The book’s penultimate chapter, “On Not Sleeping With Your Students,” was
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The book’s penultimate chapter, “On Not Sleeping With Your Students,” was adapted recently in The New York Times. Srinivasan has a knack for engaging old debates in a fresh way, in this case the argument over what, in my recent conversation with her, she referred to as “the specter of the faculty-student relationship” — a specter so ubiquitous and so familiar that it might seem hard to find anything new to say about it. Her strategy is to lower the temperature: Rather than asking, for instance, whether consent across power differentials is possible (she says that it is), she asks: Is sex with one’s students compatible with the goals of pedagogy?
Her way into this problem is Jane Gallop’s 1997 book, Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment, in which Gallop describes her own run-ins with faculty-student sex proscriptions. “In her formal response to her students’ sexual-harassment complaints,” Srinivasan writes, “Gallop appealed to Freud’s notion of transference, the patient’s tendency to unconsciously project feelings … onto the analyst. Transference, Gallop says, ‘is also an inevitable part of any relationship we have to a teacher who really makes a difference.’ Falling in love with our teachers, in other words, is a sign that pedagogy has gone well.”
But Srinivasan turns Gallop’s invocation of Freudian transference against Gallop. “Gallop overlooks Freud’s insistence that analysts are ‘absolutely debarred’ from engaging romantically or sexually with their analysands … Instead, Freud says, the analyst must use the transference-relation as a tool in the therapeutic process.” Teaching, by analogy, should similarly debar romantic or sexual involvement — not because consent is impossible, and not because the love isn’t real (on the Freudian model, all love, not just the love between patient and therapist, involves transference dynamics), but simply because sex is incompatible with the primary goal of the pedagogical relation — teaching.
That position, Srinivasan told me, has attracted skepticism from both her left and her right. “I got a range of responses, most of them sympathetic,” she said. “But of those who took issue with what I had written, at least one person said, ‘Look, your insistence that in some cases, if not in many cases, faculty-student relationships are consensual is a form of rape apologism.’ The more common critical response I’ve had — only from men — is a kind of libertarian one: ‘It’s prudish, and an incursion into basic civil liberties, to suggest that consenting adults can’t have sex.’”
I talked with Srinivasan about the similarities between therapy and teaching, whether students are newly infantilized, the ethics of shame and punishment, and what it means to do public philosophy. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The passages that you cite from Jane Gallop’s 1997 book, Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment, seem incredibly distant — representative of an attitude from a remote moral universe. For instance: “And if schools decide to prohibit not only sex but ‘amorous relations’ between teacher and student, the ‘consensual amorous relation’ that will be banned from our campuses might just be teaching itself.” What happened between then and now to make this kind of attitude seem so distant?
Gallop was expressing a sentiment that was already somewhat outmoded. She strongly identified with a kind of utopian picture of feminist pedagogy, which I think made a lot of sense for the first generation of feminists in the academy, in the ’70s and ’80s; Gallop entered as a graduate student at that moment. She says in the book itself: We were all reading these things together, we were all figuring this stuff out together. There wasn’t a hierarchy of professor and student.
By the time she’s a professor, that’s changing. She has disciplinary power, she has disciplinary status, there’s a notion of the expert feminist critic, the expert feminist reader, the expert feminist academic, of which she is one. She’s caught off guard by that. She was already, in a sense, out of step with her moment.
But certainly, the trend generally has been toward universities’ being very concerned about their liability, especially when it comes to students’ sex lives. There’s the understanding of the student as a consumer who is paying for a certain set of experiences which are supposed to be wholly good, positive — and conducive to the increase of their market value. Then there’s the bloating of administration and regulation in general. So there are both good and bad forces that have led us to the point where the old-school libertarian, or even the old-school dissident libertarian feminist, arguments no longer hold the kind of purchase they once did.
"There are a lot of professors, mostly though not always men, who think of the campus as their sexual hunting ground."
