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???
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.
Well once again Professor Mark Bourrie’s response to the dankprofessor is a non- response.
Here it is unexpurgated, uncensored.
I’ve answered your worthless critique many times.
All you seem to care about is rationalizing your seduction of your students. You are scum”
Bourrie’s usage of the scum rhetoric strips away his cloak of professionalism. No attempt to use professionalism here as a rationalization for his attitudes toward professors who have been intimate with their students. No attempt here for Bourrie to engage in any minimal form of academic or polite or enlightening discourse. His tactics are those of a hatemonger- objectify and dehumanize those who are on the other side. “Create” them in whatever terms the hatemonger wishes. No matter that Dank has never seduced anyone, Bourrie can still create and communicate Dank as a seducer without any need to cite supporting evidence since Dank is a creation of Bourrie’s imagination. Bourrie can imagine Dank and other professors who are intimate with students in what ever terms he wishes. Of course, such tells us more about Bourrie than it tells us about Dank, et .al. The fact that he homogenizes us, makes us all the same, allows no possibility that some of us seduce and some do not, is quite damning of Bourrie. As the philosopher Martin Buber would likely state, Bourrie lives in an I/it world, a world of impersonal categories, a world that is never allowed to transcend into an I/thou framework, a framework where there is personalization, where individuals are experienced as unique beings, where relationships are explored, where people can be appreciated and even loved. It is also a world that has been described by the anthropologist Mary Douglas, as a world of dirt and pollution and scum; a world infected by those who have engaged in violations of what is considered to be sacred.
In this world which Bourrie has created, there is no love. Bourrie along with many others
whose opposition to student professor relationships mainly has an anti-sexual dynamic, cannot comprehend that there can be a loving relationship between a student and a professor. The idea that a mutual love of knowledge can lead to love, a passion for each other is out of their world. The idea that some of these relationships become long term and lead to marriage, and even marriage at times without divorce is not considered. I think that I am on pretty firm ground when I believe that Bourrie has never given any consideration to the possibility that some of the professors and administrators he riles against at Concordia for not advocating student professor bans may very well have fallen in love with and married a student. And I am also quite sure that Bourrie has never entertained the possibility that some of his students may very well be the children of persons who were once in student professor relationships.
The mundane world of love, marriage and children is not there for Bourrie as applied to student professor relationships. Well, this mundane world is and was part of my world, and Bourrie’s writing me off and others like me as scum is not just beyond good taste, it reflects a descent into indecency and degradation. It reflects an attempt to pull his readers into his pornographic imagination.
And more must be said about love. It is striking that Mark Bourrie and his confreres say nothing about love, and nothing about falling in love. Such is striking since their often avowed goals is to preserve fairness and objectivity when it comes to grading. But never once does Bourrie say that the professor who has fallen in love with a student, a love which may be only known to the professor, should recuse oneself from grading the loved student or go to his supervisor to insure said love should not bias the grading process.
And as for barring student professor relationships that entail friendship without sex, Bourrie in his recent posting discounts such relationships as being different, not applicable. But, if ones goal really is to protect fairness in grading, one must know that at times close friendships, loving friendships can produce bonds that could threaten the fairness of the grading process. But Bourrie and apparently many others do not care about love and friendship interfering with grading. What they care about is sex and furthering their anti-sexual agenda. The fairness in grading appeal helps them to rationalize their goals, and that is too stamp out sex between students and professors.
As long as universities are not replaced by online education, there will be love and sex between students and professors. Such has become and will unfortunately continue to be at least into the near future, the love that dare not speak its name. And dankprofessor blog readers can be assured that the dankprofessor will continue to speak its name. Such is my pledge.
Mark Bourrie on his Ottawa Watch Blog responds to my critique on his wanting to ban student prof intimacies at Concordia University. He states-
An American university professor/blogger doesn’t get it. He says I want to “coerce” people. Actually, no. I want them to act professionally. I don’t want them to come on to, date and/or sleep with someone, then grade their work, decide on their scholarships, etc.
Of course, Dr. Bourrie is playing words games. He wants to coerce them if they act in a manner that he finds unprofessional. If they act like he wants them to act, if they act like him, no problem. Nothing new here, particularly in the area of sexuality. Follow my sexual standards or else! Nothing new here in reference to authoritarianism, just follow the ethic handed down from above, and all will be OK.
And then there is Bourrie’s naivete or is it verbal manipulation? Note his statement- “I don’t want them to come on to, date and/or sleep with someone, then grade their work, decide on their scholarships, etc.” This is sexism to the nth degree! Male active, female passive. A female student coming on to a male prof is nothing unusual, such has never been unusual and will never be unusual. Maybe the case is that female students do not find Bourrie attractive but such does not mean that they do not find other male profs attractive. I know this to be a fact based on my 35 years of experience as a professor as well as based on the experiences of many other professors and the many female students who have contacted me in regards to their love of their professor. And if Bourrie is unaware of male profs and female students marrying, such is other worldly. If female students were not attracted to male profs then the issue of consensual relationships would not be an issue.
Then Bourrie states-
“If sex between profs and students is so right, why do the profs involved keep it a secret? I figure anything that can’t take public scrutiny tends to be illegal, immoral or fattening. U of T gets that aspect, too, and it’s a good start.”
I ask Bourrie and his confreres, if in the past homosexuals believed their homosexuality right, then why did homosexuals keep their homosexuality secret? Why were homosexuals so closeted? Any person with some degree of common sense knows the answer to these questions. Being in the closet, keeping such things secret, does not mean that the secreted believe they are wrong, but often means that they do not want to be harassed, stigmatized and fired. As persons without power, they do not want to be subject to the power abuse of bureaucrats, police and various agents of moral zealots; moral zealots who act self-righteously in the name of their morality , their professionalism, etc.
And in more general terms about Bourrie’s feeling that “anything can’t take public scrutiny tends to be illegal, immoral or fattening.” Very funny if one does not believe in the right to privacy, in this case the right to privacy by consenting adults. I assumed that even so-called professionals believe sexual relationships between adults in private was OK. If the Concordia prof and student came out publicly, I guess Bourrie would feel OK about this rather than feeling that they were flaunting their relationship. I believe most people who are opposed to student professor relationships want them to be in the closet, not out in public for all to see, not engaging in marriage ceremonies, etc.
Bourrie then cites the University of Toronto policy in he following terms-
Here’s U of T’s policy. At least they recognize the conflict and say the affair must be disclosed, but look at the weasel word “should” in the first paragraph. I would prefer “must”:
University policy does not prohibit sexual relations between consenting adults. However, if you form any kind of intimate personal relationship with someone who teaches you or otherwise makes academic decisions affecting you, that teacher has a conflict of interest. She or he should disclose the conflict of interest to their academic supervisor – usually the Chair of the department or the Dean of the faculty – and should ensure that your work is graded by a colleague.
If your teacher does not disclose the conflict of interest, s/he is not simply in breach of University policy: s/he is showing a negligent disregard for your academic interests, and placing the legitimacy of your academic accomplishments in question.
Has Dr. Bourrie really thought thru the implications and possible consequences of policies of this sort? If not, I suggest that the good professor put himself in the position of the involved student and the professor who is committed to following university rules. One day, you as the student are removed from the classroom and theoretically put in another class for your own good. (Sometimes the student may not be physically removed from the class, but graded by another prof, no matter whether she stays or goes, the problems remain essentially the same.) And, in addition, you know that the university administrators who are “helping” you, know of your sexual activity that led to your removal. And then you will have to deal with the reality that it is your special professor who informed on you and has helped to remove you from his class. What kind of professor would do this? What kind of professor would do this to a woman who he supposedly loved? And for the involved professor his life goes on, no serious disruption since the disclose dispose policy, as some call it, has been implemented. I ask Dr. Bourrie, who professes to be a person who believes in this policy, have you ever given one iota of thought to the exiled student? Or was she simply a non-person who was disposed of? And this policy is implemented by some to correct a power imbalance; this is power imbalance at its worst.
But, of course, there is more, much more which is damning about this sort of policy. Supposedly the student is removed from class so that differential non-prejudicial grading can take place. But once the student is removed one can be assured that differential grading will take place since all the students but one will have the same grader. For the professor who is committed to fair and objective grading, the professor grades all the students using the same standard irrespective of whether the prof likes or dislikes the student.
