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.”
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