There’s a moment late in the chapter when you pull up and ask, “Am I moralizing?” You’re very aware of the risk of moralizing — and also the risk that the most aggressive moralists will come after you. When Marta Figlerowicz and Ayesha Ramachandran wrote an essay about the erotics of teaching for the Boston Review, there was a kind of cascade of “moralizing” in response, some of it really crude: faculty members on social media posting vomit emojis, things like that. How, as a moral philosopher trying to think carefully about sex, do you navigate this kind of knee-jerk moralism?
I was very alert to the conundrum you raise. Whether I’ve sidestepped it, or whether I’ve pulled it off, isn’t really for me to answer. But my strategy for addressing it was to try and say some true things about one of the dynamics that operates in the classroom in terms of practice. Freud in his technical papers says, Look, the question of whether the therapist should engage romantically with the analysand is not a moral question. It’s a question of utility. By which he means that it’s a question that should be answered internally to the practice of what therapy is trying to do. It’s not that no real love is possible, it’s not that the therapist is violating the analysand’s rights qua person, or that it’s a form of assault.
Freud’s not asking a question of general bourgeois morality. He’s not asking whether our instinctive condemnations are correct or not. Rather, he just wants to ask: What’s the goal of what we’re doing here, and what serves that goal?
But Freud’s utilitarian claim has immediate ethical consequences for how therapeutic practices are codified. It’s an enormous professional taboo to sleep with a patient. You could lose your license. So the question becomes: Is the situation of teaching similar enough to justify the punitive consequences obtaining in the therapeutic sphere?
How these things should be regulated is an open question. My general approach to thinking about the law and regulation, certainly in universities, is that you have to think about how punitive regulation of faculty conduct will in fact be used in a climate of massive precarity, adjunctification, assaults on academic freedom. I don’t think there’s an in-principle answer to how we do it.
But I do think that we haven’t had open-enough conversations about how to deal with transference dynamics in the classroom. I tell a story about a friend who, when he was a graduate-student teacher, ended up being told that he was making his women students really uncomfortable, just by the way he looked at them. This guy was a proper egalitarian lefty who cares a great deal about feminism. But he hadn’t been taught to think, Where do I put my eyes when my students come in? How do I treat them in a way that recognizes what an intensely personal thing teaching is, but at the same time doesn’t objectify them? So I would say that if professors could have better conversations about these things, then questions about penalties would be less pressing. Right now we’re allowing the rules to do a lot of work for us. Far too much.
Maybe this is gendered, but my response to the story about your graduate-student friend was different than yours. I thought, Well look, you should already know not to stare at people. You don’t need to be told that! If you’re doing it anyway, that’s obviously a problem, but it’s not a problem that can really be corrected by instruction ahead of time.
If part of the teaching practicum was like, “Don’t stare in a way that makes people sexually uncomfortable,” you could become subject to a kind of very intimate self-surveillance: paranoid. Is there a downside to developing too much consciousness about one’s own gaze, posture, etc.?
I wonder if therapists feel that way. They probably do. In traditional psychoanalysis, as you’re starting to take on patients, you have to be seeing your own analyst very regularly. You get very clear mentoring. It’s seen as a process. I think paranoia sets in when you expect yourself to get it perfect immediately.
But what would it look like if we said, OK, I’m going to be a good teacher in some respects and bad in other respects, and it’s something I’m going to work on for much, maybe all, of my career? I would hope that there’s a way of having these conversations that wouldn’t induce paranoia so much as welcome creativity.
But what does induce paranoia is if there’s an HR department breathing down your neck and telling you, “Make sure you don’t look at their legs like this!” Unfortunately, that’s the direction in which we’re heading.
The word you use for the leg guy is “mortified.” I want to read something that Michael Warner writes in The Trouble With Normal: “Conflicts over sex have been fundamental to modern culture for at least as long as people have been speaking of democracy and autonomy. And although modern culture has learned to use public talk about sex as a stimulant to art and commerce alike, in the process some kinds of sexual shame have only intensified and become more political.”
How do you take account of the force of shame, for good or for bad, in your approach?
I agree with Warner that our sexual culture is riddled with shame. But when it comes to faculty-student dynamics, there’s a real lack of shame on the part of certain people!
