of his
other students when he, with complete sincerity, praises Angela’s
writing in class.
Angela’s fury when she learns that Swenson hadn’t fought for
her book with his agent finally makes her clarify her behavior: “The
only reason I let you fuck me was so you would help me get this
novel to someone who could do something” (p. 236). And next
thing he knows, she’s charged him with sexual harassment, taken a
tape of this last conversation to the dean, and is threatening to sue
the college. The dean immediately urges Swenson to resign.
Reviewing his own responsibility, Swenson thinks:
He knew about the power differential between teacher and student. But
this wasn’t about power. This was about desire. Mutual seduction, let’s say
that at least, lie’s too embarrassed to let himself think, This was about love.
Barred from his classroom, dangerously indifferent to his school’s
sexual harassment proceedings (not a “court of law”), Swenson
insists on a hearing instead of resigning quietly.
When he tells his wife, in a restaurant, about the trouble he’s in,
she blames him entirely and informs him that Angela spent half her
time at the school’s medical clinic (where Sherrie is a nurse), ostensibly
because she’s suicidal–but actually, Swenson realizes, because
Angela was pumping the staff for details about his life to
work into her novel.
The couple sitting beside them seems to have gotten up and left. At some
point when he and Sherrie were at once so engrossed and distracted, the
lovers must have retreated into their cocoon of protection and light and
grace, of chosenness, of being singled out and granted the singular blessing
of being allowed to live in a world in which what’s happening to
Sherrie and Swenson will never happen to them. (p. 256)
As the Faculty-Student Women’s Alliance demonstrates against
him, and Swenson rents the film of The Blue Angel (a film he knows
Angela too has seen), he realizes at last that “there’s no chance of
winning, of proving his innocence” (p. 266).
The night before the hearing, he lies in bed composing and revising
speeches about what he thought he was doing, about his respect for Angela’s
novel, about the erotics of teaching. And the dangers of starting to see
one’s student as a real person. (p. 267)
But he is totally unprepared for the actual hearing process, in
effect a trial in which he faces six colleagues, one of them the head
of the Faculty-Student Women’s Alliance (p. 270). As “agreed”
upon (but not by him), witnesses are called, but no cross-examination
of them is permitted, since this “is not, after all, a trial” (p.
273). So much for due process.
When Angela appears, parents in tow, at the hearing, Swenson
notes her changed appearance. Her hair is now a
shiny, authentic-looking auburn . . . . And how bizarrely she’s dressed–
bizarre, that is, for Angela. Neat khakis, a red velour sweater, ordinary
college-girl “good” clothes. For all he knows, the piercing and the black
leather were always the costume, and this is the real Angela, restored to her true
self. For all he knows. He doesn’t know. All right. He gets that now. (p. 272)
In a particularly subtle scene, Swenson, having deluded himself
for so long, having somehow managed to avoid noting that Angela’s
real interest was in promoting her writing, not in him, finds at his
“trial” that he would rather play the “sullen guilty lecher” that his
colleagues think he is, would rather confirm their “image of him as
the predatory harasser” than admit “to the truer story of obsession
and degradation, the humiliating real-life update of The Blue Angel”
Colleagues and students come forth to testify. A brave student
from Swenson’s writing class, initially showing far more discernment
than his elders, tries to argue: “I can’t see what the big deal is.
Shit happens. People get attracted to other people. It’s not that big a
deal” (p. 284). But Swenson watches the change that comes over
the student as he realizes that what Swenson is charged with is
having extorted sex from Angela in return for showing her work to
his editor in New York. The student’s face shows his perception of
unfairness warring with his sense of loyalty to his teacher: “Swenson
wants to tell him that the real unfairness involves the distribution of
talent and has nothing to do with whatever happened between him
and Angela Argo” (p. 285). Bravely, the student tries to stick to his
But nothing has prepared him to resist the seduction of having the dean of
his college calling him a writer and a half-dozen faculty members hanging
on his every word. How can he disappoint them? How can he not offer up
any scrap of information he can recall. (p. 286)
Francine Prose gets the details of all this just right: the banality
and venality of academic vindictiveness and piety; the stereotypical
assumptions about professorial misconduct; the eagerness to
find sexual wrongdoing; the unavoidable small-minded
Schadenfreude as colleagues and students get to revisit old grievances
and slights, and the sheer cynicism of faculty and administrators
claiming to be concerned with students’ welfare. When Claris,
the class beauty, testifies that he took no inappropriate actions toward
her, Swenson can see that no one believes her. Or they think
Swenson is insane.
