October 10, 2003

There's a discussion over at Crooked Timber about whether affairs between professors and students should be forbidden. I think Daniel Davies, in the original post, is right that it's silly to say such relationships can "never be truly consensual." But I still think such affairs are deleterious to university life, for more complex reasons.

This post dovetails with a recent train of thought I've been having about the profession of teaching. There's a constant complaint that teachers don't get enough respect; even on a university level, the actual teaching is often placed beneath research and writing on the prestige scale. But I think that what's really been devalued is not the role of teacher, by itself, but the relationship between teacher and student. We have to a great extent lost it as an ideal, a social norm, and lack an image of what it's supposed to look like.

What really bothers me about the tone of the CT discussion is that most of the participants treat "teacher" as a job description like "bank teller." It has certain duties to perform, and something like sex on the job is to be evaluated only to the extent that it technically interferes with those duties (does it affect grading policy? recommendations?). Daniel at first refers only to "workplace relationships" and only later explains he's talking about universities. There's no concept that there's anything special about teacher-student relationships, or the university environment; it's just another "workplace."

But I think we would do well to remember here that the teaching relationship long predates teaching as a job; it predates formal schools and even the money economy. It is, in fact, one of the most basic human relationships. In the current era of industrial schooling, where students have many teachers (and vice versa) and their relations are usually brief, such relationships often don't form. But they certainly form often enough that most of us fondly remember teachers who had big impacts on us. Late in the thread, ogged alludes to this:

But there’s a major and, for dsquared, fatal, disanalogy between universities and corporations (or even hospitals and doctors’ offices): the mission of the university is—in part and at least nominally—to guide and to teach. I’m surprised in loco parentis hasn’t come up yet, because I think some parts of it are worth salvaging. Undergraduates—like everyone else, I’m willing to throw grad students to the dogs—are entrusted, and have entrusted themselves, to the university. Framing the issue in terms of “consent” is rhetorically effective, because it appeals to our by-now-almost-reflexive distaste for the PC Nanny Regime, but it glosses over the fact that, in the vast majority of cases, having sex with a youngin’ who is in your thrall just isn’t very nice.

In what way is a student "in your thrall"? I'm going to pull a quote from a blog on a completely unrelated subject, where Maggie Gallagher explained the Catholic definition of eros:
The classical definition of eros is not sexual desire, per se (which can exist quite apart from love). An erotic love is that love which desires union with the beloved. In greek philosophy (imported into Catholic thought) eros is the love that desires or needs the other, agape is selfless love, or self-giving love. (Actually in the greek tradition agape probably originally meant something rather different: "fulfilled love" rather than "desiring love.") A student has eros for his teacher and a philosopher for wisdom itself.

Of course, as I said before, a student doesn't necessarily feel much of anything for his teacher. But I think she's right that in its ideal form, student-teacher love is in the same family as romantic love, but is not the same.

Our modern society, as Maggie's quote indicates, has a needlessly narrow definition of eros: the only thing "desiring love" can desire is a sexual pair-bond. I think this comes from the Freudian tendency to place sex above everything, so that even if you think you desire something else, it must "really" be about sex. Eve recently griped that philia (friendship, brotherly love) doesn't get the same respect in our society as eros. But I think other forms of eros also could use more respect. And I think it would really help to recognize and respect it when it appears in students, because it makes them vulnerable.

One common objection to in loco parentis is that university students aren't children. One CT commenter says this is all part of a plot to raise the age of consent to 21. But I think chronological age isn't what's important here; it's that in some relationships, you put yourself in that role. I'm sure that many of Fr. Jim Tucker's churchgoers are much older than he is, but they still call him Father, and he still assumes that responsibility over them.

Or to choose a less overtly paternalistic example, take my relationship with Telford, whom I called my "de facto pastor." I'm 32 and he's 39; I'm not a child and he doesn't treat me like one. He has no official authority over me. But there are certain ways in our relationship that I act childlike, and he acts parental. I come to him with questions and troubles, and try to approach him with openness and trust (not always successfully). He receives this with a sense of responsibility, and tries to provide answers (again, not always successfully). This is not all that there is to our relationship; I argue with him a lot, he sometimes unloads his troubles on me, and sometimes we just make small talk. But this is what makes the relationship different from my other friendships, and also quite different from how it would be if we were dating.

I'm pulling these examples from religion partly because I think Christians do a better job than secularists of realizing that you go on wanting and needing these kinds of relationships all your life, not just before you're 18. Being a teacher is a "ministerial" job -- people turn to you for knowledge and guidance -- and so the role is really quite similar. (In fact, Telford became a teacher as a response to a call to ministry.) Being a teacher in a secular school isn't so mystical, of course, and you're not going to be helping students with their personal problems, by and large. But I do think that, whether or not it's officially enforced, that should exist as an ideal, as a model for what the relationship should look like. After all, teaching is an inherently relational job, so you're going to approach your students with some sort of attitude. Are you going to look at them as a boss looks at a worker? The way Telford looks at me? The way a guy checks out a girl in a singles bar? What?

Another problem that arises from a failure to recognize student eros is that it gets confused with that other kind of eros. Sometimes, of course, people fall in love like a ton of bricks, and there's no mistaking it. But when the desire is subtler and vaguer, I think people often deduce it from the symptoms. "I keep thinking about him, my heart beats faster when he's around ... this can only mean one thing!" If you think that one thing is romantic love, that leads to the idea that it can only be fulfilled sexually -- maybe even maritally. I also know from experience that eros gets sharper when it's frustrated, and professors can be very frustrating, because they're so busy and have so many other students. I can understand the temptation to sleep with a professor just to hold his attention. But really, if you fall in love with someone as a teacher, it is probably best to keep him your teacher and not turn him into your boyfriend. That will turn him into something else.

As some people have pointed out, some professors have married students and lived happily ever after. I don't deny that the more conventional kind of eros can bloom in those situations, though it doesn't seem that unreasonable to ask it to wait until after graduation. And I understand that overzealous anti-harassment policies can get really repressive. I just hate the idea that schools would become like any other "workplace", where people show up to coolly dispense their duties and look after their self-interests, and personal relationships are a free-for-all. Call me romantic, if you like, but I hope they can be more.

Posted by Camassia at October 10, 2003 05:55 PM | TrackBack
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