However, dealing with the possible reality of the student being removed from class, who will be the grader and will the grader be able to grade this student as the regular prof grades all of the other students? How can it be assured that a colleague of the “special” professor will grade the student objectively, that his or her feeling about the special prof or the student, will not interfere with the grading? Will the grader be told that the student is the lover of the prof? And what if the grade is based on an in class project, on class participation, how will this be dealt with? And what if the student is taken out of an art or music or theatre arts or sports class? How can the prof deal with this? Shouldn’t the grading prof be forced to sit thru the entire class and then grade the student?
It is amazing that so many people, so many academics, are taken in by a policy that after a bit of thought one cannot help but label said policy as a sham. Academics often have knee jerk responses to these policies. Why? Because most academics give little thought to the intricacies, complexities and ethics of grading. Grading is at the bottom of the academic totem pole. Tell me about one professor at Concordia or UT who was hired in part because of their grading practices. Tell me about any university that has workshops for new or old faculty on grading practices. Of course, many faculty don’t grade, they ship out grading to teaching assistants. So much for the importance of grading.
Bottom line is that the policies that Bourrie, et. al., advocate are not based on a commitment to good grading but are rather based on rooting out those who they see as sexual deviants. In the dankprofessor’s opinion the irony regarding Bourrie and his concern for his daughter at the hands of a so-called predator professor is that his daughter would probably be at much greater risk if she becomes involved in the hookup and drinking culture associated with all too many colleges than if she became involved with her English or Theatre Arts professor. As the dankprofessor has indicated previously-
the love of knowledge can lead to the knowledge of love. Such passions simply cannot be destroyed or regulated by campus bureaucrats or professionals of any kind.
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.
Following are key excerpts from an article by feminist author Bell Hooks, “Passionate Pedagogy; erotic student/faculty relationships,” Z MAGAZINE, March 1996, 45-51. This is one of the best articles written on this subject and I urge readers to savor and critically scrutinize this article.
When I became a professor I was amazed at the extent to which students, male and female, approached me for romantic and/or sexual encounters. Like many unattached female professors in the academy, I was constantly the subject of student gossip. Often the students I loved the most did the most talking. When I complained to them about their obsession with my sex life, they simply responded by telling me to get a grip and accept that it goes with the turf. They wanted to understand female sexual agency. They wanted to know how women professors are coping with working in patriarchal institutions, and how we were juggling issues of sexual desirability, agency, and careerism. They saw us as charting the path they will follow. Many of these students were more than hip to the dangers of getting involved with someone older and more powerful.
Contemporary feminist movement has usefully interrogated the way men in power within patriarchal culture often use that power to abuse and sexually coerce females. That necessary critical intervention is undermined when it obscures recognition of the way in which desire can be acknowledged in relationships between individuals where there is unequal power without being abusive. It is undermined when any individual who is in a less powerful position is represented as being absolutely without choice, as having no agency to act on their own behalf. As long as young females are socialized to see themselves as incapable of choosing those situations of erotic engagement which would be most constructive for their lives, they will always be more vulnerable to victimization. This does not mean that they will not make mistakes, as countless female students did when they chose to have disappointing nonproductive romantic liaisons with professors. Everyone I interviewed for this piece had no regret about these liaisons. We all knew they did not have to be negative. The point is that we were not embracing a psychology of female victimization that would have been utterly disempowering. There is clearly a connection between submitting to abuse and the extent to which any of us already feel that we are destined to be victimized.
The vast majority of women who are heterosexual in this society are likely to be in intimate relations with men at some point in their lives who have greater status and power, however relative, given the nature of capitalism and patriarchy. Clearly, it is more important to learn ways to be “just” in situations where there is a power imbalance, rather than to
assume that exploitation and abuse are the “natural” outcome of all such encounters. Notice how such logic fixes those in power in ways that deny their accountability and choice by assuming that they act on behalf of their interests exclusively. And that their interests will always be antithetical to the interests of those who are less powerful.
Contemporary focus on victimization tends to leave very little cultural space for recognition of the erotic as a space of transgression that can undermine politics of domination. Rather than perceiving desire between faculty and students as always dangerous, negative and destructive, what does it mean for us to consider the positive uses of that desire, the way the erotic can serve to enhance self-actualization and growth. We hear much more about the way in which individuals have abused power in faculty/students relations where there is erotic engagement. We rarely hear anything about the ways erotic desire between teacher and student enhances individual growth. We do not hear about the affectionate bonds that spring from erotic encounters which challenge conventional notions of what is appropriate behavior.
Most professors, even the ones who are guilty, would acknowledge that it is highly problematic and usually unproductive to be romantically involved with students you are directly working with, either in the classroom or on a more individual basis. Yet, prohibitions, rules and regulations, will not keep these relationships from happening. The place of vigilance is not in forbidding such encounters but having a system that effectively prevents harassment and abuse. At every college campus in this country there are individual male professors who repeatedly harass and coerce students to engage in sexual relations. For the most part, even when there have been ongoing complaints, college administrators have not confronted these individuals or used the already institutionalized procedures governing harassment to compel them to stop abusive behavior. Even though everyone seems to be quite capable of recognizing the difference between those professors who abuse their power and those who may have a romantic relationship with a student that is consensual, by imposing rules and regulations that would effect all faculty and students they deny this difference. Some folks want to argue there is no difference that the student is always more vulnerable. It is true that relationships where there are serious power imbalances can be a breeding ground for victimization. They can begin with mutual consent yet this does not ensure that they may not become conflictual in ways that lead the more powerful party to become coercive or abusive. This is true in all relationships in life. Power must be negotiated. Part of maturing is learning how to cope with conflict. Many of the cases where students cite serious exploitation on the part of professors involve graduate students and professors. It is difficult to believe that any graduate student is not fully aware of the risks when they become erotically involved with a professor who has some control over their career. Concurrently, sexism and misogyny have to be seen as factors at work, when individual powerful male professors direct their attention at exceptionally smart female graduate students who could easily become their competitors. If campuses really want to effectively address the problems of abuse in faculty-student relations then we should be socializing undergraduates to be realistic about the problems that can arise in such encounters.
The Time magazine story on romantic relations between students and faculty begins with this confession: “During the three months in 1993 when she was sleeping with her English professor, Lisa Topol lost 18 pounds. She lost interest in her classes at the University of Pennsylvania, lost her reputation as an honor student and wondered if she was losing her mind. If she tried to break up, she thought, he could ruin her academic career. Then she made some phone calls and learned a bit more about the professor she had come to view as a predator.” If one took out the words academic and professor this would read like the troubled narrative of anyone involved with someone on the job who is their supervisor. The problem with this story is not that it does not tell the truth but rather that it tells a partial truth. We have no idea why Lisa Topol entered this relationship. We do not know if it was consensual. We do not know how or why the male involved became abusive. We do know that he did not become abusive simply because he was her professor. The problem here does not lie with faculty-student relations but with this individual male, and the large numbers of men like him who prey upon females. The cultural context that condones this abuse is patriarchy and male domination. Yet most men and women in the academy, like society as a whole, are not engaged in activism that would target patriarchy. There are many faculty-student romances that end in friendship, some that lead to marriage and/or partnership. The professors in these relationships are able to conduct themselves in a way that is not exploitative despite the imbalance of power. There are many more male professors involved with students who are not abusive than those that are.
Realistically, our pedagogy is failing both inside and outside the classroom if students have no awareness of their agency when it comes to choosing a relationship of intimacy with a faculty member. Some folks oppose faculty/student erotic bonding because they say it creates a climate of favoritism that can be deeply disruptive. In actuality, any intimate bonding between a professor and a student is a potential context for favoritism, whether or not that intimacy is erotic. Favoritism often surfaces in the classroom and has nothing to do with desire. For example: Most professors are especially partial to students that do assigned work with rigor and intellectual enthusiasm. This is as much a context for favoritism but no one is seeking to either eliminate, question, or police it. Young females and males entering college are in the process of claiming and asserting adult status. Sexuality is as much a site where that evolution and maturation is registered as is the classroom.