How pathetic. What is wrong with him? He never even entertained a sexual
thought about Clads and spent months mooning over Angela Argo? How
abject, how ridiculous. He isn’t a normal male. (p. 288, italics in original)
Another student testifies that they all knew something was going
on because all their work was criticized, while Angela’s was
not. No one is interested in discussing the other possible reasons
for admiring a student’s work. “Swenson’s learned his lesson.
He’ 11 never criticize another student. Not that he’ll get a chance”
Finally, Angela gets to speak–if she feels “strong enough to
address the committee” (p. 296). “As she moves [toward the table],
Swenson thinks he can still see sharp angles of sullen punkhood
poking through the fuzzy eiderdown of that Jane College getup”
(p. 296). Following the familiar ritual, Angela is praised for her
courage in coming forward, and spared the ordeal of listening
to the tape she had orchestrated to make it sound as if Swenson
had indeed persuaded her to trade sex for showing her book to
On her face is that combustive chemistry of wild irritation and boredom so
familiar from those early classes, but now it’s become a martyr’s transfixed
gaze of piety and damage, lit by the flames of the holy war she’s waging
against the evils of male oppression and sexual harassment. (p. 297)
Throughout Angela’s distortions and deceptions; Swenson tries
to keep “his grip on the truth—-on his version of the story….A grip
on recent history…. On reality” (pp. 298-299). The committee, he
sees, is ready to believe the worst because he asked to see more of
a student’s writing. Yet, he admits to himself, her testimony isn’t all
Well, there is something sexy about reading someone’s work: an intimate
communication takes place. Still, you can read…Gertrude Stein, and it
doesn’t mean you find her attractive …. Once more, the committee’s version
of him–the scheming dirty old man–seems less degrading than the
truth. (p. 301)
Prose avoids turning her story into a postmodern narrative in
which we can never hope to learn the truth. Earlier episodes have
shown us what took place, and we recognize Angela’s lies in her
testimony before the committee, her insistence that the sexual initiatives
were his. But the author’s voice gives us a different perspective
on where the harm really resides:
How pornographic and perverted this is, a grown woman–a professor–
torturing a female student into describing a sexual experience to a faculty
committee, not to mention her parents. Swenson could have slept with
Angela on the Founders Chapel altar, and it would have seemed healthy
and respectable compared to this orgy of filth. Meanwhile he has to keep
it in mind that Angela started all this. Angela chose to be here. (p. 303)
Only at her father’s urging that she share her “good news” does
Angela admit to the assembled group that Swenson’s editor in fact
wants to publish her novel (p. 305). Swenson thinks:
Len Currie is publishing Angela’s novel. So what is this hearing about?
Angela should be kissing Swenson’s feet instead of ruining his life. As she
must have decided to do when she still believed that Swenson, her white
knight, had failed to get her manuscript published. If that’s when she decided.
Who knows what she did, and why? (p. 305)
On cue, Angela describes the lingering effects of the whole
wretched experience, her nightmares, her distress. As Angela’s testimony
draws to a close, the women’s studies professor once more
congratulates Angela and commiserates with her:
“Angela, let me say again that we know how tough it was for you to
come in and say what you did. But if women are ever going to receive an
equal education, these problems have to be addressed and dealt with, so
that we can protect and empower ourselves”
“Sure,” Angela says. “You’re welcome. Whatever.” (p. 307)
When it is finally Swenson’s turn to speak, he knows what he
should do is apologize—but of the many things he is sorry for,
breaking the college’s rules about professor-student relationships is
not one of them:
He is extremely sorry for having spent twenty years of his one and only
life, twenty years he will never get back, among people he can’t talk to,
men and women to whom he can’t even tell the simple truth. (p. 308)
And then, in an entirely predictable almost last-straw moment,
Swenson’s daughter’s boyfriend tells the committee that Ruby told
him her father had sexually abused her when she was a child.
