New York Times
I’m not their mother. And I’m not their girlfriend either.
I’m their university professor. At times I encounter students, both male and female, who don’t quite grasp this, and I consequently find myself in a whole host of awkward situations, trying to subtly remind them that I’m neither going to make their bed nor go to bed with them.
The problem is that my students lack the cultural scripts to know how to deal with our teacher-student relationship. In 1925, Sigmund Freud coined the idea of the “Madonna-whore complex,” according to which men are able to see women only as their saintly mothers or their sexual playthings. Whatever one thinks of Freud, we can all recognize some truth to this insight.
If I were to serve as their mother, I’d have only compassion and unconditional acceptance to offer, not intellectual lessons. And being their sexual plaything isn’t an option either; playthings aren’t generally accorded the kind of respect needed for effective teaching and learning, not to mention the respect I deserve after more than a decade of postsecondary education.
My male colleagues don’t have these problems. There’s no shortage of roles they can avail themselves of in trying to reach their students.
Male professors’ strategies for reaching their male students harken back to Plato. In his “Symposium,” Plato describes the methods of paiderastia, the ancient Athenian practice of instilling wisdom and civic virtue in young men through romantic relationships with older men. Sure, some of those students might have genuinely lusted after their teachers, but Plato explains that the role of this lust was to set a student on the path to learning transcendental lessons — moving from a concrete appreciation of beautiful bodies to an ever more abstract appreciation of beautiful souls, beautiful laws and customs, then culminating in an appreciation of the form of beauty itself.
The sex has (for the most part) dropped out for us now, but a mentoring relationship between older and younger men remains one of the most accepted and effective ways of transmitting knowledge and power in a patriarchal society such as ours.
One of male professors’ most effective strategies for reaching their female students is an old one, described by the feminist and existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir in 1949. De Beauvoir argued that women crave men’s authority to protect them from their own liberty. Existentialists are, in general, pretty pessimistic about people’s tendency to live in bad faith. They think most people want to avoid the anxiety of taking existential responsibility for their lives, preferring instead to find a way to have someone else make their decisions for them.
De Beauvoir argues that a distinctively feminine manifestation of this existential inauthenticity is women’s tendency to subsume their identity under the identity of the man they love. Consider women who take on a whole new set of hobbies and interests every time they start dating a new man. (Lest you think this is a thing of the past, my students assure me that they still see it all the time among their friends.) Why do so many women take on their husband’s surname when they marry? An apt metaphor for all this, de Beauvoir says, is found in the fairy tale of the little mermaid, who gave up her fishtail and had her tongue cut out for the chance to be loved by a human man, only to find herself turned into sea foam after he spurned her.
Many a female student has been turned into sea foam. They lust after their professors and are, too often, greeted with open arms, but the ensuing erotic relationship, unlike the pederastic one, does little to help women realize any higher intellectual lesson. Instead, the beloved is frequently stuck — or more accurately, objectified — valued only on the basis of her physical appearance or sexual appeal. The contrast between this situation and the one articulated by Plato is stark: In the “Symposium,” Socrates makes it clear that while his students might fall in love with him, he views this love as merely a tool to help them grow up and ultimately wrest themselves from childish attractions.
Erotic relationships between female students and their male professors, however, are not usually an effective steppingstone to further intellectual pursuits for the student, who will be more likely to face accusations of “sleeping her way to the top” than to be taken seriously as an intellectual interlocutor. But such relationships serve to flatter the ego of many an aging male academic, even when they show enough restraint to keep things at the level of “harmless” flirtation.
Of course, not all male professors exploit the intimacy of the pedagogical relationship by permitting it to turn sexual. But there are plenty of advantages to reap even for those who stay on the right side of the line. In our culture, men are the keepers of the intellectual flame and can bestow it as they see fit. Male professors can take on a “father knows best” persona, or an avuncular one, and use their comfortable position of authority to inspire a student to delve deeper into an academic subject. Female professors have no such personae available to them. In our culture mothers dispense hugs, not pearls of wisdom, and when they do venture to have opinions we’re likelier than not to roll our eyes at them for being nags or scolds. And we don’t even have a word for the aunt-equivalent of “avuncular.”
