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Love on Campus: Why We Should Encourage an Eroticism (of the Mind) Between Professor and Student
July 13, 2007 6:20 PM   Subscribe

Love on Campus: Why We Should Encourage an Eroticism (of the Mind) Between Professor and Student. Yale English professor William Deresiewicz argues that the newly-emerged stereotype of professors as "pompous, lecherous, alcoholic failures" is in the main due to our culture's fear of and inability to understand the true intimacy between professor and student: that of the mind. Cf. controversial Hindu teacher-student relationships, the same in Christianity, or merely observe Oscar Wilde: "I knew that I had come face to face with someone whose mere personality was so fascinating that, if I allowed it to do so, it would absorb my whole nature, my whole soul, my very art itself."
posted by shivohum (50 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
Obligatory link to Plato's Symposium, a discourse on love that's by turns bawdy, funny, and very moving.
posted by Nelson at 6:27 PM on July 13, 2007


From his page at ratemyprofessor.com:

"An absolute disaster in a small-class setting. Both **** and a jerk. Told my class, verbatim, that he didn't like it when 'boys talked in class,' so they shouldn't bother raising their hands. A completely vile man."
posted by bardic at 6:39 PM on July 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


Hah.
posted by delmoi at 6:42 PM on July 13, 2007


bardic: on the other hand:
Professor D. is the greatest. His lectures never failed to remind me why I like my professors better than my friends. Plus, he is cool and sexy.
posted by delmoi at 6:43 PM on July 13, 2007


Yeah, but I'd rather hang out with that first kid.
posted by bardic at 6:46 PM on July 13, 2007


This must be a reaction to the well-known truth that Eli Yale gets no tail.

Prof. Deresiewicz's web page states "My current project is Friendship: A Cultural History from Jane Austen to Jennifer Aniston."

Sounds like a deep thinker.
posted by lukemeister at 6:49 PM on July 13, 2007


OK, I turned off my snarkometer and read the article, and I find myself unimpressed.

"Why has this idea of universities as dens of vice, where creepy middle-aged men lie in wait for nubile young women, arisen in the last few decades?"

I certainly don't hold this view myself, but I certainly saw plenty of examples of it. He goes on to talk about the rise of coeducational campuses in the 1970's, but never directly addresses the power issues involved (which is funny, because he mentions Oleanna).

"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."

Wow. I pretty much stopped reading here. No, professors don't "ignite" intellectual passion just by spouting off about Shakespeare. Good ones can, and sometimes do, but again, he's just totally oblivious to the structural power issues that dominate all of these things. He also sounds a heck of a lot like Alan Bloom though, which amuses me greatly. I'm trying to picture the two of them waxing philosophic over an episode of Friends.

"I’m not saying anything new here."

Yeah.
posted by bardic at 7:00 PM on July 13, 2007


If Wilde is being mentioned as a model here, one can't help observing that his tutelary relations with younger people did not end very well.
posted by jfuller at 7:03 PM on July 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


Socrates tells his companions [that] we are drawn to beautiful souls because they make us teem with thoughts that beg to be brought into the world.... [T]he true teacher helps us discover things we already knew, only we didn’t know we knew them. The imagery is also deliberately sexual. The Symposium, in which the brightest wits of Athens spend the night drinking, discoursing on love, and lying on couches two by two, is charged with sexual tension. But Socrates wants to teach his companions that the beauty of souls is greater than the beauty of bodies.

And just as he finishes educing this idea, in walks Alcibiades, the most beautiful young man in the city. Alcibiades was the brilliant bad boy of late fifth-century B.C. Athenian politics, a cross between Jack Kennedy and Jimmy [sic] Dean, and Socrates must have known that he was the most interesting student he would ever meet, because Socrates’ love for him was legendary.

Well, who doesn't love his breakfast links?!
posted by rob511 at 7:06 PM on July 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


"Why has this idea of universities as dens of vice, where creepy middle-aged men lie in wait for nubile young women, arisen in the last few decades?"

Because women in our society have gained power in the last few decades and can now point out what has been true all along.
posted by The World Famous at 7:06 PM on July 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


Why do people get into adult education? It's not the pay, and it's not the status.
posted by Meatbomb at 7:09 PM on July 13, 2007


What attracts professors to students, then, is not their bodies but their souls.. This is the kind of sex professors are having with their students behind closed doors: brain sex.

This guy seems pre-occupied with sex. Probably drinks too.
posted by stbalbach at 7:39 PM on July 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


Yale English professor William Deresiewicz argues that the newly-emerged stereotype of professors as "pompous, lecherous, alcoholic failures" ...

