Saturday, 24 May 2008

erotics of higher education

There's an interesting piece by Hannah Fearn in THES on sex and the university. The issue of eroticism in the lecturer-student relationship is one that I first encountered in bell hooks's Teaching To Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. People get very passionate about their topics, and encouraging students to appreciate the same material, or questions, or methodologies can be seen as a seduction of sorts.

But that's a topic for another time. What I wanted to have a look at is this blatant piece of sexism:

The issue is compounded as universities become more diverse working environments. Whereas in the past a typical student-teacher relationship would have been an older male tutor beginning a sexual liaison with a young female undergraduate student, now it is just as likely to be a situation where a former City trader in his thirties returning to higher education begins a relationship with his grad tutor in her late twenties.

Right. So it was OK when it was Prof. Porky-Pants sleeping with his women undergraduates (never with men students!), or, in the lovely turn of phrase reportedly used by Alan Ryan (New College, Oxford, but talking about his Keele days), “Freddie (A.J.) Ayer (the philosopher) fell into bed with everyone who was remotely willing, and an awful lot of young women were very happy to tick him off on the list of famous professors they had laid. ” Right. Yes. Sure. That was fine. But now that it's older men undergraduates sleeping with younger women graduate tutors, that's a problem.

The quoted paragraph leads straight into this:

This has also erased some of the previously held beliefs about undergraduate students being off limits and postgraduates being fair game. In higher education today, where students of all backgrounds and all ages are studying at all levels, there are no clear boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable relationships.

This is sloppy writing, apart from anything else. The previous para claims a 'typical' relationship is lecturer-undergraduate but then immediately claims this has eroded the belief that ugs were off limits. What? If the typical relationship was male lecturer-female ug, then there's apparently no belief that ugs were off limits.

I guess it would be interesting to see just how widespread the two types of relationships are. In the departments in which I have studied or worked, it has only ever been men lecturers sleeping with women postgraduates. Or at least, those are the only ones I've known about.

IMHO, it's simply not appropriate for lecturers to sleep with students. The power balance is a big problem, and I guess people are also frightened about students using that to their advantage. Then there's pillow talk, and the kind of sharing of confidences that often happens in a close relationship. (If it's mostly the power issue that's the biggie, then presumably that means it would be OK if a lecturer's spouse started studying at the same department after the lecturer was in post? I wonder if that has ever happened.) It's interesting that this is often framed in a way that implies that bodies have no place in an educational institution--higher ed is about valuing minds, not bodies. One of the things hooks points out about learning and teaching being supposedly all about the mind, is that basically it's only (white?) men lecturers who can be 'all mind' (doesn't matter if their hair is a mess or they turn up in the same shirt three days in a row)--lecturers who are 'other' in some way do not have the privilege to be 'all mind'.

No comments: