remember a moment back in the mid-80s when I was a graduate teaching assistant.
Several of my fellow grad students and I were standing around a hall of the English department engaging in the usual t.a. banter: bemoaning the illiteracy of our composition students, fretting about our upcoming doctoral exams, debating the pros and cons of applying for food stamps. Out-of-the-blue one of our number remarked, "You know, teaching is a sexy business." I distinctly recall the embarrassed hush that fell over the group. Then someone changed the subject, back to comp students and food stamps.Is teaching a "sexy business?" If so, what might be the dangers (and possibly also the advantages) of a buried Eros in the classroom? If some profs are, in fact, bedding their students (or vice versa), should this alarm anyone concerned about higher education? Although I'm a professor myself (blissfully married, I might add) let me throw caution to the wind and confess that I find these questions fascinating.
Moreover, I consider them relevant to a broad range of important pedagogical and academic issues. Thus, I opened the essay collection, The Erotics of Instructions, with high hopes. The wry black and white photo on the cover–showing an innocently grinning female college student who looks straight out of Dobey Gillis, with bobbed hair and a class ring on her finger, a pair of textbooks clutched to her firmly brassiered bosom–certainly enhanced my optimism. However, though the anthology had its moments, I ultimately found it quite disappointing.The biggest mistake made by many of the book's contributors (most of whom are professors) is their shared decision to focus primarily on how "the erotics of instruction" has been portrayed through the ages in literature and film, rather than turning to their own experiences, and those of their colleagues, in the classroom. True, this emphasis does reveal that the sexual side of teaching has been an extended theme in both high and low Western culture–a tradition stretching from the dialogues of Plato to Dead Poets' Society. Still, by largely eschewing their own first-hand experiences, the authors miss a real opportunity.
One can't help wondering if the contributors (all-too-aware of the sexually charged culture in which we live, a bizarre blend of censoriousness and sensationalism) fled from the perils and vulnerabilities of autobiography in order to withdraw into the safer, but more sterile, terrain of literary analysis. For example, Vanessa D. Dickerson's essay opens promisingly: "Teaching at a small, private, predominantly white, conservative liberal arts college in the South, I have found without fail each year among student evaluations of my courses strong objections to the discussion of…sexuality in my classes.
… I wondered whether these students would have been so…
resistant to my connection of the sexual with the intellectual…had I not been a female and a black female at that" (52-53). However, Dickerson immediately drops her own story to turn, for the bulk of the essay, to a competent if mundane exegesis of that much-discussed Henry James' novella, The Turn of the Screw.
In two other literary essays-Deborah Morse's "Educating Louis: Teaching the Victorian Father in Trollope's He Knew He Was Right" and Abby Werlock's "With Man There Is a Difference: The Rejection of Female Mentoring in Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls"–the authors have expanded the definition of "instruction" to encompass (in the authors' shared feminist perspective) the often misguided tutelage men give women in marriage and romance. As a result of this broadening of the term "instruction," the reader is distanced still further from the contemporary classroom.Nonetheless, for all its flaws, The Erotics of Instruction does provide some nuggets of insight regarding sexuality and pedagogy. Several contributors who do find teaching a "sexy business" explain this phenomenon in terms of Freudian analysis–i.e.
, that the professor subconsciously represents a surrogate parent to the student, and that the relationship is therefore Oedipal in nature. However, the two authors who employ Freud, Regina Barreca and James Kincaid, reach opposed conclusions. Barreca argues that "getting the professor is like getting Dad, but without anything overtly..
.disgusting," while Kincaid insists that professor/student relations have been traditionally discouraged because they unconsciously invoke the "incest taboo" (10 & 86).Some essayists also offer perceptive explanations as to why affairs between teachers and students tend to involve a male professor and a female student, rather than the other way around. In "Contraband Appetites: Wit, Rage and Romance in the.