This dude sounds like the guy who sits next to you at the bar, takes a few sips of his drink, turns in your general direction and casually says "I'm not a drunk, you know. Not a failure either. I'm incredibly sucessful."

You then begin to think of the best way to quietly sneak out of the bar and never, ever return.
posted by Avenger at 8:10 PM on July 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


You know, if YOU are a creepy middle aged professor, how credible is it when you say "It should be more ok for creepy middle aged professors to have relationships with their students!"

Hint: not very.

And since when is this a new stereotype? Ugh. If the ugly elbow-patched coat fits, dude...
posted by emjaybee at 8:24 PM on July 13, 2007


"Why has this idea of universities as dens of vice, where creepy middle-aged men lie in wait for nubile young women, arisen in the last few decades?"

Because women in our society have gained power in the last few decades and can now point out what has been true all along.


Indeed. Both of my parents like to reminisce about the mating habits of male faculty at UCLA during the late 50s and early 60s (although they also note that the tolerance extended to the male professors did not extend to the male graduate students).

I must admit that I rarely think about my students' souls when I'm grading freshman composition papers. My soul, however...

Hugo Schwyzer has also written about the "eros" of teacher/student relationships, but he spends much more time on the real dangers involved--to both parties.
posted by thomas j wise at 8:38 PM on July 13, 2007


"newly-emerged"??
posted by availablelight at 8:39 PM on July 13, 2007


Just to dovetail off of what others have said, he kind of sets up the Hollywood version of the lecherous prof as a complete strawman, when anyone who has spent time on a college campus would tell you that it's based in reality. (I don't think he mentioned Donald Sutherland's character in, ahem, Animal House, who ends up stealing the girlfriend of one of the main characters, if only for a little while.)

So he sort of careens from saying it's all a made-up notion (which it isn't) to saying that being defensive about creepy profs somehow precludes them from "igniting" their students' intellectual eros.

I had some great profs in college myself, who captivated me by teaching well rather than some appeal to mystical Platonism. Then again, I'm a dude, so maybe I missed out on something. The profs who tried to make up for their lack of teaching chops with tired platitudes bored the hell out of me.
posted by bardic at 8:45 PM on July 13, 2007


I believe it was Alan Bloom who encouraged this sort of eroticism-mixed-with-learning (though, in his defense, it was about students discovering sex in college with each other, not professors) because he felt it was valuable for adults to create a Pavlovian association of intellectual thought with sex. Deresiewicz sounds like he's echoing this mindset with the additional layer of, "and how can we professors get some benefits from that, as well?"
posted by deanc at 9:34 PM on July 13, 2007


Shorter Deresiewicz:
Suck my dick
posted by Paris Hilton at 10:08 PM on July 13, 2007


Well he's 100% right. The most fruitful academic relationships are those that contain a significant erotic element. America's sterilization of the role of professor and the removal of such eroticism/romanticism from the learning environment will inevitably result in reducing colleges to overly expensive 4-year vacations, reducing professors to Fast Food workers that just check off attendance and hand out worthless and inflated grades, and diplomas into very expensive Big Macs. The result will certainly suck hard for all involved. But yeah, the inclusion of the phrase 'brain sex' just knocked the whole thing down.
posted by nixerman at 10:10 PM on July 13, 2007


The most fruitful academic relationships are those that contain a significant erotic element.

I disagree, as mentioned. I mean, I liked my profs who had us over for dinner or drinks, but I had really good ones who kept up a solid wall of reserve as well. It depends on teaching style, ultimately.

And again, I'm speaking as someone who never had to deal with sexual harassment from one of them, but who saw it happen plenty of times to female colleagues (quite disturbingly, in graduate school as well).
posted by bardic at 10:45 PM on July 13, 2007


Could this simply have been titled "Thay's what I like about co-eds, every year I get older and they stay exactly the same age"?
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:48 PM on July 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


The most fruitful academic relationships are those that contain a significant erotic element.

One of the most screwed up notions in our culture is the idea that since Eros feels so good, any relationship that feels good must be some form of Eros.
posted by straight at 12:16 AM on July 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


The whole anti-eros on campus is a media ploy created by Faculty starter-spouses looking to cut off opportunities for graduate students.
posted by srboisvert at 2:35 AM on July 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


The love that dare not speak its name can't shut up.

Being a professor is wicked fun. I don't know what this dude is whining about, except apparently he can't get laid.
posted by spitbull at 5:21 AM on July 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


I had mad crushes on all my favorite professors. Male more than female, but not to the exclusion of women entirely.