Swenson watches his colleagues’ reactions:
they have taken off their masks. Jonathan Edwards, Cotton Mather,
Torquemado. Swenson’s crime involves sex, so the death penalty can be
invoked. No evidence is inadmissible. They’re hauling out the entire
arsenal for this mortal combat with the forces of evil and sin. (p. 310)
Thus, at novel’s end, Angela’s career is starting and Swenson’s
careerwalong with his marriage is ending. Sounding somewhat
like one of Philip Roth’s heroes, Swenson finally recognizes the mystery
of femaleness, acknowledging that he can never fathom Angela’s
motives. Only she will ever know the truth. As he hears the campus
bells tolling, he wonders why they’re ringing now, at 5:25 p.m.
Then, gradually, it dawns on him. It’s the Women’s Alliance, announcing
their triumph over another male oppressor, one small step along the path
toward a glorious future. He’s glad to be out of that future and headed into
his own. (p. 314)…
Does it take a woman writer, a Francine Prose, to unabashedly
demonstrate the stupidity of the current shibboleths regarding male
professors’ “power” and female students’ “powerlessness”? To protest
the prurient attitude that lies behind the apparent obsession with
sexual relations on campus? To delineate so scathingly a young
woman’s methodical and self-serving manipulation of her professor?
When men writers do this (e.g., David Mamet in his play
Oleanna), their work is often dismissed with the presumptively
devastating charge of “misogyny.” Francine Prose’s novel is an
effective rejoinder to this canard. It is both touching and true: written
in a melancholy self-deprecating style befitting her protagonist’s
essential decency and ironic awareness, and at the same time profoundly
insightful into the mechanisms of academic life at the present
Philip Roth presents us with a scathing portrait of the harm unleashed
by the stupidity of vigilantism of language and personal
relations in today’s America. In novel after novel, he offers a celebration
(sardonic and pathetic though it often is) of the erotic power
of young women and the deep conflicts of the men who love and
fear them. Nicholas Delbanco portrays a costly and enduring love,
which comes in guises and moments that defy academic proprieties,
and he leaves no doubt that the price is worth paying. Francine
Prose details the seductiveness of talent and the egocentric drives
that motivate women as much as men, despite all the lies currently
circulating on this subject. Eric Tarloff, writing in a far lighter vein
than these three, opts for happy endings as the essential sanity of his
protagonists somehow prevails. Perhaps, indeed, he is the most idealistic
of the group. But all four are writers of great skill, opening our
eyes to the hidden dimensions and potentialities of those “asymmetrical”
relationships conventionally viewed today as merely sordid
or exploitative on the professor’s part, deprived of life, forced into caricatured
tableaux in which all roles are set out in advance according to
the position–in terms of race, sex, and status of the protagonists.
One turns from these works of fiction, these portraits of academic
life at the end of the twentieth century, back to the everyday
reality of sexual harassment officers, codes, and committees, threats,
and public displays of virtue, with a profound sense of wonder.
How can it be that rules and guidelines that should be an embarrassment
to any sensible society now govern every school and
workplace? How have the supposedly powerless so successfully
altered the terms of everyday interactions that the supposedly powerful-
who, we are constantly told, prey on them–are now so
vulnerable, so much at their mercy? Is this some demented dream
from which we’ll soon all wake up? Not, I fear, in the short run.
But the commitment of writers such as these four to the craft of the
novelist rather than to the cant of current ideologies gives us reason-
however fragile–for hope.
HOT FOR TEACHER is the attention getting headline for the University of Minnesota student newspaper article authored by Ashley Dresser on student professor sexual relationships. Although the headline is a tad sensationalistic, the dankprofessor believes that this is one of the very few student newspapers articles on this subject that generally gets it right.
Much of the article is based on an interview with a female student referred to as Prudence, who is having a relationship with a professor. Prudence is a pseudonym; such was, of course, the prudent thing to do. Prudence referred to the professor as MY professor. As the article states:
“Well, I find MY professor to be hot.” When we asked her exactly what she meant with that kind of emphasis on ownership, she proceeded to unveil every girl’s college fantasy:
“I’ve known him, my professor boyfriend, since I started working in his department about two years ago. I never took a class under him, but he always flirted with me…I blew him off mostly, but a couple of months ago he asked me out to dinner. We have had many, many discussions about whether or not it’s okay to pursue this, but so far it’s working out well enough. We just have to be discreet about it.” Before I could even get the question out of my mouth, Prudence added, “And yes, I call him ‘professor’ in bed.”
