Friday, September 18, 2015

Sleeping with Your Students is Not Great Pedagogy

I've been struggling to read and digest this recent article in the New Republic by Laura Miller, entitled "Lust for Learning." It's hard to pin down exactly what the thesis is supposed to be, but it appears to go somewhat beyond the claim that total bans on faculty/student romantic involvement, even in the absence of a direct supervisory relationship, are unjustified overreactions that go too far. (If I understand it correctly, I agree that Harvard's new policy is an unjustified overreaction that goes too far.)

Instead, Miller seems to suggest that you can help your students learn by engaging in flirtation with them, and also by pursuing romantic and sexual relationships with them. "Bans on faculty-student relationships amount to an institutional throwing up of the hands when it comes to parsing the difference between an intense pedagogic experience and a manipulative seduction," she says. Administrations don't want to be bothered to distinguish manipulative abuses of power, which would be wrong, from the use of sexuality as pedagogy, which she seems to think is ok, or even to be encouraged. "Perhaps what makes pedagogy so potent also makes it inherently erotic," she says.

That is amazingly silly.

I don't feel like writing an actual essay about this, so instead I'm going to list off some quotes and make fun of them and stuff. Here goes.
  • The first pullquote reads: "Perhaps it’s possible to separate the thrill of encountering a fascinating mind from the fizz of libido, but I can’t imagine why anyone would want to."
    • This is just an egregious failure of imagination. I can think of lots of reasons one might have for wanting to separate one's studies from the fizz of one's libido:
      1. I find it easier to concentrate on my work when I'm not experiencing the fizz of libido. I find the fizz of libido to be somewhat distracting, and so I mostly try to avoid it when I'm working.
      2. I am happily married, and I'd like to stay that way. I think it would cause problems for me if I went around openly experiencing the fizz of libido with my students.
      3. I don't really want to fizz my libido at my students, even apart from the fact that doing so would blow up my family. I'm just not interested. They're usually very young, and a lot of them are not the right gender for me, and anyways that's not why I got into this business.
      4. For that matter, I am pretty sure my students don't want me fizzing my libido at them. I'm old, and they're in college, and they have their own shit going on. I think there's a decent chance that any fizzing I might attempt would come off poorly. I think there's a decent chance they'd see it as creepy and weird, rather than an intense but effective way to approach the course material. 
      5. I have many friends and professional acquaintances who I like and respect, and who I think like and respect me. If I went around fizzing my libido at them whenever I bump into them at conferences and in email correspondences and stuff, I think some of them might find it bothersome. I think it might affect the degree to which they like and/or respect me.
  • I found it very weird how little attention Miller paid to the possibility that a professor engaged in a flirtation, even if it were initially welcome, might attempt to take unfair advantage of situation. Or, might do so accidentally. It is, I think, undeniable that professors wield authority over their students, and it is also undeniable that this authority can be abused, and it is similarly undeniable that one purpose to which this abuse of authority can be put is the acquisition of sexual favors from unwilling pupils. But Miller seems awfully sure that the student and the professor will be equally willing to fizz their libidos at one another, and that they will be on the same page about the quantity and manner of the fizzing, as well as the desired commitment level (i.e. level of exclusivity, length of term, etc). Although she acknowledges the possibility that problems might arise, she doesn't seem to be terribly concerned about them.
  • The obvious possibility that professors might abuse their power is at least part of the reason why I share Justin's puzzlement about the use of recent examples from philosophy to support greater levels of permissiveness in this domain. I would have guessed that, at the very least, the two highest-profile philosophy cases of the past few years represent an object lesson in what can go wrong with these kinds of relationships. 
    • Take the McGinn case. Even if you believe everything Colin McGinn says about the relationship and its aftermath (which, to be clear, I do not)--that the relationship was entirely consensual; that it was a strictly "intellectual" romance, whatever that is; that he was only kidding about the sex and the handjob; that she failed to do a bunch of work he'd assigned her; that she only went to the administration after he gave her a deservedly poor performance review; and that she lied to them about the nature of their relationship in order to get revenge--you have to admit that he handed her all the tools she needed to detonate his career. He obliterated his own ability to effectively supervise his research assistant by doing a bunch of the stuff that someone who was abusing his authority would do. 
      • Which is why these kinds of flirtations are unavoidably risky for the professors, too. Administrations must be vigilant against the very real risk that professors will abuse their power (the possibility of which, to emphasize, means that these flirtations are also risky for the students). Obviously this grants power to the students, and this power can also be abused. A student could file a false accusation and destroy one's career. But one makes things much easier for a would-be career destroyer if one send a bunch of libido fizz via email and text message.
      • But this risk does not stem from the fact that feminist ideologues and their Title IX are running amok; it's an inherent byproduct of allowing students to report potential abuses of power. 
      • (And, because he had the authority of a direct supervisory relationship, he also obliterated his ability to know that he wasn't abusing his authority. How did he know that she wasn't just playing along in order to keep him happy? He didn't.)
