Hot for TeacherI can't decide. I'm referring to yesterday's article in the Chronicle about the sexualizing of the classroom space by a TA whose nom de plume is Humbert Humbert. For all my distaste for my (mostly) male colleagues and their tastelessly sexualized responses to their female students, I just can't really work up a lot of feminist rage against the guy. He's too aware of the political untenability of his desires, and too self-consciously willing to interrogate them. Oh sure, I despise him, but I know too well the secret activity of scanning the "rate my professor" website to see if I've earned a chili pepper (indicating I am "hot") or received a scathing comment that will eat away at my soul. What really interests me in his post is not his post-adolescent male angst over his hot student or the cuteness of his own ass, but his connection between the commodification of the classroom and the increasing tendency of many of my female students to flaunt themselves in ways that would have been unthinkable a few years ago, let alone 'back in the day' when my own stomach was flat enough to bear baring:
Wouldn't the university be a refuge from this "Shut up and do me" culture of exploitation and objectification? Not really. As Thomas H. Benton put it in a previous column, "The rise of the consumer model of education, rather than the older notion of preparation for citizenship and leadership, has stripped faculty members of the robes of authority, even exposing them to the sexual gazes of their students."
As in so many other spheres of life, the Internet is enabling a steady erosion of older norms, an outstanding example of this being the Web site, Rate My Professors.
Professors and professors-in-training are just like everyone else in this appearance-driven society, to be judged in terms of impression management (as indicated on Rate My Professors by happy or sad faces) and -- perhaps even more important, if you're a youngish single grad student -- how your rear looks when you turn to the blackboard (if it's hot, you get a little chili-pepper symbol).
But I have to disagree with him on one key point: students have always turned a sexual gaze on their instructors. Any good novel about education at least alludes to the erotics that infuse the classroom--a tension that I think has as much to do with the desire for the knowledge, for the status and confidence the professorial position endows, as it does with any physical desire to jump his/her bones. At least in my experience, part of the teaching exchange (one of the most powerful parts) takes place because the teacher has and represents something the student desires. This is why I'm so suspicious of my male colleagues who can't keep their eyes off their female students OR stop talking about it. They seem to think that the students' desires are, like theirs, relatively uncomplex and largely physical. They mistake the erotics of teaching, the adrenalin of making and sharing knowledge, with a personal, physical desire for them. But most women I know remember having a crush on the ugly bald poetry prof, or a same-sex infatuation with a feminist mentor, either of which was both highly sexualized and completely chaste. The yearning to have my professor notice me, select my ideas, validate my thinking, was certainly powerful and aphrodisiacal. It also had nothing to do with wanting to see him or her naked.
I wonder, instead, if the commercialization of every aspect of our culture, what he calls our "appearance-driven society," has merely driven a nail into the coffin of such intellectual erotics. Instead, I think we live in a sadly diminished age, in which we are nearly unable to understand and enjoy eroticism without reading it as explicitly, gruntingly sexual. I fear for the displaced sexuality that animated learning. It seems to me that rating my professor's ass is not what it's about. Like Cheap Trick said, "I want you to want me"--but that's not quite it. I don't want my students to want me; instead, I want them to desire what I have—a rich intellectual life, a physical and emotional fulfillment in my work, an exhilarating connection with the life of the mind.