So much for all the articles that phrase student professor relationship in terms of professors being attracted to the student but generally via omission deny the reality that students are often attracted to professors.
As stated by the writer-
My classmates and I were awestruck by her academic prowess, but it did cross our minds that he could just be a hairy old man. A couple of Facebook clicks later, however, and Prudence proved us wrong. He is, in fact, a gorgeous specimen – perhaps heightened by the fact that he is not opposed to scandalous romance. (As a side note: the fact that we now have the ability to friend our professors on Facebook to learn more about their personal lives, sift through their photos, etc. makes this dating scene even more hot to handle.)
And then the writer violates campus journalistic tradition and provides material from an interview with the professor, albeit the professor is cloaked in anonymity-
“It is highly likely that us professors are attracted to our students,” Prudence’s professor said when asked for comment. “We see our students every single day and if they are taking a class with us, that probably means we have the same interests…And in general, guys don’t really care about age or profession with girls, so the fact that they are attracted to one of their students isn’t necessarily going to bother them.”
Well, in the dankprofessor’s opinion the professor gets it right. This is why the dankprofessor uses the phraselogy of “from the love of knowledge to the knowledge of love”.
The author then states-
Yet it does seem to bother a lot of other people. A simple Google search of “professor-student relationships” brings up a wealth of commentary about its pros and cons. In particular, check out www.dankprofessor.wordpress.com . It is a weblog that “examines the sexual politics in higher education and beyond.” Parents and the university administrations tend to be the two major groups that are having the qualms, which is ironic, since neither of them are the ones in the actual relationship itself.
Well, the author gets it right about the dankprofessor weblog. But she doesn’t get it completely right when she states that parents and university administrators are the two major opposing groups. She omits the major grouping- women’s studies faculty and feminist faculty who adhere to a hardcore anti sexual and anti male agendas. This group was the prime mover in the adoption of the sexual codes regarding student professor relationships and it is this group which would attempt to make trouble for any professor sexually involved with a student, no matter whether the student had ever been in the professor’s class. And it is this group that administrators are adverse to challenging and generally are willing to go along with their effort to make life miserable for any professor dating any student. Such is consistent with the decision of the student and professor who are the subjects of this article to not reveal their identity. And it should also be pointed out that some universities formally ban all student professor fraternization. But even when the relationship are not de jure banned as in the present case, the relationship is de facto banned in the framework of the professor becoming subjected to an array of punishments- from being treated rudely by fellow faculty to getting a horrid teaching schedule to being terminated.
As for parents, the following is stated-
“My parents would try to talk me out of it, if they knew,” Prudence said. “They would say I’m squandering my youth or that he’s using me for sex…The professor and I are sixteen years apart, but I would definitely recommend dating a professor to any student. They are more worldly and mature and they know how to treat a lady. I’m not knocking college boys, but they still have a lot of growing up to do.”
Well, Prudence may be a bit off base re parental response. Based on my experience and knowledge of the experience of others, most parents are unlikely to respond with horror to their daughter dating a professor, particularly if they have met the professor. And, of course, if one of the parents is a prof, rapport may develop quickly between the professor parent and the professor who loves the daughter. So I urge Prudence to be a bit more prudent, and not to assume that her parents will be rejecting parents.
The article ends with the following quote from Prudence-
“It’s all media and society hype that makes it seem so bad. Over the years, people have also given relationships in which the male is significantly older than the female a bad name…They make it seem like the guy is just after sex. Well, I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but aren’t all guys, no matter what age, after sex? At the end of the day, we are just two people looking for some companionship.”
Amen from the dankprofessor. And this is what I have been trying to do- get beyond the hype to the everyday realities of these relationships. What is two people looking for companionship has been demonized over and over again by moral zealots and the morally perverse. To argue as Mark Bourrie has argued that professors involved in these sorts of relationships are “scum” and Erik Ringmar that such professors are disgusting is morally perverse.
Congratulations to Ashley Dresser for writing this article and I encourage my blog readers to read the entirety of this article.
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