  • I was not sure what lesson I was supposed to draw from the discussion of the case of Abélard and Héloïse. The penalties for Abélard's alleged misbehaviors have obviously been lightened considerably; it's hard to imagine that Miller wouldn't see this as progress. ;-)
    • Also. I'm no expert on this topic, but Miller's rendition of the story is different from the version I heard. I am somewhat out of my depth here, and I would be happy to hear corrections in comments, but I think Miller's telling of the story is a whitewash. I quote a key passage of Miller's telling of the story below, with my remarks inserted [in square brackets]:
He [Abélard] finagled his way into her [Héloïse’s] uncle’s house by agreeing to instruct Héloïse in exchange for lodging. [Ok. So far, so good.] Their love led to her pregnancy [it's not clear what happened to the baby. Their subsequent correspondence doesn't mention him.] and a secret marriage [it was Abélard’s idea to keep the marriage a secret, because he thought it would hurt his career if it was widely known that he was married. Héloïse didn't want to get married at all at first, but Abélard talked her into it], but Héloïse’s uncle remained angry at Abelard’s betrayal (and perhaps believed he was about to discard her, thereby disgracing their family) [Héloïse’s uncle publicized the marriage in order to hurt Abélard, and then Héloïse denied that they were married. That's when Abélard sent her into hiding at a convent--he said it was because he was worried about her safety--and the fact that he sent her away to the convent is why the uncle thought he was going to dump her], so he [the uncle] had a group of thugs break into Abélard’s room and castrate him. [I honestly can't see this as anything but a bummer.] Abélard became a monk and urged Héloïse to become a nun. [Abélard made her become a nun against her will.] 
    • This is a fucked up story. But, as you can see, Miller's telling omits a bunch of details, and these are mostly events in which one of the men in the story ignores Héloïse’s wishes and forces her to do something against her will, or persuades her to do something she'd rather not--and most of the time it was Abélard, not the uncle, who did this. With one key exception, Abélard got whatever he wanted. They responded to each situation his way, and if Héloïse didn't agree with him he either talked her into it or made her do it anyway. 
    • So, I have trouble seeing this as an example of the good old days, when female students were treated as the competent adults who are capable of making their own decisions that they obviously are. Every time Héloïse makes her wishes known, she is overruled. 
    • And I can't help but feel like Héloïse’s life was substantially derailed by her affair with Abélard. It seems to me that Héloïse’s education might have been a little more of a positive experience for her if she and Abélard had kept their fizzy libidos in check.
    • Also, the great love affair of Abélard and Héloïse was not thwarted by a bunch of overzealous, Title IX-thumping Social Justice Warriors. The people who got in the way were her family. He was castrated by her uncle's goons, not the president of Harvard.
    • (Also, apparently people find this story tragically romantic or something, but I have no idea what's romantic about it. I don't see it at all. These two start a secret affair; her family makes them break up, but they keep having the secret affair anyway; she gets pregnant; they get secret married; her family doesn't keep the secret; he sends her away; her family cuts his balls off; they both join different monasteries and write passionate letters and never discuss their child. The people who think that's romantic probably think Romeo and Juliet is romantic.)
  • Miller says, "One woman’s ordeal is another’s adventure, a chance to flaunt her ability to beguile the teacher whose lectures leave her spellbound." Seems like she's mostly thinking about female students and their male professors. She mentions a couple of cases in which female professors engage in fizzy pedagogy with their female students, but if she thinks male students might benefit from fizzing with their professors, she doesn't seem to say so. I wonder why that is? 
  • The beginning and ending of the final paragraph says: "It is an excess of caution that makes the vulnerabilities of a community’s most fragile members the benchmark for everyone else’s sexual choices, but university administrators are probably not losing any sleep over the chilling effect the new conduct codes will have on their faculties’ love lives. ... One woman’s ordeal is another’s adventure ... It’s up to the faculty to see if they can determine which is which. They’re supposed to be the grown-ups, after all."
    • Wait. I thought the students were supposed to be grown ups, too. Are they, or aren't they?
    • Look. I know lots of people who have dated their students. I know few who ended up marrying a former student--someone they met in a class they were teaching. In several cases I know about, a mutual attraction between a professor and a student that began in the classroom grew into a healthy long-term relationship in which wedding vows were subsequently exchanged. (Of course, a few of these people are now divorced, but not all of them are, and lots of marriages end in divorce, and I have no basis for thinking that the prof/student thing played any role in the divorces.) I think it's possible for these relationships to be healthy and fruitful, and I respect the autonomy of the adults involved to make their own decisions about their own love lives, and so I oppose prohibiting faculty/student altogether. 
    • But Miller is making a much stronger claim than this. Although she's making that claim, she's also making another, much more contentious, much less plausible claim: that you may cultivate your students' academic interest in the material by cultivating (or at least not discouraging) their sexual interest in you, and that this is a legitimate and effective pedagogical approach. I have no idea why anyone would think that this is a good idea. 
      • "How do you cultivate student interest in the material?" "Well, I let them know that I'm hot in a smart kind of way, and that makes the ideas seem kind of hot, too. It's my natural sexual charisma and my fizzy libido. It's like they're having a ménage with me and the ontological argument. It's very effective."
  • So, I can't help but see this as a really bad article whose main point is totally wrong. 
--Mr. Zero


Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this. To me, the apologists for professor/student romance sound like that guy who says his friend's uncle's life was saved because he wasn't wearing a seatbelt and thus was thrown from his car to safety. Yeah, that happens. Yeah, sometimes professor/student romance works out great and it's beautiful. But to generalize from an instance where things went okay and recommend it as a policy is jaw-dropping. Smart people will wear a seatbelt and not fuck their students, the occasional counterexample notwithstanding.

Anonymous said...

Romantic relationships are among the most important things in people's lives. If there were some bizarre sort of being for whom Not Wearing a Seatbelt was somehow what made life significant, then your analogy would make sense.

Michael Kremer wrote about his life-long relationship with his wife. That's not relevantly like a preference for not wearing seatbelts. (Jaw-dropping, isn't it?)

Anonymous said...


Doesn't the high stakes apply across the board? That is, if romantic relationships are super important--which I think they are--then they are super important also for relationships that fail. So the analogy still works. In other words, even if it works out for some, it doesn't work out for many. Merely raising the stakes doesn't change that, unless it's no big deal for people to go through bad relationships.

12:52 said...

Wait, really??

The stakes you gamble with when you don't wear your seatbelt are: your life.
You're claiming that the stakes of getting into a bad relationship are higher? The bad relationship is worse than death??

I know the rhetoric surrounding power-imbalanced romantic relationships is overheated, but that might set a new record.

Anonymous said...

Romantic relationships are super important. But they usually only become super important once you're in them. The ability to pursue romantic relationships with whoever you feel like is not super important. (Especially if the relationships are likely not to be between equals.)

Anonymous said...

"You're claiming that the stakes of getting into a bad relationship are higher? The bad relationship is worse than death??"

You're wholly unfamiliar with Taylor Swift, I take it?

Anonymous said...

anon 11:06 here. I am not anon 1:34, though I appreciate his support.

The analogy was meant to be about risk and statistically likely consequences, that's all. Occasionally (but not usually), the absence of a seatbelt will be beneficial. Occasionally (but not usually), a romantic relationship with one's student will work out. Taking the rare seatbelt case as evidence that not wearing a seatbelt is a good policy is dumb, and so too is taking the rare student/professor/fuck success story as evidence for a policy. Clearly there the analogy has its limits, as students are not made of of straps and seatbelts rarely attend my classes.

12:52 said...


The ability to pursue romantic relationships with whoever you feel like is not super important.

The ability to have a romantic relationship with someone you love is super important, at least to many people. I think it was pretty important to Michael Kremer, and it’s been super important in my life.

3:00PM: touché.

11:06; I understand what you thought were the important points of analogy.
I think you should see why there’s a problem with using it to support your conclusion. But, maybe you don’t.

Taking the rare seatbelt case as evidence that not wearing a seatbelt is a good policy is dumb, and so too is taking the rare student/professor/fuck success story as evidence for a policy.

So you really do think that Michael Kremer’s autobiographical story does not count as a reason against the policy? Or exactly which "student/professor/fuck success" story do you have in mind?
I am very surprised. I can try to explain why I think you are mistaken, but I suspect that if you don’t already see it I won’t manage to get it across.

Clearly there the analogy has its limits, as students are not made of of straps and seatbelts rarely attend my classes.

Okay, are you going to make me explain why the point of disanalogy I pointed to is relevant and the ones you are mockingly pointing out are irrelevant? Or do you already see why mine is relevant and your mocking one isn’t?

Anonymous said...

Michael Kremer's autobiography is exactly as relevant as the one guy who was wondrously thrown from the car because he was not wearing a seatbelt. I confess I know of one very happy marriage that began as a professor/student relationship. But I know many many more that ended badly. I think a policy against these relationships is worth enforcing, even if it results in a couple people missing out on happiness because they could not pursue their student

Anonymous said...

Faculty shouldn't pursue relationships with students. Once those students graduate, there is no problem.

Those arguing for some romantic notion of true love should have no problem also waiting until graduation.

Anonymous said...

Michael Kremer's autobiography is exactly as relevant as the one guy who was wondrously thrown from the car because he was not wearing a seatbelt.

Well, it would be, if people sometimes knew that the car ride they were about to take would kill them unless they left their seatbelt off. Your traffic officers would say, “Sorry, sir, I understand how important this is to you, it being your life and all, but I'm sure you’ll understand that we have to force you to wear it anyway, for the sake of others. Have a nice day, and rest in peace."

Anonymous said...

You're talking about Kremer's story? I think you may have misunderstood it. (Although really I think you didn't read it.)

Anonymous said...

Obviously those of you who advocate a policy of requiring seatbelt use haven't read this guy's story.

Anonymous said...

I'm fairly certain that Heloise and Abelard's son, Astrolabe (seriously, that was the kid's name), was sent to live with Heloise's family in France.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Zero, your writing is hilarious and I just spent ten minutes at my desk cracking up at your excellent riffs on fizzing. Thanks you for making my day better.

zombie said...

As someone who has served on a search committee, I strongly advise those of you on the job market to refrain from discussing the fizziness of your libido and its effects on your students in your teaching statement.

Anonymous said...

"he was sensible to the flattery of all those rapt faces"

I get maybe a handful of rapt faces, if that, in a typical class. I guess I'm just boring.

Or maybe the problem is that there's not enough fizz!

Kevin said...

I teach at a relatively small private university. I flirt with my female students fairly regularly but in 31 years have never had an affair with a student. It is the line I draw and I draw it primarily out of concern for the student. I've noticed that students who have affairs with faculty members tend to be ostracized by their fellow students. They lose their support system and become isolated. That's a high price to pay for something that might just be a fling. I have, from time to time, dated students after they graduated. I don't see any problem with that but I've noticed people tend to assume the relationships started when they were students. I don't think there is anything you can do about that.

Anonymous said...

"I flirt with my female students fairly regularly"

Why? Does flirting with them help them learn? And why do you not flirt with the male students?

Leontius, the son of Aglaion said...

I am a citizen of a port city in Attica. I take my fill of the sight of executed bodies fairly regularly, but I've never had an affair with one. It's the line I draw, primarily out of concern with how gross it would be.

Lost said...

If this topic has gone dry, I have a suggestion for a discussion topic. How about Etiquette for the Job Market?

Some suggestions:
If you are not on the job market and never have been...
• Never ask someone how the job search is going.
• Do offer them a treat.

If you are on the job market and speaking with a peer in a different subfield...
• Never imply that their struggle is less difficult than your own.
• Do offer to be job market/productivity partners.

If you are on the job market and speaking with a a peer in your own subfield...
• Never compare information of how many interviews/fly outs/job offers you've received.
• Do offer to trade materials and sincerely, politely, offer a constructive critique of their materials.

Actually, by far the most important piece of etiquette would be: Never bring up the job market first. Job candidates are already thinking about it, there's no need to remind them of the fact.

Anonymous said...

"If you are not on the job market and never have been...
• Never ask someone how the job search is going.
• Do offer them a treat."

The second is just fine, as treats are great, but the first is coddling. C'mon. Also, job seekers are in the most intense emotional period of their professional lives. Avoid the topic is a bad idea; speak to them about it, but be considerate and compassionate.

"If you are on the job market and speaking with a peer in a different subfield...
• Never imply that their struggle is less difficult than your own.
• Do offer to be job market/productivity partners."

These are pretty good. But I don't like the idea that only those on the job market should talk to those on the job market about the job market. It's not Fight Club.

"If you are on the job market and speaking with a a peer in your own subfield...
• Never compare information of how many interviews/fly outs/job offers you've received.
• Do offer to trade materials and sincerely, politely, offer a constructive critique of their materials."

This is very bad advice all around. One shouldn't brag about such things, but keeping one's successes - small that they may be in some cases - secret is terrible advice. Also, people sharing materials and helping each other out may help both people involved to put forward better, stronger, clearer applications.

This advice seems to come from a few places, all of which are bad. This kind of advice is based on the idea that we are all competing against one another, and that the best way to deal with the market is to speak about it as little as possible, with as few people as possible.

Job seekers are not fragile. And really, if they can't talk about to others, they are going to have a hell of a time talking about it to search committees, some of which are not going to be terribly friendly.

"Actually, by far the most important piece of etiquette would be: Never bring up the job market first. Job candidates are already thinking about it, there's no need to remind them of the fact."

And there's also no need to ignore it.

Better advice: be a human. Don;t be an asshole. Do be compassionate. Always be helpful. And remember that hard and fast absolutes don't work for everybody.

Lost said...

Perhaps that last part was a poor choice of words. I never meant to imply that successes should be kept secret – it would be horrible to find out months later that the job you wanted went to your best friend and s/he didn't tell you.

In my experience, job seekers are fragile. It's a volatile feeling to not know where you'll be in 12 months or whether you'll be employed. All of us have seriously considered whether we're better off leaving the field. I bet most of us have wondered that today.