Did I want to have sex with them? Not really. Would I have thought it creepy and unacceptable for any of them to come on to me? Oh, yes.

I find people most fascinating, most sexy, when they are putting their smarts on display. But eroticism of the mind needs to stay in the mind!
posted by Jeanne at 5:31 AM on July 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


bardic and The World Famous are right on the money.

The first day of Russian class in college, the (fortyish?) professor set up a slide projector to show scenes from his recent trip to Russia and Finland. Red Square, onion domes, babushkas... Suddenly there's a shot of him buck naked in a sauna. "Oops, how did that get in there?" he smirked, while looking around to see if any coeds looked interested in what was on display. Christ, what an asshole. This must have been 1969 or '70. I doubt things have changed all that much.
posted by languagehat at 5:59 AM on July 14, 2007


The most fruitful academic relationships are those that contain a significant erotic element.

On the contrary, when any sort of true eroticism gets mixed in, that's when it all starts going to hell. This seems to be because the parties involve stop thinking with their brains and start thinking with their other bits.
posted by Zinger at 6:26 AM on July 14, 2007


For what it's worth, I've taught at a big state university and an Ivy, and in the whole time I've been teaching (since 1999) I've never, not once, heard of a professor having an affair with, or even coming on to, an undergraduate. I guess I believe people's anecdotes that it used to happen a lot, but it does seem to me that the stereotype doesn't have much truth to it nowadays.
posted by escabeche at 6:40 AM on July 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


I read Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment a few years ago. It made a lot of the same points, but was quirky because it was written by a woman. Mostly, it was a massive self-justification which was irritating.
posted by serazin at 7:00 AM on July 14, 2007


Jeanne writes 'Would I have thought it creepy and unacceptable for any of them to come on to me? Oh, yes. '

What, even the young hot ones?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 7:23 AM on July 14, 2007


For those people too young to recall the bygone days when sexual relations between academics and students were almost a compulsory part of the syllabus, I'd recommend Malcolm Bradbury's book, The History Man.

It's very, very funny -- and just like my student days.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 7:30 AM on July 14, 2007


I actually kind of liked this article when I saw it linked from AL Daily. Underneath the bad puns and cultural commentary there's a paean to curiosity and learning.

The whole point is that real humanities professors don't find anything particularly exciting or interesting about their students. They're [we're] the sort of people who value the life of the mind so much that they've [we've] made tremendous material sacrifices to pursue our narrow intellectual interests. The prospect of an attractive young student with nothing interesting to say is so completely unerotic that I think professors who engage in such uneven romances are idiots and probably not worthwhile scholars or teachers.

The professor/grad student relationship is more difficult for some to navigate. I'm generally pretty critical of those relationships because of the power dynamics entailed, but I've also seen it work quite well. Graduate students are fully adult, and often have a drive and intelligence that dwarfs the professor's. Then again, I've also seen such romantic entanglements destroy departments. YMMV, but I don't think it's worth the risks. I'm generally supportive of institutions that have sought to prevent such chaos, at least among faculty and grad students where there's an advisory or pedagogical relationship. Still, I suspect it's a losing battle: love and sex glory in the prohibited and flourish in secret. Too bad professors and students aren't being truly transgressive, say, by crossing class, race, and heteronormative lines more often, rather than just recapitulating the same hoary ageist stereotypes and trading on their cultural capital.
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:13 AM on July 14, 2007


What, no Abelard and Eloise reference?
posted by IndigoJones at 10:23 AM on July 14, 2007


> Too bad professors and students aren't being truly transgressive, say, by crossing class, race,
> and heteronormative lines more often, rather than just recapitulating the same hoary ageist stereotypes
> and trading on their cultural capital.

Transgressiveness really isn't all that popular among those who have power, even the minuscule power possessed by professors. They talk the talk ("transgressive" being a professor-word par excellence) but seldom--with an eye on the tenure committee--walk the walk.
posted by jfuller at 10:37 AM on July 14, 2007


They talk the talk ("transgressive" being a professor-word par excellence) but seldom--with an eye on the tenure committee--walk the walk.

Yeah, those profs! All they do is talk and write and research! It's as if that's their damn job. Fucking hypocrites!

On the contrary, when any sort of true eroticism gets mixed in, that's when it all starts going to hell. This seems to be because the parties involve stop thinking with their brains and start thinking with their other bits.

I'll go ahead and agree to disagree. My experience has been the total opposite.

