Professors fucking students fucks everyone over

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Reflections on a gross power-imbalance. Pixabay

Campus not a hunting ground

Universities are, by their very nature, places that people go to learn things they didn’t already know. They are places you go to build a broader understanding of the world, and a deeper understanding of your subject. That said, there are a few fundamentals that everyone is expected to already have in mind before they set foot on campus. Be quiet in the library. Plagiarism is thievery. Admin is the enemy. Don’t prey on students.

Professors at the University of Manitoba have apparently failed to grasp this last part, so many so that U of M President David Barnard told CBC he couldn’t say how many professors had been fired over the past five years for sexual misconduct. The university recently passed a ban on certain kinds of student/professor relationships – the sort of sexual and romantic relationships you wouldn’t think would need a formal ban, since everyone (should) know they’re wrong.

It’s ugly and it’s shameful, but it isn’t just a U of M issue. It’s an academia issue. While the overwhelming majority of professors are not predators, the academy is an ideal hunting ground for those who are. It’s not only because it puts the youthful and naïve in close proximity with the older, the more powerful, but because learning is both passionate and intimate. It is an exchange of the most vulnerable, most essential parts of ourselves – our thoughts and our ideas.

The acts of teaching and being taught mimic in many ways the acts of loving and being loved. Excellent teachers open our minds to possibilities we had never conceived of. They aren’t just standing at the lectern, listing facts, they are moving us, in profound and sometimes life-altering ways. I’ve sat in lectures where I’ve felt the world shift beneath me, as though my eyes were being opened for the very first time. Those are professors for whom I have wanted to do my very best work. People for whom I have cancelled plans with friends so I could spend a few more hours, tightening and sharpening my arguments, making my words flow like water. I am not alone in having done this.

Professors are also our evaluators. They guide us towards seeing the errors in our thinking, they point out flaws in our worldview. We give them our ideas and our interpretations of the way the world works, and sometimes they like them and sometimes they rip us to pieces, leaving us in a mess of tears and red ink. We are vulnerable to them in ways that mirror our vulnerability with those we love.

The relationship between teacher and taught, and the boundary between the educational and the illicit, so captures the public imagination that IMDb has an entire section on “Teacher/Student Affairs.” But the fact is that professors having sexual relationships with their students is not romantic. It is ugly and it is gross. The relationship between professor and student – intense as it may sometimes be – is supposed to be entirely innocent. For it to be turned romantic and sexual is a twisted and unacceptable perversion, one that disgraces the professor and abuses the student. Though the acts of teaching and being taught may mimic the acts of loving and being loved, they are, critically, not the same.

I speak directly to professors now when I say: the responsibility for maintaining the innocence of this relationship lies entirely with you. Entirely. With. You. It doesn’t matter if the student is 19 or 49. It doesn’t matter if they make the first move. Do not touch them. Do not seduce them. Do not destroy their university experience with weird and predatory lust. If you feel that the relationship is special enough that it should be a romantic one, and that they are old enough to reciprocate in the same way, then that means caring about that person enough that you will wait until they have graduated, or you will leave your position and take up another. Do not pursue your students. They are not yours for the taking.

And to students: your professors are supposed to teach you, and most – and for many of us, all – will do so generously and innocently. But some of us will encounter those who view the campus as a hunting ground, a place to collect trophies in the form of people who look up to them. Remember this: they are not supposed to touch you. They are not supposed to stand too close to you in a too small space, radiating panting want. They are not supposed to compliment your appearance or try to get you alone for a drink. And if they do, and if you fall for them, it is not your fault, and you don’t need to feel ashamed. It is a betrayal, and you deserve better from your teachers, and you deserve better from your institution, and you have every right to report it and have your report taken seriously, with the urgency and alarm such a betrayal warrants.

The academy is a special place, and the relationships that are built here, between students, between faculty, between students and faculty, are special relationships built on shared knowledge, on a passion for a deeper understanding of the world, and on appreciation for the obscure and the esoteric. They should also be built on trust, and that means not exploiting their intimacy for sexual purposes.

The U of M has decided to formally ban relationships between faculty and students. It’s shameful that they let things get so bad in the first place.

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