My suggestions come from the observation that most of us aren't going to get jobs. I don't mind discussing the job market with people. But no matter how much I love my colleagues, I don't want to ride the ups and downs of their job cycle with them when their good news is directly correlated to my bad news. Tell me your good news, but don't try to get me to fret over why you're such a better fit for a job than I am. It just makes me feel bad and resent you.

Anonymous said...


Get out of academia. Honestly, you'll be happier. If you are already thinking that your bad news is directly correlated to the good news of others, you will not do well, even if you do get a job. Because even after the market, there are other kinds of competition. Someone else's article will be published instead of yours. Someone will be invited to give lectures instead of you. Someone will get that grant you also applied for. If you see the success of others as a reminder of your own failure - in addition to the actual failures you will encounter through rejections of various kinds - then academia will be a very cruel place for you.

Now don't me wrong. I'm not saying that we should all be thick-skinned and hyper-competitive, and the weak should be trimmed and left aside. Not by any means. But you will spend your entire career watching other people succeed; if you can't take that, get out. You will also spend your career watching people fail; they will want to go to you for comfort.

Lots of job seekers are not fragile. They are, of course, worried about the future. Lord knows I was before I got lucky (after years of adjuncting). And yes, I watched my friends get jobs I applied to, and sometimes, I even helped them with advice. (And yes, sometimes, I wonder if I should regret that, and if my advice played a part in their success.) But to treat them with kid gloves doesn't help. I've been there. Most of my friends (and former partners) have been there. All of my colleagues have been there. Some of my students will be there. And treating them like they are made of glass doesn't help them on the market, nor does it help them when they fail.


Derek Bowman said...

In my first year on the market I found it especially important to talk about the market with other job candidates. Everyone else, including advisers, tended to act as though everything was normal - yes this is stressful, but it will work out fine. It was maddening to have everyone else act like everything is fine when it seemed like my world was falling apart.

It was also important for me to compare success / failure experiences with others. Partly this made it possible to put my experience in context and so have a more realistic understanding. But more importantly it was heartening to me to hear of the successes of (some of) my friends and colleagues. It was good to see that people could succeed on the market without being hypercompetitive assholes.

Your mileage may vary.

Anonymous said...

Regarding successes: just own them. What is worst of all, in my experience, are those humblebrags that we non-confident/arrogant academics think are the best way to communicate some piece of good news. Here's an example:

Facebook post--
I'll be at the Eastern APA for the interview thing--any DC peeps want to hang out?

Explicit Statement: I'll be in the DC area--anybody want to get drinks?
Implicature: I got APA interviews!

Just own it--in this market any achievement is a huge achievement. Just own it! We will all recognize that it's a great thing (for you), without your having to sugarcoat it

Helen said...

Hi everyone - Marcus and I at the Philosophers' Cocoon are running a mentoring project.
We need prospective mentors (anyone who is a tenure track or tenured professor, or an equivalent position outside the US can be a mentor).
We're also happy to take on more mentees. Mentees are people who have special jobmarket challenges (e.g., being an older candidate, ethnic minority, LGBT, English not first language, etc. etc. these are just some examples, not an exhaustive list), or have no access to mentoring, for instance, because their graduate program doesn't offer it. You can still sign up by following this link - and filling out the survey (data are kept confidential and are only used to match potential mentors and mentees).

Anonymous said...


I'll go one step further. Not only should people own their successes, but there should be a public system that keeps track of this information. (If one exists, could someone point me to it? I know that some information is out there, but from what I can tell, it's not complete.)

I think it would be very helpful - for the purposes of those (advisors and students) looking to understand market trends - to know how many people get interviewed by each department, and at each stage. How many conferences interviews did Job X hold? How many fly-outs did Job X schedule? How many Skype v. in-person interviews? Etc.

Right now, it seems to me that one reason it's tough to identify trends in the market is because so much of the information is kept quiet, by both parties. Schools seem to have no interest in advertising any data about their search until they hire someone, and applicants are advised (even by some well-meaning types) to not share that information.

What could it hurt to have more information?