Z.O.M.G.: I agree with Katie Roiphe entirely.


Why, yes! Yes, I do.

Alert the authorities:  Katie Roiphe is dead right about “Why Professors Should Not Have Affairs with Their Students:”   Longtime readers may recall that I’ve been pretty unsparing in my criticism of Roiphe for a long, long time now, but she really nails it here.

In this new essay, Roiphe writes from the perspective of seeing a number of male colleagues have affairs with their graduate and undergraduate students, and I’ve seen it too among men in the profession–my age and even younger, so it’s not going away anytime soon (although thank the Goddess I’ve never seen it among my colleagues in my department.)  First, it’s an obvious and embarrassing trope:  “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.”

Also, “the prospect of sleeping with an undergraduate seems a little like wanting to sleep with a puppy,” as in bestiality, not as in chaste and adorable puppy snuggling, which is obvs. perfectly fine.  But who cares if a middle-aged schlub makes a fool of himself?  I don’t, and neither does Roiphe, because of course it’s the damage to students and to the trust in the professor-student relationship that concerns her most:

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.

But wait!  That’s not all.  It doesn’t just ruin one student’s experience; it ruins all students’ experiences in your classes and in your entire working environment, because they know you’re a predatory schlub and they won’t trust you:

Another problem with a professor hitting on his student is that the damage is rarely confined to that one situation. Once rumors are airborne, the whole environment is polluted. A distrust is established, an unreliability or rottenness. Once word gets out, it is impossible for any of the students in the classroom to take the academic venture seriously, to entrust themselves to it. And why should they? The intellectual exchange is degraded, a joke.

The way she sums it all up is beautiful:  sharp and idealistic at the same time:

You may say that I am romanticizing and idealizing the academic world. That I am trying to imagine a place untainted by the usual debased human things, and this is true. Because academia is an artificial place; it is very explicitly not the real world but a place set apart for intellectual development, where the values and desires and materialism and pressures of the regular world are, for a time, pushed off. The university works precisely because it is unworldly, idealistic, and those professors who don’t see that are not worthy of any new batch of students filing into class.

I’m so glad she wrote this, because I’ve been thinking about this ever since Mark Bauerlein published his “What’s the Point of a Professor” essay, which we discussed here and elsewhere all over the internets last week.  His yearning for closer relationships between faculty and students is something that looks a little different when sexuality is brought into the mix.  Bauerlein writes nostalgically of an era in which faculty were “revered,” and for an earlier era “when you couldn’t walk down the row of faculty offices without stepping over the outstretched legs of English majors lining up for consultations,” but not all faculty have high-minded concerns when surrounded by reverential students lined up at attention.  And for the most part, it’s girls and young women who are the objects of unseemly male professorial attention, although I’m sure that there are some young men too.


Time to muck out the barn, friends!

I wanted to write about the ways that gender and sexuality play into the hierarchical relations between faculty and students in my initial response, but decided my response to Bauerlein’s essay was overly long already.  But we can discuss it here, thanks to (of all people!) Katie Roiphe!  So, take it away, friends:  do you think Roiphe is right, or do you want to stand up for the cliché?  (Yes, I know that’s the equivalent of asking when someone is going to stop beating his wife, but whatever:  Live by the cliché, die by the cliché!)

28 thoughts on “Z.O.M.G.: I agree with Katie Roiphe entirely.

  1. So, as H’ann knows, I married my advisor, so I probably would not be quite as absolute as Roiphe is. But I think she’s basically right: the presumption should be that these are a bad idea. Exceptions are just that, exceptions.

    As for how gender plays into the dynamics that Bauerlein talks about: interesting question. As I see it, we replicate in the academy the hierarchies of society: gender of course, but also race and class. So it’s not just gender, but it’s race and class. Few faculty members are paid what they should be, but most of us with full time jobs have middle class salaries. Since I teach at a minority serving institution (less than 20% of our students are white) where most of our students are first gen, Pell eligible, etc., I am *very* aware of it. And I sometimes wonder if one of the things that distances me from my students is that I’m not just white and older, but I’m from a very different class position; and because I work on non-US history, I spend a lot of time out of the country. I’m a white lady — and I use the word lady deliberately. I may have grown up without much money, but my education has put me in a world where certain kinds of knowledge, experiences, and references are taken for granted. Bauerlein’s formulation reflects the idea that our students should want to become like us. But I’m so far out of most of my student’s experience that I’m not sure that they could even imagine being like me, and I don’t expect them to want to be like me. And even if they took up my field, and eventually have a life like mine, they wouldn’t be like me.