As female professors age, the typecasting changes: We move with depressing predictability from the role of girlfriend to the role of mother. Julinna Oxley, an associate professor at Coastal Carolina University, reports that when she first started teaching, her teaching evaluations would say things like “She’s hot,” or “She wears great skirts.” Now, 10 years later, she’s lost her chili pepper on RateMyProfessors.com and her students look to her for advice in their personal lives and for extensions on assignments.
My students, thankfully, aren’t just men. But there are even fewer cultural scripts on which to model the pedagogical relationship between female professors and their female students. Some of my female students are able to recognize the need for and benefits of finding a female mentor, but surprisingly few of them actually do. One explanation for this comes from feminist philosophers as old as John Stuart Mill and de Beauvoir, who argue that solidarity is particularly hard for women because they often have more in common with the men in their lives than with women across race, class or age boundaries.
Another explanation comes from contemporary feminist philosophers like Sandra Bartky, who describes the phenomenon of internalized oppression. Bartky argues that self-loathing is an inevitable result of living in a culture saturated with messages about the inferior status and value of people like you. Given this, it’s no surprise that many of my female students find it no easier than their male counterparts to look up to someone who’s not a man. Mermaids would rather cut out their tongues than spend a life stuck with other mermaids.
The problem is that we, as a culture, don’t really know what a female professor is supposed to be. The archetypal professor is decidedly male — rumpled tweed jacket, argyle socks, bushy beard, pipe — and even if it were an option not much in this aesthetic is terribly appealing to a cisgender woman like me. In my more optimistic moments I try to see this cultural void as an opportunity — I’m lucky enough to have the chance to avoid falling into age-old stereotypes and to invent new, more appropriate roles. But most of the time it just feels like a desert. Feminists have been telling us for a very long time that women in positions of authority find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. Too assertive or confident and they’ll call you a “bitch.” Too passive or self-deprecating and they’ll think you’re a doormat and unfit to be taken seriously.
And Patricia Hill Collins, a philosopher of feminism and race, has argued that women of color face even more rigid limitations on their social roles, usually finding themselves stereotyped as “mammies, matriarchs, welfare recipients, [or] hot mommas.” The problem is that there really isn’t a middle ground for any of us here: We can’t handle it when women aren’t “nice,” but being in a position of authority means that you’re sometimes going to tell people things they don’t want to hear. So, for example, taking male colleagues to task for abusing their power for sexual gain is one of the best ways to alienate a reader.
Sociologists such as Arlie Hochschild and philosophers such as Cheshire Calhoun have written about the “emotional work” for which women are responsible even in the workplace. Because women are thought to be naturally caring and empathetic they’re expected not only to have their own emotional ducks in a row, they’re also expected to take on the task of helping others manage their emotions — calming tempers, mending wounded egos, boosting confidence, mediating frictions, ensuring harmony. This work is essentially invisible and uncompensated. It’s almost never a formal requirement listed on job descriptions or performance and tenure reviews, and it’s so taken for granted that it tends to fall below the radar of even our informal moral accounting.
Alice MacLachlan, an associate professor at York University, tells a story about joking with a male colleague about how she always knew midterms were over because she had to bring out her backup box of tissues. He looked at her blankly, and it was only then that she realized none of her male colleagues had to replace their tissues at least once a semester after crying students had used them up. Women are expected to be kind and caring, so the bar is higher for what’s expected of them, and they’re penalized more harshly when they’re perceived not to be.
Serena Parekh, an associate professor at Northeastern University, still cringes at the memory of receiving a bad teaching evaluation that criticized her for not being “nurturing” enough. The philosopher Claudia Card has argued that if we’re going to upset these unfair cultural expectations women need to care less and men need to care more. This is wonderful advice about how we should try to revise our expectations when making moral assessments of a given professor’s character, but it’s risky practical advice for female professors to take, given that we know that women who fail to live up to expectations of caring will be vilified.
As a female professor, I’ve found that a bigger challenge than “leaning in” to my career has been figuring out how to avoid falling into roles that are far from my own choosing. We lack the cultural narratives to make sense of women in positions of social power or authority. The ones we do have haven’t changed much since the days of Freud and de Beauvoir. This failure of cultural imagination affects women’s political, economic and social prospects. It always has. The trick, as educators, is to start figuring out how to teach our students without losing them in the sea foam, so they can grow up to look for, or to be, something other than girlfriends and mothers.
Carol Hay is an associate professor of philosophy and the director of the gender studies program at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and the author of “Kantianism, Liberalism, and Feminism: Resisting Oppression.”