This article originally appeared in Inside Higher Ed.
The intellectual and physical seduction of young female students by older, male professors—usually in the humanities, and in the throes of midlife crises—is so common in movies and books that it’s become a cliché.
But a recent Twitter thread started by a popular feminist blogger examines a dark side of that cliché in real-life academe, one in which professors’ advances—intellectual and otherwise—feed a need for validation and flattery, and at times cross the line into sexual harassment.
“Please share with me all your stories of the male professors you had in college who thrived upon and demanded female admiration to function,” Mallory Ortberg, editor of the website the Toast, tweeted. She soon followed up with a humor piece imagining a conversation between two male professors bemoaning diminishing adulation from the new generation of female pupils.
“Just yesterday, in one of my intro classes, I used the word ‘problematic’ in a sentence—real casual, just to let them know I’m one of the good guys—and not one of them stayed after the lecture to ask me just what I meant by that or to see if they could borrow the conspicuously dog-eared copy of Pedagogy of the Oppressed I like to leave on my desk in case any female students want to borrow it,” one imaginary professor says.
He continues, later, after some bottle-passing: “That copy has my phone number in it. You know, the old ‘write your phone number on the front page of a copy you lend to female students only under the “IF LOST PLEASE RETURN TO” bubble’ gag?”
Almost immediately after her original tweet, Ortberg’s Twitter followers began to respond with their experiences with such professors, some humorous and others less so. A sampling:
@hallleloujah: “had one who called everything sexy in a weirdly drawn out, British way. Also started a rumor he was undercover for CIA (he wasn’t).”
@kitalita: “one kept conveniently ‘forgetting’ my graded assignments in his office and specifically told me he was divorced (he wasn’t).”
@AmyRosary: “Let’s talk about the English department chair I got fired for harassing EACH AND EVERY female English major. He liked to insist [continued in a separate tweet] upon meeting girls in his office and serenading them with Bob Dylan covers with the door closed, or ‘accidentally’ putting on porn.”
@kellieherson: “Providing a validation space for those men is the only reason university administrators allow the humanities to continue to exist.”
Another follower cited a proclivity for flirting among her theater professors, one of whom bragged about once trying to meet women with actor Pat Morita. One said her professor had emailed her to tell her that not doing her homework was “not sexy”; yet another fended off a request for her to model for a professor who said he was an amateur photographer.
Jaya Saxena, a web editor for the New-York Historical Society and writer who studied English and political science at Tulane University, said: “Lots of [him] inviting classes to his house for pizza and making sure to corner the girls and talk about his art collection.” That professor also once hit on her in a bar, she posted.
In an email, Saxena said she enjoyed close relationships with several of her professors, and that in New Orleans, seeing faculty members out at a bar was not outside the norm. But the “line gets drawn when you’re throwing your arms around your students and drunkenly saying they look hot when they dance!”
Saxena said she never took classes from the professor mentioned, and therefore felt less intimidated than awkward following the incident.
That wasn’t the case for Tamara Johnson, who tweeted about an English professor who told her as an undergraduate that “female students were like fishing lures, drawing male instructors into deep waters.” He also made inappropriate remarks about rape, vaguely in relation to a lecture, soon after, she said—making her feel highly uncomfortable.
Johnson, who has her Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from San Diego State, said she saw male professors seeking sexual attention from their female students as the rule, not the exception. Saxena, by contrast, said there were several “attractive” male professors in her department who reacted to the attention from students in different ways. And while male professors did seem to bask more in that attention than did female professors, she said, “I never saw the ‘attention-needing male professor’ as a rule.”
Ortberg said via email that “most young women who’ve gone through undergraduate or graduate studies have had fairly similar experiences” with professors it was “best to steer clear of and not to cross.” And it’s important not to label professors whose conduct constitutes sexual harassment as “seductive,” she added.
Ortberg didn’t say why she thought some professors craved the attention of their female students to the degrees detailed in the Twitter thread, but Saxena had some ideas.
“I think if your job is to command the attention of a room and instill knowledge into people, then you’re probably going to thrive on receiving that attention,” the Tulane graduate said. “That just comes with the work, right?”
Of course, she noted, “I think the difference lies in what you do with that attention. Some professors, male and female, used it to encourage students. Others used it to insist on how cool they were.”
Johnson said the professor-student power dynamic was to blame, more than gender. As a sometime-adjunct professor who most recently taught at San Diego City College, she said: “I’ve been in the position of professor as well as student and I think it’s likely that had I the privileges, but not the [negative] experiences, I would have taken advantage of my power to sexualize my relationships with students without even recognizing what I was doing.”
Consequently, she said, “I don’t think this is exclusively a male problem; I think it’s a power problem.”
Allison Kimmich, executive director of the National Women’s Studies Association, also pointed to power structures in response to a question about the Twitter thread.
“Men are overwhelmingly the majority of full professors by rank,” she said, noting recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics. “So that means male faculty by definition have greater power and authority on campus by virtue of both rank and numbers.”
She continued: “Does that mean every male faculty member abuses that authority (as the Twitter [thread] suggests)? Obviously not, but clearly there are structural issues at work in higher education that lend themselves to potential abuses of authority.”
Responses to Ortberg’s post speak to that point, including one from a woman whose female professors invited her to a vacation home.
Of course, other responses note undergraduate experiences free of any such behaviors from professors of any gender. “I don’t remember having any, and now I feel oddly bereft,” @CMaeTay wrote. And some followers, including men, said they were dismayed by the experiences described.
Ted Scheinman, a writer and graduate student in English at the University of North Carolina, who “favorited” the Tweet, said via email that the he’d known professors who “seemed to court the awe of young women,” but that he suspected the pattern was more pronounced one or two generations ago. Still, he said, “You can see from the volume of responses it remains a very real thing.”
Scheinman added: “The call-for-stories also struck me as a sort of memento mori for male teachers—a reminder not to re-enact the sins of the old academy. (Whether any misogynist professors follow Mallory Ortberg is another question.)”
William Deresiewicz, a former academic and writer, published a 2007 essay in American Scholar discussing the professor-seducer stereotype, tracing its literary roots and arguing that it has largely supplanted the once pervasive notion of the absent-minded professor, due to various cultural factors. It also advocates a certain kind of erotic intensity between professor and student, based on the classical mentorship models. He said via email: “I think that it’s a stereotype, but I also think it’s sometimes true—just as it is also sometimes true that female students seek validation from male professors, and male students from female professors, and so on all the way around in both directions and for every gender combination.”
He continued: “I also think there’s nothing wrong with it, as long as people behave appropriately, because education involves emotions and creates relationships. And finally, I think we’d all do well to be a little more self-aware about it, and a little less judgmental.”