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