And it may be the students who suffer the most shame in those encounters.
Yes. There’s an extraordinary narrative form that keeps on appearing when you read about faculty-student relationships. That’s a story of infatuation, the willing embrace of a relationship — and then it goes badly for one reason or another, and shame is produced in large part by the context in which that relationship played out, the academic community. Shame in front of the other professors and students who all, of course, know about it, shame that often leads women to just leave. It’s a horrifyingly common story.
Then, on the other hand, there are a lot of professors, mostly though not always men, who think of the campus as their sexual hunting ground. They see it as compensation for an adolescence where, in their view, they didn’t have sufficient access to sexual delights. In their adolescence, brilliance wasn’t prized, brawn and cool were prized. But now they’re finally in an environment where it pays to be a nerd, where you can get laid as a nerd. I can’t tell you how many men have basically come out and told me this, including men I’m intellectually admiring of. They see it as the abundant recompense for being an intellectual.
So I think there’s room for a lot more shame when it comes to faculty-student sex. But there are certain kinds of shame that aren’t particularly helpful. I don’t think people should go around beating themselves for noticing that some of their undergraduates are sexually attractive.
Toward the end of the chapter, you write that your undergraduates, and even sometimes your graduate students, “seem so very young.” In some ways this observation rhymes with those made by people with whom you don’t share much politically, I think — like Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, for instance, who in The Coddling of the American Mind describe this new sensitivity among young people.
Universities have long been places where certain young people get to stay young as others grow old — I mean, read Fitzgerald! Think about what it was like to be at Princeton or Yale in the prewar period. Oxford was like that, too. You were going to parties, going to pheasant shoots, you would maybe show up to tutorial and get drunk with your tutor. The universities have been playgrounds for the rich for so long — the idea that it’s only now that we’re “infantilizing” students is extraordinary.
But it’s not that someone like Jonathan Haidt is responding to a mere figment. There are on many university campuses ongoing attempts, often prompted by students, to rethink how and what we teach to ensure that students of varying backgrounds aren’t alienated. This is part of a woefully incomplete attempt to create a mass democratic higher-education system. You’re bringing in people with vastly different amounts of cultural capital, background, training, expectations, knowledge, understanding, levels of confidence, and putting them all in the same classroom. You have to adjust to that reality if you’re really committed to the project of egalitarian education. A lot of the things that Haidt wants to condemn are legitimate responses to that democratic reality.
But I think he’s misdescribing it as a new form of infantilization because, in a sense, the infantilizing university has always existed. What we’re now trying to do is create places that are welcoming and playful and challenging and enjoyable for a much wider demographic than before.
When I say that my students are so very young, I don’t mean that that’s a problem. What’s unfortunate is that not all young people have that experience of being allowed to be young in the specific sense that university affords. There should be universal free college education for anyone who wants it.
You’re a young scholar who has been oriented toward a broad audience since the beginning of your career. How do you conceive of your public versus your academic roles?
The only reason I’m capable of doing this is because of the job security I have as a British academic at a university like Oxford. If I had been on the tenure track in the U.S., this is not the strategy I would have rationally employed.
From the outside, my work looks like it runs in two tracks. On the one hand I’ve been writing very technical, abstract articles in philosophy journals, and on the other hand I’ve been writing these more public-facing, accessible things.
From the inside, it always feels of a piece. I think that’s in part because of the particular tradition of public-facing philosophical writing that I care about. The London Review of Books historically carried some of the most wonderful and original pieces of philosophy of the latter half of the 20th century. Most obviously Bernard Williams, but also Derek Parfit, Myles Burnyeat. What distinguishes those pieces is that they don’t do what a lot of people now do under the heading of “public philosophy,” which is to come down from the philosophical mountain and bring the good news of philosophy to the masses. That’s a mode I’m sure has some uses, but which, as a matter of personal taste, I don’t very much like.
The kind of public-facing philosophical writing I really like is just philosophy, but done in a way that is elegantly written and that asks its readers to do some hard work — and that does that hard work along with them.