The prospect of an attractive young student with nothing interesting to say is so completely unerotic

The assumption that every undergraduate is an unsophisticated, shallow college student is stupid. People with this attitude really need to take their heads of out their asses. College students are not wild, overgrown children who can't be trusted to understand complicated relationships. And the sorts of professors who end up loving students are not pedophiles preying on stupid, innocent kids. It's a bit interesting just how well the conservative 'think of the children!' mindset jives with the consumerist dream to stay young forever. I suppose the desire to infantilize college students and teenagers and thereby remove them from the adult sphere would logically have to precede any attempt to escape into their lives.
posted by nixerman at 2:20 PM on July 14, 2007


In response to Esebeche.

I housesat for a prof who told me at her small, prominent university that a bunch of her female classmates compared notes, at a reunion, and figured out that more than a few had been sexually assaulted by a history prof there. She went to school there in the 1960's and was an almost victim having only gotten away from him due to an adverse reaction to the drugged wine.

As an undergrad in the 90's I witnessed faculty and undergrad affairs (I will be generous in calling them affairs) in both the art, philosophy and history departments of my small college. Student gossip mentioned other departments but I did not directly witness. I myself was targeted by a professor. When I was about to go to a larger university as a transfer I was warned by a female professor NOT to take certain history prof because I would become a prime target for him.

At the larger university I witnessed affairs in the English department with undergrads and again there were stories about graduate students and profs but no eye witness on my part. There must have been some validity in all the boinking gossip because the university had to create a policy dealing with sexual relations and profs due to all the lawsuits.

At another university a close friend of mine was almost another notch on the lipstick case for a grad TA in one of his classes. At the time he felt that he was being subtly pressured to give in to her, not for grades but for social acceptance.

Years later, at a very prominent university I knew someone whose family was destroyed when his mom had an affair with her English prof. While one math graduate student dropped from her program because the department did not want to deal with her being sexually harassed by a professor. My roommate's dad, full prof in the biology dept. was notorious for trying to bone his grad and undergrad students and was married to one of his former grad students. Who told me this? His daughter who thought I was naive for being somewhat shocked since she though it was normal for profs to sleep with anyone including their own students in combination of the Nixonian excuse of everyone does it.

So it does not happen at both both prominent and not so prominent schools. It is a tender nerve with me which, is why my grammar and writing have gone to hell.
posted by jadepearl at 2:34 PM on July 14, 2007


Well he's 100% right. The most fruitful academic relationships are those that contain a significant erotic element. America's sterilization of the role of professor and the removal of such eroticism/romanticism from the learning environment will inevitably result in reducing colleges to overly expensive 4-year vacations, reducing professors to Fast Food workers that just check off attendance and hand out worthless and inflated grades, and diplomas into very expensive Big Macs. The result will certainly suck hard for all involved. But yeah, the inclusion of the phrase 'brain sex' just knocked the whole thing down.

Shades of Jean Brodie, that is to say, full of shit. When eroticism/romanticism gets tied up into the learning and teaching process, real intellectual rigor is replaced with sweet nothings, warm and fuzzy affirmations, a desire to please the beloved and a willingness to acquiesce to pedagogue, and the manipulations of a power where one is superior and one is inferior.

Are there and will there be young people who develop attractions to older, intellectual and powerful people, especially those who hold power over them? You betcha. Will there be professors who take advantage of that, sexually and otherwise? Apparently, and there will be apologia written that not only defends their right to do indulge their vices while living comfortable lives, but assert that it is some integral part of their jobs.
posted by Snyder at 3:42 PM on July 14, 2007


In my experience, any significant student-teacher relationship (relationship of the pedagogical kind, that is) begins with the student buying into the teacher as a credible person--one who is knowledgeable about their subject, passionate, and articulate. By buying into the teacher, students will then open themselves up to dive into the subject matter at hand, which will then hopefully become its own draw and motivation. That enthusiasm must be infectious at some stage, for any student to become excited about learning--personally, every subject for which I have great enthusiasm can be traced back to, at some point in my life, a teacher who inspired it. Great teachers are really good at this--their personal enthusiasm for and insight into the subject matter will hopefully inspire the same in their students.

This kind of energy can be (and often is) confused with romantic or sexual energy, which it is not. Especially when one considers that, in truly healthy student-teacher interactions, energy and enthusiasm are reciprocal.

It is of utmost importance--particularly for the teacher--to understand the difference, and not to confuse passion about a subject inspired by a teacher, with passion for the teacher him/herself. Passion is critically important in the learning process, but that kind of energy is not inherently sexual; it is just often mistaken as such.

And finally, even if such passions spill over into the arena of the sexual, the power imbalance many mention, inherent in a student-teacher relationship, is crucial for teachers to keep in the forefront of their minds at all times.
posted by LooseFilter at 4:28 PM on July 14, 2007


The most fruitful academic relationships are those that contain a significant erotic element.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

Seriously, I'd like to believe as liberal and open-minded as they come, but this is so insanely fucked up. We're talking about very old people who control the grades (and future academic success) of their students. That sort of power imbalance means objectivity is important.

I eagerly await his sequel on the pivotal role of eroticism and productivity in middle management.
posted by phrontist at 7:54 PM on July 14, 2007


phrontist, WTF indeed--but:

We're talking about very old people...

Why old? I'm almost 35, and have been a professor for seven years. Though:

That sort of power imbalance means objectivity is important.

...is absolutely and completely true.
posted by LooseFilter at 8:12 PM on July 14, 2007


a significant erotic element.

Sorry, but the 'erotic' element being alluded to in the article is not physical at all. It's erotic in the original Greek/Platonic sense, or the one that Freud used, having to do with interest and passion. This isn't about sweaty bodies but curious minds.

If you've never become lost in an argument about the causes of the Civil War, the beauty of a poem, the intricacies of a cell, or the nature of justice, you're missing out on an experience that's better than sex. It's a real shame that in our culture, 'better than sex' is only ever a joke or a reference to drug use. Some things are better, but we won't let ourselves believe it.
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:42 AM on July 15, 2007


Anyone who thinks that the Greek type of professor-student relationship can happen within the organized, institutionalized, bureaucratic, and hierarchical environment of the contemporary university is a) deluded, b) doesn't understand the Greeks, and c) is effectually an apologist for the dominant patriarchy.

Come on, people. You're buying this shit from a guy who tells his male students not to talk in class? Give me a break. He's obviously one of the very many pervy deadwood types with delusions of grandeur/virility that litter every campus, especially the Ivies. He probably jacks off while thinking about being Hemingway.
posted by nasreddin at 10:44 AM on July 15, 2007 [1 favorite]


I love hearing about not trusting a professor based on anonymous, unverified comments to a site that asks raters (who may or may not be actual students) to rate the "hotness" of their professor. But feel free to remain blissfully unaware of an irony so thick you'd need a stretch Hummer to smash through it.
posted by raysmj at 2:46 PM on July 15, 2007


And, for the record, RMP is now owned by MTV Networks. So when's the professor/student sex in the Real OC show coming out?
posted by raysmj at 2:52 PM on July 15, 2007


Anyone who thinks that the Greek type of professor-student relationship can happen within the organized, institutionalized, bureaucratic, and hierarchical environment of the contemporary university is a) deluded, b) doesn't understand the Greeks, and c) is effectually an apologist for the dominant patriarchy.

I'd kind of like to hear the argument that backs this claim. Is it simply that you assume that the Greeks necessarily mixed their pedagody with their pederasty? There's a big difference between intercranial and intercrural, I think. You need to be careful with those false cognates.
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:18 PM on July 15, 2007


Apparently the author of this tract is also known, in some circles, as Cockmaster D.
posted by Arthur "Two Sheds" Jackson at 9:09 PM on July 15, 2007


Our stupid college friends used to make up names for professors. And when said friends had Bill Deresiewicz for freshman English, all those years back, they coined the name Cockmaster D.
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:29 PM on July 15, 2007


Sorry, but the 'erotic' element being alluded to in the article is not physical at all. It's erotic in the original Greek/Platonic sense, or the one that Freud used, having to do with interest and passion. This isn't about sweaty bodies but curious minds.

If you've never become lost in an argument about the causes of the Civil War, the beauty of a poem, the intricacies of a cell, or the nature of justice, you're missing out on an experience that's better than sex. It's a real shame that in our culture, 'better than sex' is only ever a joke or a reference to drug use. Some things are better, but we won't let ourselves believe it.


In fact, I wouldn't call it eros at all. I'd call it philia, or friendship. It's not the love of two people staring into each others' eyes and enjoying each other. It's the love of two people staring together at something else and helping each other to enjoy that other thing.

The extent to which the student and professor are ga-ga over each other is the extent to which they are failing to go ga-ga over their subject of study.
posted by straight at 1:37 PM on July 16, 2007


The extent to which the student and professor are ga-ga over each other is the extent to which they are failing to go ga-ga over their subject of study.

Yes. Exactly. This is the Aristotelian corrective to Plato's Eleusian mystery.
posted by anotherpanacea at 2:17 PM on July 16, 2007


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