I’ve recently been feeling exhausted by the number of male professors I know who’ve had, or tried to have, affairs with their students. I am not the kind of person who always sees women as victims. I don’t generally subscribe to overarching feminist interpretations of intimate life. But as a professor myself, I believe very strongly in the absolute right of a student to have the professors muddling around in her work take a fixed and circumscribed role.
One of my objections to professors hitting on students is the inexorable cliché of it, the tawdry story it tells of relations between men and women. To a certain type of male professor, the fantasy of a dewy, impressed protégé is still seductive, a woman who he has easy power over, who is improved, tutored, made by him (as opposed to the female professors I know who are more likely to seek romantic companionship with someone more challenging, more in their league).
The dynamic is so trite one can barely commit it to the page, but it seems that otherwise charismatic, original men are completely happy to inhabit this cliché, to live and work in it. In my experience these are men who would rather die than dress or speak or write in a clichéd way, but in this particular area of triteness, they feel entirely comfortable. They can think of themselves as bookish outlaws or cowboys because they are breaking rules, even though they are on a deeper level following the most retrograde rules of sexual politics. They are buying into the most boring and conventional fantasies of a prefeminist time, salving vulnerable male egos with the most facile and predictable of balms.
I can hear one of the male professors I am thinking of asking me to be less dour and serious, to see that sparks can arise in all kinds of inconvenient circumstances. But I just don’t accept that they arise unless you are open to them, unless you foster them. One can understand the cheap frisson—anything forbidden is newly interesting, provocative—but there is a cheap frisson to the incest taboo as well, yet most of us manage to resist it.
The deepest problem for me lies in the perversion of mentorship. In the classroom intellectual crushes are useful. They goad and inspire you. They draw out your best work; they break through limits, challenge, transform. They are part of the thrill of academia at its best. To maneuver within that crush, to manage and exploit it, is part of the trick of teaching. To act on it in the crudest way is to crush the whole endeavor. Be subtle, I feel like telling these male professors. Don’t do the unimaginative thing. The world is full of people you can sleep with; it is not full of students to whom you can make a difference.
One of the problems is that graduate students are vulnerable. They have no power in the world; they haven’t yet gotten much affirmation or money or worldly success. What they have is their work and their fierce but worried belief in it. So if it turns out that professors or possible mentors are interested in them for some other external, more quotidian reasons, the violence done is to their whole faith in themselves, to their sense of purpose. The professor who makes a pass at a student blunders into that vulnerable space where the student obsesses about her work and tramples on it. It’s very easy for even the most brilliant, driven, tough-minded student in that circumstance to feel that the whole crazy, implausible, expensive process is worthless.
Source: slate.com by Katie Roiphe, professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute