Allen Ginsberg once declared, “The best teaching is done in bed," but apply this advice to University life and people start to get uncomfortable. Professor-student relationships hold a high rank on the long list of academic taboos – right up there with rioting in Dinkytown and eloping with your study abroad boyfriend – but I would argue that much of this condemnation is undeserved. Last weekend, I talked with a University of Minnesota undergraduate (who I will refer to as “Prudence” for irony and confidentiality) over the joys and technicalities of professor-student relationships because she just so happens to be in one.
This wasn’t a planned conversation. In truth, we were supposed to be working on a group project, but instead, we decided to get drunk. Inevitably, drunk classmate girl talk leads to the question of whether we find our professor hot. Prudence’s response was something along the lines of, “Well, I find MY professor to be hot.” When we asked her exactly what she meant with that kind of emphasis on ownership, she proceeded to unveil every girl’s college fantasy:
“I’ve known him, my professor boyfriend, since I started working in his department about two years ago. I never took a class under him, but he always flirted with me…I blew him off mostly, but a couple of months ago he asked me out to dinner. We have had many, many discussions about whether or not it’s okay to pursue this, but so far it’s working out well enough. We just have to be discreet about it.” Before I could even get the question out of my mouth, Prudence added, “And yes, I call him ‘professor’ in bed.”
My classmates and I were awestruck by her academic prowess, but it did cross our minds that he could just be a hairy old man. A couple of Facebook clicks later, however, and Prudence proved us wrong. He is, in fact, a gorgeous specimen – perhaps heightened by the fact that he is not opposed to scandalous romance. (As a side note: the fact that we now have the ability to friend our professors on Facebook to learn more about their personal lives, sift through their photos, etc. makes this dating scene even more hot to handle.)
“It is highly likely that us professors are attracted to our students,” Prudence’s professor said when asked for comment. “We see our students every single day and if they are taking a class with us, that probably means we have the same interests…And in general, guys don’t really care about age or profession with girls, so the fact that they are attracted to one of their students isn’t necessarily going to bother them.”
Yet it does seem to bother a lot of other people. A simple Google search of “professor-student relationships” brings up a wealth of commentary about its pros and cons. In particular, check out www.dankprofessor.wordpress.com. It is a weblog that “examines the sexual politics in higher education and beyond." Parents and the university administrations tend to be the two major groups that are having the qualms, which is ironic, since neither of them are the ones in the actual relationship itself.
“My parents would try to talk me out of it, if they knew,” Prudence said. “They would say I’m squandering my youth or that he’s using me for sex…The professor and I are sixteen years apart, but I would definitely recommend dating a professor to any student. They are more worldly and mature and they know how to treat a lady. I’m not knocking college boys, but they still have a lot of growing up to do.”
As it is now, University of Minnesota policy does not condone professor-student relationships. I understand the professional premise behind this stance, but I also find it to be somewhat unrealistic. People find love in all kinds of places. There are far more natural, mutual attractions that occur between university students and professor or TAs than the commonly talked about “professor preying on student” or “student giving it up for the grade.” Although protections do need to remain in place for these circumstances, there should also be provisions for exceptions to the rule. For example, in Prudence’s case, she is dating a professor, but it is not a professor of any of her classes, so it is not going to have any influence on her GPA. Consequently, hers is a relationship that shouldn’t need to be kept discreet. I doubt this column will trigger any change in policy, but it is important to recognize that are often labeled as“scandal” are actually quite normal.
“People just need to un-bunch their panties and give it a whirl,” Prudence said. “It’s all media and society hype that makes it seem so bad. Over the years, people have also given relationships in which the male is significantly older than the female a bad name…They make it seem like the guy is just after sex. Well, I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but aren’t all guys, no matter what age, after sex? At the end of the day, we are just two people looking for some companionship.”
Ashley Dresser welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.