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.
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!)