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Girlfriend, mother, professor?


We’ve heard a lot lately about the tribulations of underpaid adjuncts in academia, but what of students’ mommy problems? Carol Hay, Associate professor of philosophy and the director of the gender studies program at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, has written a hilarious-sad-but-true article for the New York Times’ Opinionator about how her students have a hard time imagining her as an authority figure in a kind of academic Madonna-whore-complex.

Check out the article in partial below, or in full via 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.