The student-professor romance is an erotically charged if ethically dubious prospect. The key word is “prospect.” While probably everyone has taken the GER101 class enthusiastically taught by that really hot grad student who was writing her dissertation on Hannah Arendt, actual entanglements seem to be exceedingly rare in real life — disproportionate representation in popular culture and student dream life notwithstanding.
William Deresiewicz is an Associate Professor of English at Yale as well as a frequent contributor to The Nation and other publications. While to many he may be known as “Professor Deresiewicz,” to others he is better known by the affectionately-bestowed sobriquet “Cockmaster D.” In the current The American Scholar, the Cockmaster tackles the subject of student-professor romance, aiming to show:
Why we should understand, and even encourage, a certain sort of erotic intensity between student and professor.
In this actually pretty interesting (and very worth reading) essay, Deresiewicz first examines the stereotype of the lecherous academic — a stereotype, he claims, which embodies, “not only our culture’s hostility to the mind, but also its desperate confusion about the nature of love.” To flesh out this stereotype, Professor Cockmaster turns to cultural sources traditionally taken as the final word on American life: a boatload of crappy movies about English professors, along with the novels of Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. The following picture emerges:
The alcoholic, embittered, writer-manqué English professor who neglects his family and seduces his students is a figure of creative sterility, and he is creatively sterile because he loves only himself. Hence his vanity, pomposity, and selfishness; his self-pity, passivity, and resentment. Hence his ambition and failure. And thence his lechery, for sleeping with his students is a sign not of virility but of impotence: he can only hit the easy targets; he feeds on his students’ vitality; he can’t succeed in growing up.
Needless to say, NO ONE like that has ever worked at an Ivy League university. Plus, as the Cockmaster points out, “Male professors are not less-devoted or less-faithful husbands, on average, than other men – in fact, relative to wealthier ones, they are probably more so.”
So “whence,” as Professor D might ask, does this stereotype come? After mentioning not unseriously the possibility of bitter screen-writers with an axe to grind against their old creative writing professors, the Cockmaster takes a closer look at the “idea of universities as dens of vice, where creepy middle-aged men lie in wait for nubile young women.”
Suddenly, professors had access to large numbers of young women, and just as suddenly, young women were asserting their sexuality with new freedom and boldness. People drew the inevitable conclusion. Since then, American culture has only become increasingly sexualized – which means, for the most part, that youth has become increasingly sexualized by the culture. Not coincidentally, concern about the sexual exploitation of children has reached the dimension of a moral panic. In the figure of the movie professor, Americans can vicariously enjoy the thought of close proximity to all that firm young flesh while simultaneously condemning the desire to enjoy it – the old Puritan dodge.
In contrast to the stereotype of the lecture-hall-lecher who is shtupping intellectually-smitten co-eds left and right, Cockmaster D wants to reactivate a different kind of erotic bond between student and professor, one that harks back to Symposium and certain Greek ideals of education. Cockmaster D is unafraid to trumpet the erotic bond that often exists — nay, must exist — between student and professor:
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.
The special intimacy of the “professor-student relationship” gets covered-up and misunderstood, Deresiewicz claims, because it stands for “a form of love that is neither erotic nor familial, the only two forms our culture understands.” Yet ultimately this special intimacy represents a more titillating prospect than mere carnal intercourse:
The “eros of souls,” in Alan Bloom’s Platonic phrase – “brain sex,” in plainer language – is not only higher than the eros of bodies, it is more satisfying.
Indeed, according to a man some call Cockmaster D, it is “brain sex” which goes to the very heart of the vocation of being a teacher:
This is the kind of sex professors are having with their students behind closed doors: brain sex. And this is why we put up with the mediocre pay and the cultural contempt, not to mention the myriad indignities of graduate school and the tenure process.
OK, here’s the thing though — that grad student who taught me GER101, I’m pretty sure it was real sex, not “brain sex,” which was on the minds of all of her students, mine included. This is just to say that while Deresiewicz has written some fine words on the subject, they may be just that — fine words. I guess I’m not convinced the reality is as sublimated as he makes it sound. What do you all think?