A college environment should strengthen a student’s ability to make responsible mature decisions and choices. Those faculty members who become involved in romantic relationships with a student (whether they initiated it or responded to an overture by the student) who are not exploitative or dominating will nurture this maturation process. In my teaching career I have had a relationship with one student. Although he was a student in my class, I did not approach him during the time that he studied with me because I did not want to bring that dynamic into the classroom or into my evaluation of his work. He was not an exceptional student in my class. When the course ended, we became intimate. From the start we had conflicts about power. The relationship did not work yet we became friends. Recently, I shared with him that I was writing this piece. I wanted to know if he thought I had taken advantage of him. He reminded me of how shocked he was that I desired him because he primarily thought of me as this teacher that he admired and looked up to. He shared his perspective: “I did not feel in any way coerced. I found it intriguing that I would be able to talk to you one on one about issues raised in the class. I was happy to have a chance to get to know you better because I knew you were this smart and gifted professor. We all thought you were special. I was young and inexperienced and even though it was exciting that you desired me, it was also frightening.” Our romance failed. We had our share of miserable conflictual moments. Our friendship has deepened over the years and is grounded in respect and care.
Student devotion to a teacher can easily be a context where erotic longings emerge. Passionate pedagogy in any setting is likely to spark erotic energy. It cannot be policed or outlawed. This erotic energy can be used in constructive ways both in individual relationships and in the classroom setting. Just as it is important that we be vigilant in challenging abuses of power wherein the erotic becomes a terrain of exploitation, it is equally important to recognize that space where erotic interaction is enabling and positively transforming. Desire in the context of relations where hierarchy and unequal power separate individuals is always potentially disruptive and simultaneously potentially transformative. Desire can be a democratic equalizing force—the fierce reminder of the limitations of hierarchy and status—as much as it can be a context for abuse and exploitation. The erotic is always present, always with us. When we deny that erotic feelings will emerge between teachers and students, this denial precludes the recognition of accountability and responsibility. The implications of entering intimate relations where there is an imbalance of power cannot be understood, or those relations handled with care in a cultural context where desire that disrupts is seen as so taboo that it cannot be spoken, acknowledged, and addressed. Banning relations between faculty and students would create a climate of silence and taboo that would only intensify dynamics of coercion and exploitation. The moment power differences are articulated in a dialogue where erotic desire surfaces, a space is created where choice is possible, where accountability can be clearly assessed.
The London Times Higher Education section of May 22 has an extensive and on the whole excellent article on student professor sexual relationships with the focus being on relationships in UK universities. It is interesting to see the differences between American and British attitudes on the subject. Following are presented key sections of the article with the dankprofessor’s comments in the text. This article definitely merits reading in its entirety by anyone who is seriously interested in the subject; click here for the full text. My comments are highlighted in blue.
When dramatist Stephen Lowe took up a post as visiting writer at Dartington College of Arts, he expected the job to boost his theatre career. What he hadn’t anticipated was that he would meet his life partner. Lowe, then 31, fell for his 21-year-old undergraduate student Tanya Myers. After 27 years, the pair still live and work together and are the parents of two children.
It may sound like the contrived plot of a campus novel, but Lowe’s story is not unique. Despite widespread concern about abuse of power and conflicts of interest, sexual relationships between tutor and student often flourish within academe.
“I have altogether too much experience of teachers engaging in sexual relations with students, both their own students and (those of) their colleagues,” remembers Alan Ryan, now warden of New College, Oxford. He looks back on his early career at Keele University with fond memories of the relationships that began between young academics and their students. “In my misspent youth, my ability to resist temptation was not great, and since I started teaching in the early 1960s, and new faculty were mostly only a couple of years older than the finalists, the discovery of sexual pleasure was a shared experience,” he says.
“Of the affairs I remember, an awful lot turned into highly successful marriages, though a good many were simple flings,” he says. “There were, of course, spectacular characters who weren’t like this at all. Freddie (A.J.) Ayer (the philosopher) fell into bed with everyone who was remotely willing, and an awful lot of young women were very happy to tick him off on the list of famous professors they had laid.”
Attitudes are beginning to harden, however. Like their US counterparts, which have historically been stricter on campus relationships, British universities are starting to crack down on such liaisons. Policies are being drafted to deal with relationships and the inevitable conflicts of interest that can follow – as one might put it, “an A for a lay”. Questions of morality and responsibility, sexuality and pedagogy are being raised.
But however an institution chooses to tackle the problem, it’s certainly not going to disappear. As Ryan points out: “The availability of partners is a geographical matter; if you are cooped up on a campus, who are you likely to fall into bed with?”
