Why Professors Should Never Have Affairs With Their Students

It’s not about affecting professional distance. It’s about not wallowing in clichés. 

If a professor is interested in a graduate student for an external, more quotidian reason, the violence done is to her whole faith in herself.

Photo by ESTUDI M6/Shutterstock

I’ve recently been feeling exhausted by the number of male professors I know who’ve had, or tried to have, affairs with their students. I am not the kind of person who always sees women as victims. I don’t generally subscribe to overarching feminist interpretations of intimate life. But as a professor myself, I believe very strongly in the absolute right of a student to have the professors muddling around in her work take a fixed and circumscribed role.

One of my objections to professors hitting on students is the inexorable cliché of it, the tawdry story it tells of relations between men and women. To a certain type of male professor, the fantasy of a dewy, impressed protégé is still seductive, a woman who he has easy power over, who is improved, tutored, made by him (as opposed to the female professors I know who are more likely to seek romantic companionship with someone more challenging, more in their league).

The dynamic is so trite one can barely commit it to the page, but it seems that otherwise charismatic, original men are completely happy to inhabit this cliché, to live and work in it. In my experience these are men who would rather die than dress or speak or write in a clichéd way, but in this particular area of triteness, they feel entirely comfortable. They can think of themselves as bookish outlaws or cowboys because they are breaking rules, even though they are on a deeper level following the most retrograde rules of sexual politics. They are buying into the most boring and conventional fantasies of a prefeminist time, salving vulnerable male egos with the most facile and predictable of balms. 

I can hear one of the male professors I am thinking of asking me to be less dour and serious, to see that sparks can arise in all kinds of inconvenient circumstances. But I just don’t accept that they arise unless you are open to them, unless you foster them. One can understand the cheap frisson—anything forbidden is newly interesting, provocative—but there is a cheap frisson to the incest taboo as well, yet most of us manage to resist it.

The deepest problem for me lies in the perversion of mentorship. In the classroom intellectual crushes are useful. They goad and inspire you. They draw out your best work; they break through limits, challenge, transform. They are part of the thrill of academia at its best. To maneuver within that crush, to manage and exploit it, is part of the trick of teaching. To act on it in the crudest way is to crush the whole endeavor. Be subtle, I feel like telling these male professors. Don’t do the unimaginative thing. The world is full of people you can sleep with; it is not full of students to whom you can make a difference.

One of the problems is that graduate students are vulnerable. They have no power in the world; they haven’t yet gotten much affirmation or money or worldly success. What they have is their work and their fierce but worried belief in it. So if it turns out that professors or possible mentors are interested in them for some other external, more quotidian reasons, the violence done is to their whole faith in themselves, to their sense of purpose. The professor who makes a pass at a student blunders into that vulnerable space where the student obsesses about her work and tramples on it. It’s very easy for even the most brilliant, driven, tough-minded student in that circumstance to feel that the whole crazy, implausible, expensive process is worthless.

A graduate student who went through one of these experiences put it to me this way:

When you have a good professor, you find yourself producing work you didn’t even know you were capable of. It’s a really important relationship. But after something like this happens, for me at least, I wasn’t able to produce good work for that person anymore. Everything just sort of shifts. It’s an incredibly alienating and lonely experience.

One male professor I know at another university had an affair with an unbrilliant undergraduate that went on for almost a year. It was depressing to see how cartoonish a version of himself he became, how willing he was to twist and contort himself into knots to pretend that she didn’t seem so young, to pretend to take her seriously, to pretend her comments on Orwell were fresh and startling. How could this be worth it? How could this seem to him like a plausible romantic situation? I was amazed that he was not embarrassed by it; if anything he seemed sort of proud of his conquest, as if it was an accomplishment to seduce and mesmerize a 20-year-old. It is hard, honestly, to grasp the appeal. The prospect of sleeping with an undergraduate seems a little like wanting to sleep with a puppy.

Surely it is easy, especially in a big city, to find other young women to look up to you, if that’s what you are into. In my field, for instance, you can go to any literary drinks party and there will be no shortage of lovely interns or editorial assistants to fawn over even a semi-successful male writer. So why the persistent draw of a student in your class? Why, when it is so easy to leave them alone, not leave them alone?

I am not arguing for a perfect professional distance or coolness with students. One of the great pleasures of teaching is having conversations that inspire you, that push you further in your own thinking and work. I feel for some of my students a kind of love, but it’s something more parental, more protective than romantic love; it’s bossier, more intrusive, more interested in improvement, in drawing out possibilities, in imparting what I have learned over the years. They are so deeply my work that the limits are instinctive, absolute. It’s not that there are temptations to resist. There are no temptations. 

Another problem with a professor hitting on his student is that the damage is rarely confined to that one situation. Once rumors are airborne, the whole environment is polluted. A distrust is established, an unreliability or rottenness. Once word gets out, it is impossible for any of the students in the classroom to take the academic venture seriously, to entrust themselves to it. And why should they? The intellectual exchange is degraded, a joke.

Even in the most fruitful, ideal professor-student relationships, something weird is going on: You are shaping your students, you are planting ideas or references, you are entering intimately into their work and tinkering with it. You are, in the best cases, entering into their idea of themselves. To maximize the potential, the ranging, the creativity, the electricity of the exchange, it is better if you are not sleeping with them or trying to sleep with them. The power inequity in the classroom should be used for teaching, for the play of ideas, the unloosing of creativity, not for the much more pedestrian purpose of seduction.

I once saw a tough, accomplished, ambitious student fight off tears when describing one of these situations, which did not leave me feeling like this was an ambiguous story with two sides. The events she described were just wrong—stupidly, callowly, uninterestingly wrong.

You may say that I am romanticizing and idealizing the academic world. That I am trying to imagine a place untainted by the usual debased human things, and this is true. Because academia is an artificial place; it is very explicitly not the real world but a place set apart for intellectual development, where the values and desires and materialism and pressures of the regular world are, for a time, pushed off. The university works precisely because it is unworldly, idealistic, and those professors who don’t see that are not worthy of any new batch of students filing into class.