    Not sure if that makes any sense, but if you’re not at an institution with an upper middle class clientele (like Emory) you can’t separate the various hierarchies.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Susan, I was thinking of you the whole time I was writing this post. I’m glad you commented here, and I think you’re entirely right that there are also class and race issues to consider. Even if one teaches at a historically and largely white institution (as I do), the fact of the whiteness and the middle-classness of the faculty at most universities means that these issues might be in play in a lot of these relationships.

      I know you had a very happy marriage and life together. But would you agree that marrying your advisor affected your professional prospects negatively for several years? As someone at the Huntington said (of another woman who partnered with her advisor), “everyone assumed that all of her good ideas were really X’s ideas, and all of her bad ideas were hers alone.” I’m not saying that was exactly the same as your situation, but it speaks to a set of assumptions about the role of the junior scholar/younger partner with respect to the senior/older.


      • Well, yes, I have had a rockier career than one might have expected. But I’m not sure how much was my marriage, so that some people thought all my ideas were his; after all, his work moved from pretty standard political history to social history and gender as we were getting together. The biggest problem was that in the early years of my career, I couldn’t get a letter from my advisor. There was a letter in my dossier written before we were together, right as I finished my dissertation. But that was it, so for fellowships, etc. I had nothing. My other problem was that I was an openly feminist historian writing about women and gender in a field where (in my generation at least) this was decidedly unusual; and my male contemporaries generally seem to like me, but still operate a bit like a boys club.


  2. I don’t know Roiphe from Adam, but this post seems almost a 180 from what she writes about from the other posts you’ve linked to. Shouldn’t someone into hierarchies and white men dominating sex be pro-professor/student relationships? Do you think this is a change in beliefs or a special case? Or am I misreading?


    • Let us be generous in making a friend of Katie Roiphe!

      You’re right that this post seems a 180 turn-around, but I wonder if she’s grown wiser as she’s grown older. (I like to think that I have!)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t buy the cliché bit. Aren’t most relationships pretty cliché? (My recollection is that research on straight couples shows that they split housework and childcare inequally in stereotypically gendered ways, for example.) That’s not to say that a given relationship isn’t wonderfully and deeply meaningful to the people in it, but still pretty clichéd.

    (I think the power differential arguments are more useful. But anyone who’s been around college faculty folks very long knows some faculty/student relationships that seem to be reasonably healthy, and others that really don’t. And the same could be said for pretty much any relationships around, I suppose.)


    • I must not have been around college faculty folks long enough then, unless you’re counting the cases in which the couple is already married and one spouse uses family tuition credits to get a degree (and never takes a class from hir spouse). Every case I’ve seen has been messed up and sickening with the faculty dood being a creeper. And it does keep women from taking their classes.


      • Maybe I’ve been in more disfunctional places? I can think of a couple faculty folks from grad school, and several more from where I am now who’ve married students, some many, many years ago. (Some not, though.)


      • The professors I know of that actually married students (back when such things were far more normal) married different students (or in the most recent case, had an affair with another just out of grad school’s professor’s young wife, impregnated her, and married her after his wife divorced him) a decade or two later. Super creepy. I do not know of anybody who has *married* a student rather than just sleeping with them in the past 15+ years.


      • NicoleandMaggie, I agree that the cliché isn’t the important thing, but (as other commenters have noted below) the more important “dude, that’s wrong” argument only encourages these people, because it feeds into their vanity. As someone who has been in one of these relationships, I can say that this is absolutely, positively the case. I still know the man I was involved with (it’s a small world) enough to know that even two decades later, well into his fifties, he has a desperate need to position himself as an iconoclast. If someone had taken him aside back then and said, “Friend, you’re a recently divorced new proffie getting it on with intelligent young women ten years your junior and you read like the stock pathetic character in every academic novel ever written,” that might have made an impact. Maybe even a permanent one.


      • The threads only go three deep here, I’m afraid–hard to tell who is responding to whom at this point.

        I’m traveling–maybe a post tomorrow?