It is hard for the dankprofessor to imagine an American university administrator speaking so openly about this issue and ones prior involvements with students as Alan Ryan, warden of New College, Oxford. Ryan’s final observation that it is a matter of geography is completely correct- eligible men and women “cooped up on a campus” cannot be prevented from fraternizing no matter how hard university moralists and administrators try to eliminate these relationships. The only way to eliminate these relationships is to eliminate campus life as we know it and replace it with so-called online education.
In the UK, attitudes towards relationships in academe are changing rather more slowly. In 2005, figures revealed after a Freedom of Information Act request by Times Higher Education showed that 50 out of 102 institutions had no policy requiring staff to declare sexual or other relationships with students that might give rise to a conflict of interest. Of those that did, few appeared to apply them: just 17 universities had any current records on file.
In the same year, 18 per cent of respondents to a poll conducted by the Teacher Support Network said that they had had a sexual relationship with a student. Despite this, only 73 relationships were officially recorded and just five of these were defined as sexual or romantic. Many respondents, 62 per cent, said they did not know whether or not their university had a protocol on such matters.
Nevertheless, attitudes among academics have already shifted. “Many more of my colleagues now teach one to one with the room door open. I also know that there are people who avoid teaching certain topics,” says Mary Beard, professor of Classics at Newnham College, Cambridge. “That can’t be a good thing.”
She remembers two personal stories of close but non-sexual relationships that flourished at the university. While an undergraduate, Beard regularly spent long weekends with her tutor, who was decades her senior. Although the relationship was purely pedagogical, she admits that his motives may have been rather different from hers. Similarly, as a tutor, Beard formed a friendship with a young male student who eventually helped teach her to drive, sitting as her passenger regularly while she practised and improved.
“In the Oxbridge of the Twenties and Thirties, students went on holiday with their tutors,” she says. “It wouldn’t happen now. It’s hard to know where the barrier lies between institutional rules and a change in the culture. I think it’s very hard to know which is which,” she adds.
“In some ways we have to accept that there is an erotic dimension to pedagogy. If you take a traditional Oxbridge-style tutorial system, that’s one thing that students love and it’s some of the most interesting teaching when you really get to know someone. That doesn’t mean it’s about feeling someone up, but it is passionate. The difficulty is that that’s a terribly sexy experience; two people sitting together really talking through how Latin love poetry works. How do you desexualise that?”
Of course, you can’t desexualize it. But no matter the moralists on and off campus will do their damnest to repress it. The dankprofessor has often speculated that those who are so involved in sexual repression may very well find their repressive activities to be quite sexually gratifying.
“I think it’s a tricky moral dilemma,” Beard says. “I think it’s undeniable that some students and staff have been hurt by these kinds of relationships. I think it’s also undeniable that there have been people who have gained from them.”
But for some, whatever the age of the two individuals, the power relationship inherent between tutor and student means that sexual contact is tantamount to abuse of that power.
A decade ago, Paul Norris, then a social sciences lecturer at Southampton Institute (now Southampton Solent University), caused controversy when he left his wife for a student. He had previously been disciplined by the institution in 1992 for having a sexual relationship with a student on a course he both taught and assessed. His wife, who vowed to set up a support group for other women in her position, claimed that lecturers “perceive sex with students as a perk of the job”. “It seems common to me, and universities seem very blase,” she stated.
Yes, the Norris case was a notorious one in the UK. It was made notorious in part by his wife who set up a support group of wives who were left by their professor husbands for a younger student. Of course, banning older married men from having sex with younger women may very well be a fantasy for women such as the wife of Paul Norris. No question that in the competition between women for mates, younger women generally have a competitive edge.
One senior lecturer working in London says she has seen too many young people distressed by the break-up of such relationships. When she conducted a straw poll among a group of colleagues and students, only two people felt it was wrong for a tutor to have a relationship with a student – a figure she cannot understand. She says relationships are formed because tutors prey on the naivety of students or because knowing young men and women use a member of staff for their own ends.
Now this prior paragraph certainly represents the Americanized purity feminist approach on this subject
In their book The Lecherous Professor, Billie Wright Dziech and Linder Weiner comment: “Few students are ever, in the strictest sense, consenting adults. A student can never be the genuine equal of a professor insofar as his professional position gives him power over her … Whether the student consents to the involvement or whether the professor ever intends to use his power against her is not the point. The issue is that the power and the role disparity always exist.”
And here is the hardcore attitude. Billie Dziech has done more than any academic to facilitate the banning of these relationships by arguing ad nauseum that few students can ever be consenting adults when it comes to relationships with professors.
Brian Martin, lecturer in the department of science and technology at Wollongong University, Australia, agrees. He has written on the issue on numerous occasions, citing his concerns at the lack of action being taken by universities on the matter.
“University teachers hold positions of trust. They are expected to design teaching programmes and carry out their teaching duties to help their students develop as mature thinkers … for impressionable young students, the boundaries between intellectual development and personal life may easily become blurred,” he says.
“Even if academic evaluations are kept completely independent of personal involvements, it is likely that there will be an appearance of bias in the eyes of other students. When a key academic, who should be a mentor, shows a keen interest in a student’s body, it often sends a signal that their intellect is of secondary importance. The impact on the student’s self-confidence can be devastating.”
He is also dismissive of the value of formal institutional policies. “I don’t think policies on their own make a lot of difference,” he says. “Many policies exist, but I’m not aware of any studies examining whether they are enforced.”
Yes, I also know of no studies relating to the enforcement of these sexual codes or the effectiveness of said enforcement. Such should not be surprising since enforcement is usually in secret and secret police aka administrators hardly ever want their practices evaluated. Secrecy gives license to the the enforcers to do what they want to do.
The potential for abuse of power is certainly an important issue, and one that is well recognised and well understood. Nevertheless, most personal relationships entered into by people in all walks of life involve some basic balancing of power and control. One should perhaps not expect relationships that grow within academe to be immune or exempt from these concerns.
Universities UK says that it is up to individual institutions to decide what their policy is on such “sensitive” areas and to implement those. There are no broad guidelines available to UK universities to help them draft a policy, but nationally the Office of the Independent Adjudicator can pick up cases where, for example, sexual harassment is claimed and the university itself is unable to resolve the case.
“They will consider extenuating circumstances that a student claims affected their performance and the institution didn’t adequately respond to – this could include a relationship with an academic,” a UK spokesperson confirmed.
This kind of careful “monitoring” of relationships leaves many academics cold, but while threats of sexual harassment cases loom there seems little alternative for universities. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that most individuals would not choose to begin a sexual or romantic relationship in their workplace or with a person for whom they have direct managerial or pedagogical responsibility. As Lowe comments of his own experience: “It’s a difficult place to have a relationship. It’s embarrassing whatever you do.”
With that in mind, academics advocate a soft approach to the enforcement of the rules. “I think the institution has to look out for people and make sure everybody looks out for each other,” Beard states. “I think a kind of police state where everybody is sniffing out to see how close X is getting to Y is wrong.
“It’s a lot like smoking. You can’t get people to give up unless you recognise that sometimes it’s pleasurable.”
I love this bottom line by Mary Beard. Of course, people are not going to give it up since to the dismay of the moralists it is all too often too pleasurable. And yes, Beard appropriately uses the concept of “police state”. Once we understand that all too many universities are heading in the direction of sexual police states, more persons will oppose these policies. What Beard fails to mention is that these policies cannot be effective to any degree without secret informants, third party informants of the genre of Linda Tripp.
If you wish, you can write to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
Guest commentaries should also be submitted for consideration
to the same email address.
Barry M. Dank aka the dankprofessor™
© Copyright 2008
It’s about passion- a passion for learning and studying, a passionate search for truth. Such was my vision of the university prior to becoming a professor so many years ago. Such remains my ideal but with the knowledge that all too many universities have embraced a pedagogy that takes the passion out of higher education by replacing real live student professor encounters with powerpoint presentations and then totally getting rid of in person student professor interaction via online classes.
And, yes, the dankprofessor knows that there have always been too many professors who never really taught in the classroom, but simply assigned chapters from a textbook and then read their lectures in class which were essentially a rehash of the textbook. These professors suffered from what I call the textbook syndrome. Such means that they are totally dependent on the textbook; they have nothing to offer of themselves, their own thinking in their own words to their students, and therefore their greatest fear becomes the loss of the textbook for without the textbook they would have nothing to say.
What has changed is the embracing of a dehumanizing techno centered education by the powers that be at the university. Peak learning experiences, intellectual breakthroughs, bonding with professors and fellow students in the intellectual quest become an irrelevancy. All eyes become focused on the screen, in class, out of class, almost all the time.
No wonder that so many universities have so easily embraced codes that ban student professor consensual sexual relationships. No big deal. No big deal since passion, love and romance are seen as having nothing to do with university life. No big deal since there is little or no university community. In this vision of the university, everyone knows their place and should never be out of place and then there is Big Sister or Big Brother to keep students and professors in their proper places- powerpointing, powering up or powering down, keeping screen life clean and without giving offense to anyone at any time.
And now we have Margaret Soltan(UD), the Universities Diaries blogger, who understands how university life is descending into just another screen test (my words, not hers). She breaks through in her blog entry of May 21 entitled “New Forces in the Soul”. Do click the original essay and read it in its entirety. And for those who are not inclined to click, below you will find what the dankprofessor considers to be the key parts of this brilliant essay.
…What’s striking about the contemporary American university isn’t this or that flashy scandal – drugs at San Diego State, professional basketball players at USC. It’s that many American campuses look like death warmed over.
Put your ear to the American campus. Listen. The pulse of the cellphone, the click of the laptop. The drone of the headset.
The quiet of the grave.
The quiet of a cathedral full of monks.
In class all heads stay bowed, the professor over her PowerPoint, the student over her Mac. The room flickers with illuminated screens in whose thin light a soul scopes out its trivia: Facebook, Minesweeper, Solitaire.
The white noise of the American university is the sound of souls subdued throughout the day by a succession of screens. The screen is in the classroom and in the diningroom. It is the dorm room and on the quad. Its pacifying effect deepens with iPods, cell phones, and Blackberries.
Of course it’s not just university students. We all look down, messing with our stuff on the metro, in church, in bed.
But it’s sad to see it among university students. Among their professors.
Because of all American cultural settings, the university’s specifically designed to break through the nothingness, to nudge you awake, toward enlightenment. The form of vitality intrinsic to a university is intellectual bliss, the condition of being engrossed in new thought. Not abstract thought. Thought embodied, vitalized, in another human being, a professor.
There are forms of vitality university campuses share with sports arenas and bars, but the distinctive nature of the university is that it offers intellectual vitality, that it offers a faculty which includes people who adore the play of the mind as it takes up this and that element of the world.
It’s not so outlandish a form of enthusiasm. Most people find the classic story of youthful awakening in My Fair Lady and Educating Rita enormously appealing.
And why? Because they recognize these as essentially love stories. They’re not about people downloading lecture content and tapping inquiries to an online ghost. They’re about two people who share a passion for clarity and self-transformation. One of them, a teacher, delights in the discovery of an eager intelllect, receptive to the ideas that excite him. The other, having found a sympathetic human being who has thought about the questions that fascinate her, spends every day charged with cerebral energy.
Also with emotional energy, to be sure. Erotic material exists inside the relationship.
A friend and fellow blogger puts it like this:
[A]cademic life is likely to be formed out of intense relationships all around. .. [T]he eros surrounding them injects them with an ambiguity and intensity that makes life interesting and urgent. Studying is exciting; eros is part of that excitement.
Studying is exciting. Eros is part of that excitement. Feeling your mind expand is exciting. You can do it fitfully, with LSD, or you can do it in a more disciplined way. Feeling a respected professor’s interest in you – even admiration for you – as you receive, absorb, and respond to important ideas is heady stuff.
Be assured that the professor is also excited – excited to have connected with a student about things that matter enormously to the professor.
Heart and body and mind – all are engaged in this intensity.
Actually, occasionally, this intensity will express itself physically, and an affair will ensue. Much more than an affair sometimes. How many professors are married to former students?
Our lives are more and more online, silent, self-absorbed, and, in our preference for customized websites, provincial. The university should be a counterforce to dulling, lulling screenlife, a place that arouses our passion for lightning bolts.
If you wish, you can write to me directly at email@example.com
Guest commentaries should also be submitted for consideration
to the same email address.
Barry M. Dank aka the dankprofessor™
© Copyright 2008
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