Friday, April 1, 2005

Hot for Teacher

I 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.


At 6:55 AM , Blogger BlondebutBright said...

That was an amazing post. You're very right about the complexities of a student crush. I know a few people who should read this and really, really think about what they are doing.

At 12:16 PM , Anonymous Jeannette said...

Oh, I think you're right on.
First of all, I think that there HAS to be something visceral about learning/academics, because otherwise why would people stick through it all?
Secondly, I think there are hundreds of examples throughout lit, etc. that totally describe what you just talked about. Abelard and Heloise? even Edmund and Fanny in Mansfield Park. In each case the male is significantly older than the female and, as a teacher figure, has a hand in creating who she becomes before falling in love with her. "Pygmalion syndrome" perhaps? She, on the other hand, falls in love with her teacher who is god-like to her, her creator.
Anyway, interesting point.

At 5:37 PM , Blogger ABDmom said...

Great post, and great link. Not only could I not work up much feminist ire towards the guy--I actually laughed at times, especially at the bit about checking out Rate My Professors (which I've done, too). Having been the recipient of a few student's (extremely chaste) crushes, I have to admit that I was flattered by them. So, I can understand to some extent his concern that his students don't think he's hot.

You know, it's no concidence that we refer to interesting research as "sexy" or "hot." Your point about the erotics of teaching gets at this quite well--intellectual engagement, the passion of the mind, IS sexy. It IS hot. And that, more than anything, is the source of those student crushes. Some of the student crushes I've been the recipient of occured pre-big weight loss and post-baby, times when my body certainly didn't/doesn't meet cultural standards of hotness (oh my, what a phrase). :)

Anyway, I doubt VERY seriously it was my body that attracted those students. I believe it was my passion for teaching and yes, my passion for them as students. And if my hunch about the sources of that attraction is correct, then I hope that passion, and the resultant crushes, continue.

At 8:58 PM , Blogger alley rat said...

excellent, excellent post.

also: when i teach, i feel like i'm performing. my students are seeing a performance from me, not the way i am outside of teaching. if they get crushes on me, i always think that they are crushing out on someone who doesn't exist outside of that particular space.

At 8:09 AM , Blogger Buffalo said...

By Jove, I think you nailed it exceedingly well. Well done.

At 9:31 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

My wife and I are both PhD candidates, both thirtyish, and both teach mostly eighteen to twenty year-olds. We often talk about our "hot" students. However, usually our conversation focuses on how depressing it is to constantly grow older and less attractive, while our students are always eighteen or so and seem to be wearing less and less. I find it distracting to have a barely-dressed beautiful young woman sitting three-feet from me, but don't feel able to say anything about the situation to anyone other than my wife and friends. Society dictates that I am not supposed to notice, let alone look.

At 3:42 PM , Blogger ABDmom said...

Dorcasina, haven't seen you around much at all as of late. Is everything OK? The mother hen in me is worried.

At 1:39 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

well i like a teacher at my school but i think she likes me 2. on monday im gonna stay after class and hopefully it ends up with my cock in her huge ass

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