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Flattery and Validation: Professors who Seduce

William Deresiewicz notices that mass media tends to stereotype  professors as lechers (especially those in the humanities) Why is that?

In the popular imagination, humanities professors don’t have anything to be ambitious about. No one really knows what they do, and to the extent that people do know, they don’t think it’s worth doing — which is why, when the subject of humanistic study is exposed to public view, it is often ridiculed as trivial, arcane, or pointless. Other received ideas come into play here: “those who can’t do, teach”; the critic as eunuch or parasite; the ineffective intellectual; tenure as a system for enshrining mediocrity. It may be simply because academics don’t pursue wealth, power, or, to any real extent, fame that they are vulnerable to such accusations. In our culture, the willingness to settle for something less than these Luciferian goals is itself seen as emasculating. Academics are ambitious, but in a weak, pathetic way. This may also explain why they are uniquely open to the charge of passionlessness. No one expects a lawyer to be passionate about the law: he’s doing it for the money. No one expects a plumber to be passionate about pipes: he’s doing it to support his family. But a professor’s only excuse for doing something so trivial and accepting such paltry rewards for it is his love for the subject. If that’s gone, what remains? Nothing but baseless vanity and feeble ambition. Professors, in the popular imagination, are absurd little men puffing themselves up about nothing. It’s no wonder they need to be taught a lesson.

Still none of this explains why the new academic stereotype has emerged just now. he first possibility is that today’s academics are portrayed as pompous, lecherous, alcoholic failures because that’s what they are. In terms of some of the longer-lasting elements of the professorial image, this is no doubt true. Pedantry and elitism are inherent temptations in the academic enterprise, and Max Weber remarked nearly a century ago that, for professors, vanity is a sort of occupational disease. Precisely because they don’t possess the kind of wealth that accrues to doctors and lawyers or the status wealth confers, academics are more apt to parade their intellectual superiority than members of other elite professions. But professors have neither a monopoly on nor a disproportionate share of quiet desperation or the self-destructive gestures that attend it. Male professors are not less-devoted or less-faithful husbands, on average, than other men — in fact, relative to wealthier ones, they are probably more so. (That there are now a substantial number of female academics is a circumstance the popular imagination has yet to discover.)

Citing a response from a female student who says she wants to have “brain sex” with a professor, not actual sex,he comments:

That is why, for the Greeks, the teacher’s relationship with the child was regarded as more valuable and more intimate than the parents’. Your parents bring you into nature, but your teacher brings you into culture. Natural transmission is easy; any animal can do it. Cultural transmission is hard; it takes a teacher. But Socrates also inaugurated a new idea about what teaching means. His students had already been educated into their culture by the time they got to him. He wanted to educate them out of it, teach them to question its values. His teaching wasn’t cultural, it was counter-cultural. The Athenians understood Socrates very well when they convicted him of corrupting their youth, and if today’s parents are worried about trusting their children to professors, this countercultural possibility is really what they should be worried about. Teaching, as Neil Postman says, is a subversive activity — all the more so today, when children are marinated in cultural messages from the moment they’re born. It no longer takes any training to learn to bow to your city’s gods (sex or children, money or nation). But it often takes a teacher to help you question those gods. The teacher’s job, in Keats’s terms, is to point you through the vale of soul-making. We’re born once, into nature and into the culture that quickly becomes a second nature. But then, if we’re granted such grace, we’re born again. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his mortal soul?

What attracts professors to students, then, is not their bodies but their souls. Young people are still curious about ideas, still believe in them — in their importance, their redemptive power. Socrates says in the Symposium that the hardest thing about being ignorant is that you’re content with yourself, but for many kids when they get to college, this is not yet true. They recognize themselves as incomplete, and they recognize, if only intuitively, that completion comes through eros. So they seek out professors with whom to have relationships, and we seek them out in turn. Teaching, finally, is about relationships. It is mentorship, not instruction. Socrates also says that the bond between teacher and student lasts a lifetime, even when the two are no longer together. And so it is. Student succeeds student, and I know that even the ones I’m closest to now will soon become names in my address book and then just distant memories. But the feelings we have for the teachers or students who have meant the most to us, like those we have for long-lost friends, never go away. They are part of us, and the briefest thought revives them, and we know that in some heaven we will all meet again.

This has been a subject of more than casual interest in me. I had always planned to go into academia at some point, and indeed I taught overseas for three years at universities. In the early 1990s I remember reading a fascinating debate in Harper’s magazine about seduction in academia. One male professor adopted the provocative point that no, we got the problem backwards. There wasn’t a sexual harassment problem in academia. The problem is that people tended to infantilize college females, saying they couldn’t be trusted to make their own decisions. For heaven’s sake, he argued, they were 18! They were old enough to vote and enlist in the military. Professors offered obvious appeal to college women. They were smart and successful in this academic world, plus they had the maturity of understanding and appreciation for what lies beneath the physical. And, the professor added, would college women really be better off having affairs with frat boys and college boys who were lousy lovers and had superficial views on romance?

After  the professor tossed  that hand grenade into the debate, you could imagine the  protest and denunciation that ensued. That professor (I wish I knew his name) stuck to his guns though. All you are doing, he said,  is treating college-age women as chattel…as helpless virgins who needed to be protected…a throwback to more puritanical times. He wasn’t exactly advocating professor-student sex; all he was saying that it wouldn’t be a tragedy; it wasn’t inherently exploitative and we should be focusing on the decision-making skills of the college student (and yes, of the professor).

I kept those sentiments in mind while teaching overseas. I taught many brilliant and beautiful women. Of course, during that time prurient thoughts did enter my brain…how could I avoid it?  Some  students probably had college infatuations towards me–not wanting romance obviously, but seeking my attention and approval.  Although I didn’t reject the possibility of a student-teacher romance while teaching overseas,circumstances never worked in my favor for one reason or other. In the first country, I had to teach the same student for two years, and then civic unrest forced a premature evacuation. In the second country, contract problems caused my contract to end after one year, leaving me in the lurch.   In Eastern Europe, there was far less disapproval at academic seductions, and yet even there it seemed needlessly complicated.  Many years later, a former student of mine mentioned that she had been propositioned by another professor; it had shaken her, and frankly, I knew both people fairly well and couldn’t imagine it. (He was older and  married, etc).  He was just acting stupid and he probably should have been disciplined for it. But what do you do if  the college student seems receptive?

Part of the problem is that students are seeking validation of their own intellectual selves, and professors are easily able to give it.  In the business world, you don’t have such opportunities. (Of course, students wouldn’t know that yet). Outside of an academic setting,  I doubt students of mine would have found me interesting.

When in college, it just doesn’t occur to you that interesting creative people live and work outside of academia.  Those working in academia know its pitfalls: the tenure train is too slow for most people, adjunct teachers have a hard time making ends meet and  engage in intellectually productive activities. Instead they spend their time cranking out papers, teaching massive classes  and trying to gain recognition.   This is not fun (especially if you are at the bottom of the academic totem pole); there are very few rewards except for approbation from students. The irony is that those with the most active libidos (graduate students)  are  lowest on the academic hierarchy.Graduate students have a precarious  future; in a way they are more sensitive to power imbalances than undergraduates (who at least know that screwing up in college won’t sabotage their professional careers).  Nobody should really be surprised if the academics with the least promising academic future are parlaying the slim benefits into something more substantial.

The problem with these academic relationships is that they exist only in the context of academia. High status individuals in academia have low status almost everywhere else. I could be a distinguished literary critic, but when I’m working at an investment company, I’m just an ordinary blow with a few interesting hobbies.

See also: Straight Talk about Graduate School

August 18, 2009 Update: Gin and Tacos summarizes the attitude in academia.

Grad school orientation: “OK, seriously people, don’t fuck the undergrads. Come on. Just don’t.”

New faculty orientation: “Remember grad school orientation? When we told you not to fuck the undergrads? You probably didn’t listen. But now, seriously people, don’t fuck the undergrads.”

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Sharon 9/16/2008, 11:51 am

    There is something intoxicating about the promise of intellectual ascension. While keeping in mind the real lives my professors surely lead, I still want the closest form of contact with that promise… I want to realize this potential, to the fullest extent that I can… And that inevitably brings me to physical intimacy. I have yet to act on the impulse, but it is always there. I wonder if my professors have ever felt the urge to explore my potential themselves.

  • Robert Nagle 10/2/2008, 4:11 am

    I can’t speak of profs who are married (that’s a different story), but most profs would be open to romance if it didn’t threaten their careers and rapport with other students.

    (I’m speaking of female students and male profs; i haven’t really thought too much about a reverse of the situation).

    Academic guidelines are a bit too puritanical in this regard, but I’m not sure I could come up with anything better. The grad student/professor thing can’t wait until the semester is over; often they have ongoing contact for several years.

    The question boils down to whether each person can fully participate in this kind of relationship on an equal footing. (And are you both equally equipped to deal with the consequences if the relationship later falls apart?)

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