  4. I still clearly remember the professor who, as an undergraduate, had an affair with a student, a fellow major in my department. It broke up his marriage, and the student – whom I grew close to a year later when we studied abroad together – had a fundamentally different experience of college. She’s also had a series of truly disastrous relationships since, though obviously it can’t be directly linked. My senior year – three years after the affair – I had to testify through a series of confidential hearings that I personally had never witnessed any impropriety, because a second student (with whom he had an emotional, though not physical, affair) brought allegations against him. I hadn’t ever seen anything that I could speak to, but everyone knew. It was incredibly damaging and painful and awkward for a lot of us – it was a large department, but a small liberal arts college community.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I avoided Roiphe’s essay because I am too busy to watch her discover “why professors should not have affairs with their students.” Given the fact that romantic relationships between professors and current students create unethical conflicts of interests (and are often prohibited explicitly for that reason), I don’t think it is particularly important whether they are good or bad *as relationships.* I distinguish between professional standards of behavior, on the one hand, and dating advice, on the other, and Roiphe never really escapes the latter. That said, I do agree with Bardiac that it should not matter that a romantic relationship conforms to a cliché; I don’t think originality in our affections is a reasonable goal.


  6. I don’t know that academics have any particular or at least great aversion to “inhabiting clichés,” or surfing the triteness in life, except maybe to the extent of averring that they do, which is itself a kind of a cliché or marker of the tribe. Most human subgroups operate by scripts, props, and short-hands of one sort or another. This hasn’t happened, to my knowledge, in any of the few departments that I’ve been a member of, but if I was to close my eyes and imagine the figure of the letch-prof hitting on the smart kid in the second row, and maybe even thinking of such a thing as a kind of pedagogy, it would probably be a be-tweeded, shaggy, affable guy who looked like he just stepped out of a Richard Russo or Richard Brautigan novel, or maybe just stepped out from teaching such a work.


  7. Yep. This is pretty much what was creeping me out about Bauerlein, too — with an added layer of discomfort with the idea that a self-identified Christian would be expressing a desire for “disciples.” To my mind, that, too, signals a desire to see/shape the power dynamics in the student/professor relationship in a way that seems inappropriate, self-aggrandizing and self-serving.

    There’s also some resonance, I think, between the potential problems Roiphe describes and the ones that, according to recent reports, are actually showing up on Capitol Hill, where female staffers find themselves unable to work as closely with their bosses as males lest an appearance of impropriety arise: http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/shut-off-from-the-boss/2015/05/18/4e91d43e-fd8d-11e4-833c-a2de05b6b2a4_story.html . The well can, indeed, end up poisoned by the actions of a few.

    Like most people of my generation, I suspect, I can think of an exception (from my parents’ generation) that proves the rule: family friends who met as TA and undergrad student, and whose long and happy marriage only recently ended in death. But even then I think there was some understanding that dating should wait until after the teacher/student relationship was over, not to be resumed. Such boundaries don’t entirely avoid the problems Roiphe describes, but they’re at least a step in the right direction (and waiting — whether ’til the end of the semester or the few years until someone graduates — is a pretty good test of how serious/durable the feelings involved are/will be). And if one is actively looking for a partner (as opposed to stumbling across one in the course of daily life), looking outside the university seems like good advice.


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  9. I’m delighted to have Roiphe write something so cogent and sane.

    As for the focus on cliches: No, of course that’s not the most IMPORTANT reason, but it might be the most rhetorically effective one, and I give Roophe credit for it. She has actually written an essay against sleeping with student s that might give predatory teachers pause.

    Look, everyone has heard the argument that sleeping with students is wrong over and over, because sleeping with students is wrong, and Roiphe touches on the real damage here. Creepy faculty have heard that, and persisted in their behavior. They have even framed that objection in ways that serve their own purposes, making themselves into “bookish outlaws” in Roiphe’s phrase, enlightened libertines, defying bourgeois prudery. The predatory faculty member’s self image is Wrong but Cool.

    Roiphe goes at exactly the source of ego reward they’re looking for, making their behavior seem (accurately) pathetic and ridiculous. People will do things that they know are wrong. Vain men seeking comfort for their vanity will not seek to look foolish in public.

    (This move was long since mastered by Richard Steele, in his Spectator essay against dueling. Everyone knows dueling is wrong, so Steele emphasized how ridiculous it is. It’s a smart play.)


  10. Historiann, I’m a regular poster who is posting this anonymously this time, but you probably know who I am because I believe we’ve had this conversation. I was one of those undergrads who had a fling with one of her professors (male). The whole thing took place *after* I graduated, but only just barely. At the time, it was exciting, and it was with my enthusiastic consent. But now I look back and find myself agreeing with Rophie — the tiredest cliché, all the way, for both parties. Because when you’re 23, it’s your job to get swept up in reckless, bad decisions. By the time you’re in your thirties, and in a position of responsibility, it’s your job to be the grown-up in the room.


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